The Quietus talk to Swans

Michael Gira says that being in Swans used to be like “trudging up a sand hill wearing a hair shirt, being sprayed with battery acid, with a midget taunting you”. In which case, why has he resurrected the project, asks Frances Morgan

“Well, first of all, the correct term is disinter,” says a deep-pitched, sardonic and instantly recognisable voice in response to my first question about the reappearance of Swans, over a decade after their last album and tour. “Re-form… I mean, re-animate… er, re-start?” I flounder, stumbling over semantics, before I realise that the band’s originator, Michael Gira, is having something of a laugh with me.

This is something I never expected. From their formation in New York in the early 1980s with albums like Cop and Filth to dissolution in 1997 after live album Swans Are Dead, Swans’ music certainly changed and grew, the band’s sound spreading and blooming from dense No Wave assaults to sprawling, haunted songs, like ivy climbing and eventually claiming a derelict factory building. But it never let up: viewed in retrospect, Gira and his band were remarkable in being not only prolific and experimental – delving into different sounds, characters, atmospheres – but also remaining steadfastly intense, rarely sounding tired or predictable. Something big is always at stake in a Swans record, whether Gira or former co-vocalist Jarboe are roaring in anguish, hammering out a deadpan chain-gang chant, or steering a wistful melody with lyrics touching on pain, performance, sex, blood, God, power and control, damnation and redemption. But beyond the lyrics – and the stories of dysfunction and self-destructiveness within the band – it was the sound of Swans that hinted most at what that something might be. Gira has always been a brilliant arranger, adept at juxtaposing dissonance and almost sentimental melodicism; visceral intimacy and alienated machine-noise. As far back as 1987’s Children Of God, every song has its own well-defined world, every corner obsessively shaded in, whether a waterlogged country lament like ‘Our Love Lies’, Jarboe’s silvery psychedelic ballad ‘In My Garden’, or snarling, vast tour de forces ‘Sex, God, Sex’ and ‘Beautiful Child’. Later, field recordings would be added to the picture, but not necessarily in the ambient way the term suggests: taped conversations, overheard dialogues from parents, lovers, strangers, appeared in the mix, the effect both poignant and unnerving.

Read full interview – The Quietus