Michael Gira started Swans in 1982, forging new paths in experimental rock music and influencing countless bands with their primal performances, bursting with sonic mayhem and brooding rhythms. In 2010, they reformed after a 13-year hiatus with a series of new albums, including last year’s To Be Kind. Now, they are still pushing boundaries, but with a more refined sound that could only come from experience and intense dedication to their craft. Michael was kind enough to have a little chat with us about life, music, and the existence of infinity. 

It must be amazing to know that after so many years Swans still have sold out shows in major cities around the world. Was there ever a particularly dark time when you thought maybe you should do something different outside of music?
I’m always questioning if I should be doing something outside of music. In fact, at some point in the not too distant future I will do so. That would be starting to write seriously. As for now I’m pursuing Swans. This iteration of Swans has been very fortunate to receive a lot of attention. That’s due to persistence, hard work, and a lot of luck. It just seems like the zeitgeist that is appropriate for the music right now. Seeing such large audiences is great, and it feeds the performances that have been the best of our career. 

In recent live videos, you seem to have some voodoo priest spasms or movements on stage. Would you say that your music is spiritually informed? Do you believe in witchcraft?
The answer to the final part of your question is that probably I do, because infinity exists, anything and everything is possible. Because it’s all possible then anything and everything does exist, so yes I believe in witchcraft, but I also believe in astrophysics. As for our music being spiritual, at its best Swans is rock, so it’s dunderheaded. But the music does lead us to a higher place, and hopefully that includes the audience. 

The compositions on To Be Kind are very cinematic and at times reminiscent of something you might hear on an Ennio Morricone score (almost like if A Few Dollars More was mashed together with The Thing). Have you ever worked with any filmmakers?
That’s about the highest compliment you could give. Just briefly I worked with a lady in New York. It’s been a goal of mine to work in film, but now I’m not certain it will ever happen or care. I did in the late 80’s start to think of music as non-visual soundtracks, as opposed to just albums.  

Can you talk about your use of samples and sound used throughout the record?
There are no samples, there are recordings. It’s understandable though because people misuse the word sample. I picture samples being something that you just grab on your computer, and then sequence into a song. If you’re talking about the saw sounds on “Bring The Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture,” for instance, that was specifically recorded in a studio by our illustrious percussionist, who also happens to be a carpenter.

It will still be the year of the horse when you arrive in Beijing. How did you go about recording the horses on “Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture?” They sound very angry.
I had in mind to use some horses, because of the kind of violent sounds they make, and also because this historical figure (Toussaint) was such a supreme horseman. They were recorded in a corral area and riled up a bit because they needed to sound like they were rushing into an altercation. 

Will Swans be using those recorded sounds live, for the same effect?
Absolutely not, I’m not a fan of pre-recorded sounds being used live. I realize that this kind of obviates an entire genre of music, but it’s not for me. Things need to be made in the moment, with actual physical exertion from the performer and not from just pushing a button. 

Could you tell us what your ultimate live music experience would be? 
One thing I intend to develop, is a concert where we perform the instrumental sections from the last three Swans records with the band. Then I also want to augment these with a dozen horns, a small choir, various percussionists, and maybe a dozen electrified hammered dulcimers to make a total sonic experience. 

What kind of venue would you choose for this concert?
It would have to be classical, but there’s a problem as I’ve discovered with the decibel levels being too high for most classical music venues.

And finally, purely out of interest, have you ever played any sports?
I was an excellent baseball player in my youth. I was a pitcher and shortstop, and I showed a lot of promise. Then, unfortunately, I fell victim to the ubiquitous influences of the 60s, and drifted into other activities which were not quite so productive. 

Catch Swans destroy worlds at Yugong Yishan on Wednesday (Feb 4).

More stories by this author here.

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Photos: Jennifer Church, Split Works

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