For a band that inspires so much devotion and cult hyperbole, a book about Swans was always set to be a colossal task. Since the early 80s, the name Swans has been used as a superlative in itself – the most intense, the most challenging, the most transportive, the most dedicated… it goes on.
Through the many iterations of Swans, Michael Gira has been the only constant, steering the project from masochistic performance art noise in New York basements, to post-rock and primal blues explorations, to being considered maybe the most transcendent live act of the last decade.
Gira killed off Swans in 1997, telling Nick Soulsby he could no longer handle the cycle of “momentary elation with the music, then some massive calamity”. He’d gone through nearly as many band members as Mark E Smith of the Fall, self-funding albums and tours, with an unwavering refusal to compromise.
In 2010, he resurrected the band and since then the name Swans has transcended cult status, with their epic, visceral live shows and their albums The Seer, To Be Kind and The Glowing Man distilling 30-odd years of graft and inspiration into a monumental trilogy.
Gira has been interviewed quite a few times since he brought Swans back to life (I chatted to him in 2014), but English author Nick Soulsby is the only person to follow it up in such an extreme fashion. After interviewing Gira in 2016 he embarked on a mission to tell the story of Swans through everyone involved in the story – from Gira himself, to all 30+ former co-Swans and artists such as Thurston Moore, Devandra Banhart and Lydia Lunch, family members, partners, producers, tour managers and anyone else in Swans’ inner and outer circle.
Sacrifice and Transcendence is an oral history that has eventually featured interviews with 125 people, an unflinching exploration into one of the most influential and revered names in underground music.
I caught up with Nick recently to ask about his inspiration behind the project and the imprint Swans has left on the many people who feature in the story. Maybe he’s still running on gratitude for all of those who gave up their time to help him with the book, as he was extremely generous with his time for this interview and offering up even more insight – after I read the book, reread many passages, and wanted a deeper dive…
In the intro to the book you say you were surprised no one else had written a book about Swans. Why do you think it hadn’t been tackled before?
I think a book on Swans would have been very hard to construct back in ’97 when the first iteration ended. Without the internet, only someone really close to the band would have been able to get the access required to start something. Also there were so many bruised feelings at that point, which were so close to the surface that I suspect a lot of people wouldn’t have been comfortable speaking about their time in the band – maybe it took 20 years to gain peace.
There’s also the reality that during Swans’ original run they were an acquired taste to say the least, also the US underground of the 80s and 90s was barely 15 years old and not really being documented much at that point. I definitely think the past decade of very significant respect, the fact that Swans is one of those bands that did have an enduring legacy and legend, it’s made a difference. I definitely don’t think it’s a coincidence that Marco Porsia has been working on the film about Swans, Where Does A Body Begin? over these past few years.
What’s your personal history with Swans, had you been a longtime fan or admirer?
In my teenage years I had a remarkable knack of discovering bands who meant a lot to me immediately before, or moments after, they fell apart. I’d become a fanatical Sonic Youth fan around 1995-1996 and digging through inlay cards and the like, the name Swans was on my radar – but I had no idea who they were. Part of it is that name, ‘SWANS’ is a wonderful name for a band, there’s something about the way the word sounds, that it’s both brief and punchy, while also having a smoothness and an elegance to it. So, I guess it’s been two decades now, I’m surprised in a way that a chunk of my 30s should be taken up living inside of music I’ve loved so long — it’s been a happy experience.
Why and when did you decide to pursue the project?
I interviewed Michael Gira for Clash Magazine back in 2016, then again for the Thurston Moore book I worked on after that. After those two encounters I knew this was someone I was comfortable conversing with… I found him exceedingly good company over the phone.
The starting point for me is always to make a giant spreadsheet of all the people who I could speak to, check that there’s a depth and breadth of sources and interviewees. Once I had the spreadsheet and had wrapped my arms around the scale of the project, it was time to write to Gira and ask if he would be open to cooperating if I went ahead with this.
Did you pitch the idea to Gira, and all the other members in the inner and outer circles? Was anyone initially reluctant?
I guess it wasn’t a pitch so much, no one else had an editorial right or permissions over what I did with the book…but I certainly wanted to treat everyone with respect and I couldn’t imagine such a book without certain key people, Gira and Jarboe most crucially, being involved.
My remembrance is that I sent him an electronic copy of the Thurston Moore book I did (We Sing A New Language) and said I wanted to create something similar, an oral history, focused on Swans. That my intention would be to interview as many former band members, producers, session musicians, etc. as I could track down. Gira said he was honoured that someone would put this time and energy into telling that story. We met briefly in Bristol prior to a show in spring 2017 — really just a chance for him to feel reassured that I wasn’t a complete lunatic. From the start he was cooperative where I was having trouble locating people, or where I needed to ask if there were names he felt I should go to.
Jarboe was the same, hugely open with her time and energy, encouraging me along, firing me names – sometimes email addresses too – as they came to mind. Jarboe was the revelation to me: Swans is Gira’s life, it’s unreasonable to expect other musicians to slave themselves to his vision and make it their lives for a lengthy phase. But Jarboe does, and by doing so, she becomes the other half of the twin helix, there’s no way Swans can continue without her by 1997. It’s understandable why it took a 13-year breach for Gira to rediscover an avenue by which he could make Swans in her absence. I don’t think Swans could have existed today if Jarboe hadn’t provided the channel to open up the band’s sound in the mid-80s and drive it in fresh directions.
Did you always plan on an oral history, and had you any idea of the scope of the project? Between tracking people down, interviews and editing it sounds like a colossal task.
I’ll confess I’m a huge fan of oral history as a format. I like the honesty of it, that no one person gets to dictate the entirety of a band’s past, that everyone gets to be a part of something greater than just a lone individual. Tracking people down is certainly fun! It is time-consuming, but I find that, if you really want to do something, then the time is always there.
I worked out on paper that, if this was a salaried position, then my wage amounts to pennies an hour at best. But that’s the point, this isn’t a job, it’s a passion, so the hours whip by. Jarboe, at one point, spent five hours on the phone with me – incredible. She’s a beautifully fluid and fluent speaker, she laughs easy, I often feel the written word betrays interviewees because it’s hard to capture the humour and lightness on a page. Those five hours took me easily 10 hours to transcribe. That’s my base equation: two hour interview equals four hour transcription time, three-hour interview equals six hours and so forth.
Add on the quantity of email: by the time you get to 50 interviewees, just keeping them in touch with the project and how it’s progressing means 50 messages, which might mean 30 replies, which means 30 messages, which means 10-20 replies and so on. A project like this isn’t numeric, but there’s always an undercurrent of clear numbers, quantities, time. The way I control it is I always get a publisher to give me a tight deadline: that way there’s no holding back, no slacking, a constant race, a fear. Otherwise people can spin off into oblivion and just never come back.
You’d already written oral histories of Nirvana and Thurston Moore, and Swans has a similar level of devotion in certain circles. Do you feel pressure taking on projects with so much baggage or expectation?
In terms of pressure… I feel a pressure to ensure that the people who give me their time find an end result that matches their memories. That it’s a portrayal of a life that, even if I only take a few hundred words from them, they can see what they experienced echoed through other voices.
I always want each voice to sound razor-sharp so, when I’m choosing the sections to take I stick to basic rules: never quote someone out of context or in a way that alters their meaning, cut down the extraneous words so each voice has that diamond-hard glint, don’t sugar-coat – I’m not writing PR crap and I’m not writing hatchet-jobs either, the reason I have so many voices in these books is to make something that feels real and lived. That’s the primary responsibility I feel. With the Swans book I’ve been happy to see some fans saying “you should have focused more on the pre-1997 band!” and others saying “you should have spent more time on the 2010-2017 band!” because I’m sure, if people care enough to want more-more-more in every direction, then the balance is likely about right.
In many ways Sacrifice and Transcendence is an intense character study of Gira, is that how it was planned, or is that just how the interviews turned out? It’s obviously impossible to have a discussion about Swans that isn’t framed around him.
As you say, it isn’t artifice that leads the book to focus on Gira, he simply dominates the memories and experiences of the people who made this music. He was the leader, then he was explicitly the boss, everyone brings something to the table – it’s not some cheap dictatorship model – but he’s the one who chooses which of those gifts to emphasise, use, or mute.
Musicians have described to me this cycle of exhaustion at end of tour, the desire to pause…then a certain period of time goes by and they’re itching to get back out and do something. There’s an itch for structure, meaning, purpose. It’s very recognisable to me. After I hand over a manuscript there’s a long period of working with a publisher to get it ready for release.
Currently I’m in the spell where I believe so strongly that the story of Swans is a real example of someone truly devoting their life to something, someone really going all out in a way that most people only talk about, that I’m doing all I can to spread the word and get it out there.
Beyond music, beyond the story of a band, what interests me is people – what a person is willing to do to create something, how they cope with the frustration and weakening that comes with age – that’s what I think this book is about and I just can’t imagine letting go of it until I know I’ve committed wholly and done everything I can to spread the word about it.
How important was it to talk to his brother Daniel?
Daniel Gira was an absolute pleasure to speak to: he was sat in a beachfront bar somewhere in California sinking beers, watching girls, enjoying the sun — an utter charm. Personally, part of what drives me on with these projects is the energy people give to me: people don’t realise that when people speak with depth and affection and openness, you absorb something from them, they give you the enthusiasm to keep going.
I used to sit for hours listening to my grandfather tell stories, or my father share his thoughts: it’s a blessing to listen and to become a vessel for other people’s words – it’s a privilege to be granted access to some small part of someone’s world.
In the case of Daniel, that first chapter of the book, the tale of life in the Gira family, it needed to be more than one voice, to be something other than a monologue. The breaks and the shift in perspective helps the reading experience, keeps the energy high, gives it a bounce – as well as, on a factual level, confirming and corroborating the overall experience of growing up as part of that family. Michael and Daniel, these are powerful personalities, but – in both cases – it was possible to feel the love they have for one another, to appreciate that depth of connection.
I’ll admit it also gave me a sense of awe: a lot of people, faced with a childhood like these two had, would collapse into some ignominious solipsism – instead they both went out into the world and achieved great things and didn’t become horrible people. That’s amazing
Gira always maintains that he values hard graft, integrity and honesty above all else. Still, this honesty means he often comes across negatively in the book. What were you thinking when you first give him the finished book to read? Is there anything Gira battled to keep out of the book? I know he winced initially at the title…
My view has always been the same: that only the interviewees themselves have the right to change their words. What I do is once I finish the transcript of an interview I give it to the individual in question and invite them to review. Once they hand it back to me, that version becomes the master. That seemed an important line to hold, especially given how many bruised feelings are in the pages – it’s basic courtesy and respect, I feel.
The book went through a couple of stages of proof-before I gave a copy to Gira and to Jarboe and invited them to comment. I couldn’t imagine a book that is so much about someone’s life hitting the shelves before they’d seen it.
So, sure, I was a touch scared: if either individual had decided to retract their participation I would have had to concur and to erase their voices – imagine that, all that work then the spine of the book having to be ripped out. If they’d taken serious offence they could have provoked a wave of other voices annulling their participation – I could have had no book left. I was scared! But that’s nothing compared to how they must have been feeling: some bloke from the UK has dug up tonnes of people from your past and let them tell the story of a major chunk of your life? Most of us will never experience anything of that depth of intrusion.
Gira wrote saying he read the book three times in a single night – and that his wife told him in the morning he’d growled and muttered in his sleep: “It definitely had an impact! HA!” He pointed out a couple of factual errors (I accidentally mixed up the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 with the Prague Spring of 1968), but otherwise he let everything stand. He did go to Hank Fury apologising for having punched him. Jarboe, again, had a few queries: she insisted Gira was misremembering one moment on tour and he told me to go with Jarboe’s memory of it. I found that very respectful of people’s memories and experiences: it’s oral history after all, it relies on people saying it how they felt it, people being willing to talk, voices building on one another or creating contrast.
Jarboe emerges as the strongest voice of all past members, I got the feeling there was an element of setting the record straight, is that true?
Imagine being Jarboe for a minute: you bind yourself thoroughly to a musical entity, to an particular vision and mode of expression, you bring all you have to it, you identify with it completely…then suddenly there’s a stark moment where you are told that, for all you’ve put into it, that doesn’t make it communal property, it doesn’t make it yours.
That may be honest and true, but I can understand that it’s a shock that will always resonate. One thing about interviewing people is that they always talk about themselves: it’s in the nature of interview. You might remember another person but you remember them through their effect on you, as moments where you were doing something they impacted on – it’s always about you (you can see me doing it in this interview!) Jarboe was no different to any other interviewee in that respect.
What she was brilliant at was something I think is the gold-dust approach to interviewing. Jarboe would make a point, then she would tell stories, give examples, she would constantly show how her point played out as a lived-in experience. It wasn’t by design that she became the second most quoted person, or that she’s the first or last voice in more chapters and sections than anyone else: it’s because she had this ability to nail a point and make it something tangible others could share – a story, not a lecture.
Her influence, the number of Swans’ underappreciated twists and experiments that came from her, I don’t think she was setting the record straight as much as she was telling it like it is. Her words came to be on the page because they sing.
Were you surprised at the amount of humour that emerged in the interviews? The story of Mark Harris riling Gira up by eating a whole pineapple out of his dressing room (“including the leaves”) is almost a daft sitcom moment. I also love the image of Gira being caught skanking to ska. Also, most of the stories of the hardship of being on the road are told with some level of humour.
I have a theory in life, that every bad moment makes an amazing war story someday. Maybe it’s human that we wind up laughing at things that hurt – when I watch comedy hilarity seems to be heightened by proximity to tragedy. Think of it as a musical dynamic in the same way that something feels louder and more impactful when placed next to a still or quiet moment.
Sheer truth, I wish words on a page captured more of the laughter: some of it must have been excruciating at the time. I found myself laughing so much when talking to people. A roof-full of rat-shit dumped over Gira’s head. The pineapple. Wrestling in a biker bar. Losing passports on a vodka binge in Poland. Tearing the cassette deck out of the bus and dumping it out of the window. Waving goodbye naked. Playing with plastic knives during a song called My Suicide. You can’t fire me because I quit – you can’t quit because you’re fired.
I was surprised that people were so funny, maybe it’s part of the art of storytelling that smiles are needed, otherwise it must be like trying to regurgitate solid lead. These people were making something they believed in, it wasn’t all doom and gloom, the good and the bad both needed a place on the page.
When my father was dying, truly the worst week of my life, he turned to my mum at one point and said, “Well I guess you could say my heart operation was a success.” She asked, “What do you mean?” He said: “Well! It’s kept me alive long enough to die of something else.” I thought that was hilarious – and touching all at once, that he wanted to make us smile and alleviate some of the burden of the moment. Maybe that’s what we all do when we share memories? We try to give something to others that isn’t just a passing on of pure horror.
Did you pick up on a sadness hanging over the latter-day co-Swans with the break-up? I had a chat with Kristof in Dublin near the end of that cycle and he was pretty open about feeling a bit lost.
You’re absolutely right. These guys had spent the kind of time together that normally only family and blood relatives experience: two members of the band, including Gira, met their wives while on the road with Swans, another found his girlfriend out there – SWANS was their life.
Kristof, an utter gentleman, wasn’t the only one feeling a certain sadness – it’s understandable. But they’ve all found new avenues since – I just heard Chris Pravdica and Phil Puleo are in a band together, I met a guy the other night who has been playing with Kristof; Thor And Friends is a great band, Paul Wallfisch is a total live-wire and is always up to something, Norman Westberg’s solo releases really sparkle… but yeah, a long phase of their lives, one that doesn’t seem to have left time for anything else, was coming to an end. It clearly felt like a cliff edge: was this the peak? Would they ever find a music they cared about to this degree? Would they find friends and comrades where they connected so deeply? That’s life…
There’s a powerful quote from Jennifer Gira, “His work is his life force, and I don’t take it personally that it’s more personal than me because it’s more important than anything.” Do you think after interviewing everyone in Gira’s circle that they have just accepted this? There doesn’t seem to be much ill will remaining.
There’s another quote, from David Burton, saying he’s quit tours for far less than what he endured on the SWANS ARE DEAD excursion, but he also says that those other tours just weren’t important by comparison.
If you work with an entrepreneur, someone who identifies totally with a company and whose ability to eat and pay rent is bound to the success of the business — then you can’t be surprised that they’ll drive themselves to extremes because the alternative is losing everything. As an employee, as someone who could go get another job without being stripped of livelihood, dream and identity it’s hard to live under that kind of leadership for long — it’s their life, it doesn’t have to be yours. Most people choose it for a brief period, then move on.
I don’t think it’s any different with Gira. He’s not putting anyone through something he isn’t enduring with them, he’s gone bankrupt, he’s gone hungry, he’s felt that his life’s work is a failure – the difference is he’s the man in control, this is his thing. For the band members, sure, they can empathise with what Gira goes through but they each have to draw their lines and protect themselves.
I think the cruellest thing you can do to someone is cut away their passion. My writing isn’t of great significance in a cosmic sense, I don’t expect anyone else to give a shit about it, but if someone demanded I give it up then that would betray an utter unwillingness to love me for who I am.
Gira is his music and he won’t let you get away with being slack, lazy or sub-par. Around that, he’s a gentleman. One moment that resonated for me is when the most recent band write him a letter asking him to treat them better on stage – and Gira agrees. How many of us, when told we’re doing wrong by others, really take that inside and make a point of humbling ourselves to become better people?
I can understand why Gira inspires anger and he sure has hurt a lot of feelings, but – quietly – I hope he was able to detect how much love he inspires too. When something is so personal there’s the opportunity for it to hurt badly, but there’s the chance for it to connect on the deepest level too.
Sacrifice and Transcendence covers the first two loose eras of Swans, ending with the Glowing Man in 2017. The third era is in progress, with a new Swans album promised next March and Gira on a solo tour with Norman Westberg. Have you any predictions or hopes for Swans’ next phase?
My view is that Michael Gira is one of fleeting few individuals in music to have maintained productivity as well as quality across multiple decades. The longest break between Gira albums was 2007-2010 – now it’s 2016-2019: that’s extraordinary, especially considering he self-funds all the recording and touring then licenses the results to record companies. To keep that work-rate up without a record company tapping him on the forehead asking where the product is, that kind of self-motivation is rare. It takes guts to work so hard, to care so much AND keep up such a release schedule.
Jennifer Gira told me that her husband had promised, in an interview somewhere, that he would play three new songs at the solo shows he did in February, so he was locking himself in a room at home from dawn to dusk for weeks, putting in hour after hour, to ensure he didn’t just have three new songs but that those songs were something he could be proud of.
That’s the other part of the equation: these past three albums – The Seer, To Be Kind, The Glowing Man – are rare in the sense that a particular SWANS sound was explored and driven to conclusion. Previously an iteration of SWANS never lasted more than one or two albums – and the sound has never stood still. I don’t know what comes next, but I want to find out.
- Swans: Sacrifice and Transcendence, The Oral History, is available from Jawbone Press.
- Nick Soulsby is the author of Thurston Moore: We Sing A New Language (2017), Cobain On Cobain: Interviews & Encounters (2016), I Found My Friends: The Oral History Of Nirvana (2015) and Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana In The Shards Of Incesticide (2012). In 2014 he curated the compilation No Seattle: Forgotten Sounds Of The North West Grunge Era 1986–1997 with Soul Jazz Records, and he also wrote the oral history of the band Fire Ants for the reissue of their 1993 EP Stripped.