Of course Michael Gira loves Lars von Trier; Swans’ avant-garde leader and the controversial director have a lot in common. Both make visceral, sprawling works that abrade on the surface but eventually reveal themselves to be deeply humanitarian. One song in particular from Swans’ new record, To Be Kind, took direct inspiration from von Trier’s 2011 film, Melancholia. Skyping from his home in New York state, Gira, 60, described von Trier as a compassionate artist, and it helped me understand Swans as paradoxically compassionate music. Kindness and joy come into the clearest focus when they’re pitted against the brutal.
Swans’ name itself highlights the contrast between the beautiful and the grotesque; the idea is that swans are very pretty to look at and very mean once you get close. Swans the band is sort of the opposite. The enormity of the songs combined with Gira’s unmistakable growl requires heavy listening, but once you break through the music’s skin, something warm and gentle emerges. You can hear it on 2012’s magnificent The Seer, and you can hear it on To Be Kind, though many of their songs are initially frightening and uncomfortable.
In anticipation of the new album, Gira took the time to speak with Consequence of Sound about his 32-year tenure with Swans and the constant work of striving for transcendence through music.
You’ve said that The Seer was the culmination of 30 years of Swans as an entity. Is that also true with To Be Kind? Is it riding the same energy?
This one is the culmination of 10 minutes.
That was a really pompous statement I made. Of course it applies to any given moment in your life, you know? But I suppose with The Seer, I used a lot of the techniques and tropes and attitudes and approaches to sound from all the different projects I’ve been involved in. I used all of that in one record. This record is probably a little more streamlined in a certain way. It doesn’t have as many long, ambient sections. I don’t really know, to be honest. But I think this is a good record. I certainly put everything I had into it and so did everybody else.
You become an architect of people’s time by creating these enormous works. How do you structure something this big? How do you sequence an album that’s as long as a feature film?
You look at it like a feature film. That’s one thing I’ve been working out since probably the mid-’80s, making records with the kind of dynamics and sweep that a movie might have. I’ve been thinking about the records as soundtracks for a very long time. I don’t know if it holds the average person’s attention these days, or if anything can, but I think if people are inclined towards this kind of thing, then it works.
What would this record be the soundtrack to?
I made a record called Soundtracks for the Blind once. I don’t think about what it’s to. It’s just its own soundtrack. I would love to make a soundtrack for a proper movie.
That would be amazing. I can’t believe no one’s approached you to do that.
I can’t either. There is a song on this record, which is a tribute to a scene in a beautiful movie I saw recently, the movie Melancholia by Lars von Trier. I think it’s utterly beautiful. The song “Kirsten Supine”, that’s an homage to the scene where [Kirsten Dunst] is lying naked on the mossy stones bathed by the light of the malevolent planet.
That’s an unforgettable shot.
He’s a tremendous director, isn’t he?
He is. He’s fascinating.
Do you sense his amazing compassion for his characters? I really love it when directors really show compassion and empathy and put you inside the suffering of a character, and the joy, too.
I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but there’s an urban legend going around the internet that someone put on the song “The Seer” on a digital jukebox at a sports bar and totally cleared out the place. I’m not sure if it’s true, but it touches on something that people have been noticing, which is that Swans are now getting recommended by the same people that are recommending Kanye West or Sky Ferreira, these big budget, mainstream albums. Blog culture sort of smashes everything together and puts it all on one plane, which I get the feeling wasn’t the case when you first started making music.
No. We would start a show with 30 people in the audience, and by the time we were finished, there would maybe be five.
What’s it like to be considered in the same critical lens as pop music?
I don’t understand. Where does this take place? I have to show my children.
You got Best New Music on Pitchfork and so did Kanye West and so did Beyoncé.
I’m down with them. No, really, I don’t like their music at all, to be honest. That’s fine. I applaud their efforts. I think it’s really good that we’ve reached a bigger audience. That’s gratifying after so long in the trenches. I’m also very pleased to be onstage and look out at a lot of young people and not a bunch of old people looking for the old music. That’s encouraging. It’s all been very encouraging. It was a very good decision I made to reform Swans. It’s been gratifying creatively and in other ways as well.
It seems like the path from the fringes of music to the mainstream is much shorter than it used to be, but Swans still sounds like this very pure music that hasn’t been dragged into the middle. What keeps your music at the edges?
I don’t feel like a part of anything. I certainly don’t want to be in the center or anywhere else except in the music we make. I don’t care about any kind of scene or any kind of recognition. Well, recognition’s nice, but being legitimized doesn’t really matter to me. I couldn’t really live with myself if I felt I was doing something false. I’m always hacking away at the music, trying to make it as clean and urgent and right as possible.
How do you know when a record is done?
When I run out of money. That’s usually the case. You run out of money and time. I could work on them forever, and it would be suicidal to do so. I get so wrapped up in it that I’m probably not very objective. I just keep hacking away, adding things, subtracting things. It’s an endless process. At a certain point, someone has to bat you around with reality, and you stop.
Swans has maybe an unfair reputation for being a very grisly band, a band that makes dark and malevolent music, but I think you probably write about love more than you write about death.
What is your personal definition of the love that you write about?
Oh, I don’t know. That sounds like something for either an effete poet or an intelligent philosopher to answer. I’m neither one. I write devotional love songs sometimes. I write very sexual love songs. The song “She Loves Us” is obviously a sex love song. I write spiritual, aspirational love songs as well. That’s all I can say.
What kind of spirituality do you experience?
It’s very ill-defined and lazy-minded. I don’t adhere to any particular denomination. I do gravitate towards Buddhism and Zen, but recently I’m reading the Bible. I’m in the Old Testament. I’m a very slow reader, and the Bible is very difficult reading, but I’m finding a lot of very interesting things in there. Certainly I’m not interpreting it literally, but there’s a thread running through it that I find to be compelling.
What is that thread?
The human aspiration for understanding why the fuck we’re in the universe to begin with. It’s the story of a people and the story of creation. The story of the families. All of it. There’s a lot of great, lurid sex and violence in there, too. The heroic writing of it is really amazing.
Do you find that it’s informing the way you think about music?
You’ve been playing for audiences your whole career, but I imagine that you’re still learning new things as you play live. What are you learning now by performing that you didn’t know when you first started out?
I think I’m learning more to let the music speak rather than try to force control on it. That means opening up to other players more and trusting that they’re in the same world rather than trying to force them into something. The way that the music has developed, these open-ended, long, sprawling pieces, is very much about working with a group of gentlemen for a long time now and trusting that we’re all trying to reach this higher place. I kind of guide things, but in general, it’s a group effort to go there. That’s one thing I’m learning, to give up a little bit.
You’ve spoken about a kind of transcendence that you achieve while you’re playing. Do you find that’s intensified?
Oh, yeah. That’s the goal. I’m kind of terrified right now because we haven’t started rehearsing. We have three weeks to become a band again. We haven’t played together since we recorded in late October. We have to reestablish a vibe together. Also, I want to force the music into some new direction. I’m not even sure what that direction is going to be yet. It’s all a little scary, but we’ll see what happens.
Does it take a while to get back into that communal vibe?
Yeah. We have three weeks of rehearsal, every day, 10 hours a day. Since we don’t all live in the same city, we have to force ourselves into an environment where we have to work together and become a band again.
You’ve mentioned before that you write from a fear of death. Do you think that people would still make art if they didn’t have to die?
I don’t know. I suppose that’s part of the impetus behind a lot of art, isn’t it? Not that it’s about death, but it’s about trying to cheat it.
You don’t have to answer for people in general. Would you still make music if you could live forever?
As much as I have a healthy fear of death, I don’t think I’d want to live forever. So, I don’t know.
I think that’s also healthy. Why wouldn’t you want to live forever, though?
It’s already pretty arduous as it is. I can only imagine.