Where Swans’ Michael Gira Got His Caustic Intensity
Swans

Swans photo courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media.

Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.

The long-running New York City band Swans‘ 12th studio album, The Seer, came out this week; unsurprisingly, it’s very long, very slow, and extremely intense. Everything about the band Michael Gira has been leading since 1982 centers on the idea of unbearably powerful experience. That means, among other things, that their songs often go on for an incredibly long time. The title track of The Seer is over half an hour by itself; here’s 18 minutes’ worth of a live performance of it from last year.

That enormous sound is Gira’s brainchild, and it’s not much like anything else in music at the moment — but it didn’t come out of a vacuum. Gira tends to talk about literature more than music when he discusses his inspirations, but one musical name in particular tends to come up in his interviews: “I always go back to Howlin’ Wolf,” he’s said. “His singing to me is astounding, wonderful.” He’s right — check out the intensity of this 1966 performance of “How Many More Years,” with a remarkable supporting role played by a $20 bill.

You can hear a little of that voice — stripped of all melody and anything that resembles a hook — in the way Gira sings early Swans songs like the ferociously grim “A Screw (Holy Money),” seen here in a live performance from the mid-’80s. (You can almost imagine Gira waving that $20 bill, too.)

In the late ’80s, Swans had a brief, uncomfortable relationship with a major label, which resulted in a cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” that was an actual college-radio hit. Gira is reportedly not crazy about it, but there is a video for it.

Arguably, Joy Division‘s stage presence — especially Ian Curtis‘s — is something of an antecedent for Gira’s caustic intensity, as you can see in the 1979 live performance of “Transmission” and “She’s Lost Control” below.

In Swans’ early years, they were one of a group of New York City bands that were much more interested in power and sound than in tunes; another, fairly tightly linked one was Sonic Youth, whose career for their first five or six years involved a lot of the same venues and record-store bins. Sonic Youth‘s Thurston Moore played bass in a few early Swans shows, and Sonic Youth’s “The World Looks Red” (from their 1983 album Confusion Is Sex) has lyrics by Gira. (His explanation: “Thurston saw [the words] sitting on my desk & asked if he could use them. Since I couldn’t see myself singing those words, I said yes.”)

The perceived connection between the two bands during that era was significant enough that, in 1987, a one-off project called “Swanic Youth” released a single with parodies of both of them. The B-side, “Swan Jovi,” is supposedly Stephen Dansinger of Pianosaurus performing Bon Jovi‘s “You Give Love a Bad Name” in the style of that era’s Swans.

It’s pretty funny, but as bleak as Swans were in those days, they weren’t totally humorless themselves: The same year, they filmed a weirdly goofy video of “New Mind,” with Gira bellowing “The sex in your soul will damn you to hell!” into a flashlight rather than a microphone.

The 2012 lineup of Swans reflects the history of its other members, too. One of the band’s percussionists these days is Phil Puleo, who played drums (and metal objects) in the late ’80s and early ’90s in the hammering, guitarless industrial rock band Cop Shoot Cop. Here’s a 1991 live performance of “Burn Your Bridges” by CSC; it starts very quietly, but builds to a ferocious crescendo.

Swans’ other current percussionist is Thor Harris, who started playing with Michael Gira in the late ’90s in Angels of Light, Gira’s main song project during Swans’ decade-long hiatus. Harris also plays with a handful of very different bands — notably the much, much quieter Shearwater. You can see him here playing vibraphone on a subdued live-in-the-studio version of “Palo Santo” recorded for the radio station KUT in 2007.

Bill Rieflin isn’t a touring member of Swans, but he plays keyboards on the new album. He’s a multi-instrumentalist who’s played with half the musicians in the English-speaking world — he was R.E.M.‘s touring drummer for their final eight years, and has also worked with Robert Fripp, Robyn Hitchcock and Krist Novoselic. But he may be best known for the cluster of industrial bands he played with in the late ’80s and early ’90s, including Ministry, Lard, the Revolting Cocks, and Pigface, with whom he played this live version of “Suck” (featuring Trent Reznor on lead vocals).

One of the highlights of The Seer, surprisingly, is a guest appearance by someone who’s not actually in Swans. “Song for a Warrior” is four minutes long and, in a lot of ways, a familiar kind of pop song. It’s sung almost entirely by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs‘ Karen O, and makes excellent use of the haunting cracks in her voice, the same technique you can hear here, in the quieter moments of her own band’s “Maps.”

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