Words by David C. Obenour
Swans has been an unstoppable monolith in American underground music for more then four decades. Defying genres as they create and destroy them, the different incarnations of the band under the guidance of Michael Gira have lead us through fifteen albums worth of touching beauty and unsettling reflection.
After reforming the band in 2010, Leaving Meaning is their latest and the first since the dissolution of the last eight year’s established lineup. Crediting thirty-two performers from Swans past and future, the album pulses with an urgency and energy. Swans will not go quietly and on the songs they perform with delicacy, they will still be heard.
Off Shelf: Leaving Meaning is your first Swans album since dissolving the most recent lineup in favor of a rotating cast of musicians. Can you talk about the decision to go this way with the band?
Michael Gira: The fabulous group of individuals with whom I worked in the previous version of Swans and I came to the conclusion, after non stop touring and recording together for eight years, that we had milked the stone dry, at least for the time being. I determined that the way forward for me as the main purveyor of the Swans aesthetic was to return to a mode I employed during the 90s, which is to gather various musicians for each record and subsequent tour, rather than to be beholden to a specific group of people. This ensures the way the songs I write are arranged and performed and stay fresh and provide an element of surprise.
OS: It’s a pretty exciting group of musicians with Anna von Hausswolf, Baby Dee, Ben Frost, The Necks and more. Can you talk about some of the musicians you choose to join you for the new album?
MG: I have been an avid Necks fan since I first saw them perform at a Big Ears Festival in 2010. They subsequently played with Swans at a few shows in Australia. Their live performances and recordings are just about any superlative you can think of – mesmerizing, transcendent, sublime. Their music is entirely improvisational – it’s my understanding that they have no idea what they’re going to play before they start. And yet, mostly using rudimentary jazz trio instrumentation, they manage to fashion burgeoning and ever-evolving, immersive clouds of sound that utterly envelop the listener as the music unfolds. I’m beyond honored and humbled that they agreed to perform the basic tracks for two of my songs, “The Nub,” and “Leaving Meaning”. Their performances were then delicately, and I hope tastefully further orchestrated upon in Berlin. Tony lives in Berlin, and also played drums on the song “Some New Things”.
Anna is blessed with a soaring voice, lyrical acuity and increasing facility with the church organ. I was impressed recently to learn that she often travels around Europe and visits churches unannounced, where she talks her way into being allowed to use the resident organ – some of them rather massive, I imagine – and plays and explores for hours. Her searing records and live shows reflect the courage of her imagination and have garnered her increasing, much deserved recognition. Maria [von Hausswolff] is an accomplished Swedish cinematographer and director of photography. In 2017 I heard Anna and Maria singing together at a sound check for a special song they were doing in Anna’s set, was instantly enthralled, and resolved at that moment to ask them to participate together on a Swans recording.
The first time I saw Dee she was riding a unicycle in circles outside the now-defunct Avant club, Tonic, in NYC, playing a ukulele or accordion? and singing with great mirth. I saw her set that night and was won over. She’s since toured with Swans several times. Her music could loosely be called neo cabaret, but more accurately she’s totally unique and a great performer and songwriter, graced with a powerful voice and high-end ability on the piano, accordion and more. I wrote “The Nub” specifically for her to sing. I was stymied for words to the main guitar figure to the song, and suddenly she popped into my mind, floating through the universe in diapers, sucking milk from the stars. The song wrote itself.
Ben’s adventurous sound-craftings, sometimes harrowing and sometimes delicate and quite musical, and his powerful live shows, have afforded him much recognition of late. I’ve also been highly impressed with his soundtrack work for the HBO series, Dark. He’s an extremely talented arranger and composer. His mission for this record was intentionally ill defined. I basically wanted his ears and sensibility, with no particular part or instrument in mind. I arrived at his studio in Reykjavik, Iceland, put up the songs, and he played what he thought a song needed. I was pleasantly surprised to discover his unique approach to the electric guitar as well as his synth work.
OS: Though I know they aren’t separate, I wanted to hone-in on a few of the aspects of your music that have resonated to me over the years. First would be your willingness to let a song extend and build. As a performer, why is that important to you?
MG: The length of the piece is determined by how long it holds my, and the other people performing, interest. How long it provides a path to something greater than itself. I don’t look at the music as ever being finished. It needs to always lead somewhere else, just around the corner. Music to me is the same as dreaming.
OS: As a listener, what do you think you’re able to experience from a song that is allowed to build, deconstruct or otherwise find itself over time?
MG: It’s often about the experience of performing it or listening closely, more than the initial form that set the process in motion. Once a song or piece of music is recorded I lose interest in it and only view it as a way to find something else.
OS: The second aspect would be the songs of your’s that feature these beautiful and warm melodies, most notably on the new album with songs “Annaline” and “What is this?” – though it’s definitely been there throughout your career. How do you see these songs connected and in contrast to the more loud and aggressive sound that Swans has embodied?
MG: I’m actually quite limited in what I can do. I sit down with my acoustic guitar, start playing, and eventually a figure appears that holds my interest, and then words follow. Sometimes the result is a gentle love song, such as “Annaline,” other times what I’m playing alone implies something that should be developed cinematically, and I’ll follow that path. It’s really quite arbitrary. I have a deliberately naive faith in intuition and chance.
OS: Do you think your time writing and performing solo and as Angels of Light affected how you write for Swans?
MG: It’s given me confidence that I could make something valuable happen with minimal means. I’d still like to try making music with just a few stones dug up from the yard and my voice, see how elemental it can be and still resonate somehow.
OS: The last aspect, I wanted to explore is the sometimes brooding and unnerving feeling created by the music or the words you choose. I know it’s a vast and maybe an impossible generalization to arrive at, but where does that inspiration come from?
MG: It’s a little corny to say, but I’m always looking for what’s true. Sometimes what is true is a thing that cancels itself out, sometimes it’s a more literal narrative, sometimes it’s just a process of puking in slow motion, or sometimes just praying to a god I know I’ll never understand or really grasp. Surrender is important to me.
OS: So many decades on, you’re still very committed to making handmade releases. Why is this still important to you? How does it change how you see your albums and how would you hope it affects the listener?
MG: I like making things, objects, artifacts, things you can touch and hold. I also feel that labor is important, that time spent doing a tedious and sometimes seemingly endless task is worthwhile in the end, that the object created holds in itself the history of its making. As for releasing the rudimentary versions of songs that are then later recorded and arranged for an album, they’re just a step along the way, as are the recorded versions on an album. For instance, we as a band will be performing many of the songs from the new album live soon, and I doubt they’ll have much resemblance to what was recorded in the studio.