Interviewed on March 5th, 2013
by Dimitris Pallis, SfinEaster, Scum
Editing: Thalia Tsaka, SfinEaster, E. Myl., Anna Stereo
Swans, live in Athens, Greece – May 17th, 2013
‘The Seer’ was met with universal acclaim as one of the top albums of 2012. How do you feel about the recognition?
Do you want me to be honest?
Yeah, of course (laughs)!
Here’s my answer: I don’t care! (laughs)
It’s just good to be able to keep working. It’s encouraging, I suppose, but I can’t really allow myself to care about it because that could easily be a trap. It’s just important to stay authentic to the sound itself and everything else that happens, that can be good or bad. But the most important thing is to put everything into the work itself and then it will find an audience or it won’t. I’m very much prepared for the next album to be hated. That’s fine with me. I just want to try to make work that I think has merit. I’m more interested in the new material that we’re working on now. Most of our set that you’ll see in Athens and in Thessaloniki, I suppose, is new unrecorded material. The album The Seer I can’t even listen to it now. It sounds like someone is scratching a piece of paper with a pin. It doesn’t sound like anything to me, it has no life to me. It’s finished, it’s over and I’m more interested in the next thing.
Do you record live with the whole band in the studio?
Sometimes. Sounds like Avatar, The Apostate, The Seer, 93 Ave. B Blues were played by the band in the studio. But then, of course, I gathered lots of other musicians who added orchestration to those songs and they changed considerably after the initial performance. To me, the process of making an album is using the studio as an instrument, using sound as a medium. It’s not just capturing how a band sounds. That’s good but I’m more interested in building things up from that point.
Is the kind of funding you had in your latest albums still necessary in order to release your new songs?
Editors’ NOTE: the limited-edition personal album I Am Not Insane funded the recording of My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky and the sales of the limited-first-edition live album We Rose from Your Bed with the Sun in Our Head funded the recording of The Seer.
Absolutely. I’ll be doing that. I don’t like the manual labour of it, it takes me hundreds of hours to make the handmade things. But I think it’s very important. It’s a way of connecting with people that care about our music personally and it also helps, of course, with the costs of recording, which in our case is very significant, because we don’t record at home on Pro-Tools or something. We’re going in real studios and use the studio environment and all the kind of gear that’s in the studio. Also, going to the studio, for me, is like going to church. It’s a very important experience to be separated from daily life and be completely just immersed in making sound for an extended period of time. All kind of things happen in a studio, that I would never expect. Usually accidents are the most important things, or you know, just mistakes. Things that happen sometimes are more interesting than what you planned.
We found some new songs on the internet and one of them is titled ‘Toussaint Louverture’…
Oh! You found that on the internet? Oh! Send me a link please, I’d like to see that.
The specific song was only referred to as being played within a medley at some gigs. There were videos of other new songs online but not to that song.
Please, send them, I’m very interested. I think it’s a shame that people see that on Youtube and they expect that that’s what the music is going to be like. It’s not a representation really. It’s like a little post it stamp-size picture of a painting by Caravaggio or something. It doesn’t make any sense to me but I still like to see it.
(editors’ NOTE: links are still online…)
Toussaint Louverture was a revolutionist from Haiti, did you write the song about him? Is revolution something that inspires you?
Yes, I’m reading about him right now and we were improvising, I don’t know what you call it, I guess that is a tone poem, it’s just sound really. I’ve been interested in Haiti and its history for some time and it just came into my head. I started screaming his name. It was short like an invocation. But I think he is an exceptional historical figure and it just seemed important to me to shout him out.
Is there any connection to the same-titled Santana song?
Oh really? There is a Santana song called that?
Yes, there is also a Santana song with the same title!
Oh, no (laughs)!
What about the phrase you said at the end of your previous gig in Athens, ‘Viva la communista’? Was it a political stance or an ironic comment about the politics nowadays?
I think it’s an ironic comment. I’m all for socialism, a kind of benign socialism, but I have no illusions about the desirability of communism. In fact, I’m reading a book right now which is very interesting. It’s called Iron Curtain and it’s about the soviet takeover of the Eastern Europe, about the stalinization of daily life there and it’s quite terrific as you might imagine. But, I think socialism is very desirable if you look at certain countries that utilize a benign form of socialism, in Scandinavia for instance. I think it’s great, I think it’s a good model.
Do you have any information, any opinion to share with us about the situation in Greece? Do you know what’s happening here?
I’m not qualified to comment on your internal politics. Of course, I’m very distressed and sad to see the troubles that are occurring in Greece. I imagine that I could go down the same road in America. Who knows? But, yes, it’s very sad.
In records like ‘Greed’ and ’Holy Money’, you have heavily criticized the commodities fetishes.
I write about what is interesting to me or what I’m experiencing in my life, my daily life and intellectually, all the time. That was something that I was obsessed with in the 80s, I suppose. Of course, it’s still happening. People are inundated with images and subliminal images and capital corporate kind of brain washing constantly. I think consumers’ society is really the beginning of the end. It’s not sustainable. And it is interesting how at least in America, for instance, people’s identities are shaped by commodities and by products they consume. That’s the total success of corporate media cultivation of the collective psyche.
Does the social environment affect your artistic creativity?
Not really. The music and the landscapes of Swans now is its own life. Lyrically, the things that are important to me, like I say, end up on the records, but music is really about itself. It has emotions and other implications, but I just follow the thread of the music and try to stay true to the moment.
On your latest album, apart from the no-wave movement, Glenn Branca and ‘Ummagumma’, we also noticed some more classical influences, like Ligeti and Górecki. Do you agree on that?
Well, I like Ligeti and Górecki but when I’m working on music, I don’t think about that. I don’t know about the classical thing, because I have no musical training whatsoever and for me, to pretend to have any kind of classical knowledge would be very pretentious. So, I just shape sound. That’s what I’ve been doing for years. I try not to be intimidated by the fact that I’m not a real musician, so to speak, and just make something happen on my own. I don’t really care how it’s perceived.
Many people consider you as the pioneers of post rock. Your albums in the early ’90s were like the first movements to construct the very idea of post rock. Do you feel that Swans are part of any specific art movement?
That’s how a critic thinks. I’m not a critic, I just make the work. Sometimes people, say I meet a stranger in the airport, they ask me what my music is like. I have no idea how to explain it to them. The Swans is its own entity. It’s not part of anything and really hasn’t been since the very beginning.
Others imagine that your music might work as a soundtrack.
That is something that preoccupied me for some time. Since, I guess, the album The Great Annihilator I started to think about albums as a world into which you could escape, sort of like a film. That’s what I enjoy. It’s not really a statement about how music should be or anything, but that’s what I enjoy. Once I get in the studio and start building material up, after the initial recordings take place, I try to shape the world. It’s just who I am, it’s how I work. I’m not interested really in just recording a band and having examples of what their songs sound like. It’s more interesting to make an album that provides a place you can live in.
Therefore, making music is a way of expressing yourself.
It’s an experience I suppose. An expression to me implies that you are trying to describe a feeling through sound. To me, the sound is the feeling.
Do you believe the Swans concert is a redemption, a catharsis?
Well, I suppose so. It’s always live. The music is always kind of trying to, simultaneously, create and destroy itself. And the audience and us. It’s trying to lose consciousness and gain consciousness simultaneously.
And what about religion and God? Do you think about that or not?
I’m not at all interested in any kind of codified religion or belief system. I suppose that I’m a very selfish person in that regard. I look at my time on Earth as a process of discovery through my own eyes and consciousness. I kind of think that belief systems are wishful thinking.
Since you are also a writer and you have studied Art, can you tell us something about your Art influences or can you make any book recommendations?
I don’t write anymore, I don’t have the time. I would like to, but I just don’t have time.
The artist that I probably love the most for various reasons is Francis Bacon. It’s partially because of his lifestyle but also because of the way he worked. Because he worked with a great deal of intelligence and intellectual capacity, but he worked completely from intuition and created these amazing images as a result. He basically started painting, I think he probably had a vague notion of what he was doing, and he just followed the thread and made something very remarkable happen just by following his instinct. He always talked about instinct. That to me is very admirable.
As far as a writer that I would recommend, I guess I would say the American writer Cormack McCarthy.
Your Skype profile picture is a Beckett photo, isn’t it?
Yes, it’s Beckett. Very difficult writing, I suppose, and I haven’t read him in 20 years. I just liked that photograph. But to me, his writing is consciousness itself. It’s not a stream of consciousness, it’s not improvisation or surrealism. It’s a transcript of a mind working and it’s difficult to read. To read it, it’s very important that you just give up. And fall into the world that he is creating. But he was a great writer.
As we get closer to the end of this discussion, we would like to ask you this: is the absence of Jarboe from the incarnated Swans the reason for not playing songs from that period?
No. Jarboe and I parted company quite some time ago. I have very fοnd feelings for Jarboe but I think that to become too involved with her musically would be short of nostalgic and doesn’t make sense. I’m more interested in moving forward. It was good to have her sing on this record and who knows, maybe she’ll sing on the next one. But as far as the band of Swans, the touring band and the main identity, I don’t think it would be productive to have her intimately involved.
Any new artists you admire or you find interesting?
I don’t know. I don’t really pay attention. I’m sorry (laughs). No. As I’ve recently said, I very much admire the work of Justin Bieber. He is a very important artist. (laughs)
(editors’ NOTE: Michael Gira curated MOUTH TO MOUTH @ Koco London on April 4th, 2013: SWANS, Mercury Rev’s Cinematic Silent Sound Tettix Wave Ensemble, Ben Frost, Xiu Xiu, Grouper)
The last question is about your concerts here in Greece. You said you will mostly play new songs…
Yes, it’s 90% new songs and we will play the song itself from the album The Seer and one old song from the ’80s, called Coward. Otherwise, it’s all new songs.