Interview by Jordan Sibberas
Jordan sat down to talk with Michael Gira, frontman for the avant-garde rock project Swans. They talked about recording, writing, and influences, ahead of their fifteenth record, leaving meaning.
Jordan: A bit of a broad question to start; leaving meaning challenged me to unlearn a lot of the tropes and clichés that comes with mainly being exposed to western music; does writing like this take a conscious effort to avoid clichés too?
Michael: I don’t really consider that way. I write what I’m capable of writing, and that’s it. If a song ends up being four minutes, or thirty-five minutes, then that’s what it requires, and I just follow the path that it seems to dictate. I should add though that on the last four albums there have been some short songs. Perhaps not enough in peoples’ minds, but they are there.
J: I tend to find that it makes me realise how limited my own palate can be if that makes sense?
M: I guess that’s good! I don’t even set out to achieve that though, I just set out to try make good music.
J: To get a bit more specific, I particularly enjoyed Sunfucker. It was incredibly easy to get lost in the chaos of it all. Do you ever find yourself lost in your songs as a writer?
M: That’s almost entirely the goal! I think it’s a pretty universal characteristic that people might search for in music. Like, if you consider Ode to Joy, for instance, by Beethoven. That passage, it’s literally overwhelming, and it’s like you’re being transported to heaven. You could listen to certain passages from, say, Pink Floyd, and you could experience a similar sensation. Or perhaps, the music of the tremendous New York City composer Glenn Branca, and perhaps experience something similar. I think that for musicians, that’s what it’s about. When you’re in the audience for one of our shows for instance, we’re experiencing the same thing the audience is, which is being transported by the sound. That’s always what I’m looking for in different ways. Perhaps the music on this record is less adamant than the more recent records, but the underlying goal is to create a world in which the listener can lose themselves.
J: Some of the really interesting lyrical symbolism from this record were the references to infancy, and birth, and I’m wondering if these themes are self-referential to this organic process of producing music?
M: I’m not sure, could you provide some examples?
J: For instance, The Nub?
M: Well, that song has an interesting origin, I was playing my acoustic guitar alone in my room, as I am want to do, and lost for words, which is often the case, and this picture of Baby Dee, who sang it, came into my mind and she was floating in space wearing diapers, and said she was sucking milk from the stars. Then, the words wrote themselves. I suppose it has to do with eternal gestation, or something.
J: I won’t press you more on lyrical specifics but thank you!
M: I think the thing about the parsing of words is, I don’t like it when writers or artists answer the questions that are posed in the work or create too close a context, because for me that destroys the whole point of the audience/performer dynamic, which is the friction between the things present, and how you’re perceiving it. I think that’s the whole point of art, the struggle to grasp something. I don’t want to answer the questions, because that kills the thing.
J: Could you perhaps give a similar vague contextualisation to the iconography of limbs on this record? Perhaps on tracks like Annaline and My Phantom Limb?
M: I don’t know, I didn’t realise that cool relation until you just mentioned it now. Annaline is certainly a love song, I wrote that for someone I love. It’s about the experience of losing yourself in someone. My Phantom Limb started as a homage to a person I know who’s a tremendous artist in the process of dying.
J: Returing to Annaline, and tracks like It’s Coming, It’s Real, is this underlying fear that tends to exist in the tension. Is this a subconscious feeling, or perhaps an element that you’re aware pf while you’re creating?
M: No. When I write, I’m not working to explicate an idea or a position, or to edify. I follow the path that an image or the words provide. I edit a great deal, and I try to make an image through the words. Beyond that, I can’t really comment.
J: On the practical side of this, how much editing goes into a song once the base elements, such as a melody or a chord sequence goes down?
M: I typically way over-produced records, in the sense that there’s hundreds of tracks because I constantly want more. Not being a trained arranger, I perhaps think that layering these guitars or voices in a certain way will make things sound bigger, whereas it might have been done in a more economical manner. Then, in the end, as I’m mixing, I’m left with this huge mess that I have to clear up, but it usually ends up okay. It’s a frustrating way to work, but it’s my lot.
J: It’s what works for you though, at the end of the day?
M: The best part of a record for me is usually when its right at the state of collapse, and it’s a disaster and I have to go at it with a scalpel and forge it, otherwise it’s a mess and a failure. It’s a good position to be in.
J: would you say then that for you, writing becomes something of a puzzle-solving exercise? Or do you hit things until they work?
M: Both. I’m trying to create a little piece of cinema in the production so there has to be dynamics, and a signature sound to the song, and it has to have a particular atmosphere. So you just work at it until its right.
J: Interesting you mention Pink Floyd before, and at the risk of drawing comparison, do you find yourself riding the line between early Pink Floyd, where the themes are implied, and later, more explicit Pink Floyd, where the story is in the lyrics?
M: I’m not a post-Meddle Pink Floyd aficionado, I like the early stuff, like Ummagumma, probably because I saw them in 1969 as a runaway, at a rock festival in Belgium. It was quite a transformative experience, naturally, like everyone else, I had partaken of certain aiding chemicals. But the performance of a song like Careful With That Axe, Eugene was quite memorable, and so as I say, it’s something about the ever-escalating chords, and the maelstrom of sound, that appealed to me. I’m not too sure how leaving meaning relates to that, but another record, or two, in my consciousness from my youth was the first two Doors albums, with the very long songs The End, and When The Music’s Over. They’re still tremendous. I don’t know if that helps answer this question though.
J: It does. Back on a practical level though, I really enjoyed the groove on Some New Things, which appears to be a Harpsichord or something similar?
M: I don’t recall what’s on that, and I don’t sample any more, but there’s way too many instruments on that song sorry. There are Harmonium and Accordions on several songs, played by my friend Cassis Staudt, but I’m not sure if that’s what you’re referring to.
J: The track drew up some images from this sound though, of a perverse honky-tonk.
M: Well, I played the acoustic guitar part by myself and came up with the slew of words. Larry Mullins helped me record the rest of the main tracks, then Yoyo Röhm who’s a great bass player in Berlin, and Kristof Hahn, who also lives in Berlin and plays lap steel and regular guitar, but for this song I used Dana Schechter who played with me in Angels of Light to play bass, and Tony from The Necks to play the drums, and built up from that basis. That was the only song that was groove-oriented on the record, I wanted something that was a straight groove from beginning to end.
J: I felt as well that its position on the record, after a dramatic climax, as a tension disperser.
M: Yeah, and there’s a decrescendo after that with What is This and the final song, My Phantom Limb, is a little more insistent.
J: Lastly a general question, I quite heavily related this album to an Australian poet by the name of Dorothy Porter, particularly on the themes of impermanence, and I was wondering if perchance you’d heard of her and cared to comment?
M: I haven’t, but that is a theme that’s relevant to me, so I’ll go have a read!
J: Thanks for your time.
leaving meaning is out 25th of October 2019 through Mute/Inertia.