It wasn't the biggest news in the entertainment world, but to a certain segment of the population it was a big deal when, in 2010, Michael Gira announced Swans would reform. The band had gradually built a sizable cult following as it evolved from its brutal, industrial-leaning origins in New York's early-'80s No Wave scene—where Gira would often go out of his way to make audiences uncomfortable—to a more somber, atmospheric unit concerned with songcraft. Following a somewhat acrimonious ending in the late 1990s, the bandleader had made it clear in interviews (and with the title of the band's final album, Swans Are Dead) that fans should not be optimistic about hearing any new music from the group.
But after 10 years of fronting a new project, Angels of Light, Gira decided to assemble some of his favorite sidemen and resurrect the Swans name. Since former members of Swans appeared on Angels recordings, and some Angels affiliates are now in Swans, one might wonder what distinguishes the two groups in Gira's mind.
"Well, for one thing, with Swans, words aren't as crucial," he explains via Skype while on a tour stop in Katowice, Poland. "Which is good, because words don't come as easy as they once did. Swans' lyrics are more like a directive along the way."
Fitting, then, that the band opened its 2010 album, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, as well as shows on its ensuing tour, with a song titled "No Words/No Thoughts." This taciturn tendency is even more apparent on Swans' new record, The Seer. Much of its two-hour running time is taken up by lengthy instrumentals, and when lyrics do appear they often take the form of repetitious phrases that have a mantra-like quality. The sustained intensity of the instrumental passages is primarily a result of performing new songs live, Gira explains, where they would get longer and longer as touring stretched on.
No one would ever accuse Gira of having a lax work ethic (his discography adds up to nearly 40 albums, and he has run the Young God record label for many years), but he seems especially energized by the new incarnation of Swans, and they have toured relentlessly. He credits this enthusiasm in large part with the group of men playing alongside him.
"These guys are absolutely committed to the sound. This is the best band in terms of morale I ever had with Swans," he explains.
Gira was keen to capture the sound of this band in the studio while they still had momentum from the road; in the press release for The Seer, Gira pronounces the album "the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I've ever made, been involved in or imagined."
Guest musicians on the album include one-time Gira protégés Akron/Family, Grasshopper from Mercury Rev, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low, and Yeah Yeah Yeah's Karen O. (Former Swans/Angel stalwart and ex-Knoxvillian Larry Mullins is notably absent. Asking Gira about the percussionist leads to him mentioning Mullins' East Tennessee roots, and eventually into a discussion of Cormac McCarthy and Suttree. Not surprisingly, Gira is a fan.)
The most surprising guest, however, is Jarboe, Gira's former band/domestic mate, who adds backing vocals to two songs.
"It was great to have Jarboe along, albeit in a limited way," Gira says, though he admits there are no immediate plans for her to rejoin the group. "It was sort of baby steps, to see what happens."
The long list of guests doesn't distract from the well-defined sound of the group, however. You're unlikely to even place some of the contributors on the first few listens, and no artist really rises above the collective din of the music, with the exception of Karen O's disarmingly gentle vocal on "Song for a Warrior."
As powerful as their latest albums are, Swans' natural habitat seems to be the stage, and their live shows can be epic affairs, with sets running to two hours and reaching an impressively punishing volume. His face turning red while veins pop out, or his whole body swaying violently back and forth while the band hammers away behind him, Gira comes across as more committed to music than most performers half his age. (He's 57.) You might worry about him if he didn't appear so ecstatic up there, if he didn't seem to absolutely need to be doing this.
With more press and positive reviews than they've ever received, Swans are often playing to larger audiences than they did during their initial run, which is somewhat odd considering they're creating some of the most challenging music of their career. This band is still obviously not for everyone, though, and when asked what he makes of all this attention, and if multiple half-hour album cuts and endurance-test live shows might not be something of a turn-off to a potential broader audience, Gira has a frank answer.
"F--k that shit," he says. "I don't care. I'm conscious of my mortality and don't want to waste my limited time on Earth. I want to try my best to make something magical. If people care and want to come along, that's great. This is for them."