Michael Gira goes up the country and emerges with his most vital,
uncompromising Swans vision ever.
BY RON HART
“New York City has lost
its romance for me a long time ago,” explains Lower East Side industrial
music titan Michael Gira, fearless leader of the recently resurrected Swans,
from the comfort of his property near Woodstock
in beautiful Ulster County, a hair under 90 minutes away from the Alphabet City digs from where he walked away.
“I was happy to leave, cuz I’d been there for a long time and I started to
feel like a trapped rat, so I’m glad to be gone. I can’t even go to my old
neighborhood anymore; it’s just so noisy and tourist-y and full of drunk jocks
But while the current state of post-gentrification Lower
Manhattan is indeed sickening enough to drive any sane man towards the
Shawangunk Mountains, as a matter of fact, one of the key songs from Swans’
mesmerizing new double-LP The Seer is named after his old address – that
being “93 Ave. B Blues,” though he admits no kinship between the two
besides their shared name.
“It was a title that just came out of the air,” he explains. “It
was an improvisational thing that we started doing live on the last tour as an
encore, and then we would just stop it abruptly
and go into an a capella version of “Little Mouth” from the previous
album (2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky) and we just
kept the improvisation and put it on
[The Seer]. It was a real vague effort to do [a version] of ‘L.A.
Blues,’ one of my favorite Stooges songs.”
Yet while he does enjoy the ruralism of his new upstate
digs, don’t expect to catch Gira at your neighborhood watering hole any time
soon. There might be a rare sighting of him at Rhino Records in downtown New
Paltz combing through the classical racks if you’re lucky, however.
“The guy there, Rick, he steered me towards Mozart’s
Requiem,” he recalls. “That’s a great store. And they’re thriving,
which is unusual.”
Just don’t expect to catch him perusing the new release shelf of Rhino nor
Jack’s Rhythms across the street anytime soon. While he does cite such modern
acts as Lykke Li, The Knife, Cold Specks and Liturgy amongst the music he’s
been digging lately, Gira isn’t much for keeping up with the sonic Joneses
“I don’t have the mental capacity to listen to a lot of
contemporary music because I started getting involved in it in my mind
critically and it’s just a diversion,” he explains. “Right now I
spend so much time on what I’m doin’. Any music I listen to has to be from
another era or something, like when Nina Simone comes on the radio, or even Led
Wait… Led Zeppelin, you say? Hard to imagine a man who’s
created music so heavy it was known to cause instances of vomiting in the
audiences of early Swans concerts to be such a big fan of the English hard rock
titans. But Gira, who cites Houses of the
Holy as his favorite Zep LP, speaks as passionately about them as he would
early experimental composer La Monte Young.
“Jimmy Page is just the utmost in rock-god-dom,”
Gira gushes. “He’s such a lyrical, beautiful guitar player. People that
have tried to imitate Zeppelin later in those horrible bands missed the point
entirely, because his guitar playing is incredibly melodic, it’s like stinging.
He’s so connected to his instrument, it’s like he doesn’t have to look at it.
His work as a producer is just out of this world as well. The Lucifer Rising soundtrack is just
He’s also into Pink Floyd as well, having recently name-checked
their avant-psych masterpiece Ummagumma in
an interview with Pitchfork.
“It’s the one that has a resonance for me, because I saw
that version of Pink Floyd as a kid,” Gira reveals. “I was a runaway
kid in Europe and I saw them at a festival with the Art Ensemble of Chicago,
Yes, The Pretty Things, The Nice and a few others, I don’t remember the name of
it, in Belgium
back in 1969. I was fifteen. It was free somehow and I was traveling with some
older hippies and I just went along for the ride with the aid of various
But to digress: when Gira does leave his land, he is
generally holed up in Marcata Studio, the white hot destination recording space
in nearby Gardiner run by engineer extraordinaire Kevin McMahon.
“I pretty much stay in the studio and sleep in the
studio and work until I drop and then the engineer drives home and comes back
and I just stay there,” he muses. “I’m just kind of a troll that’s
inhabiting the studio for a series of four months.”
Like Rope before it, Marcata was where he conspired
the massive Seer, considered by the artist himself as “the
culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever
made, been involved in or imagined.” And to see this
30-years-in-the-making vision through, the 58-year-old Los Angeles native
reached out to a bevy of friends, lovers, apprentices and collaborators for
assistance, including Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low, longtime Swans muse
Jarboe, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, violinist Eszter Balint, former
Ministry/KMFDM/R.E.M. drummer Bill Rieflin and members of Akron/Family to name
just a few. Yet while he is more than
happy to work with an army of pals on his own creations, Gira believes his days
as a sort of Dumbledore of drone for new generations of young underground
upstarts are behind him, though memories of nurturing the likes of freak-folk
icon Devendra Banhart linger fondly in his psyche.
“It was a great experience helping younger people to
find their way in this perilous enterprise of the music business,” he
recalls. “Working with Devendra was really a magical experience. It was
one of the best musical experiences I ever had. He was such a luminous genius
at the time, just a kid, too. It was a very tense relationship right away,
because I subconsciously assumed this father figure thing where I was telling
him what to do. And naturally he rebelled, which was cool. And we got some good
music out of it and hopefully I showed him how to navigate his way. I remember
when we first met he didn’t even know what a monitor was. He was playing live
and I said to him, ‘Devendra if you put the microphone too close to that
monitor it’s gonna feed back’ and he said, ‘What’s a monitor?'”(laughs)
As Gira winds up for Swans’ upcoming return to the road in the coming months [subsequent to this interview the band
embarked on an extensive North American tour that is still in progress; view
itinerary here], he promises that
such Seer sirens as the aforementioned “Blues” and the 23
minute drone epic “The Apostate” will continue to expand and evolve
in the live setting.
“A lot of the stuff just came from working, from playing,” he states.
“It’s not really about improvisation, it’s more about being able to
subsume yourself in the sound and let it take you someplace. I always want
things to be changing, to be sort of on the edge of the cliff.
“It will be a rather interesting concert; we’ll see if we
[Photo Credit: Jennifer Church]