It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that, at its peak, ‘Bring The Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture’ – the opus at the centre of Swans’ latest album To Be Kind – sounds like the heavens being ripped open.
Then again, the aim of Swans’ music has never been mere sonic affect, but shared sublime experience. Steering the band towards that common goal is the visionary Michael Gira. On stage, he contorts and flails, guiding the band like a possessed conductor, and it’s easy to imagine him acting similarly in the studio, sculpting chaos into complex narratives. Indeed, when discussing how many of the songs on To Be Kind were written during an intensive touring period, Gira explains, “The music developed organically, with me generally acting as the director and trying to get the music to take on a life of its own.”
That life of its own, the beating heart that makes To Be Kind so powerful, like The Seer in 2012 and My Father Will Guide Me Up By A Rope To The Sky in 2010, is tricky to pin down. Rather than the sheer brute force of earlier Swans albums such as Young God, dialectical oppositions dominate To Be Kind: control and chaos; violence and calm; bleakness and exaltation; density and space. It’s every bit as varied and thrilling as The Seer, filled with elements that, even 30-plus years into Gira’s career, come as a surprise, such as the slowed-down funk of early single ‘A Little God In My Hands’ .
“A lot of the music I love is based on grooves,” says Gira. “Fela Kuti, James Brown, Can. Jaki Liebezeit is one of the best drummers ever. And did you hear that Mute thing, [Can’s] The Lost Tapes? It’s fucking awesome. Those are terrible, wonderful, furious and delicious grooves.” Much of To Be Kind was developed while Swans were on tour in 2012 and 2013 – “the spawn of playing in front of audiences for 18 months” – and the grooves Gira’s discussing dominate tracks like ‘Screen Shot’, with its bluesy guitar motif, or ‘She Loves Us’, with its pummelling guitar figures.
But where Swans have always been heavily wedded to repetition as an expressive medium, only after regrouping for …A Rope To The Sky did that repetition take on near-transcendental qualities, with lyrical fragments reiterated like mantras and instrumental figures in overwhelming concentric patterns. In an interview in the ’80s, Gira spoke of great rock music as being like an enema. To extend the purgative metaphor, To Be Kind feels more like trepanning, an act of violence designed to revive the victim. It’s about love, too. Love is the first and most prominent word on the record, and lyrics such as, “Oh universe: You stink of love!” and “I sleep in the belly of love” confer on it some of the cleansing, restorative properties of ritualistic violence.
Just as The Seer had its ecstatic half-hour title track that felt that the sum of all Swans music past and present, so To Be Kind has ‘Bring The Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture’. It opens with a fragment of silence, erupts in all directions and subsides into a series of sustained notes from which Gira’s voice reaches out as if to grab you by the throat. The song’s impact and intensity is born not from massive volume but from its huge dynamic range. “I think the whole volume thing is ridiculous and cartoonish and overstated. We may be loud at times, but we’re not an onslaught of constant sound, and there’s a huge range of dynamics. It’s like a classical music level of dynamics, although there’s more compression on our records than you would have in classical music. But I’m not trying to convey a message; the thing is the experience, and I want the experience to be the thing – like being in the sea in a small boat.”
I suggest that as the present is ever-mutating, Gira’s aim to create a lived-in experience rather than convey aspecific message with his music sits well with his career’s longevity. But in his interviews a couple of years ago, he claimed that The Seer was the culmination of 30 years of making music. What comes after the culmination, I ask. Rebirth? “At that time,” Gira explains, “I thought I’d used all my thirty-something years of experience as a musician and record producer to make this Meisterwerk that expressed all those aspects of the music I’d been involved in, from very quiet art songs to pummelling, crushing sonic moments, to transcendence, to rock grooves. I made it into this big film, which is how I view that record. But on the other hand, that’s a tongue-in-cheek statement, because everyone is the culmination of their entire experience at any given moment. For To Be Kind, with the songs developed live, the central idea was the groove. That was the way that led us out. This record sounds better to me but I don’t know if it’s a better record. It seems like progress, but what is progress musically? It’s the next thing!”
I point out that although To Be Kind is sonically quite different from The Seer and therefore by Gira’s definition a progression of sorts, he’s used the analogy of a film to describe both records. What’s the affinity between his music and film? “I’m probably not educated enough or talented enough to be a film director, but I’d like to think of records as sonic films. I view the opposing elements as what a good film has in it, too, and I wanted to make a sonic experience rather than a bunch of songs recorded by a band. I have no classical training or skills, but it’s more of a classical music way of looking at things.”
To Be Kind is dense with those surprising oppositions. Textures collide on ‘Some Things We Do’, where a ’cello’s ominous groan foils Julia Kent’s arrangement of pizzicato strings, and Little Annie sings a duet with Gira. Her melodic cadences are a perfect fit with his growl as they reel off anaphora, a rising tide of instrumentation buoying up the vocals so that each successive line seems to invoke an ever deeper point at the core of being: “We seed, we feel, we need, we fight / We seal, we cut, we seek, we love / We grow, we take, we eat, we break / We hunt, we hurt, we seize, we kneel / We heal, we fuck, we pray, we hate.”
St Vincent, who sings backing vocals on ‘Screen Shot’, ‘Bring the Sun’, ‘Kirsten Supine’ and ‘Nathalie Neal’, recently said in interview that working with Gira fundamentally changed the way she felt about music. It’s probably the highest compliment an artist can be paid but Gira isn’t satisfied. “Wow! I just wish she’d said it changes the way she feels about sex,” he jokes. I remark that she doesn’t sound how you would expect on To Be Kind, her trademark guitar playing nowhere to be seen, and her vocals almost heavenly. “I think she’s wonderful, a superb musician and vocalist. It was a great experience working with her. It might be considered that I under-utilised her, but I used her in a correct way for this music. She’s like an organ in some of the songs, or a string section, holding notes to add the overtones and sustain that’s latent in the guitars but can’t really be recorded.”
Female vocalists appear on seven of To Be Kind’s ten tracks. “Cold Specks is a total gospel singer, and Jennifer Church also sang with me on ‘A Little God In My Hands’. I like having females involved in music because the music’s powerful, so to speak – not that females can’t be powerful – but it’s good to have a feminine voice in it to leaven it and add light.”
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Gira’s tendency to bend guest artists to fit the songs rather than the other way around is of a piece with his creative autonomy. Even though his words are brusque, the tone is grateful: “I don’t work for anybody. I work for myself. I have my own record label; no-one tells me what to do.” Gira’s record label woes far behind him, he has come up with a workaround for the financial strain of releasing records entirely independently (To Be Kind is being released on Mute in the UK and Young God everywhere else): tour heavily, make a live CD, and use the proceeds from that to fund the next record. Just as the profits from We Rose From Your Bed With the Sun in Our Head funded The Seer, Not Here / Not Now helped pay for To Be Kind.
It must be gruelling stuff, I say. “It’s work. I invest huge amounts of treasure and work into what I do. But I view it as an entirely positive experience. Making records is a juggling act and a puzzle. There are so many factors, from gathering money to the studio to the people there. Then once it’s recorded it sounds like shit usually, because it’s not live, and you need to augment it, and maybe cut the fucking thing up and change it around, and you just grapple with this material and try to make a sculpture or a film out of it.”
Those analogies again. But they never feel like an affectation, given Gira’s longstanding passions for art and film, and how they inform the music of Swans. “Do you like Gustav Klimt?” he asks. I say that I do, very much, though I know him mostly through reproductions. “I was in Vienna recently, and spent a lot of time in the museum there, with huge rooms devoted to Gustav Klimt. A lot of them were displayed in a typical museum way, with banal light and so on, and it was great to see them. But there was one room where some of the most famous paintings were displayed on a black wall, and you couldn’t even tell where the light was coming from. It was a very sensual and gentle light, and it had a sort of chapel feel. I could live in there. There was this one kind of erotic painting, and it was so ornate, with the gold leaf and the beautiful female, that it was almost like a religious experience. You definitely should see them; they’re fucking awesome. I think Klimt was a very religious person in a very unique way.”
I’ve always seen the Swans project as about spiritual as opposed to religious experiences, I say. “Yes, that’s something it’s about. I’m not trying to give you this Catholic or this Zen experience, but it’s an act of worship and you’re inside it along with me. It’s entirely secular, but it is a communal experience that we can all hopefully lose and find ourselves in.” Like group meditation? “Like tantric sex.”
And what about film? Gira wrote ‘Kirsten Supine’ after seeing Kirsten Dunst in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. “It’s a beautiful movie. You know that bit where she’s lying in the grass?” I do — like Ophelia in the John Millais painting. “There’s definitely this pre-Raphaelite influence, with pre-Raphaelite art books shown throughout the movie, and very pre-Raphaelite light as she’s nude there, and it’s just gorgeous. Lars Von Trier’s films really stick in the core. Some of them are cynical and kind of awful, but Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark have so much compassion and pathos. Melancholia made me feel like I was inside of Kirsten and inside the film, in this magical world that we humans were in, with impending death so close. It’s sort of like what life is. I guess people think the end is corny, but I thought it was a perfect depiction of what a family is, or someone you love. Huddling against death, it’s just beautiful.”
Our allotted time over and Gira’s interviews done for the day, we join his publicist and project manager from Mute and his good friend Simon Henwood, the artist who created the cover of The Seer, for a drink. Gira shows us photos of two prints he bought in Russia: one is a drawing by Hans Bellmer of a half-molten skull picked out in precise lines, the other a William Blake drawing of three serene, robed women. It’s easy to see the appeal of the Bellmer to Gira, with its purposeful, graceful lines that bring to mind the grooves we discussed earlier, and its graceful, beautiful rendering of morbidity. We pore over a book of Henwood’s work, beautiful pieces that range from sensitive paintings of teenagers to a vivid, spartan portrait of Gira that hangs in his house, and the unforgettable image of a wolf-like creature with Gira’s teeth from the cover of The Seer.
Henwood also works as a creative director for the likes of Rihanna and Kanye West, and as the conversation moves to the subject of mainstream pop, Gira grows disdainful. Digital music, he says, has no humanity,given its narrow dynamic range and tracks separated by Pro Tools. He recalls a day he when was driving and listening to pop radio, and a kick drum came in and overpowered everything else. He almost swerved off-road in surprise. I counter that plenty of digital music has humanity, but it’s true that there’s a paucity of imagination in a lot of pop production, and far too many shitty kick drums. “Literally,” says Gira, illustrating his comment by fisting the air, rather characteristically.
Whatever Swans’ recent critical success, there’s no denying that the mass production and homogeneity of mainstream pop sit in direct opposition to Gira’s fierce autonomy. Although he doesn’t paint any more, he still enjoys making things for his fans, such the handmade Not Here / Not Now CDs, or the personalised songs he wrote for anyone donating generously to the We Rose From Your Bed With the Sun in Our Head campaign. Even given any financial incentives, these seem much more like gifts than standard merchandise. I’m reminded of Gira’s earlier comments on shared experiences, and his response to my remark that the prevailing theme of To Be Kind is love: “Love is a total act of generosity and giving, like losing yourself completely. It’s so cliché, but it has everything to do with the feel of the music. To me, it is love.”
Swans play this year’s Supersonic Festival.
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