Two years ago, I interviewed Michael Gira about The Seer, the second album by Swans following their reformation in 2010. A few months ago, the band released another record, To Be Kind, one of their best in the 30+ years since their formation.
For those unfamiliar, Swans emerged in the early 80s from art and music scene of lower Manhattan. Joy Division, Throbbing Gristle, and Sonic Youth were early stylistic touchstones, but even among those contemporaries Swans stood out as especially uncompromising. Their music gradually evolved to incorporate elements of folk, psychedelic rock and ambient soundscapes, but the expansive, grandiose nature of the music has remained constant.
Truth be told, I was apprehensive going into the interview. Gira has a reputation for being prickly in the face of ill formed interview questions. And I was inexperienced, something which he seemed to pick up on. “So do you do this often?” he asked me pointedly near the end of our conversation.
Immediately apparent was the seriousness with which Gira approaches music making, but also the care he felt towards his bandmates as well as his sense of humor, which belies the one-dimensional image of Swans being a dour band helmed by dour old men. He spoke about collaborating with Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O., saying, “I was singing and it just seemed like I was in the way, that my voice was some kind of troll trying to be gentle to someone. I’m not Nick Drake. Let’s put it that way.”
By Gira’s own account, Swans are more popular now than they’ve ever been. This may seem odd in a culture so obsessed with celebrity and instant gratification. But what sets them apart and what, I think, lies at the heart of their appeal is the obvious devotion put into every second of their music. For anyone interested in creating on their own terms, whether that be art, music, or literature, their late career renaissance is something to admire.
You can read more of my interview with Gira here.