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.
"It wasn't for me," he says when asked about his art-school experiences. "Somehow my experience in art school soured me to the whole thing."
And yet, attending art school did provide him with an introduction to punk rock, which he says "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 that Gira said helped introduce him to the genre. And Gira helped publish an underground magazine called No that featured interviews with guys like Alan Vega of the art-punk act Suicide.
"We had some performance art in there and some pornography," he says of the magazine. "It was kind of amateur. I did two issues and my friend Bruce Kalberg, who's now deceased, carried it on. But being the type of personality I am, I had to perform."
He started what he calls a "pretty bad punk rock band" called the Little Cripples that played a show in San Francisco and he was hooked.
"I was electrified and knew I had to do that," he says. "But the L.A. punk scene seemed kind of predictable and conformist. I had been reading what was going on in New York with the No Wave scene and Suicide, of course, and it seemed like a more interesting place to be. When I moved to New York in 1979, that whole trajectory was dying out and there wasn't much that interested me, though I did get a chance to see James Chance and the Contortions at Max's Kansas City."
In 1981, he launched Swans, an oppressively noisy act that would set the template for what's now considered punk rock. Along with the like-minded Sonic Youth, Swans became an underground sensation in New York and attracted a cult following. The band didn't adhere to typical song structures then, and even now it continues to be fiercely experimental.
"I don't think that phrase 'post-punk' existed at the time," he says when asked about how he shifted from playing bad punk rock to cutting-edge post-punk. "It was just through force of will that Swans came into existence. I wanted to cut away all the fluff of rock music. Chord changes seemed irrelevant and any kind of melody seemed irrelevant. I wanted to make it as brutal and visceral as possible. It was an elaborate scheme to give myself an excuse to scream."
Gira kept Swans going strong until 1997 when the group disbanded and Gira started up the avant folk act Angels of Light.
"By that point, Swans had been through a lot of different musical phases and changed considerably," he says. "It was 24 hours a day work for 15 years. It never was very remunerative and seemed like it had reached its natural conclusion, so I killed it and wanted to do something simpler based on writing songs on acoustic guitar and then orchestrate them."
For the next 13 years, Gira toured and recorded with Angles of Light. Along the way, he started his own record company and signed neo-folk acts such as Devendra Banhart and Akron Family. About three 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." Last year, 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.
"I find it to be ecstatic to perform," Gira says. "The Seer uses methods I've used on projects like Angels of Light and Swans. It's pure soundscape. I realized everything that went into it was my sum total of experiences as a so-called musician and record producer. "
He's also in the process of writing songs for an album he hopes to start recording at the end of August.
"We're currently performing a set which is comprised almost entirely of new material that I would sketch on acoustic guitar and then bring to the band," he explains. "Over the course of this touring cycle, the songs have morphed to a large extent and things are constantly changing. I have a few more that will be developed in the studio. I don't know how long the record will be. I don't really care any more.
We'll do this record and see what happens. There are lots of ways we could go. I find it kind of discouraging to think about the future too much. I just prefer to be in the moment."