“When I play live, I don’t know who I am,” says Michael Gira, the man behind the uncompromising rock band Swans. “I don’t even think about it.”
Swans are renowned for their cosmic, free-form live shows, which are delivered with an intensity and at a volume that are excessive and transforming.
Wednesday, Swans headline a show at the Beaumont Club. The day after that Vancouver show, while in transit to the band’s next gig, Gira (pronounced jha-RAH) talked to The Star about the band’s new album, “The Seer,” the band’s live shows and what happens when the twain meet.
Your reputation as a live band is legend. What do the studio recordings represent to you?
They don’t represent anything, really. It’s just an entirely different world. I don’t look at the two as having that much to do with each other. I mean, they can. You can capture this great rock band if you set them up in a studio and do very few overdubs. That’s great, but it’s never been my ambition.
I always kind of look at the initial performance of the initial recording as a starting point and look at the studio as another instrument and a way to make a piece of cinema out of a record.
Your latest piece of cinema is “The Seer,” a very dynamic double CD. Talk about the recording process. How did it differ from previous recordings?
I suppose it starts with the sheer diversity of the material, from quiet, more atmospheric or gentle things to cataclysmic things. There’s a lot of variety in textures and dynamics. It was quite a job sorting it all out.
What role do lyrics play in your music, so much of which is fundamentally about sonics?
It depends on the song. Some songs I write on acoustic guitar so I could sing them for you right now, like “Lunacy” or “Song for a Warrior.” In those songs lyrics are essential.
Other songs, the longer ones, like “The Seer” or “Apostate,” they’re kind of like signposts, the words are, and it’s kind of a struggle to find the right words. Because you have this kind of music that’s so vast, I guess, for lack of a better word, if you try to put narrative lyrics in, it makes the music sound smaller to me.
So you need something that, I don’t know, is usually in present tense. It has to be something I can throw myself into because it seems like if I’m telling some kind of story or painting a picture, as a performer, it feels anticlimactic to be singing of the past in those kinds of songs.
But overall, words are incredibly important to me, I’m a writer, too. In Angels of Light (a previous Gira band) lyrics were crucial. Now with Swans, it’s kind of liberating. I can hold back on the words and concentrate on performing the music and just vocalizing, really.
You opened your North American tour last night. How did the show go?
It was shambolic. We started this leg of the tour with five shows in Europe, and we had three weeks off in between. We’re still working new material into the set. About half the set is unrecorded material, and it’s still a little sketchy, but that’s the way it goes. We develop songs live, in front of people.
And the rest of the show is music from “The Seer”?
Yes, but a lot of it is revised since the album. I always want to change, to keep the music changing. You discover new things in them as you play them, and you pursue that. Some things stay the same, but they sound different live. They’re not orchestrated. And they’re played more intensely.
There are a couple of very long songs on the album, including the title track, which runs about 30 minutes. How have those evolved live?
Well, “The Seer” is probably a little longer now than it was on the record. Those songs aren’t an attempt to see how long we can make a song. You just follow the path of where it needs to go, and that’s what happens.
How long is the show?
I hope it doesn’t get much longer because I’ll probably have a heart attack. It’s about two hours with an encore that’s a short 20-minute song. It’s a workout.
But it seems to hold our interest and the audience’s, too. There’s lots of dynamics. It’s not a My Bloody Valentine show where there’s just a constant roar. There’s lots of dynamics and drama. I don’t want to sound like a music journalist, so I’ll stop myself.
Must be tough to do shows in two or three consecutive nights.
Physically it feels great, once you get used to it. The problem is my voice. I sing intensely. But last year I got through it.
When I do a solo tour, which I do a lot, it’s actually harder on my voice because that’s all about the voice. Don’t scare me. I don’t want to lose my voice.
Do you do any older Swans songs?
You mean from the olden days? We do a song called “Coward.” It’s kind of like a very fractured blues, in a way, very visceral. There’s no melody. It has been interesting for us to explore it. We’re trying to alter it as we go, not replicate what was on a record decades ago. It has been fun. We’ll see how long it lasts.
Finally, say a few words about your band.
They’re my best friends, and they’re absolutely crucial to this music. I’m the director, I guess, but they have a tremendous amount of input. These last two records would not have sounded like they did without these tremendously committed and intelligent gentlemen.
| Timothy Finn, The Star
Swans perform Wednesday night at the Beaumont Club, 4050 Pennsylvania Ave.. Xiu Xiu opens at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 and are available through Ticketmaster.com.