Michael Gira’s Swans has been called the greatest live band in the world. One critic described the group’s concerts as a “visceral experience that tests the very idea of the band and the creation of music.” It’s no surprise then, that Swans’ albums—which have also found critical praise—come as a bit of an afterthought. It’s the live performances where Gira and Swans experiment, compose, and settle on what eventually will become the next record.
“With the last record, many of the pieces on there had been performed for a year, 18 months,” Gira says in a Skype interview. “By the time it reaches that stage [of being recorded], it’s kind of spent.” He adds, “We usually, for the most part, abandon what we’ve just recorded and move on to something else.”
Although the band is still playing two pieces based on tracks from last year’s To Be Kind, Gira says, “they’re much different from what’s on the record.”
Formed in the early 1980s as part of New York City’s no-wave scene, the Swans were a challenging band from the start. The early lineup consisted of two bass players, two drummers, and a guitarist. “It was very brutal,” Gira has said. “People weren’t prepared to deal with it.”
Although audience members often walked out of early shows, the band nevertheless gained a cult following and endured, until disbanding in 1997. Gira moved onto other projects, including the Angels of Light, which put more emphasis on vocals and melody. But in 2010, to the delight of many old fans, he reformed the Swans.
“My decision to disinter Swans was based on trying to be in the kind of sound that Swans provides again,” Gira says. “When you’re in it, it’s an overwhelming and simultaneously uplifting experience. I wanted to do that again before I was unable to do so, so I just decided, why not do it?”
Swans now includes Gira on vocals and guitars, Norman Westberg on guitars and vocals, Phil Puleo on percussion, Chirstoph Hahn on guitars, Thor Harris on drums, and Christopher Pravdica on bass and acoustic guitars. Numerous guests musicians also join in for recordings.
“I’m fortunate that this particular lineup of Swans has lasted so long,” Gira says of the collaboration. “It’s not a democracy. I’m the head clown. But I want people’s abilities and instinct and passion. So I’m kind of guiding things.”
The recent lineup has been even more highly praised than it’s ground-breaking first act. All three albums released since reforming—2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, 2012’s The Seer, and To Be Kind—have found high critical praise.
On record, the music is layered and complex. Although the music is at times a dense thicket of sound, details and nuances continually emerge.
“Recording is, I don’t want to say intellectual, but it’s more of a thing that works by accretion,” Gira says. “I try to get a good performance from the band when it’s a recording that involves the entire band at once. Or I’ll record a basic underpinning with an acoustic guitar and maybe a percussionist. Then it’s just thinking about orchestration and how to reach these moments of ecstasy.”
Although the band is considered one of the more challenging live acts, Gira rejects that notion. For him, the aim is not pain or endurance but beauty and transcendence, however fleeting.
“I feel it’s a total experience—it’s just like a Richard Serra sculpture, there it is. You either experience it or you don’t,” he says. “It’s not really trying to expand anybody’s consciousness.
“Without being too serious about it, it’s my religion,” he adds. “It’s what I feel I’m put on Earth to do, so when I’m doing it, I feel connected to the universe. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes I’m just standing there pushing chords. When it does work, it’s the best experience I can imagine.”
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