Swans' Michael Gira on the Value of Dynamics
When the members of Swans bring their live show back to Respectable Street Café on Wednesday, bring your earplugs.
- Swans' Michael Gira: "At the Best Moments, Music Plays You and Not the Opposite."
- Swans' Michael Gira on Ecstatic Feelings, The Seer, and Being "All in the Sound"
- Review: Swans' Piercing Assault on Respectable Street, September 14
The six-piece from New York push the limits of music in many ways, and one of those ways is via volume. On the other hand, Swans founder Michael Gira understands the value of dynamics. He spoke to New Times via phone this summer, ahead of the release the band's epic two-hour album The Seer. During the conversation, he discussed the music in-depth, from its percussive elements to his influences to affection for the sound of children's voices in music.
New Times: What part do you play in writing those percussion parts so key to the Swans sound, or is it the guys you bring in?
Michael Gira: It's
going back and forth. I give them an idea of what I want, just some
sounds and some grooves indicating what I want, and then I want them to
take it and make it their own. I don't tell them exactly what to play.
For instance, we have this new song, it's called "She Loves Us." We
started with the basic groove of a Howlin' Wolf song and took that and
built upon it, and the Howlin' Wolf song is not a famous one, it's "No
Place To Go." And the words he's singing are, "How many more years?" But
it's one of his original Chicago recordings, and it has this amazing
looped kind of feel to the groove. Of course, it's not looped, so we
took that as a basis. Like I said, I'm not shy to say that because we
took that and changed it completely. It doesn't sound like the original.
That was how that groove started.
I've always thought of Swans music as the kind of music that would be the soundtrack to the end of the world.
Well, I don't know. Maybe the beginning of the world is how I would describe it.
Maybe a violent birth?
don't know. The music is sometimes violent, I suppose, but that's
certainly not the case all the time. Like I said, this record has huge
amounts of dynamics. It's normal to focus on that because, once you hear
that, it makes quite an impression. But there's lots of different
shades and colors on this record. There's a very quiet song, which is
kind of like a country lullaby, which Karen O sings. I wouldn't
characterize that as being violent.
It's such a great set up to the loud parts.
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.
It's really like trying to build a film soundtrack.
in making music reminds me of [King Crimson leader] Robert Fripp's. He
said he is just a vessel for the music. It exists beyond him.
identify with that statement. At the best moments, music plays you and
not the opposite. That's also a notion in a lot of improvisational
music, I think, although we're not technically improvisational. 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. It's kind of hard to describe,
but I completely understand that statement.
Were you ever a fan of King Crimson?
Yes, of course.
The early seventies stuff?
the really early stuff I liked a lot. I'm not a fan of the prog aspect
that it became later. The Court of the Crimson King and the kind of more
grandiose things I find really great, and, what's that really heavy
song that just keeps building and building? Let me see if I have it
in my computer. Oh, "Starless and Bible Black."
You often seem to incorporate children's voices in your music.
What is your thinking in incorporating that?
don't know, it just seems to add a contrary mood to one that's there or
something. It's even like having Karen sing that song (I don't want to
compare her to having children singing), if that song calls for a more
subtle or delicate voice. That's why I didn't sing it, because my voice
just seemed to make it too ponderous, and she has a great, soulful voice
when she sings quietly, so similarly I've chosen children because I
think they've added another layer to what the lyrics are talking about,
and I love children's voices. I would love to get a proper children's
choir at some point, but I've never had the budget or time for that.
I notice at the end of "Lunacy" you chant "your childhood is over." Do you have pleasant memories of your childhood?
I don't want to talk about my personal life too much. I had a really
shitty childhood, but that's all I'll say about it. But that song's not
about me. None of the songs are about me. They may come from some
personal experience initially or some book I've read, just reading
something or seeing something on television even, but to be any good
they have to transcend being much to do with me as a person.
Swans with A Hawk and a Hacksaw. 9 p.m. Wednesday, October 17, at Respectable Street
Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $18.50 in advance and
$22.50 at the door. Call 561-832-9999, or visit
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter at indieethos.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.