When Swans—Michael Gira's legendary avant rock project that helped shape New York City's post-punk scene in the 1980s—began to tour again for the first time since their break-up almost 15 years prior, there were some who assumed the band was embarking on a nostalgia-fueled cash grab. "I guess they anticipated a kind of reunion tour, which we thankfully didn't provide," Gira says in a recent telephone interview with City Weekly.
Instead, the band—featuring most of its longtime members except keyboardist/vocalist Jarboe—began what would arguably become its most artistically and commercially significant output to date. The stretch of albums that Swans released beginning with 2010's My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky was a high point that Gira's perpetual exercise in viscerally transcendent experimentation had not quite reached until he decided to give the band another go.
That period of rebirth is coming to an end—at least for this iteration of the band. Gira says The Glowing Man (Young God/Mute), released in June, is the last album to be recorded by their current lineup. "I didn't want to end up having to start imitating ourselves," he says. Swans will continue to exist in whatever form he reimagines it, but what the band will look or sound like is anyone's guess.
So calling it a swan song (sorry) might not be accurate, but The Glowing Man, a two-hour brain bender that demands as much from your ears as it rewards them, does sound like a farewell of sorts. Or maybe a discarding. In the song "People Like Us," Gira sings: "We're calling for more/ 'cause nothing is left/ The words are all gone/ There's more to be said." His well-aged baritone slithers through the song, which is fitting. Like a snake, he seems compelled by nature to shed his skin every now and then if he hopes to survive.
Gira formed the group in 1982 during New York's no-wave movement, the same scene that would spawn Sonic Youth (that band's Thurston Moore played second bass briefly in Swans' earliest iteration). Their early albums consisted of loud, repetitive riffs played at a punishing volume as Gira yelped about dread and spiritual torment. Their live shows gained a similar reputation as crushingly loud, physically taxing experiences. Even so, there was a certain gracefulness to their music, a sense that it aimed to transcend mere decibel levels.
Swans would spend the next 15 years evolving its sound at an often jaw-dropping pace, shifting from the acoustic digressions in 1987's Children of God, to the proto-industrial Soundtracks for the Blind from 1997. By the time the band broke up after Soundtracks' release, they had left behind an astonishing body of work that would continue to be analyzed and rediscovered by rock fans for years to come.
Gira, who now finds himself in the unique position of disbanding the group for a second time, would be forgiven for gazing backward. He insists he doesn't have time for it. "That's just silly," the 62-year-old says. "Life's short. I want to make new work."
While the music he's made over the years continues to redefine itself, his basic approach seems to stay about the same. He has often said that he's never written a finished song. In other words, Gira sees his music as something that can continue to mutate even after it's been recorded. For Swans, the barrier that some artists put between a recorded album and a live performance is fluid. They will often let songs develop on stage, seeing what works and what doesn't until there's enough to take into a studio. But the song that ends up on an album doesn't stop growing just because it's been put to tape. "Necessarily," Gira says, "we start tearing the thing apart again to try to stay in the moment, and keep it urgent."
He admits it can be an exhausting way to perform, but when it works, it's what he lives for: "I want the music to lift us up, take us somewhere. It's not really my job to say where that's going to be, but when it's working, it's utterly ecstatic to me." He says there are even a few songs that have been fleshed out on the road that will likely never see a studio—at least not with this current group. "It's a way of keeping in mind that what's happening at the moment is the most important."
The only constant in Gira's career has been that perpetual motion brought on by an insatiable itch for reinterpretation—whether of a song or of the group itself. "I could look at the whole career," he says, "as a kind of continual stabbing at the dark, trying to find some sort of way forward."