Evian, Cowboy Hats and (Aging) Young Gods
An interview with Swans’ Michael Gira
With his craggy face, piercing eyes and white cowboy hat, Gira looks like a forgotten portrait from Richard Avedon’s In The American West. Get him talking, though, and Gira is an amiable conversationalist, his bass-baritone voice graveled from cigars and full of directness and dry humor. The Alibi spoke with Gira by phone about Swans’ new album, as well as working with St. Vincent, the perils of peeing on tour and the best place in Burque to find a cowboy hat.
With his craggy face, piercing eyes and white cowboy hat, Gira looks like a forgotten portrait from Richard Avedon’s In The American West .
Tell me about the inspiration behind Swans’ To Be Kind.
There was no specific influence. Our work from the past does guide us to move in the direction of things implied in previous albums, to find a way to move forward. We are influenced by movies sometimes. You know Lars von Trier’s Melancholia?
Absolutely. Great movie.
The song “Kirsten Supine” was about the moment in the film where Kirsten Dunst is lying naked on a mossy hill, and the malevolent planet is shining its light down on her.
St. Vincent’s Annie Clark provided backing vocals for a lot of songs on To Be Kind. How was it to work with her?
Our record’s producer, John Congleton, is also her producer. She’d become a fan of ours after he gave her our music a couple of years ago. I like female singers. I like how their voices work with music. [Annie is] very much a journeyman. She came into the studio and sang lots of one-note tracks—deep, long, bellowing notes over and over for hours. She never complained, and she was always in perfect pitch.
“I was gonna give [St. Vincent] some tips on that whole peeing in a cup thing. I encountered that a lot when I was performing with Jarboe. We’d take an Evian bottle and cut off the top, straight across.”
Did you read St. Vincent’s Grammy acceptance letter? It’s really honest about the challenges faced by touring musicians—bed bugs, shitty motels, peeing in cups.
I was gonna give her some tips on that whole peeing in a cup thing. I encountered that a lot when I was performing with (Swans contributing member and former spouse) Jarboe. We’d take an Evian bottle and cut off the top, straight across. It’s perfect for women to pee through. We left a litter trail of those things across the country when we were touring.
Swans’ music is often described as scary, violent and even dirge-like. “Where Does a Body End?” was recently ranked as one of the 13 scariest rock songs of all time. What are your thoughts on that?
There’s one word to describe it: “stupid.” I think that you and I share enthusiasm for Melancholia; is that scary? Well, maybe ... if you’re used to watching Bad Santa. The music we’ve made over these last five years has been specifically geared toward ecstasy—an ... inside sound, a stairway to the stars.
You’ve got some festivals on your touring schedule this year, including Big Ears, Coachella and Primavera. Any acts you plan to check out?
I usually don’t see music live. Our music is not played at an insubstantial level in terms of volume, which means my ears are pretty much constantly hurting. So I try to avoid live music as much as possible.
Have you noticed any changes to your audience as a result of Swans’ new releases (My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, The Seer and To Be Kind)?
Our audience is growing. That’s a wonderful blessing, and to see young people there is even better. We put everything in our music no matter who’s there, and people seem get quite a kick out of it. This is not a comeback. I reached an impasse with Angels of Light. Swans seems more viable. The music is new, moving forward, not hearkening back. It’s very gratifying to see a large audience for us, truly and directly receiving music and getting something positive from it. Actually, I’m looking forward to coming to your town.
Oh yeah? Why’s that?
I had a job once [in New Mexico] as a surveyor’s assistant in the Four Corners area. I was hitchhiking across the country and ran out of money in Casper, Wyo. A nice woman put me up in her hotel. When she had no more work, she tried to help me find a job and contacted the surveyor’s office. I lived in a tent, went out for 12 hours a day, was flown out in a helicopter for six weeks. Putting down stakes there left an indelible mark on me. It’s a magical place.
When was it that you were out here?
Probably before you were born. [laughs]
1971 or ’72?
Fair enough. That is before I was born, and before I lived here. [laughter]
I also plan to visit a very fine establishment when I’m in your town: The Man’s Hat Shop. They’ve got a good selection of cowboy hats, and they’re very nice people.