Swans' Michael Gira on the Value of Dynamics
- 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?
I 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.
Well, 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.
Your ethic 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.
I 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?
Yeah, 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?
I 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?
Oh, 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
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.