Swans :: Leaving Meaning

Michael Gira lived a thousand lives before Swans. He grew up in Los Angeles during the 1960s with absent parents. He was constantly snagged by the cops for misdemeanors, eventually winding up in Germany with his father to avoid any further heavy handed law enforcement. It was in Germany where he ditched his dad and wound up in Israeli jail a year later for selling hashish after hitchhiking across Europe with some hippies. He turned sixteen in a jail cell. 

When Gira saw punk rock for the first time back in L.A. it was massively influential experience, and after a few failed attempts with punk bands around the city, Gira took plight to New York City. In 1982, he formed a group and coined the moniker Swans; “Swans are majestic, beautiful looking creatures. With really ugly temperaments,” he explained to Flowers In A Gun.

Swans is a band that believes in transience and loathes anything resembling stagnance. Though it’s music has reformed into ethereal soundscapes from the heavy, industrial noise of Manhattan in the 1980s, Swans never concede in vigor. Over his near-forty years as a musician, through every bead of sweat, every drop of blood, and every shattering ring of tinnitus, Gira conjures an apocalypse for every crowd who lie beleaguered by his harrowing intensity.

Leaving meaning. is Swans’ fifteenth album, and perhaps their most profound to date. Within every ugly crack is a beautiful treasure to unpack. It’s music that suggests the primal sounds of humanity; imagine what death sounds like, or birth, or perhaps the darker aspects of human nature. Cultish chants and anxious freakouts are abound between long stretches of tenderness and divine admiration. Leaving meaning. is an album that bypasses ego and barrels full stop for the id. 

With well over twenty contributors, leaving meaning. is flush with musical voices from Gira’s past and present, including previous Swans members, old friends, and fresh-faced collaborators. This album will be an experiment in translating to a live setting — while preparing to head out on a three month world tour in the Spring, Gira & Co. are still figuring out how to capture it’s sprawl. It’s one of the many things we discussed while catching up with the legendary frontman — he also tells us about the psychic process of recruiting personnel for the new album, the perils of the internet, struggling to stay disciplined in our distracted society, and reconnecting with musicians from his past. words / c ruddell

Aquarium Drunkard: How were the recent shows in Eastern Europe?

Michael Gira: I think they were good. As usual, my mind is on auto-erase when it comes to touring. As soon as the tour is over, I forget it completely. I enjoyed spending some time with Norman [Westberg]. Yeah, I like playing solo. Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Greece, the rest escapes me as I say.

AD: Are the rehearsal sessions for these tours any different than the usual preparation? Who will be performing in the band?

Michael Gira: We haven’t started rehearsing yet. We start in the new year. It will be much different, in that I don’t have a set band. This is the first time that this group has played together. I’ve played with everyone separately, but as a group, this is the first time it will exist. So, it will be much different. Ben Frost is playing synthesizer and electric guitar. He’s known as an electronic musician. He does soundtracks, and he’s an arranger and composer as well. He’s most known these days as doing the soundtrack to this Netflix show, Dark. He’ll bring his sensibility to the group. Dana Schechter, who played bass in my group Angels of Light for sometime, is playing bass. Then, there’s another bass also. Chris Pravdica, who was in the recent Swans configuration. He’ll be playing bass and generating sounds from his bass as well, sort of nonmusical sounds, and playing some keyboards. Christoph Hahn from recent Swans stuff will be playing lap steel and electric guitar. Phil Puleo will play drums and various other sound devices. He was also on recent Swans. I’ll play acoustic and electric guitar. We’ll all be sitting, chamber style. It’ll be a lot different. There won’t be any of these apocalyptic explosions on the downbeat sort of thing. We’ll interpret the material from the new album as well as one of the things I’m working on now specifically for this group. It’s not the band that existed for 8 years, which to me was and probably always will be the best band I ever had. A tremendous group of people. We developed a psychic connection which I had never thought possible between 6 musicians. That was a high point that had to end because it was becoming increasingly predictable. We decided to stop it. No, it won’t be like that.

AD: Leaving meaning. is by far my favorite Swans record. It blew my mind.

Michael Gira: Wow, thank you. That’s good to hear. I put everything into the records. All my money, my soul, my memory, my skill, my sensibility. Once it’s done, I can’t hear it anymore, so I’m kind of shocked when it affects people because to me, it’s like if you just look at a rock on the ground or something. It’s just there.

AD: It’s the most affected I’ve ever been by a Swans record.

Michael Gira: I was considering giving it all up, but now I’ll continue [laughs].

AD: What was the process of you deciding who would be recording on this record?

Michael Gira: It’s musical ability, of course, but the main way I decide is I picture myself in a room with a person playing music and visualize whether that seems authentic and honest and real. If that’s the case, if I can conjure up that image and it seems like it had a genuine truth to it, then I’ll pursue that person to work in Swans. That’s what I did with everyone who worked on the record. I had an accumulated list from years of meeting people and knowing people. I wrote it down and then went through it and applied the process. That’s how I came up with the people who work on the record. I gathered first a core group of friends to work on the first stage of the records which was recorded in Berlin. They happened to live in Berlin. Larry Mullins with whom I’ve worked extensively over the years, in Angels of Light and Swans, lives there, and so does Kristof and this double bass player, composer, arranger, Yoyo Röhm. I took them the songs that I had written, and we just hashed them out for 10 days in a rehearsal space and then went in and recorded rough versions of the material. Then I started orchestrating with them, and then with other people as well. The two songs that feature The Necks, that’s a completely different thing. You should definitely listen to their records, and if you ever get the opportunity to see them live, for sure, because – it’s an often overused word now, but – they’re transformative. They play acoustic jazz instrumentation. This small trap kit, maybe has some shakers and different things, Tony Buck, a double bass, and grand piano. But they create these unfolding sagas of sound with that minimal instrumentation, or really unprecedented. To me, they have a spiritual truth to them that’s undeniable and very beautiful. So I had seen them play a couple times and listened to their records and we were sort of in touch. So, I had a couple songs written on acoustic guitar and I thought “Why don’t I ask?” They’re like my heroes, like The Beatles or something. “Why don’t I just ask them if they’ll play.” I was very intimidated. I had no idea if they’d say yes or no, but they agreed to play to those songs. I sent them basic recordings of those songs with vocals on them, and they orchestrated them in the studio live. That was a gift to me. 

AD: I was intrigued by the story about you reconnecting with Larry Mullins…

Michael Gira: I worked with Larry in Swans. He played on the penultimate Swans tour back in the 90s. Great version of Swans. ’95 or something. Larry played a kettle drum with one hand as the bass drum, then with his right hand he had a snare set up and vibes and keyboard and some big cymbals that he had behind him. That was his whole kit setup, like a mini orchestral pit. It was tremendous working with him like that. Then, he played in Angels of Light. He played simpler kinds of instrumentation. We sort of had a falling out, I guess, and then I was watching this Netflix series, Babylon Berlin, and there was this cabaret scene. I realized the band that was playing, it was Larry in the center. He was like the drummer / band leader, wearing some kind of ‘20s period costume. I just couldn’t believe it. It was just a little cameo but seeing Larry just kind of brought back all these feelings of wanting to work with him again, and realizing what a great guy he is and what a great musician, a very singular musician. He’s a classically trained orchestral percussionist. I guess he was a child savant, and he played in the Nashville symphony or something at a very young age. He went on to be Iggy Pop’s drummer for years, and now he plays keyboard with Nick Cave. Because he’s classically trained, he can play piano, keyboards, all that. On this record he plays all of the above. He plays keyboards, drums, percussion, timpani, all this stuff.

AD: Was the production of leaving meaning. tedious? Was it cathartic?

Michael Gira: Both. It comes in waves. You’ll get the basic tracks down and think “Oh my god, this is beautiful,” or “This sucks. We have to redo it.” So you reach a sort of peak there, and then you, or I anyway, start thinking about arrangements, how I can bring out certain sounds, or make more dynamics here or make something completely overwhelming there. Then, I just basically, I’m prone to over-orchestrate, so then I just start throwing sounds at it, and built it up into this massive, impenetrable mess of sound. Then, that’s another peak, and then intense despair sets in when I realize that it truly sucks [laughs]. I start whittling away at it and trying to find the thread that makes sense within what I’ve done. Eventually, it opens up and finds itself and becomes a finished piece of music. It’s all intuitive and accumulative, and then at the end of hacking away at things and trying to forge it into a shape. It takes a lot of time, and it can be incredibly tedious, especially with fucking Pro Tools, which I have to use – I don’t use it myself, but my engineers use it – but everything takes much longer than if you just had faders and you pull something down. Because it’s digital, everything is possible, and that’s a curse and a gift. I myself, I’m prone to like I said, over-orchestrating, so I don’t know how many hundreds of tracks I’ve used on some of these things. Sorting it out is – I wish I could just tell someone, “Just make it sound how you know I’d like it.” I can’t do that unfortunately.

AD: “Amnesia” has resurfaced on leaving meaning. from Love Of Life. Why did you decide to breath new life into it?

Michael Gira: I was doing solo tour, and I decided to try and work up a version of it. Of course, the original is unplayable on acoustic guitar, that’s something to do with it. So I just came up with new chords and started singing it. After I felt that it had some kind of sensibility and it made sense, I decided it was worthy of being on the record. That’s it. The orchestration, I went into the record very much in mind of Jack Nitzsche’s orchestration on Neil Young’s “A Man needs a Maid.” Just musically, completely different worlds, but there’s something about the dynamics and the tenderness in that composition that inspired me with the arrangement with this song. There’s another song – the arrangement, not the song; musically, they’re completely different — the song “Sunfucker.” I wrote the song — It’s one thing to write a song, but with me, it’s just kind of crudely play chords and a vocal line — so I wrote the song and played it solo. Then, when I started to get serious about thinking about recording it, I was thinking about arrangement ideas, and – as I’m likely to do every couple of weeks – I was listening to Nico. There’s this song called “It Has Not Taken Long” on her album The End, which is really beautiful. That inspired the arrangement for “Sunfucker” If you listen to that song and then this song, you’ll see the relationship. Again, it’s completely different music, but there’s a way of approaching the chord that I was inspired by. Similarly — and here I’m giving up my secrets — the song “It’s Coming It’s Real.” Again, that was completely written, and I happened on this song by the ‘60s folk singer Odetta. She’s got this really powerful voice, incredibly powerful voice. I guess she came from gospel, and then she somehow got into the folk scene in the early / mid ‘60s. There’s a song that she does, it’s a traditional, “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child,” and she has I think the Harlem Gospel choir, but some choir. It sounds like hundreds of people, just singing these sustained, heavenly notes behind her while she sings this bluesy traditional song. That sound of that choir is transporting to me. It’s like all overtones. There’s chord changes sort of, but they kind of shift in a modal sort of way into each other. It’s just this swelling, aching, sorrowful clouds of sound. It’s utterly beautiful. That’s how I thought of having the wonderful Anna and Maria von Hausswolff build up these choral vocals on that song.

AD: Have you seen Midsommar?

Michael Gira: No, I have not.

AD: “Sunfucker” feels like a cultish chant that would be in that movie. When it hits that first vocal choral, I felt terrified.

Michael Gira: Cool [laughs]. That was intentional. I pictured this kind of evil hippy pagan cult singing that. That’s how I directed them to sing, Anna and Maria. That’s a weird confluence there because I was thinking of – it has nothing to do with the music, but – Alice Coltrane’s recent release on David Byrne’s label. It’s a set of cassette recordings of them having their ritual, communal singing sessions. It’s utterly beautiful. It’s a mix of gospel and eastern music and jazz. It’s really beautiful, and very unselfconscious because it’s just their ceremonies recorded. It wasn’t performed as a record. It was just performed to be inside of it. It has this internal kind of necessity about it that’s really great. That came to mind, and also thinking of some kind of – you know how people when they gather they get transfixed, maybe even hysteric, by mob mentality – that kind of mentality I wanted to convey. Because the song’s about belief. Personally, I laud people that have intense or strong held beliefs and ideologies, but they so easily turn pernicious, both on the left and the right. Religion in every way, I’m very skeptical about it. So that’s kind of the story of that song.

AD: I just want to say that “It’s Coming It’s Real” to “Some New Things” is such solid back-to-back programming. From this rich, dark 1960s gospel feel to this krauty, mechanical prose.

Michael Gira: That’s one of my list songs. I just list images that seemed to belong together. I’m looking forward to finding a new way to perform that live.

AD: Are you ever in search of stories and subjects to write about, or do they instead reveal themselves to you when you’re conjuring lyrics?

Michael Gira: Funny you should say that because I’m sitting here with a rather fetching chord progression right now, and I’m just singing “scrambled eggs” on it. I don’t know. They just appear. I don’t really think it’s mystical. It’s just the cogs in the brain need to align, and then a story or an image appear first. The image seems to require other images, and it eventually becomes a song. I’ve never been very good, much to my regret, at writing straight narrative songs. I’d like to be able to do that. I’ve done a few, but I just go with what’s given to me. Usually an image, then I follow with more images that seem to be necessary, and I’ll form a piece out of it. They have an internal meaning, but I guess it’s not readily apparent always.

AD: How do you stay disciplined in a society that’s so full of distractions?

Michael Gira: I don’t. I get sucked in like everyone else. I read. I make a point of reading every night as much as possible as a kind of countervailing force to the onslaught of pernicious information that comes into our brains these days. I think we’re in the midst of a major anthropological change, and I do not view it as being good or helpful. I realize of course that our technology has helped eradicate diseases. It’s extended our lifespans. Perhaps, though not necessarily, it’s made certain kinds of freedom more possible. It seems that it’s acting in the opposite way though. But the medium itself I find to be constricting and poisonous – we’re talking about the internet I presume. That’s been a subject that used to preoccupy me greatly. How our minds were invaded from our youth with images and advertising and corporate consumer kind of totems and how that changes our identities and shapes the possibilities of our lives. I find it to be frightening as consumer capitalism becomes an all-powerful thing that’s now just kind of embedding itself in our children. I think my children might – my ex-wife unfortunately gave my daughter an iPhone at the age of 11. Witnessing the change is horrible. I fight with her to put the thing down. It’s like quicksand. It affects the way we have political discourse, hot button issues, ill-considered thoughts, condemnation of people. Nothing gets done. Meanwhile, the planet is broiling and ready to go up in cinders. We live in strange times.

AD: Do you meditate?

Michael Gira: Yes. Not enough, but yes. A lot of the writing recently, I think to people who know about such things it’s apparent that it’s informed by Zen Buddhism. I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist, but that way of thinking, language, meaning, and consciousness is very interesting to me. That way of thinking has always been attractive to me even before I realized that was something a Zen Buddhist might be thinking.

AD: How has being a father affected your creative output?

Michael Gira: It’s changed it, of course. I’m not a selfless person, but I’m less monomaniacal about the work coming first now than I used to be. To me, everything else was expendable, except the work in the past. That’s no longer the case. 

AD: What scares you as a human being?

Michael Gira: The change that is happening in our consciousness. I find it to be frightening. Being older than you, I remember a time with no cellphones and no computers. Of course, television to me was pernicious in its way, but that seems entirely anodyne now. Witnessing that change simultaneously with the environmental apocalypse that’s upon us is to me just astonishing and terrifying. I look at the internet as like all of human thought eating itself. It’s like if you’ve ever taken mephedrone. Mephedrone and LSD simultaneously, that’s sort of what’s happening. You’re chewing the inside of your jaw. Human beings, that’s what we’re doing now. It’s just incredible to witness. Like walking down a street in an urban setting, just these humpbacked people zombified walking down the street looking at their fucking devices. Really strange. They do it willingly. They’re giving up their consciousness willingly. It’s strange.

AD: And what fills you with joy?

Michael Gira: I could be incredibly hammy and say my kids – of course that does – but, I would say that when performing music, when it reaches a state where it’s not really being played anymore, where it takes on a life of its own, and all the musicians involved are completely consumed by it. It’s just in the air around us, and we’re following it, and it’s reaching out to the audience in the same way. That to me is the highest experience that I have ever had.