For Swans leader Michael Gira the act of making music is the act of perpetual reinvention. After The Seer, Gira and his band and several new collaborators return with the two-hour record To Be Kind. The project was partially funded through a crowdfunding venture: Supporters received everything from signed records and posters to — for real — a tribute in song from Gira. But the result feels nothing like the product of crowd mentality: it has Gira’s inimitable stamp and continued sonic quest interwoven through every moment. Gira connected with us to discuss the new album and why he’ll never play a song the same way.
STEREOGUM: As I prepared for the interview it occurred to me that I think I’m credited as an executive producer on this album.
GIRA: Well, thank you! I hope you are credited appropriately. I do what I need to do to survive and make music. I actually started these Kickstarter type things around 2000 with Angels Of Light to fund recordings that were more expensive than our budget would allow from record sales. It’s been a way to involve people who truly care about the music and thank them and also have them involved in the production. To be honest, 15 years ago record sales were enough to support projects, particularly the range Swans has reached in terms of public awareness. I would prefer that, but this is how it is. It’s about ten times more work for about a tenth of the money.
STEREOGUM: You’ve been doing this a lot longer and I’d argue a lot better than most. There’s an intimacy and care that you put into what you send fans.
GIRA: I like that aspect of it. Swans is pretty time consuming now and the last one was a leap to get through. But I’ve always been happy to sign things and do special things for people and meet them after shows. The fundraisers are just the new way things are. I can’t say I wouldn’t prefer a little more free time.
STEREOGUM: How do you do these things right when you are putting out an album?
GIRA: How do you mean “do it right”? The album they get?
STEREOGUM: Well, how do you put together something fans will appreciate rather than coming across like you are just asking for money for an advance copy of a CD?
GIRA: I believe they need more than that. I sign everything that goes out from the website. [This time] they got a drawing and they get to come to a show. Did you sign up for the tier where you got a personal song?
STEREOGUM: That’s a little bit past my financial bracket.
GIRA: (Laughs). That’s ok. Yeah, I did these personal songs for people. I think you need to give people things that involve your personality and who you are — something of value — for their money. We don’t deserve this de facto.
STEREOGUM: What kind of songs did people ask you to sing?
GIRA: Well, I facetiously said I would sing songs praising your ancestors and descendants. And some people wrote the names of their ancestors! (laughs). So I worked them in. It was fun to do. The songs were kind of jocular so hopefully people took them the right way. They weren’t “Gates Of Eden.” The responses were good. I don’t know what the next stage is: come to their apartment, sit in their lap and whisper a song into their ear? (laughs)
STEREOGUM: I’ve heard you mention that the songs on To Be Kind were played in early form when you toured The Seer. How do you take the fragments and put them together into cohesive music?
GIRA: You just use aesthetic judgment. Let me look at the list of songs because I put the record out of my mind unless I need to. Certain songs like “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” had the same shape as when we stopped touring for the last cycle. We pretty much recorded it live and everything else was orchestration. Other songs like “Just a Little Boy” were also played live but they were much harder versions. When we got in the studio I thought it sounded puerile. So we played it soft and quiet and it made all the difference. I don’t look at the studio versions as being the definitive versions — they are just one version. These songs, most of them, existed as something I sang on acoustic guitar first. Or we start playing it live and by the end of the tour cycle it’s completely different. The record is another version and playing it live is another version. Things are always very fluid.
Usually [the songs] metastasize and grow. I’ll hear something and encourage it to grow. Or if I can’t hear it because we’re playing we’ll do it the next day in sound check and it will change subsequently. It gets boring to play the same thing all the time. I’d rather use the music as a means to get something bigger than all of us happening.
STEREOGUM: Does your audience have the expectation of getting something different each night?
GIRA: I think so. In the early iteration of this version of Swans people were calling out for oldies and that was quickly kyboshed. It became pretty obvious that we’re in search of something new and present and current.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned before that you were reading Madison Smartt Bell’s books on Haiti — did those influence “Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture?”
GIRA: Yes. Oh, you’re the guy! The book I was reading was a biography — not All Soul’s Rising. Although that was good. You should read it. Haiti is just a fulcrum for everything horrible and good. It has this intense magical belief which is pretty amazing. And it’s been the subject of exploitation and violence since the beginning. But it was also the site of the first successful slave revolt. That slave revolt resulted in Napoleon needing money very badly and consenting to the Louisiana Purchase which changed the course of modern history. It’s a terrible place that capitalist pigs have exploited into ruin. And Haitians, of course, have exploited each other like all humans.
STEREOGUM: Have you visited?
GIRA: I don’t have time for anything. Right now it would be pretty disconcerting. It’s total environmental degradation and ubiquitous poverty.
STEREOGUM: I have a friend who spent time doing work there that even when something seems fixed hundreds of other things are going wrong.
GIRA: Maybe that’s just the forefront and we’re all headed there.
STEREOGUM: Do you think your listeners will seek out books like this if they are mentioned?
GIRA: I would hope so. Frankly, [the song] grew out of playing music and needing some fucking words. I started screaming “Toussaint!” and I came up with words that fit the phenomenon. It’s a very odd way to make music and not how I work usually, but it’s how we’re working more now. We’ll have these pieces or atmospheres and I’ll start screaming and it will eventually become a finished piece rather than writing something on acoustic. We’re going to work on tour that way. I have some acoustic grooves and no words and we’ll just start growing them.
STEREOGUM: You have a number of special guests on this record — how did you select them?
GIRA: Chance and intuition. I knew this record would have a lot of female voices. St. Vincent came up because John Congleton has been her co-producer since her first record and apparently she was a fan. She has a great voice she came and was wonderful to work with. I have pretty specific ideas of what I want [the guests] to do. Their musicianship is, of course crucial. Little Annie has a weathered and human voice. The singer on “A Little God In My Hands” and “She Love Us” is Jennifer Church, my fiancé.
STEREOGUM: What in the human voice do you find endearing?
GIRA: As an abstract question? That’s something for an aesthetician. I just respond intuitively. Two of my favorites are Howlin’ Wolf and Nina Simone. Nina is a word class diva and embodies song. Howlin’ Wolf is just a source of joy to me… the range! He was a big fan of Jimmie Rodgers the cowboy yodeler and grafted a version of a yodel onto his songs. He starts a phrase in a deep guttural moan and goes up to this “woo.” It’s like opera singing. It’s pretty tremendous. I think in his early Sun recordings he played guitar but he stopped later… his hands were like shovels. He was a huge guy.
STEREOGUM: Do you bristle with the expectation in our culture that songs not be an experience but a package, like walking into Old Navy?
GIRA: Yeah, it’s repulsive. Using technology, a lot of bands can play their music and it sounds just like the record which is really disgusting. I’m not interested in anything ever being finished. I just want the music to be a vehicle. My task is now to choose the songs from the record that we can invest with something urgent and new. It’s a bit of a struggle. I definitely don’t want to be repeating ourselves.
STEREOGUM: How do you decide what you finally take out on the road and do you amend it?
GIRA: Things get solidified early in the tour. But it’s just what works in the moment. I started to feel awkward playing “Coward” on the last cycle. It felt very closed and not genuine. I put myself into it completely but it felt odd.
STEREOGUM: What do you think about the staggering number of formats you have to put the record out on? What happened to the USB stick?
GIRA: Well, the USB stick made no financial sense because people get a download card when they get vinyl and CDs already can go to digital. I would have loved to have done it because you can listen to it from beginning to end. A friend bought me a Jack White Paramount records box set. It’s a ridiculous suitcase size thing. And there’s an amazing USB stick. It’s brass and it looks like an old subway covering. It’s very heavy and big. It would be nice to do it but I don’t have the financial leeway.
STEREOGUM: Some people will send you candles. Killing Joke sent cigar wrappers.
GIRA: Well, I just try to make good art for people.
To Be Kind is out 5/13 via Young God.
Swans tour dates:
05/14 – Washington DC @ Black Cat Mainstage 05/15 – Philadelphia PA @ Union Transfer 05/17 – Boston MA @ Royale Nightclub 05/18 – New York NY @ Bowery Ballroom 05/19 – Brooklyn NY @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
06/17 – Quebec QC @ Le Cercle
06/18 – Montreal QC @ Theatre National
06/20 – Toronto ON @ Yonge-Dundas Square Stage- MNW Festival
06/21 – Detroit MI @ St Andrews Hall
06/22 – Chicago IL @ Lincoln Hall
06/24 – St Louis MO @ The Ready Room
06/26 – Dallas TX @ Trees
06/27 – Austin TX @ Mohawk Austin
06/28 – Houston TX @ Fitzgerald’s Upstairs
06/30 – Nashville TN @ Exit / In
07/01 – Charlotte NC @ Neighborhood Theatre
07/02 – Louisville KY @ The New Vintage
07/03 – Pittsburgh PA @ Rex Theater
07/05 – Buffalo NY @ Tralf Music Hall
07/06 – New Haven CT @ Toad’s Place