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Swans: New Mind

Swans: Phil Puleo, Norman Westberg, Michael Gira, Christoph Hahn, Christopher Pravdica, and Thor Harris.

Michael Gira on the revitalization of a legendary band

Punishing, menacing, melancholic, beautiful: all words that describe the aesthetic of Swans, a band that not only exemplifies but embrace such extreme descriptions.

Unlike many of their contemporaries, who took their once uncompromising sounds into far more accessible terrain, Swans have continued to challenge both their audience and themselves.

Emerging out of New York City’s No Wave scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Swans were formed by singer/songwriter Michael Gira. Unlike the guitar-based attack of fellow No Wave stalwarts Sonic Youth, Gira and Swans focused on the percussive aspect of music.

Borrowing the repetitious drone of the Velvet Underground and fusing it with intense rhythms and repeated lyrical slogans delving into themes of work, slavery, and other various forms of oppression, Swans’ music was rarely pretty. Initial albums such as Filth and Cop possessed a sort of controlled brutality and outsider art mentality that caused many to place them in the company of the Birthday Party, Einstürzende Neubauten, and the aforementioned Sonic Youth.

On the albums Greed and Holy Money, Gira expanded Swans’ sound with more diverse rhythms, even coming close to having an anti-dance floor hit with “Time Is Money (Bastard).”

Holy Money also introduced Jarboe, whose voice was a breathing counterpart placed into the often relentless maelstrom. She came to the forefront with the release of the double LP, Children of God. With recurring themes of sex and spirituality threaded throughout the record, the album introduced slow, acoustic-based numbers while the other, more percussive sound of the band had become more layered and, in turn, more slow burning.

In 1989, Swans signed to a subsidiary of MCA to release The Burning World, which delved further into the swirling acoustic songs of Children of God. Although the record is often brilliant, especially the closing “God Damn the Sun,” Gira disowned the record, described the whole experience as hellish, and formed his own label, Young God Records, shortly thereafter, issuing Love of Life and The Great Annihilator. But by the mid-1990s things were coming to a close. Aggregating various tapes and sounds dating back to the beginning of the band, Soundtracks for the Blind was another double record that both broke with the past and conjured a sound that was unique to Swans. Along with a double live record and an album sung entirely in German and translated to “The Door Is Closed,” Soundtracks for the Blind marked what was, at the time, the end for Swans.

Following Swans’ demise, Gira formed the instrumental Body Lovers/Body Haters and concurrently unveiled his singer/songwriter solo project Angels of Light. Albums like New Mother, How I Loved You, and Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home were epic works which elevated Gira’s acoustic penchant to new heights. Young God Records also introduced the world to both Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family, placing Gira in a brighter spotlight than ever before.

However, as one who never seems to want to get too comfortable, he then decided to hoist the banner of Swans once again.

The reason why is simpler than anyone would suspect.

“To be frank, boredom.” Gira saidin a recent phone interview. “I had been doing Angels of Light for 13 years and I had a handful of songs that I was contemplating orchestrating in the usual way and it just wasn’t working out. I had been thinking about wanting to make more all-consuming sounds, so I decided to reconstitute Swans.

“I did that with the songs that were initially written for Angels of Light so that first post-Angels Swans album is kind of transitional. As a group, this was the first time many of us had played together. We played each song for about 12 hours, slowly growing each song until it had a real urgency to it and felt what my vision of what Swans should be. It morphed into something much more single minded and focused. It really became its own beast and it is really satisfying.”

In 2010, Swans released My Father Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky, which was unmistakably a Swans album. However, it was with the release of 2012’s The Seer that everything truly came together. Alternately frothing at the mouth like a caged beast or weeping liked a wounded bird, The Seer is a barrage of emotions that, at over two hours, can be difficult but, like the best Swans albums, extremely rewarding.

“There’s still quiet songs on The Seer, and I guess those could be Angels of Light songs, but those are the ones written on acoustic guitar and could be sung simply that way,” Gira said.

“There are other songs where I start out with just a rhythm and a few words and bring them to the band and we just start playing. They expand with the input of everyone. I’m kind of the ringmaster or impresario and when I like something, I push them further. When I don’t like something, I nix it and push forward. Right now, we’re playing the set and we’re playing mostly new material that hasn’t been recorded and it’s grown that way. It seems kind of wonderful to me.”

There are always skeptics when somebody starts using an old band name, but such accusations don’t apply when it comes to Swans. Playing new material seems essential to Gira.

“It has elements of the past from all eras, but it’s its own thing,” Gira said. “I wouldn’t be doing it if it was a nostalgia act. I want to be a part of something that has to happen now. That’s part of the reason we don’t even do many of the songs off The Seer. We only play a bit of the title song and that itself transmutes into a couple of new songs that will be on the next album.”

Swans’ penchant for high volume in their live performances seems more of a feeling of surrender and consumption than some sort of macho statement. Gira says it’s all part of the experience.

“We try to lose our minds. We try to set up a situation where the music has its own life and it’s playing us rather than us playing it. When it’s at a particular volume level, you have the great gift of being inside something rather than watching a band perform their songs. It becomes a total experience.”

The influence of Gira and Swans carries through an array of artists including Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai, and Om. In addition, according to Gira, many younger bands, such as the current hip faves Savages, count themselves as fans, and Swans are starting to get a younger crowd as opposed to the “strictly dressed in black” following that has often been the majority at shows.

“It’s nice to hear particularly young people getting some sort of reaction from our music and that it speaks to them in some way,” Gira said. “I’ve been seeing a lot of younger people in the audience. There’s been a large increase of females in our audience as well.”

There should be a new record next year as well as some much needed vinyl reissues from the band’s past, and it seems as though Swans are at one of their greatest creative peaks. Few bands are as brave, uncompromising, and challenging as Swans. It seems to come down to one word, Gira said: “Necessity.”

“I’ve been on my own since I was 14,” he said, “and I’m pretty good at figuring out ways to survive, and finding personal freedom is what I want out of life.”

Swans perform this Friday, July 26 at Tralf Music Hall.

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