Swans' Piercing Assault on Respectable Street, September 14, 2011
Today marks the official release date of the Swans' extraordinary
two-hour journey into delicate sounds and furious din with The Seer.
The New York-based group's figurehead, Michael Gira, resurrected Swans
in 2010, after the band had officially broken up following a farewell
tour in 1997. However, the Swans sound reemerged in his writing --
such an irrepressible beast that it is -- and he felt obliged
to follow it.
With his post-Swans project, Angels of Light, now
on hold, Swans has released a second album in its resurrected form, The Seer, an epic exploration of songcraft. With hammered dulcimer, slide guitar, tubular bells, and industrial-strength drumming, a better union is hard to find. The
return of Swans has been nothing short of triumphant. The band has accrued the largest
audiences in its history, and the soaring majesty of its recordings is receiving almost universal respect. We spoke to Gira about the new
album and the band's return for what will certainly be a second brilliant South Florida show in only one
New Times: The Seer is indeed a masterpiece.
Michael Gira: Ho, ho, ho, ho! Thank you.
I really think it's like one of the greatest things. It's those long passages that take their time. Like you say, it's a journey.
My ideal for an album is a total experience, having in my young age listened to music from the '60s. I was born in '54, so I was 12 when it was the golden age of the album, when albums started being a work of art or something, and that's what I gravitate towards.
And this is going to be what, like three vinyl records?
Yeah [laughs]. Paradoxically, the best way to listen to this from beginning to end is digitally because then there's no breaks in it. Even on CD, it's two CDs. It's a strange thing because I'm not a big fan of digitized iTunes experiences. But I think the best way is if somebody can get high-quality files from the music they buy, I emphasize, then listen to the entire album through their computer in a stereo system, or something like that.
So this will be available in FLAC files?
I think so, yeah.
It is ironic, because iTunes shoulders part of the blame of breaking up the album.
Oh, really? [laughs]
You know, it leaves it up to the buyer to choose one song.
Yeah, going back to the '50s or whatever.
Do others take lead vocal duties on The Seer?
Well, Al [Sparhawk] and Mimi [Parker] from the band Low, on the first song, "Lunacy," they're singing with me. The vocals are equal; they're not background vocals. Then there's a song called "Song for a Warrior"; that's Karen O (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) singing. Akron/Family do some background vocals, and Jarboe does some looped and background vocals.
I thought you were not going to work with Jarboe again.
She just contributed really. Jarboe won't be in the band per se.
How did Karen O get involved?
Our bass player's (Chris Pravdica) friends with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and I was kinda searching around in that song, and we were talking, and Karen's name came up. I did some research online, and her solo things came up. Chris gave me some things to listen to, and I was very impressed. She has a really heartfelt, kind of aching, country voice, in a way, when she's singing quiet. It's very American, and it has this kind of woman's compassion that I wanted in that song, so I asked her, and I guess she's a fan or appreciates [our] music, anyway, and she blew that away.
The album art is amazing, as usual.
That's my dear
friend Simon Henwood. He's a really great painter. He had this image of
the wolf, but it wasn't finished. It was just a little tempura sketch,
basically, and I really liked it, so I asked him to develop it, and I
gave him ideas for other images to work with the record. Yeah, I think
it works really well. When he painted the cover image, I asked him to not
make it look threatening or dark or anything but to have it like
an ambiguous Mona Lisa look where you couldn't really figure out what
the emotion was. Those are my teeth, by the way.
Those are your teeth?
Looking back, does My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky feel like a warm-up for The Seer?
[laughs] I certainly didn't think of it that way when we did it.
But looking back at it...
Every album is a warm-up for this album because the work has culminated, and I expect the next one will be informed by the one that's come before it as well, and hopefully we'll be moving in a new direction. So people will see what that new direction is when they see the [live] set too.
So basically these live shows will be the seed of the next album.
That's right. That's how it works.
How do you feel about The Seer?
Well, when I was in it, I thought I was making the best rock record ever made. But once it's done, it just sounds like dead matter to me. It's finished. I can't listen to it and really get much from it because I've been over every second of it so extensively that I can just hear it in my mind. I don't even need to listen to it. It's done, and I'm moving on. The next phase is we take some of the songs from the record and rearrange them, change them up so they work better live so that they're fresh for us and the audience, and then new songs.
I don't look at any piece of music ever being finished really because it begins on acoustic guitar, and I'm sitting here singing it, and that's one phase. And the next phase might be where I go into the studio and work it up with some people. Then I record that. Then another phase is all the overdubs and the editing and the kind of manipulation of the sounds. That's another phase. Then it's mixed, and that's another phase. And then it's played live, and that's another phase. And live it's always changing, so I don't look at any song as ever being finished. It's just kind of a blueprint for a way to work.
So you really like the process, being in the moment with the music. Don't you?
Yeah, it took me years to realize that that's what it was. It's more about the process. Obviously, the finished product is important to the listener. But for me, I'm elated when I'm working on a record. It's hair-raising too and grueling, because you're right on the brink of disaster, and you have to pull yourself out of it. There's so much going on in music. You have to learn how to arrange things differently, but it's still, to me, a total challenge. It challenges every bit I am to try to wrangle the thing into the shape I think is correct for the song. Then, when that's done, it's really not that much interest to me. I'd rather just move on to the next idea.
Swans with A Hawk and a Hacksaw. 9 p.m. Wednesday, October 17, at Respectable Street
518 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $18.50 in advance and $22.50 at the door. Call 561-832-9999, or visit sub-culture.org/respectable-street/home-respectable-street.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter at indieethos.