Interview: Michael Gira of Swans

Courtesy of the excellent folks at Nuclear Blast, we had the privilege of talking to Michael Gira about his new Swans album, “Leaving Meaning”. Yes, it’s coming. It’s real. We’ve heard it, and we love it.

Michael Gira is the singular visionary behind the bands Swans and Angels of Light, and has created over 20 studio albums, beginning with the iconic “Filth” in 1982. He was recently the focus of Marco Porsia’s excellent 2019 documentary “Where Does a Body End?”, charting his relentless drive to make music. His influence in the world of challenging music is incalculable, and here’s what he had to say.

SR: I’ve been a fan for over 20 years now and it’s great to hear some of the old sounds coming back into your new work.

MG: You talking about Amnesia?

SR: Yeah, I mean I’ve been thrilled with every direction you’ve taken so far but every every now and then… hearing a little bit of the old stuff come through is always a pleasure.

MG: Good! Obviously, on that song it’s only the words that carry through. I don’t really quite know why I chose to do that. I just thought the words were good and I was playing something on guitar so I used them.

SR: It works really well. I was really impressed by it. It’s one of the standout songs of the of the album because of the drama of the arrangement.

MG: Yeah, that arrangement, it doesn’t really correlate It but the initial impetus for that arrangement was inspired by my memory – I haven’t listened to it in years – but my memory of the Neil Young song “A Man Needs a Maid”, with the orchestration by Jack Nitzche.

SR: Was that the artist that you were involved with , I recall everyone being blindfolded with…

MG: No…

SR: Was that a different Nitsch? (laughs)

MG: That was Herman Nitsch. (laughs) Jack Nitzche, that’s a ’60s producer who is – I forget who else he did but he’s kind of that over-the-top bombastic kind of ’60s orchestral production.

SR: So along the lines of Phil Spector?

MG:  Yeah.

SR: Maybe Wally Stott?

MG: But maybe with more dynamics, you know, but he was a renowned arranger.

SR: I was about to say one of the things I’ll miss that you probably won’t be able to do now is a collaboration with Scott Walker.

MG: (laughs) That would be pretty intimidating. But yeah, I definitely couldn’t if I wanted to!

SR: It’s a bit of a shame. One of the absolute standouts I thought was “The Nub”, which is I think probably the witchiest thing you’ve ever recorded. One of the things I was wondering is when you when you write your songs, do you have a sort of conscious visual imagery that you use to guide the song or does it just naturally flow from somewhere?

MG: As it happens, with that song I had a particular visual image. It happened that I was writing this… I was playing this guitar part and, as is usually the case, I couldn’t come up with any fucking words and for some reason I thought of Baby Dee, who is a great cabaret kind of performer, and this image appeared in my mind of Dee in diapers floating in space and sucking on the stars for milk. And so the song just wrote itself and then I contacted her and she was delighted with the imagery and she agreed to sing it. So I flew her to Berlin where we were recording and she sang it. Being the consummate professional she did it in one take of course. But yeah, that’s the gestation of that song.

SR: It’s very impressive. Of your latest albums, this one almost seems to be the most pagan-sounding, with the most chants and ritualistic imagery.

MG: By pagan do you mean like naked people dancing around a fire?

SR: (laughs) Well, yeah, something like that. So was some of sound you revisiting your Angels of Light work or did it just come out of returning to some of the older musicians?
MG: Well, no, I didn’t really think about it in terms of Angels of Light at all, or Swans. I just I had a collection of songs and I wanted to orchestrate them so I thought of the people that I know around the world whose music I admire and whose company I enjoy, so I asked them to participate, and, you know, I guided the process but there’s a lot of input from the other musicians, and they should get all due credit of course, so that’s how the songs turned out.

SR: Yeah, I could definitely hear a lot of the the Necks’ influence.

MG: The Necks, well it’s not just influence. I sent them versions of the songs that I recorded just at home, I think. It was just my acoustic guitar and voice and asked them to play to those songs. And that’s what they did and I since I know their music quite well, I had I guess a visual image of how it might sound, and they surpassed my expectations. So they just played to the songs and then we did some further orchestration to their performances.

SR: In terms of recreating the sound live, do you think that’s going to be a challenge or have you done your usual thing and started working on new material already?

MG: I don’t think there ever has been any desire to recreate a record live so I have no interest in that. We’re going to play – the group that I’ve gathered to perform live we’re going to play many of the songs from the new album, but hopefully I will have written a couple of new things by then and it will be the sound of that group of people that will be performing, and I hope to leave behind the kind of sound that’s on the record and move into something else.

SR: I really enjoyed the biopic that you did, “Where Does a Body End?”. Have you watched it yourself yet?

MG: Oh! The movie. Yeah. I’m familiar with it. Yeah, I think it’s okay. I mean, I don’t know what to say about it. It makes me really uncomfortable. There’s a book too. I don’t know. I don’t like talking about myself very much and seeing a whole movie or reading a book that’s all about me just makes me feel really, uh, what’s the word? Nauseous. (laughs)

SR: One of the things I was interested in – and something I cannot find any information on – you did a soundtrack for a movie a long time ago called “Two Small Bodies”.

MG: Yes!

SR: I can’t find a copy anywhere and I’ve no idea what the soundtrack actually entailed. There doesn’t seem to be any documentation on it anywhere.

MG: Well, actually there’s some pieces on the album “The Great Annihilator” that were extracted from that movie. There’s a piece on that record called “Warm”, which is an instrumental that was in that movie and there’s some other incidental tracks too, and I also use some of it on the record “Soundtracks for the Blind”. I don’t know why you can’t find it. But that was a movie by an old friend – an old New York friend – Beth B. She’s a great person.

SR: Would you like to try more film scores?

MG: Oh, I was I was just asked that question by the previous interviewer. Indeed. Yes. I definitely would. It would have to be the right film. There’s a great filmmaker right now whose movies I’ve really been enjoying. I don’t know if I’m pronouncing this correctly, but I think it’s Nicolas Winding Refn.

And well yeah, it would be kind of a dream come true to score something by him. But he has a really great soundtrack person. Last name is Martinez. And remember his first name this one.

SR: Cliff Martinez.

MG: Yeah, it’s really great music. He did this series for television which is a 13 hour long series, and I watched the whole thing in I think two sittings and it’s almost comical it’s so slow. You think it’s a self-parody, but once you kind of give up to his pacing, it’s just beautiful. It’s a true kind of high-level act of cinema and I was just transported by it and think he’s fantastic. It’s great to see auteurs, you know, people that really have a vision and another filmmaker I admire is Lars von Trier. I haven’t enjoyed all of his movies, but I think he’s quite a visionary as well.

SR: I recall you wrote Kirsten Supine based on “Melancholia”.

MG: Yeah. Well there’s that image of her. Lying supine on a sort of mossy bank, I believe, next to a bubbling brook. Just beautiful and it was very much inspired, I’m sure, by Pre-Raphaelite paintings. He even has in that movie – as they’re in an office or something – there’s books on the shelf and some of them are Pre-Raphaelite books, so I’m sure that that was intentional, but I just thought it was a very kind of magical mysterious image and it inspired me to write that song.

SR: I remember you were very inspired – I can’t remember the name of the actual piece – by that piece by Marcel Duchamp where you look through a hole and it looks into a little sort of diorama with a reclining woman.

MG: Yeah that’s called as “Étant donnés”. That’s the piece that he worked on for the last, I don’t know, I think it was twenty years of his life when he was reputed to have given up art and he was actually secretly working on this really complicated piece, which I just saw recently in Philadelphia for the first time in person and it’s truly amazing. Apparently, it’s rife with all kinds of metaphysical references, which is beyond me of course, but It’s really magical and a beautiful piece and I wrote a song on Angels of Light’s first record thinking about it. I think, oh yeah, it’s called “The Garden Hides the Jewel”. I’ve written a lot of songs based on paintings or books and I just write whatever comes to mind.

SR: And who are you following anybody musically new at the moment or you sort of dedicated to your own craft? 

MG: Yeah, I’m pretty deficient in that regard. I don’t really listen to much music, let alone contemporary music these days. Of course we mentioned The Necks. I’m always anxious has to hear their new work. Ben Frost who’s on the record? I’m always happy to hear his music. I guess as it happens to people that are on my record, I like their music. Anna von Hasuswolff I think is a really tremendous artist and so I like her work

SR: Speaking of Refn, one of the movies I thought really recalled your work was The Neon Demon, which reminded me a hell of a lot of your song “Celebrity Lifestyle”.

MG: Oh, really?

SR: I don’t know if you’ve seen it.

MG: But that was kind of one of his worst films, wasn’t it?

SR: I think people are very divided on it.

MG: Maybe I’ll watch it again, because when I watched it, I wasn’t really familiar with his work and I didn’t really like it, and now, having watched most of it, I think, maybe I’ll go back to that and see what I think of it.

SR: So are you moving on to touring again now?

MG: Well I’m, right now, in Moscow and I we just did – Norman Westberg and I just did two shows in Russia. We played in St. Petersburg and Moscow. I’m in the midst of a solo tour where I play my songs on acoustic guitar and Norman plays before me, he plays uh, he loops his guitar and plays over and it’s kind of a great active ambient experience, and so we’re touring for the next two and a half weeks

SR: So you two are still really good friends.

MG: Oh, yeah! I mean the dissolution of the last group was entirely without acrimony at all. It was just that we kind of had reached an apogee which is always inevitably followed by a nadir and we didn’t want to go to the nadir. So we just disbanded because you know, we had kind wrung the rag dry, you know as far as us all working together as collaborators?


SR: Your latest album definitely sounds like a very clean break in terms of sound compared to the the last three albums.

MG: Wait, I mean, you know all the people from the previous configuration of Swans contribute to it, but it just wasn’t “a band”. I didn’t write a song and then take it to “a band” who had a sound and a way of performing, instead, I gathered people who I thought were appropriate for the song in particular. So it was a different way of working.

SR: Which brings me to your first rap song, “Phantom Limb”. (laughs)

MG: That’s so funny you thought that. That song in its earlier form was just acoustic guitar and was much different. It was just a struggle to make and finally ended up doing what I did on that record, and I don’t know if it works. It’s one of those songs, I’ll probably find its center after performing it live for three months, you know, but that arrangement is as it is and it’s humorous, that you would say rap because Christoph (Hahn) said that too and I was appalled. It has nothing to do with me. (laughs)

SR: (laughs) It reminded me of your spoken word recordings like The Egg and The Somniloquist.

MG: Oh, I see. But anyway it is what it is. I think it’s… maybe it’s successful. I don’t know. That’s how it ended up.

SR: It reminds me of some of the moments from World of Skin

MG: Oh that’s interesting. I don’t even remember most of that material. but I suppose that’s inevitable being as I’m the artist.

Get ‘Leaving Meaning’ Here