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Arising from the cracks of the New York City postpunk scene in the early 1980s, Swans' music is a genre unto itself. An otherworldly sonic disturbance, their sound is aggression turned musical. Not obnoxious noise but fearsome magnificence.
The band's clever turns take you from cacophony to gorgeous compositions. Luscious melodies and soaring moments of bliss are juxtaposed with the din. The effect is potent, both dark and beautiful.
Swans founder Michael Gira spoke to us from his New York home at the edge of the Catskills. He ruminated on how a musical project he thought he had buried 13 years ago somehow rose again from the grave. Gira is known for his ponderous baritone, the perfect vessel for lyrics like: "And I am the Sun/I rise above the world/And when the light goes out/I kill another child." This summer morning, though, the 58-year-old's voice is bright and eager to talk about The Seer, Swans' new, epic, two-hour masterpiece.
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"The mood is contained in the music," explains Gira. "It's discovered along the way. I don't set out or try to illustrate some sort of ideas or teach anybody anything. I don't bring some sort of message other than what develops inside the music. It just feels great." He pauses to let out a laugh. "It feels great to play, and I hope the audience feels ecstasy when we play."
Despite the music's sometimes-ominous quality, there are moments of bliss to be found. "On this record, there's so many different atmospheres and dynamics," he says, "but I suppose one salient aspect is the kind of total overwhelming sound that we achieve sometimes, which I think is a very positive thing. I love it. But there's lots of nuance in it. Everything needs everything else in order to allow it to shine. I think the loud parts don't sound as big without the quiet parts, and I think the quiet parts sound even more poignant because of the other things."
The Seer is a listening journey, capturing other dimensions and landscapes of raw emotion, sex, and religion with a surreal cinematic quality. For instance, opening with the patter of rain, "A Piece of the Sky" explores sustained builds of noise for most of its 19 minutes. Layers of an exhaling chorus of female voices, à la Philip Glass' "Music With Changing Parts," become blissful bells, groaning electric guitars, and perky banjo on a languid seesaw rhythm.
The wordless chorus is provided by once-regular Swans member — she of the golden voice — Jarboe. Though Jarboe contributes as a guest on The Seer, Swans' only constant has been Gira. He decided to retire the band in 1997 after a farewell tour to explore more reserved but still elegant tunes via his project Angels of Light. But in 2009, the ghost of Swans beckoned. "I wanted to experience the sounds that Swans was capable of, and to do that, it didn't seem right to call it Angels of Light," he explains. "It'd been so long since I worked in the way Swans worked that it seemed fresh, and it's given me a new life, in a way."
The latest version of the band includes longtime guitarist Norman Westberg, Swans regular Christoph Hahn on lap steel and electric guitar, percussionists Phil Puleo and Thor Harris, and bassist Christopher Pravdica.
Gira has high praise for his cohorts. He explains that the music comes from a chain of sonic explorations. Songs off The Seer started as improvisations the band often explored in front of live audiences on its tour last year. Four began as instrumentals, some of which lasted longer than 20 minutes live. For Swans, performing is a process of discovery, not an attempt to manipulate something with instruments.
"At the best moments, music plays you and not the opposite. As the sound grows, it seems like the music's leading us, and we find new things. That's why some of these pieces on the record are so long. We started playing them live, and they just kept growing and morphing just through performing, and it's not like you're playing verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure. It's open. That doesn't mean it's improvisational. We're all in the sound."
Otherwise, the band plays only new songs from what was its first album in nearly 15 years: My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. "I don't want to go out and replicate what's on record or see peoples' need to experience something how it used to be," Gira explains. "I just want to make new music." Gira doesn't do this to piss anyone off who might come hoping to hear the band's cover of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," which became its calling card to major labels in the late 1980s. Gira and bandmates work just for the present.
Swans fans span the gamut of musical tastes and desires, from those who love noise and gloom to fans of jazz. "They know it's not going to be some nostalgia tour," Gira says of his followers. "The responses I saw last year to the tour were absolutely tremendous, the best year we ever had. I think the Swans people come expecting to see something unique and something towards a different kind of journey, and I just don't really want to be like a lot of other bands who try to sound like their records. I want to make something immediate and real happen. That's what we're after."