I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Road Gang: An Interview with Michael Gira of Swans

by D. Strauss
Feb. 18, 2014

~ Note: Article originally published by www.exberliner.com ~

NAmag : So you’ve always had a pretty strong following in Berlin, even going back to the 80s. And I know a lot of your collaborators are living here right now.

MG : One of them is, yeah. Christoph Hahn is from Berlin. He’s playing two steel lap guitars [with Swans] on stage right now.

NAmag : And do you have any memories of touring here in the past?

MG : No, it’s not. But, uh, first, yes, I do have great memories of Berlin. I remember on the first tour we stayed, well, at least, that is, Jarboe and I stayed with Blixa for some time. Blixa was a bartender at a bar -- I think it was called the Risiko -- And he used to give us free drinks, which was, of course, a disaster for everyone involved.

NAmag : But perhaps also an inspiration.

MG : Yeah, well, I don’t know. He gave the whole band free drinks. And we had this deal that we’d have free drinks for ten days or something and then we would play for the drinks. But for some reason, before the promoter could get things together for us, we had to leave town. So we left and we had thousands of dollars in a beer on a drink tab. <Laughs> Ha ha! And we weren’t, uh, welcome in Berlin for some time after that. <Laughs> That was like ‘83, ‘84. Something like that. ‘84 I guess.

NAmag : I’m curious about the sympathy you had with the musical movements of the time. The whole Kreuzberg, Ingenious Dilettantes thing. It seems there was a lot of overlap with the No Wave thing that was going on in New York.

MG : Well, uh. I guess so. I wouldn’t really consider Swans to be No Wave. We came to New York after No Wave... Took some of the ideas. I was definitely inspired by the raw, kinda, use of sound instead trying to make music out of the usual three-chord, punk rock. We took it in a different direction than what most No Wave bands did. I think Sonic Youth did also. We were, both of us were post “the No Wave thing.”

NAmag : What was your general impression of Germany at the time in the late '60s?

MG : I was a drug-addled hippie, basically. A young one. But it was an odd situation for me because I had been running away from my father. He was a business executive and his company would pay for me to go this school in the Swiss Alps. He said, “Either you’re going to school or you’re going to work in this factory.” So, being stupid at the time, I worked in this factory. <Laughs> I stayed working there for a year making tools: hammers, pliers and things. And finally he said “This is ridiculous. You’re going to school.” And then I ran away.

NAmag : I read a little bit about that and I’m just kind of wondering, philosophically... I mean, it seemed almost cliché.

MG : Philosophically? I was 14.

NAmag : I know, but you seemed pretty precocious.

MG : I guess I was precociously rebellious. I don’t know how precocious I was. My first experience of reading, or of actually trying to emphasize my mind in any other way besides inundating it with drugs, was in jail in Israel when I got arrested for selling hash. I started reading because there was this sort of library there that other itinerant vagrant hippies had left of some good books. And so I started reading a lot because you had nothing but time in jail. That was my first experience of reading seriously. And I started thinking about things in a way that was larger than myself, you know?

NAmag : What were the first books you read there?

MG : Well, I remember reading One Hundred Twenty Days of Sodom.

NAmag : That was in the prison? It’s appropriate, I guess...

MG : <Laughs> Yeah, right. And, I think I read Miracle of the Rose, too, by Genet. And, uh, everybody had a bunch of Oscar Wilde. I read that.

NAmag : Did you generally identify with the rebellious left that the hippies were into at the time?

MG : Of course. Everybody did. Most people who were young did. It was a time. You know, the Vietnam War was going on. And American society was just complete turmoil. And the hippies were like the punks of the day, really. People think of them now as these love and peace people. But they were an outrage to consumer society, really.

NAmag : I’m curious about the development of your ideas over time. I mean, you have a pretty large body of work at this point.

MG : Well, I can only answer that by saying.... I was in art school in the ‘70s and was making art and, you know, performance art videos and things like that. The stuff that was de rigueur for the time, I guess. And punk rock happened and that, to me, just seemed so vital and urgent compared to a career in sort of an elitist university system. Continuing with art school and then having some career in art seemed repugnant to me. Might as well be a lawyer, I thought. So I got involved in punk rock. And eventually I got tired of the predictable musical direction of most punk. Because, you know, I was in L.A. at the time. I moved to New York because I thought that was a fertile place for making something new happen and, you know, flailed around for a couple years until I found my voice. And then started making Swans. And really, it was all about organizing sounds and just expressing making the rawest most vital, maybe vile, emotional statement you could make with rhythm and sound.

NAmag : At the time was like it a real rejection of the song, sound over song?

MG : I used to say at the time that I was looking for the real fucking or the real sex in rock music, you know? Eschewing or avoiding completely the song structures that go into the true sex of it. And in a way I kinda achieved that somehow, in the early stuff. I’m reading this biography of Howlin’ Wolf right now and I see lots of parallels there in the, kind of like, the, the groin aspect of the beat<Laughs> that he embodied, in his early days travelling around, as an itinerant musician. That kind of extreme quality of it. You know, sonically, obviously it didn’t sound like that but some of the grooves were lifted from Howlin’ Wolf.

NAmag : Yeah, I mean, Howlin’ Wolf is very heavy music.

MG : Well, it’s also joyous. You know? But, yeah, it’s just that, those grooves were, really, in a way, twisted, abstracted blues grooves, with chunks of sound just being hurled at the audience and ourselves actually. I guess it was the product of the time. I guess I would have denied it then, but looking back now, yeah, it makes sense.

NAmag : I guess one difference is, you know, Howlin’ Wolf, when his, when he was creating his sound, it was partially out of necessity. I mean, using electric instruments and just trying to be heard.

MG : Well, he was a Delta blues musician. He was an acoustic musician for a long time before he used electric guitars. And you’re right, he did use electric music later because the crowds got large and they needed to amplify. It was also kind of a macho thing, you know, being louder than the other guy.

NAmag : But I guess, when you were working with The Swans, at least at the early stage, I guess it was a much more self-conscious desire, to take that abstract element. It’s funny how something that starts as a necessity then becomes something aesthetic in itself.

MG : I guess you could say that, but I don’t know how intellectual we were, really. I just wanted to make something happen. Just start working and if something doesn’t satisfy you because it sounds too hackneyed or predictable or doesn’t have the right kind of violence that you want in it, you just adjust it until it does. Until it feels right. It’s really intuitive. In fact, it’s that’s still how I work. Not starting from some kind of program or aesthetic.

NAmag : Is it a real sense of a collaboration in the creation of the sound?

MG : Um, in a sense. The songs are... Well, first of all they were written by me, then the grooves were kind of organized by me originally, because I used to write on bass. I'd get the basic ideas of things on bass, and then start going back and forth with the band members, negating something they would try or pushing them if they did something I liked. It’s more like a give and take thing. Never really improvisational. More just, kind of, uh..., accruing sounds. Rather than, just, jamming ‘til you come up with something. I never really did that kind of thing.

NAmag : It’s interesting because I always assumed that there was a certain amount of just, kind of, communal playing until you come up with an idea.

MG : It starts from, like, the chords or ideas that I have. And then I get people to play and guide them towards want I want. And often, of course, they surprise me and I go “Yes, let’s go for that.” You know? But it’s not like just everyone’s kind of just sitting around playing, coming up with something. It’s more like, amidst the chaos, finding the direction things should go, in real time.

NAmag : Would you say there's a large element of theater that’s involved? And I’m thinking back to your art school education. I know you’re inspired by punk rock, but you’re reacting against the more theatrical part of rock music.

MG : Well, I was really. I was not really into the stylized aspect of punk rock and never was. It was stupid. I mean, there was some really good music made back then. Most of it wasn’t the standard punk rock stuff. You know, I always leaned towards Throbbing Gristle instead of, you know, instead of the Sex Pistols, for instance. You know, Wire instead of fucking [The] Clash. Yuck! <Laughs> They [Wire and Throbbing Gristle] did one thing that we did a lot of and that’s rehearse an incredible amount. It’s maybe simple music, but rehearsing makes it live. And Swans, in fact, in those days, rehearsed five nights a week even though I worked in construction jobs 4 to 6 hours a night. And then before the tour, 8 hours, 10 hours a day. And same goes now. You know, long, really arduous rehearsals. But you’ve got to do that to wring the blood out of what’s there in the music.

NAmag : So, reviving the idea of The Swans – What are you trying to arrive at with that? 
MG : After several years of working with [Angels of Light], where recording I would go in and record the basic song with acoustic guitar and voice and maybe a scratch vocal bit with some kind rhythm to keep time... I would start orchestrating on top of those performances, and I would make little vignettes, sort of, little, little pieces of cinema out of the songs, you know? And I got bored, so what I really wanted to be was to be inside, like I’d say, static, all-enveloping sounds and really going for that. There have to be dynamics, of course, or else it’s just noise, but uh, I really want to arrive at these, kind of, ever-ascending crescendos again, you know, where you could just lose yourself completely in the music and by extension the audience too, of course.

NAmag : Did you feel that way because something was emotionally missing, right now?

MG : I was definitely missing it. I just feel like when I killed Swans in the late ‘90s, it was kind of necessary ‘cause I was completely exhausted, physically and mentally. But I think by doing that I rejected an essential part of how I am and what makes me feel alive.

NAmag : I’m curious, did you feel, did you sense that you were rejecting that aspect of yourself at the time?

MG : No.

NAmag : Did that just sort of come upon you recently? Upon reflection?

MG : Yeah, over the last three or four years, not being really satisfied with what I’m doing. I think I’ve made some good records. The last Angels of Light record was was really good. It was called We Are Him. But it wasn’t really vivifying me like I needed it to. Yeah, and I’ve gotta say, since picking it up again, it’s been really great. It’s like the last few years, with these solo shows it’s been incredibly intense, just me and an acoustic guitar... and it’s been really satisfying for me to be able to do that and make something emotionally wrenching happen in the room with myself and the audience. It’s really a task, a trial, to do it. But it’s been like something’s missing, you know? And now that I’m in the midst of this whole... like swirling maelstrom of sound again. It’s really what I feel I was meant to do.

NAmag : Do you feel that you achieved most of what you wanted to with this Swans record or do you feel this is the first step towards even getting deeper?

MG : It’s a first step. It’s a transition, really. Right now I’m working on an idea for a new song and the big difference is that I’m not structuring it completely as a finished performance song. I’m intentionally leaving it open. I want the other musicians to flush it out and I want to take it where it goes before I even think about structuring the vocals. I don’t want it to be leashed to that. I picture the next album being more about the kind of long sonic passages than about songs per se.

NAmag : It’s funny, I was just reading an interview where you were saying “I’ve lost interest in sonic experimentation, per se.”

MG : <Laughs> When was that?

NAmag : I think it might have been before the last Swans tour, ‘98, ‘99?

MG : Yeah, well. I did lose interest in that. Actually what I’m doing now is kind of different from that because then I was, particularly in the studio, doing lots of things with loops and found sound and samples and that sort of thing. And I definitely don’t feel I have an affinity for that anymore. But the actual, human-generated sounds are what interest me. I don’t really like music that isn’t made physically by a human being. I like some electronic music, but I really like performers that, kind of... have to struggle. It’s like working on the road gang, or something. <Laughs> … So that's what I'm going to do.

D. Strauss, host of the upcoming Network Awesome offerings The Network Awesome Show and An Evening with Prince Charles, is Senior Editor with EXBERLINER Magazine and has written freelance for just about everyone. Once. Thanks to a variety of questionable circumstances, he continues to reside in Berlin.