Interview with Michael Gira from Swans: We Are Free

Joining the formidable lineup of the All Tomorrow’s Parties/Portishead-curated I’ll Be Your Mirror festival in Asbury Park is the reactivated and hugely-influential outfit Swans. Led by guitarist/vocalist Michael Gira, Swans was originally put to bed following 1996’s Soundtracks For The Blind as Gira went on to release seven studio full-lengths with Angels Of Light. In 2010, the revived Swans released My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky through Gira’s own Young God Records, and were met with acclaim that surprised even Gira himself.

The initial run of Swans produced more than 20 LPs, EPs, and live albums—the “final” being 1998’s Swans Are Dead—and Gira hardly slowed with Angels Of Light, though the methodology changed somewhat, as limited issue discs came to be a way to directly fund larger projects. Handmade collections of demos sold on the Young God Records website helped pay for the creation of My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, and as Gira reveals below, there’s a new live release on the way what will carry them over into the next studio offering, for which the writing and the recording has already begun.

But before they finish that, Swans joins the aforementioned Portishead, Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, Public Enemy, Silver Mt. Zion, Company Flow, Earth, Deerhoof, Mogwai and others for I’ll Be Your Mirror. In the interview below, Gira discusses the odd timing of the tour that will culminate at the festival and gives some insight as to the workings of both his and Swans’ processes. The two are inextricably linked.

You already recorded part of the new album in Berlin?

We recorded the songs that we’re playing live in Berlin, and also a portion of one that is built up from my guitar, my acoustic guitar. Now we have, at the end of this month’s tour, we have another five days here in Upstate New York, we’re going to record a bunch of new songs that I have written, and just build them up from the bottom up.

The album’s going to be sprawling. I don’t even know if you can call it an album—it’s just a collection of music happening at the time. It can’t be contained on vinyl, almost. It’d be like a six-vinyl set or something (laughs). So, I don’t know how it’s gonna be available, but we’re just gonna do it and put it out later.

Hey man, you’re putting it out yourself anyway. If you wanna do the six-LP set…

It’s a big investment! Fuck. I can’t afford that. The most I can imagine is doing a double vinyl, and if they want the rest, they can download it or something like that—I don’t know how it’s gonna work. But I don’t even want to think about that right now.

Things are so up in the air right now in the so-called music industry. Whatever. I just want to make the music and then figure out how to make a living off it later.

I thought what you did with My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky was a good way to do it. You had the regular version and the special version for anyone who wanted it.

There’ll be a lot of that going on. There’ll have to be. We’re doing this live record. I just finished mixing it and mastering it and all that stuff. There’s a special edition that’s going to be available in 1,000 copies just through the website very soon, right when this tour ends, that’ll help to fray the huge cost of this album. At least for us, it’s a huge cost.

So it’s gonna be just for fans, you know, and it’s gonna have acoustic versions of us live. It’s about 80 minutes, 90 minutes, maybe more, of Swans live, and the second CD is filled out with five acoustic recordings of songs—demos, really—of songs that we’re going to be recording for the next album. People will buy that, and that’s a way to earn money to pay for this gargantuan recording cost.

You did that for the last record too, right?

Yeah. You have to resort to things like this these days. It’s okay, because I really appreciate that core amount of people are so supportive, but it entails, as you might imagine, hundreds and hundreds of hours of work.

Printing things up by hand—because I make these hand-made packages—it’s sort of not what I had envisions doing at my time in life (laughs), but I’m a shipping clerk also anyway for the label (laughs), so I’m pretty good at repetitive tasks.

What can you tell me about the writing for the new record?

One way the songs are accruing is—I brought songs to the band while we were on tour, and we started working on them in soundchecks, and then introduced them live. They’ve just grown that way as band songs. One of them is called “The Apostate”—that’s probably 27 minutes long. It’s just these long sonic sections keep building and building the more that we play them.

Those are really properly called “group songs.” I came up with the initial thing, but we all contributed to how it builds and develops. The other way of working is when I bring a song in the studio and I have it written on acoustic guitar and maybe I’ll just play with the drummer or something, get the basic structure down and people will start overdubbing on that.

It’s a totally different way of working, but I like both ways, and it’s gonna give the record—if you can call it a record—a lot of dynamics, because it’s a completely different way of viewing sound.

Were you surprised at the reaction you got to Swans coming back?

Shocked, yeah. I knew that the reputation, or the imprint on music, had grown over the years, just through the Internet and new generations coming up and discovering it and things like that, but I didn’t realize the extent to which that had happened. It’s been very gratifying.

Do you see yourself at any point going to Angels Of Light? Would you trade off one to the other?

I don’t know. Right now, I’m too busy with everything I’m doing to even think about it. I would like to do that, but really, that’s so lyric-intensive, that I would need a lot of mental space to just read. I think one of the reasons I had this writer’s block I had for several years was I just had no time by myself, to read and cogitate and develop that side of my mind again. Since Angels is so lyric-oriented, I would need a break from everything, and right now, that’s not in the cards.

Whereas with Swans…

The words are very important, but the music is more the thing. The words qualify the music. They create, hopefully, a picture in the listener’s mind, but at least this version of Swans, it’s not as lyric-intensive as Angels Of Light.

That makes a lot of sense in terms of the sway you were talking about before and the builds in Swans.

If you had a lot of lyrics over that, it would ruin it. So I need to find usually one or two phrases that are open-ended, and I’m always thinking about gospel music or religious music having these kinds of incantations. To try to find those is really hard without them drawing too much attention to themselves.

They have to be in the music and part of the music and part of the sound. It should be evocative, but if it becomes about me, the singer, or something, I think that destroys the overwhelming quality of the music.

I think on “Jim” you did it with one word.

(Laughs) With “Jim?” Yeah, maybe.

Do you know when the record will be out?

It better be done by the end of December, because I want to get the record out by March/April, so that gives three or four months’ lead time to do it right. So I don’t know. It’s a lot of work ahead of me.

Any idea of the title yet?

No, but I do know the title for the live album that we’re putting out. That is We Rose From Your Bed With The Sun In Our Head. (Laughs) It took a long time to come up with.


Swans will be appearing at Brooklyn’s Music Hall Of Williamsburg on Sept. 28 and at the I’ll Be Your Mirror festival at Convention Hall in Asbury Park on Oct. 1. More info at