In its nearly 35-year history, the utterly singular band Swans has elevated American underground music to high art, appealing to fans of goth, no-wave, industrial, experimental noise, and doom metal without ever actually expressing or even properly fitting in to any of those genres. By the late ‘80s, the band’s very name became a badge for a musical chimera of brutality and grandeur that nobody else has ever quite matched, though some black metal bands like Ulver and post-metal bands like Isis have veered admirably close.
The first incarnation of the band reached its apotheosis with the utterly magnificent 1987 album Children of God (though this writer also favors the dizzyingly experimental Greed/Holy Money era of the band), on which the band’s singer, leader, and lone constant member Michael Gira cut his trademark tales of self-abasement and profound suffering with heavy doses of religious imagery. It was fucking jarring at the time—when the band that became notorious for songs like “Money is Flesh” and “Raping a Slave” made a masterpiece double LP on the opening song of which its singer bellowed PRAISE THE LORD! PRAISE GOD!, that shit turned some heads. It holds up extraordinarily well, and is justly regarded as a classic.
The band ended in 1997, when Gira formed the neo-folkish Angels of Light, members of which band ultimately re-formed Swans with Gira in 2010, releasing My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, which, though it clocked in at 45 minutes, would prove to be a short-form release for the reconstituted band, who’d go on to make three TRIPLE LPS of surpassing excellence. 2012’s The Seer and 2014’s To Be Kind are caustic, sprawling and all-consuming exercises in tension and release, built around songs of up to 30 minutes in duration crafted from hypnotically repetitive drones and post-rock crescendoes.
The third, and as it happens, final expression of this phase of the band is the new The Glowing Man, easily the equal of its mind-blowing predecessors. It’s more atmospheric than skullcrushing, and actually makes for an enjoyable background listen, but close attention to it is still as intense and emotionally taxing as any Swans output. That said, it’d be imprudent and disingenuous not to address this: The Glowing Man includes a chilling song called “When Will I Return?,” on which Gira’s wife Jennifer sings a harrowing first-person account of sexual assault. It’s a breathtaking song in multiple senses of the word, but Mr. Gira himself has recently been accused of just such an assault by Larkin Grimm, a singer whose work he’s produced. He doesn’t deny that something happened, but he characterizes the 2008 encounter as consensual. Grimm characterizes it as rape, but according to some close to her, she may have a burgeoning history of specious accusations. Both of their public statements with regard to that incident are published in this Pitchfork article.
Here’s “When Will I Return?” As stated above, the lyrics describe an assault, so proceed or don’t with that in mind.
Gira was kind enough to take time to chat with Dangerous Minds about the new album.
Dangerous Minds: I understand this is the last album from Swans as the band is currently constituted?
Michael Gira: Yes sir.
DM: What needs to change? Personnel, direction? Everything?
MG: All of it. We’ve been in this configuration for seven years, and I think it’s the most fruitful musical period of my life, it’s been wonderful. I can just see that if it were to continue, the satyr would begin eating its own corpse. So I think it’s time to change things up. I’m going to continue Swans, just not as a permanent band. I’m more inclined to have a rotating cast of members. It was like that for a long period during the ‘80s and ‘90s so I’m just going back to that mode. It’s kind of more responsibility than I’m able to deal with anymore to have a permanent band, and the band members have things they want to do in their lives as well—it’s well over 200 days a year that we’re together, and it’s a huge commitment. We just want to fly free like little birds.
DM: The Glowing Man is your third consecutive 3XLP. That’s surely unprecedented, right?
MG: I have no idea. It’s a double CD, triple album. It’s the format that works for the music. At a certain point I decided I didn’t care about figuring out a way to fit it on to a certain format—just let the music follow its path, and then figure out how to release it, and whatever that was would be how it is.
DM: The composition strategy on To Be Kind came largely from developing songs from improvisations that happened in concert. Is that the case again here?
MG: That’s one facet of how the record was made, yes. Another facet was that I’d have songs that I’d bring in to the studio on acoustic guitar, and those songs would be developed and orchestrated in the studio with the band. The songs on the record that came out of live performance were “The Cloud of Forgetting,” “The Cloud of Unknowing,” “Frankie M” and “The Glowing Man.” The rest were developed as I described.
DM: I’m curious about the connection between The Glowing Man’s “The World Looks Red/The World Looks Black” and the old Sonic Youth song “The World Looks Red,” for which you wrote the lyrics about 35 years ago. Why revisit those lyrics again after all this time?
MG: Because they were there? They were there in my head—I was playing what I thought was a pretty compelling little guitar figure, and I was utterly bereft of words for it—as I’m sometimes wont to be these days, I had no words whatsoever. I just started singing those words as place-fillers, and I though why don’t I just fucking use them? I’d recently reconnected with Thurston, so maybe he was on my mind and that’s why I thought of that song, but it felt like closing the circle.
DM: Maybe it’s because the lyrics made me mindful of Sonic Youth, but the guitar figure you’re talking about reminded me of their song “Shadow of a Doubt.” I’d wondered if there was a tribute or homage thing going on.
MG: Not at all, I just had this thing I was playing and the words came to mind. I don’t actually remember how that song goes.
DM: Who is Frankie M?
MG: He’s my banker. [laughs] No, he’s someone I know, a very troubled soul. Preternaturally intelligent, but also spectacularly fucked up. And it was a tribute to him.
DM: Is “The Glowing Man” anyone in particular?
MG: It’s an allusion to a state of mind, I suppose. That moment when your mind incinerates, which I find myself experiencing quite often during live performances, and I’m hoping the audience is experiencing something similar. I don’t mean to be grandiose but when it works it’s really transcendent. I wouldn’t even take credit for it, it’s like a benevolent angel from the underworld was released to take over the sound, and we follow it.
DM: Will there be a final tour?
MG: Absolutely, we’re preparing for it now. We’ll be rehearsing for three weeks and we tour for 18 months. We’ll be doing some songs from the album which we’re going to hack away at, and find new forms for them. And I’m working on some new songs now, which I want to work up with the band, and we’ll see where it goes. I want it to be constantly changing throughout the tour, I don’t want to just do some kind of set that replicates the album.
The Glowing Man will be released on June 17th. One version of the release will be a deluxe CD box that includes a 28-minute DVD of live footage from 2015. It is Dangerous Minds’ extreme privilege to debut that video in its entirety here today.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Swans’ Michael Gira on their forthcoming triple album ‘To Be Kind’
Own a piece of post-punk/No Wave history: Swans ‘Holy Money’ master reel for sale—again
‘Hard Rock’: First release from Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label w/ Lydia Lunch & Michael Gira