Last week, the album To Be Kind by the band Swans debuted at No. 37 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart. It's a dense album -- layered, sprawling, and grandiose. Some might call the music difficult, which makes its placement on the top album charts significant. But for those who have followed the band throughout its 30-plus-year career, it sort of makes sense. Bandleader Michael Gira has been one of the hardest working men in independent music since the very early days of Swans. The band's early sound could be described as brutally loud, confrontational, and disturbing. In the mid-'80s they became a gentler Swans, creating beautifully lush masterpieces that wouldn't be too weird to find alongside an Enya track on any goth's mixtape. Gira made a return to the noisy and the experimental before declaring Swans over in 1996.
Settling in Texas, Gira continued to work while the cult of Swans fans grew, releasing groundbreaking solo albums and exceptional work with his outfit the Angels of Light, discovering artists like Devendra Banhart and Akron Family, and maintaining his Young God record label before resurrecting Swans in 2010. Since then, the world of the underground has welcomed Swans back with loving, open arms -- so their breach into the mainstream album charts does make some sort of sense. We spoke with Gira earlier this month about the new album and how things are holding up four years into the band's reunion.
You're now three albums in since reuniting under the Swans moniker. How are you feeling as far as this version being distinct from the previous incarnation of the band?
The intent was to be different, so I guess I kind of willed it into being, now didn't I? It's definitely achieved what it was supposed to do and surprised me along the way. I'm happy to be making music. I feel very fortunate that some people seem to be interested and want to hear it.
This new album is definitely a progression...
It's kind of catchy, huh? (laughs)
Yes! This is the first Swans album I think I've wanted to dance to. I want to use the adjective "groove." There's lot's of grooves on this record.
That was quite intentional. We started to play certain rhythms during the last years of touring. I noted them, catalogued them in my brain, and the more we explored and expanded on them I figured that would be an interesting avenue to move along after The Seer. Obviously, we are going to sound like the same band, but I didn't want to repeat ourselves. I decided that we would pursue this "groove thing." Hopefully not in a white-boy sense, meaning white boys trying to sound black or something, but in a Swans way.
There's also some angular rhythms that are reminiscent of the very first Swans EP. Intentional?
God, I don't remember what that stuff sounds like.
You haven't revisited that material in a while?
Of course not!
It's aged well.
Well, to me, that music is just something I had to do to get to the next phase.
Let's talk collaborators on To Be Kind. How'd St. Vincent get involved?
John Congleton, who engineered this record, has been her co-producer for some time. He has introduced her to Swans music about three years ago and she became something of a fan. She came out to the shows and had an affinity for the music. When I needed a female vocalist, as I want to do, we gave her a call and she came right away. It was a great experience. She is extremely talented and such a nice person.
And what of the great cabaret performer Little Annie?
She sings exactly with me on the track "Some Things We Do," so it sounds like neither of us. It sounds like a different human, which was the intent. Neither man or woman, just a person. There's a fantastic song she does with Paul Wallfisch called Because You're Gone. You should check it out.
This version of Swans is very masculine driven. Do you ever feel like you're missing something without that female voice on stage?
No (laughs). I use women. I admit that now. I use the talents of female musicians and singers as much as possible. It adds a different color, especially vocally. I've been doing that since the very beginning.
You're touring again with the same lineup since the reunion. Legendary Swans guitarist Norman Westberg, Phil Puleo (Cop Shoot Cop), Chris Pravdica (Flux Information Sciences), Christoph Hahn and Thor Harris. When you're arranging the live shows, are you a strict musical director, or do you let your players do their thing?
I never let anybody just "do their thing." I do let them improvise and I will comment and guide them on something I think is appropriate. Sometimes they will do something that completely surprises me and is great right away, but generally I'm guiding things.
We don't really think of Swans as gear whores. Can I ask about your live setup?
I have a tuner. That's it. Sometimes I use a delay but even that is too affected for me. Lately I don't use anything. Just volume.
We've noticed a considerable difference in personality after your live performances in the last few years. You're definitely more approachable. Meeting and talking with fans. Even taking pictures.
I started doing that during the so-called "final" Swans tour in the late '90s and throughout the tenure of Angels of Light, going out and talking to people at the merch table. It came from realizing, belatedly, how important the people that support the music are. They deserve respect and I should come out, say hi, and thank them. If you go to a bluegrass festival or a country show, it's pretty routine for the artist to come out and thank people personally. There's not this pretentious distance between the so-called "star" and the audience. I remember seeing (the great banjo player) Ralph Stanley. It was probably 101 degrees and he was in his black suit, he was probably 90-something. He was standing there at his merch booth thanking people and it was really awesome. To approach playing music as honorable work is important.
You mentioned in a recent interview that you compare working with your band to the way the great director John Cassavetes approached working with his actors. Is there a significant cinematic influence on this latest Swans output?
There's been an ongoing preoccupation with making records that are "soundtrack-like" since, well, since Soundtracks For The Blind and even before that, with The Great Annihilator. I've been attempting to make records with the dynamics and textural shifts that a movie score would have. For a long time I listened to a lot of (Ennio) Morricone scores obsessively. This record has a song directly inspired from a scene in Lars von Trier's Melancholia. I absolutely loved that film. I think his films are romantic, utterly beautiful, severe, disturbing, and violent.
We know you have a special affinity for San Francisco and you almost moved here at one point. Has your impression of the city changed since the recent tech boom?
I don't have time to check out the sights when we are on tour, but from what I hear it sounds absolutely appalling. But it's not unpredictable. New York is the same.
Michael, what is your spirit animal?