Michael Gira and Swans Fly Forward into the Next Project
Do not come to the Swans concert expecting to hear a parade of songs from the latest album, or preceding ones for that matter. Swans leader Michael Gira doesn't dwell in the past. Instead, he strives for the next "invigorating, energizing" sound to move his world.
"It's more about internally what to do next," he explains by phone from his New York home.
"One thing usually follows from another. If there are kernels or seeds of something worth exploring in the future on a record from the past, then we take it further.
"I just try to keep myself interested in what I'm doing and challenge myself to make something that has urgency to it," he says. "Ergo, you can't see doing the same thing and have to change. Not just for change's sake, but it has to be fresh and alive, which is what I've always done."
Those "kernels" slowly morph into new songs during Swans tours. It is in this way that fans, particularly those at the later stages of a tour, get to hear what essentially may be the next album.
"I'd say 80 percent of the material we're playing on this tour is for the next album," he says.
"The material has almost reached its final shape before being recorded."
Some of those shapes are clouds -- sound clouds, as Gira calls them. Though many songs contain an underlying groove that builds into a cacophony of sonic intensity, Gira says, these clouds contain no rhythmic structure but rather rely on a sort of all-encompassing feeling that, given the sheer intensity and volume, is both smothering and liberating at the same time.
"There's no rhythm, it's just these growing clouds of sound," Gira says, a perplexing excitement in his voice. "It's actually very invigorating to be inside of it. It's really uncomfortable to be inside it, but it's a good discomfort."
Swans are no stranger to discomfort. Gira's music may start in a quiet place but rarely stays there. (For that, look to his project during Swans' 1997-2010 layoff, Angels of Light.) Instead, Gira's songs gradually increase in volume and atmospheric pressure, upping the sonic ante until the sound becomes one with the body. Gira likens it to the spiritually uplifting movements of gospel music.
"In gospel, they pick a phrase and keep repeating and rising and rising and it qualifies the music, but it's inside the music and part of the whole experience. Everything has to fit in this cascade of sound," he says.
Gira's musical visions tend to be long, upwards of 30 minutes on some tracks, and build until all semblances of reality and time seems to cease until it "feels like it's not necessary to go on anymore." Getting to this point is dependent on his band understanding his direction with a willingness to push the sonic envelope as necessary.
"It takes real commitment to play this music," he says. "It's all about the inflections and voicings on the guitars, amplification, sounds and listening to each other. It's incredibly important . . . It's a very considered process. It's not just a wild, improvisational thing. You really have to listen and look at each other while you play to be able to achieve what we're trying to get, too."
Though it's not improvisational, Gira is unable to give it a name. He believes the music speaks for itself and that fans come to shows anticipating getting lost in the spectacle of sound.
"People know we're not a regular rock band. They're excited by what we're excited by ourselves. It's an experience," he says. "They're not coming to hear their favorite songs."
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