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Swans: A Whirlpool of Sledgehammers, Online: a concert description and Michael Gira interview

Swans by Femke van Delft
24 June 2011

All images by Femke van Delft

Note: the following is an online continuation of an interview with Michael Gira that began in the print edition of Big Takeover #68.

From the outset, the Swans show I witnessed in February 2011 at the Rickshaw Theatre in Vancouver was unlike any concert I have been to.

The frontman for the revitalized band, Michael Gira, has said in interviews elsewhere that if he’d had the courage, the complex, abstract ringing of bells that begins Swans’ most recent album, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, would have lasted thirty more minutes. Live, it seemed like he seized upon the opportunity to fulfill that unrealized intention.

Most people in the audience didn’t even notice that the concert had started until some fifteen minutes into the experience. It initially seemed that someone had just left something on after finishing the soundcheck. There wasn’t really much to focus on, just a repetitive, swirling electronic drone emanating from a synth. It wasn’t particularly loud, musical, or assertive, just a whirling loop of noise that nearly everyone, at first, ignored. People heedlessly talked, laughed, texted, noisily went about their business of socializing with their friends; even after the first band member quietly appeared onstage in the background, to no fanfare or applause, and began to overlay the drone with very precise, quiet sheets of percussion – I wasn’t clear on the instrument, but he was playing with mallets; perhaps some sort of marimba? – some folks were still either thick enough not to realize that the concert had begun, or not concerned enough with such subtleties of the music we were being presented as to think it worth paying attention to.

Western rock audiences are kind of stupid beasts, that way. It takes a remarkable performance to tame them completely, to get them to pay attention. I remember feeling horrified, when Carla Bozulich presented her magnificent first Evangelista show here, opening for A Silver Mount Zion, at how the sound of audience chatter filled in every silent bit in what would otherwise have been a haunting and moving show. Sonic Youth, too, when touring Sonic Nurse at the Commodore, found their subtle, noisy jams that opened up between songs drowned out by apelike whoops and cheers, since the audience was too clueless to realize that these jams were actually part of the music – and likely the part of the music that most interested the band! Compare this to a concert audience in Japan, say, and you’ll learn something about western culture that you won’t like – our impatience, our self-centeredness, our thick-headedness, our rudeness.

Swans seemed to structure the opening of the concert to re-educate us in our lazy listening habits, and it ultimately worked – but it took awhile for people to catch on. A second percussionist, who asserted a few big thumps of a bass drum into the mixture, got most people to notice; he joined in producing phantom tintinnabulations that intersected and swirled through the cloud of drone, alternating with irregular big thumps, while a keyboardist, now some twenty minutes into the performance, took the stage. He tweaked the sounds emerging from the synth in such a way that, in my notes, I described the sound produced as “a flexing steel wire piercing heaven.” A fourth member followed after a few minutes, to take up the bass, the neck of which he bent into and out from his amp as he struck gigantic, reverberating notes, adding drone to drone, deepening things further, adding an element of violence, danger, and deep physicality to the music, with the keyboardist and percussionists continuing unrelieved.

Still nothing resembling a song had begun, as yet – but there was a growing anxiety in the audience and a sense of sheer POWER building and pulsing from the stage. From heedlessness, we had been pushed into a state of incredible tension, completely fixed on what was happening onstage; performances this intense are few and far between.

Only then did Gira and guitarist Norman Westberg take the stage – Gira in a cowboy hat, Westberg in a t-shirt; and once there – Gira smiling beatifically, sipping water, and twirling his wrists, Westberg strapping on his guitar – they still took their time before beginning to play, the swirling, pulsing mass of music growing larger and larger until finally, some half hour into the show, the opening chords of the first song on the new album, “No Words/ No Thoughts,” were sounded.

I have pages of notes, scribbled furiously as the show went on, trying to capture the experience of that night. Chunks are missing, musical gestures lost, bits of my scribble illegible, but at least some of my notes convey an impression as to what happened:

After the chording began, Gira and band built up jagged layers of non-tuneful bam-bam-bam-bam, irregular but somehow perfectly predictable, with Gira ultimately kneeling on stage, his face contorting as he hammered out chords, completely lost in the pursuit of transcendence.

Band begins a sonic tower-building, slashing, riffing, that has something in common with Sonic Youth. Gira really IS Jimi Hendrix to their Monkees – they make it so much nicer for people… buildup stops, jagged chords and chaos, drummer stirring in circles, Gira rocking, holding guitar. Gira directs with his hands over his head as he starts to sing. I don’t know that I could have interviewed Gira if I had seen him live before speaking with him. He hits himself on the face…

…When Gira leans in, the drummer to the left and keyboard player know exactly what to do. Gira directs the band with his body language. In – pummel; out – pull back… It makes *John Zorn*’s hand signals look like an effete geeky pretension. Gira stomps back and forth, head thrusting out and down and back, with deep lunging muscular thrusts. As his band falls into the groove he has established, his movements seem more like they’re responsive, but in fact, they cued the direction of the piece. He directs the music with his whole body.

Guy or not, I can’t help thinking what it could possibly be like to have sex with someone this intense, this singleminded, this passionate. I’d be terrified!

The band is impossibly loud. Motorhead have nothing on Swans. Somewhere in there, as the buildup began, as Gira began to flex his facial muscles to prepare to sing, he spat in the air above himself, the lights capturing the spray of saliva as it descended… He did this more than once…

“Thank you, children,” Gira says between songs…

Somewhere in there, Swans perform a version of “Sex, God, Sex” (I think – many of the older songs in the set have been modified to be near unrecognizable) during which the music drops out behind Gira as he bellows, “Come in now! Praise God! Praise the Lord! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus Christ! Come down! Come down! Come down! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus Christ! Come down, now!” And here is where the frontman’s remarkable grip on the audience is most evident. Even though there is no accompaniment whatsoever; even though Gira is going wayyy out on a limb as a performer and carrying the whole show with his voice; and even though he is shouting like a religious maniac about to be personally devoured whole in ecstatic consummation with the Lord, not one single person in the audiences whoops, cheers, laughs, heckles, or speaks. Indeed, no one clinks a glass or does anything audible at all – everyone is entirely silent and overwhelmed, completely tamed by and terrified of the force of Gira’s performance. I should imagine anyone who did make a sound would fear that Gira would leap promptly into the crowd and murder them – his intensity is such that this seems an altogether reasonable thought (tho’ when, at the end of the concert, he grinningly bares his ass for an audience member to slap, he seems playful enough, and becomes downright personable and approachable when he heads to the merch table after the show to smile and sign CDs).

The other remarkable thing about “Sex God Sex” was that it was the only time in the entire concert that – as Gira sang that he was “sexless” and “impure,” and chanted “down, down, down” – I acutely became aware of the absence of Jarboe. Perhaps because I know the original off Children of God fairly well, I could almost hear her vocal part in the background, imagine it in just the right places. I don’t mean to criticize – I’m quite aware that the concert would most likely not have been happening at all if Gira had felt obliged to include his former partner and co-vocalist in the reactivated Swans, and I’m further aware that whatever has or has not gone down between Gira and Jarboe personally is none of my fucking business, either as a journalist or music fan. But for a few minutes, though I had not thought of her elsewise during the night, hearing a ghost of her voice echoing in the background, I felt a brief pang of sadness that she wasn’t included in this show, and wondered what it must be like to have ever been a part of an experience this intense, and then NOT to be… (Michael Gira comments on Jarboe’s absence from the revitalized Swans in the print version of my interview with him, in Big Takeover #68).

Many surprises were contained in the night, from Gira’s assault on Lady Gaga (“The Apostate”) to the introduction of a harmonica to the instrumentation (“it’s like, Tony Conrad blows the blues,” I scribbled). My writing about it can’t do justice to the experience of seeing Swans live. Dave R. Bastard, drummer for Vancouver’s mutant punk/free jazz hybrid The Sorrow and the Pity, was among those in attendance, and at the end of the show, commented to me that “that was ritual magic,” and I couldn’t agree more – it was a transcendent, transformative experience, unlike, as I say, any other concert I have been to. You really can’t know what it’s like until you’ve seen Swans live. Hopefully there’ll be another North American tour and we’ll all get the chance again…

The other half of the Michael Gira interview below appears, once again, in Big Takeover #68. Thanks again to Ejaculation Death Rattle‘s Dan Kibke for suggesting some killer questions, and thanks to Femke van Delft and Bev Davies for being on hand to take pictures; since the print edition used only Bev’s, here are Femke’s.

Swans by Femke van Delft

I heard an interesting story, that when you were involved in performance art in Los Angeles, you did a piece involving having blindfolded, anonymous sex…?

Yeah, well, I went to art school, and I was involved in performance art – it’s sort of a stupid genre, but I was interested in it at the time. And I guess I was preoccupied with what you would call ersatz experience, like, experiencing things secondhand, through television and media. This was pre-internet and computers and everything – just how about American society had kind of become about experiencing reality in ersatz, even at that time. And I designed this sort of early version of a virtual world – I drew out this design of this mask you would wear, and you’d be lowered into a vat of body-temperature liquid, and maybe having a tube coming out your ass which would get rid of your waste, and a tube going in your mouth which would feed you; and you would just experience things completely in ersatz, like your imagination would trigger this video experience, with this mask around your face. And you would lose a sense of your body and you’d experience everything as imagination. And that led to thinking about trying to actualize having a sexual experience with someone whom I would never see, or know. And so… I lived in a dilapidated factory at the time; I had a loft space that was hundreds of feet long – so I rolled out this white paper, about 50 yards of it or something, and I built these chairs, these sort of abstract wooden chairs, built out of plywood and 2X4s, at the sides of this processional, kind of thing. And then leading along the processional, the pathway, every foot, there was a four or five foot high hollow post, but at the bottom of the post was a square, and inside that was lightbulb. So really they were like penises, sort of four foot high, geometrical-looking penises, out of raw wood. And there would be a stream of light coming out of each penis. And then I decided, I wanted to have this experience where I would have this impersonal-as-possible sex, so I had a friend contact a female who was interested in trying this, and what we had to do was that each of us had to narrate into a cassette our sexual fantasies, what we liked about sex, what we wanted to do, and just try to get as deep as possible into our sexuality. So we each made a cassette, and I had a cassette player strapped to each one of us, playing our sexual fantasies. And we each had blindfolds on, and we were naked, and we sat opposite each other in these chairs; and then we’d grope our way along these penises until we found each other in the middle; then we’d have sex in the middle and then we’d go back and sit down again and wait until it was appropriate to have it again, and these tapes were going the whole time. And it’s very embarrassing; I invited like, X, and all these different bands who were playing downstairs.

X the punk band?

Yeah, this was in LA. This was in Pasadena. And Fear I think played – so there was all this punk rock/ art connection. They could go downstairs and watch the gig and come upstairs and watch this going on.

How long did the piece go on for?

I don’t know, two or three hours probably.

How old were you when you were doing this?

Let’s see – that was 1977, probably, 78 maybe? So I was 23, 24. Around that time, I was publishing a magazine, with another friend of mine from art school; it was called No magazine. And it was like a broadsheet kind of thing – the same size as NME or Village Voice, on newsprint; it wasn’t like a little fanzine. We saved money – I painted houses, and forget what he did, but we saved enough money for each issue and figured out how to lay it out. This was like, before computers and everything, so we did it with Letraset and laid the thing out, had it typset, and had interviews with bands, and stuff about performance art and pornography and some of my writing. It was really vile, actually, but it was also poppy, in the same way, because we’d interview X or Suicide, and then we’d have this pornography or pictures or decomposing corpses on the cover, we had on one issue. So we did that – I was sort of in the punk scene in LA, doing that, and eventually I got tired of not actually making music, and started a band.

Swans by Femke van Delft

Little Cripples, right? I can’t find much information about them.

It had a couple of names. It was called Little Cripples, and it was called Strict Ids, and then it was called IDS. I guess we sounded a little bit like Wire, a little like the Buzzcocks, something like that. That’s about all there is to say about it. It changed when I left – it became the B-People.

And they recorded?

They did record, yeah. It became a little more quirky, or something like that (note – the Mutant Sounds blog has the B-People album up for download).

Did any of your stuff from that time survive? Recordings?

Not that I know of. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing then, anyway, so I don’t know what to say about it.

Were you writing songs?

I was writing words. I didn’t have anything to do with the music, really – except to be guiding the direction, sort of, or helping to guide the direction. I didn’t know anything about being in a band.

Swans by Femke van Delft

Wow. And somewhere back there, you also worked with Hermann Nitsch?

I didn’t really “work with” Hermann Nitsch. I was one of the assistants that just washed the blood off the performers – or participants, I guess should say, as they would come back to the back room and go back out for more. That was a great experience for me – it was in a little, I guess what you’d call a storefront, a 600 square foot storefront in Venice, California. Really small. And he had the carcasses strung up there, and went through the rituals that he does. And the musicians were gathered from LA punks and street musicians and things, people blowing horns and whistles and whatever, and he would guide them with this hand in a big, black butcher’s glove. It was really comical, in a way. He looked like a little Hitler. And a couple of the main participants were the Kipper Kids. They were a really great performance act – it was two guys. It was brutal, but comedic at the same time. One of them married Karen Finley, and she basically got her shtick from him. Look’em up online.

Would you count that as a formative experience?

Oh yeah, sure.

Were you aware of the Viennese Aktionists, before assisting with that piece?

Oh yeah, of course – I went to art school, and I read about that stuff. It was really interesting to me. Schwarzkogler, and Günter Brus, and Otto Muehl and all those people. To me, that was inspirational stuff – that, Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman – that was the art I gravitated towards when I was still in art school.

I’ve never seen Swans perform, so I don’t know, but is there an element of ritual or theatre to what you do?

No. It’s very intense, but there’s no props or anything. It’s just very committed and very intense. It’s not like a rock band in the typical sense… I don’t know how to describe it. Well, you’ll see it.

Swans by Femke van Delft

I’m looking forward to it. But… correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like the new album is trying to connect with the early material you did in Swans. Like you’re trying to go back a bit.

Well, it’s also going forward. The only way I could go forward as an artist was to go back a little bit. But that doesn’t mean I want to sound like the early music, it doesn’t really sound like the early music. It’s just using some methods I might have used then and pushing it forward in different ways – the “big sonic chunks of sound” thing. It’s something I hadn’t done in some time, so I thought I would try it again and move it in a different direction. I wanted to be inside this big whirlpool of sledgehammers again. I wanted to feel that rapture you get when you’re surrounded by sound, penetrating your body, and kind of elevating you, levitating you.

I gather “Raping a Slave” and “I Crawled” are on the setlist – but maybe they always were; were you performing these songs prior to disbanding the band?

Well – actually, “I Crawled” is an early song I did, and I had Jarboe sing it. There’s a version of that on Swans Are Dead, which is a double live CD we did, and that’s a really, really good live CD. But her version is pretty wrenching. But it doesn’t sound like the original, and the version now doesn’t sound like the original, either. It’s really transformed, it’s made into something else. I just look at records, they’re like a postcard version of a song. A song starts out as something really elemental, maybe with an acoustic guitar, a bass riff or something, and it gradually evolves; and then you get people involved in it and orchestrate it and mix it, and it’s codified when it’s recorded. And live it should keep changing; if it doesn’t, it’s kind of boring.

Where did “I Crawled” come from?

That song was written when I was reading this book called The Mass Psychology of Fascism, by Wilhelm Reich. And simultaneously, Hitler – uh, I was gonna say “Hitler was being elected!” – Ronald Reagan was being elected president (laughs) and the corollaries were really clear to me – the avuncular, or like, father figure that lords over the nation and harks back to a better time, to a more pure past, and emphasizes the family structure… because that’s the kernel of state control, is teaching people how to obey the paternal figure in a family structure. And all that kind of thinking was really integral to the Reagan campaign. So I was drawing a corollary.

Okay. So is the father in the title of the new album a reference to your father, or some general symbolic father, or…

I’m not even sure it’s me, saying “me, Michael.” It’s just a phrase that I thought fit with the atmosphere of the record.

Swans by Femke van Delft

When I heard it – I don’t know much about you or your father, but the resonance for me, when I heard the title, was that my own father died last year, so that’s how I read it – the father has come to collect the child…

Yeah, well, that’s also something to think about. My father died in the 1990’s, but I think about him often, just having a generational connection – it sustains itself, even when they’re dead… thinking about where they went, too, is something.

Do you believe in an afterlife?

Well. I don’t want to talk about that.

I was reading that it was your father who tracked you down, when you were in prison in Israel.

No no – that was after I got out. After I was in prison, I went to Eilat, which is in the south of Israel. And at that point – now it’s a resort town, but at that point, there was just one hotel there, and just beach, and it was really beautiful. But there were these copper mines, just north of Eilat, where the itinerant hippies would work, 12 hours a day, I remember. 12 hours a day, five bucks a day – and two meals, you would get . And I worked in the copper mines for I-don’t-know-how-many months. But it’s not like a benign and omnipotent American reached across the water…

I get it. Actually, working in a copper mine for 12 hours a day doesn’t sound like much of an improvement on being in prison.

Heh heh heh. I had a really hard youth, let’s put it that way. Nothing was ever easy.

I’d wanted to ask you about your own role as father a bit. You have one daughter, two daughters…?

I have a daughter and a son. I don’t really want to get into my personal situation too much.

I understand, but I wanted to ask about your daughter’s appearance on the new album.

Sure, that’s relevant.

First off – the title, “You Fucking People Make Me Sick” – do I gather that’s directed at the music industry?

No! …That song began just as a series of loops and sounds and extraneous thing that were happening in the studio, and I started compiling them and making this sound collage out of them. And after awhile I realized that what I needed was a little lullaby or ditty in the middle of it. So I sat down with an acoustic guitar, and I was just sort of distractedly looking at music websites while I was playing the guitar and starting to write words. And that song came out, just as I was looking at these hipster kids on the various music websites (laughs). It’s like I was thinking about raping them and killing them, only I couldn’t figure out which one – it was sort of from the point of view of a murderer that would be stalking these fashionable youngsters. And then when I was singing it, I realized I sounded like [Young God Records recording artist] Davendra [Banhart] – so I got Davendra to sing it. That made it even more rich, I think. (chuckles). And once he had sung it, I thought he needed some company, and I heard my daughter singing in the other room, and I thought, oh, I’ll teach her the words! So it was really kind of random. But she adds a little tension to it, of course.

I’m wondering about the lyrics of the song – did you explain it to her? Did she understand what she was singing?

Of course she didn’t!

I can imagine your children being troubled by some of your songs, at some point –like a song like “Beautiful Child,” which I gather is in the current setlist, with its chorus of “I will kill the child…”

(Gira laughs)

Do you have a plan to explain such songs to them at some point?

Well, I figure they’ll be mature enough to understand that art touches places that are uncomfortable, and if they’re not – tough luck! …That song, “Beautiful Child,” now that you mention it, is really sort of a twisted version of the story of Isaac and Abraham, and since I was pursuing a Biblical theme on the record [Children of God], it seemed appropriate – but that story itself is pretty perverse, so…

Swans by Femke van Delft

Yeah, it is…! Okay… so I was hoping I could ask you about a few of the writers you read…

I go through periods, just like everyone. I’ve had times when I read Jack London obsessively – I understand that’s not very hip, but I think he’s fantastic. Or Cormac McCarthy, I think is wonderful. Paul Bowles, I’ve read a lot of, and Borges. I kind of randomly – I don’t really have any focused education, so I might read a little bit of Charles Bukowski, and then I’ll read the biography of Hitler (laughs). I just jump around, y’know?

Do you read on the road?

I wish. But a lot of people have the same story, I’m sure – I’m so keyed up, all the time, on the road, that I can never concentrate, including in the van. I start to read, and I just can’t. Obviously it would be a great use of time, because there’s so much downtime, but I can never focus. I always bring one or two books, and they rarely get read. It’s just the way it works.

Swans by Femke van Delft

Do you enjoy the experience of touring?

I love being onstage and performing, that’s what I was put on earth to do, I feel. Um. Everything else around it is pretty arduous, especially when you’re not wealthy and travellin’ in style.

Yeah. If we could talk about the impact of Paul Bowles… It seems like he was fairly important to you…

Yeah, it’s more that I love travel writing, I mean – I love writing about adventure and travel, and that’s a large part of his writing. It’s great escape writing.

You make several references to his work on The Burning World, for one – you mention The Sheltering Sky, in particular, which has always been a favourite of mine.

I haven’t read that book in a long time – I have a terrible memory. But go ahead.

I mean, it seems to resonate with some of your own work. It has this quest for transcendence that the character Port is on, and it ends up being completed by Kit. There’s something really self-annihilating in there about destroying identity, defeating identity, and it seems like there’s some of that in your work, as well.

Sure. What else is there?

Right, right (laughs). To tell the truth, I’ve always been fond of The Burning World, but – it sounds like you’ve left that album behind you, now.

Absolutely. There’s some good songs on there – I think “God Damn the Sun” is a really good song, I just hate my horrible portentous voice on that. The orchestration’s nice, I guess. But I hate the way I sang on that record, it’s so stilted. It just makes me mortified. But I was learnin’ – you gotta embarrass yourself in public along the way.

See Big Takeover #68 for more from Michael Gira