Swans founder Michael Gira isn’t afraid to let songs wander around the half-hour mark. In conversation, on the other hand, he is relentlessly punctual. Perhaps he’s been asked every conceivable question after three decades as a musician. Perhaps he views interviews as a mandatory part of the grind of running a label and working as a musician. Even setting up a conversation with Gira is remarkably business-like. You share your number, and a small avatar of Samuel Beckett pops up on Skype inviting you to chat (audio only). You get glimpses of the man but Gira doesn’t do the full confessional narrative that many expect from musicians.
Gira’s history has been repeated so many times that it’s best to summarize. Born in as Michael Rolfe Gira in Los Angeles in 1954. Ran away from home as a teenager and spent time in Europe until he was returned home. Dropped out of art school. Moved to New York in 1979, where he started Swans and later met and worked with his former partner Jarboe. Created mandatory albums like Children Of God, Cop, Soundtracks for the Blind and, most recently, last year’s triumphant The Seer. Influenced musicians including Nine Inch Nails, Godflesh, Neurosis, and even Napalm Death. Later worked on Angels Of Light project, before reforming Swans in 2010. His chronological peers are slowing down, but Gira still travels the world and creates music that younger musicians admire.
In many ways, Gira remains as mysterious and aloof as a Beckett narrator — a weary traveler trying to process a hostile cosmos that is both troubling and strangely hilarious. At the same time, Gira isn’t helpless like the narrators who try to find purpose in Waiting For Godot. Instead, he is driven to use the present moment to create.
This is an especially productive time for Gira. The Seer — an audacious Swans album that is simultaneously intimate and larger than life — was embraced by critics and listeners. The band tours more widely and successfully then perhaps at any point in their career. It’s clear Gira doesn’t view Swans or any of his music as an act of divine coincidence or inspiration. True, something special can happen on stage when but what holds it together is the desire to spend time to get things right and dig in to create something special. It’s a lunch pail view of music that is anything but ordinary. Without the work, there would be no Swans.
Gira says he would like to have more time to read and write (his collection of stories, The Consumer, now fetches more than $150 online) but doesn’t see that happening soon. Prior to an Eastern Europe tour, he spent some time talking to us.
STEREOGUM: You just turned 59 a few weeks ago. Happy birthday.
GIRA: It’s such an odd thing that people know that information. I guess it’s because of the Internet. On Facebook, people started wishing me a happy birthday.
STEREOGUM: Do you find the virtual world we live in unsettling?
GIRA: Yes, although I think Facebook is good. It’s good for people who are interested in music to receive news and see what’s going on. I don’t get too personal about it because that would give me the creeps. I think it’s pretty funny to watch certain uber-famous people posting their Twits or whatever they are called, expecting that to be interesting. When they talk about their personal lives and stuff it’s just very creepy.
STEREOGUM: They also weigh in on every event in the news.
GIRA: As if their opinion really meant something.
STEREOGUM: Does this mean we won’t see a Michael Gira Twitter page?
GIRA: No. Several fans have recommended that I twit [Laughs]. Or maybe they called me a twit. But I won’t go there. Facebook is about as far as I want to go. We developed a website a long time ago for the label [Young God Records], which is very interactive and I see a lot of value to that. I make handmade things and get to interact with fans on a very personal level. And that’s important to me, because they care about the music. Having a network like that has been very valuable and it’s allowed the music to keep going. There are moments of notoriety but in the end it’s the people who really care about the music that keep it going.
STEREOGUM: Swans can often feel huge and monolithic so I think people really appreciate that you are accessible after a show.
GIRA: I like that. What I don’t like is when someone has that nervous fan jitter and is like, “Oh, Michael it’s so good to meet you.” That makes me uncomfortable. When people come up and say the music has meant a lot to them I appreciate it. I started going out and meeting people in the mid-’90s and it was a revelation. I actually met some good friends that way.
STEREOGUM: You spent a lot of your life when you were younger traveling and on the road, including the itinerant experiences you had when you were a teenager. What’s the difference in traveling now?
GIRA: The first thing is I have something to eat. A lot of that time many years ago was just trying to get something to eat or stealing what was necessary to get food. I don’t know how I looked at the world then. It was sort of inflicted on me rather than me being a part of it. Now, I love to travel. I say that I’m always happiest when I’m leaving. But I also experience things as work. I love doing music — it’s what I was put on Earth to do — and love taking it to different people. But I don’t get to really experience much of a place now because it’s: arrive; unload the vans; do a three- or four-hour sound check; have an hour or two off; and then play a show. Then we sign stuff at the merch table, pack up, and go to the hotel. Then we leave the next morning. We don’t experience too much of where we are, even when we have a day off.
STEREOGUM: It sounds like the travel you do is more of a transactional thing. I’m thinking of the movie Fight Club where the narrator spends his life in airplanes and doesn’t remember where he is.
GIRA: It’s always a terrifying moment when you wake up at 3 in the morning and you don’t know where you are. We’ve had some pretty grueling tours. We’ve done 30 days on the road with one or two days off and those are driving days. The main thing is you are on stage for a while and hopefully something magical happens. The rest of it can be pretty tedious.
STEREOGUM: Are there things you do to keep grounded when you travel outside of the work?
GIRA: I sit in the passenger seat of the van staring out of the window watching the scenery unfold, usually sort of in a mild state of retardation and exhaustion. I can’t read because I’m both keyed up and tired. So I don’t do much.
STEREOGUM: Swans was birthed in New York in the ’80s but now you play for a global audience and global fans. Are you surprised at the longevity and reach?
GIRA: That’s a propitious development. But I never thought of Swans, except in the early days, as part of New York. We traveled quite a bit. It’s gratifying to see all the young people at the shows, that they want to experience what we have to offer. It seems people have discovered the music on the Internet over the years and have noticed the trajectory of our music. They are there for the music. For a long period of our career we had a marked antipathy from and toward the audience. Now, it’s a shared experience.
STEREOGUM: What do you think about how people discover music now? Everything is readily accessible. There is almost too much to choose from.
GIRA: Since everything is accessible everything tends to be denuded of content and equalized. In my time you had to go to a record store and search. It was a real process of discovery. But that’s just the way culture is now. I think it’s very good that the music is available. That’s a large part of the reason why our audience has grown. I don’t surf the Internet looking for music because I’m not an aficionado of that type of culture.
STEREOGUM: Do you spend a lot of time on the computer?
GIRA: Yes, for a lot of work e-mails and business. I don’t surf too much.
STEREOGUM: Is being on the computer a chore? Is it an uneasy truce?
GIRA: It’s necessary these days. It would be very nice to throw it away and just read books but that’s not the real world.
STEREOGUM: I think you would agree that The Seer received a much larger audience because it was easier to access.
GIRA: Like I said, that’s propitious. I’m very happy that a larger audience is discovering us. All I really care about is the work.
STEREOGUM: When The Seer came out, what did you think about some of the reviews that were like, “Well, this shows that the older folks can really get it done.”
GIRA: Oh, I don’t give a fuck, frankly. It’s one long stream of one record after another. I’ve been involved with this for so long. But I suppose I am aging. I try to deny it. I do my best. I don’t feel particularly infirm or senile.
STEREOGUM: On the flipside, there were a lot of people who said this is the best work you’ve ever done.
GIRA: [Laughs]. I have no way to qualify that. I can’t stand it. I can’t listen to the thing. Once I’m done grappling with a project and writing it and working with the band and slowly developing the songs, then touring, then changing the arrangements every night, then changing it again and overdubbing it … by the time I’m done with that I don’t want to hear the fucking thing again. I don’t feel a sense of elation. It’s more like running out of money and time and giving up and moving on to something else.
STEREOGUM: Is there always a frustration with your finished work?
GIRA: There’s not frustration. It’s just dead matter. You’ve wrung out as much blood as possible. That’s one of the reason the songs change arrangements by the time we get to the tour. It would be silly to just do the songs right from the album. I always think of songs as a work in process. They are never finished. I’m always more interested in the next thing. Right now our set is ninety percent new material and one song from The Seer. Moving forward is what interests me.
STEREOGUM: That’s almost like a blues idiom, looking at music as something living rather than something set. It honors the audience to give them something different than they’ve ever heard.
GIRA: For us it’s always important to be in the moment, right on the precipice and ready to fail spectacularly or reach something that neither us nor the audience expected.
STEREOGUM: How do you choose musicians to work with at this stage of your career?
GIRA: Largely by their personalities and who they are. Musical acumen is, of course, desirable. I spend a lot of time with them and I want their input to a large extent. I’m the ringmaster, impresario, and head clown, but I want their input. We’ll start working and they will do something terrible and I will say no or they’ll do something wonderful I want to pursue. It’s good to have people pushing and moving with the music rather than reciting a part in my head. I choose them based on their ability to bring something fresh to the sound and, of course, who they are as people.
STEREOGUM: Do you hire people who don’t know your catalog?
GIRA: For the recordings, sure. I get people who play certain instruments who aren’t up on the sound. I also just get people I like. A wonderful guy I work with in the studio is Bill Reiflin. When the last record was about three-quarters of the way done I just had him show up at the studio. I listen to the music and then decide what he is going to play because he plays everything, basically. We just decide on the spot what the song needs and he does it with his force of personality, and it usually lifts the music. He brings things up to another level.
STEREOGUM: Are you working on a follow-up to The Seer?
GIRA: It’s developing live. We ultimately intend to record some of this stuff. We just haven’t thought about it because we’ve been touring so much. We’re going to let it grow and develop live for a while and when it seems right we’ll go for it. I’ll continue to strangle it in the studio until it reaches some kind of stage of submission.
STEREOGUM: You live in upstate New York where you also record. When you aren’t writing what is life like there?
GIRA: Usually there’s a lot of work with the record label and the band. I have two young children and they don’t live with me but I see them quite often. It’s just quotidian daily things like everyone else.
STEREOGUM: I’m trying to get a picture of the house outside of the band videos … is there a farm?
GIRA: [Laughs]. Well, there’s lots of mold growing around here but I don’t know if that’s farming. There are some rocks and trees but no, there’s no farm.
STEREOGUM: I liked your book The Consumer. What have you been reading?
GIRA: I’ve been reading a book called Iron Curtain about the Stalinization of Eastern Europe after the second World War. I find myself reading about World War II and Hitler and Stalin a lot. I’m also reading a book about the great liberator of the slaves in Haiti by Madison Smartt Bell. It’s called All Souls Rising. Have you read it?
STEREOGUM: Was he nominated for a National Book Award for it?
GIRA: Yes. I find Haiti fascinating and tragic. Toussaint Louverture was a former slave and helped kick the fucking French out [of Haiti]. But he died in a French prison.
STEREOGUM: Do you still get physical copies of books?
GIRA: I can’t read a Kindle — it seems so strange and disembodied to me. It doesn’t interest me.
STEREOGUM: I imagine there are fewer actual physical bookstores when you do tour.
GIRA: Yes, but also the last thing you want to do is acquire more weight.
STEREOGUM: Would you say there are any misconceptions about you floating around ?
GIRA: Well, I don’t consider myself a public person. I worked too hard for too many years with varying degrees of success. I’m just someone who does their work. It doesn’t mean anything to me to be noted or have some measure of fame. It means nothing. I’d rather talk to a carpenter than a music journalist, frankly. I don’t know about the misconceptions about me. Maybe they are all true?
STEREOGUM: When did you start wearing the cowboy hat?
GIRA: [Laughs]. In 1985. Jarboe’s father was a former FBI agent. I saw this wonderful hat and it was his FBI hat and I started wearing it. But I’ve always worn hats.
STEREOGUM: It’s kind of like Indiana Jones in that the hat makes the man.
GIRA: Well, there’s a lower part that might also make the man.