Swans' frontman Michael Gira originally thought he would be a visual artist. Since childhood, he regularly created illustrations and "devoured books on art." He even went to art school. Attending art school provided him with an introduction to punk rock, which he has said "seemed more relevant and urgent and necessary than forging some kind of art career, which was beginning to look like a parallel career to being a lawyer or accountant."
When he was still in art school, he shared a big factory building with some other artists. They put on a show with the punk bands Fear and X, and Gira helped publish an underground magazine called No that featured interviews with guys like Alan Vega of the art-punk act Suicide. Inspired by the punk movement, he started what he has called a "pretty bad punk rock band" called the Little Cripples that played a show in San Francisco. Shortly after moving to New York in 1979, he launched Swans, an oppressively noisy act. Gira kept Swans going strong until 1997 when the group disbanded and Gira started up the avant folk act Angels of Light.
About five years ago, he had some songs for what he presumed would be a new Angels of Light record. In the process of arranging them, he realized they would function better as Swans songs. So he reformed the band and issued My Father Will Guide Me on the Rope to the Sky, what he calls a "transitional album." In 2013, Swans followed it up with The Seer, an album of hypnotic tunes that sound a bit like something Nick Cave might have worked up back in his Birthday Party days. And now Swans are coming to town in support of their two-CD set, last year's To Be Kind, the third studio album from the reactivated band. Gira says that reuniting with Swans has been inspiring.
"I guess I was at an impasse in my life and creatively at that time," he says in a recent interview when asked about what made him put Swans back together. "I was involved in Angels of Light. It was less and less compelling to me. I decided that the way out of this impasse was to throw myself into the fire again and experience the kind of sound that Swans can make. I reconstituted the band with various members that had been in the group before or that I had worked with on various other projects. As we played over the next two to three years, we developed our own sound of six musicians interacting with each other and with me directing."
In playing songs from The Seer live, the material for To Be Kind emerged.
"The song 'Bring the Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture' grew out of the song 'The Seer,'" Gira explains. "As that song ended, there were these open clouds of sound that opened up and we introduced a groove that morphed into the next piece. We're doing a similar thing now. There are songs that grew out of playing older songs. They grew into something new."
When it came time to go into the recording studio, Gira again turned the experience into an ordeal of epic proportions.
"Like most of our studio experiences, it was fraught with terror," he says. "I go in and I become a maniac and work endless hours. I start recording the material and I start to hear new things and it becomes way over-recorded and over-dubbed so I fling it against the wall and break it into pieces and then make something new out of that."
The end product, however, suggests Gira's efforts weren't for naught. The album clocks in at 122 minutes and, as reviewers have noted, has a cinematic quality to it right from the pulsating notes of album opener "Screen Shot."
"Once I get involved in making a record album, I'm thinking about a film as well," Gira admits. "It's an entirely pretentious undertaking. That's how I view it. I'm not inclined toward making a normal rock record at this point. That can result in abject failure too when you push into areas where you don't belong. But I'm trying to find new ways to engage with the sonic world."
The band has also released a digital EP of "Oxygen" from To Be Kind. It features four different versions: an edit of "Oxygen" by Mute founder Daniel Miller; a live version from Primavera; an early version recorded at Gira's home; and an acoustic version recorded at StudioMute.
"One of the versions was entirely different music and chords," Gira explains. "It was a different melody. That was how the song originated. I tried to record it with Swans and it sounded dumb and it just didn't work. I discarded it and was searching for new material, and I liked many of the words. So I came up with this groove and it morphed into the song as you hear it on the record. As far as the EP, that was entirely at the suggestion of Mute Records who license our records outside the U.S. I was fine doing that."
Gira says the next album is already starting to take shape. Like the last tour, the current tour will feature several new songs as Gira & Co. try to work out the kinks before heading back to the studio.
"There are six songs in the live set and four of them are unrecorded," he says. "They're things that are finding their own shape. They're 30 minutes long and 20 minutes long. It's like lava flowing down the hill. They're still finding their path down the mountain. Those four things will be on a new album which we'll record in September."