Words by Andrew Parks
Michael Gira turns 60 in a couple years, which shouldn’t matter given that the average American male lives to be about 80, but then again, the average American male doesn’t play in a band like Swans. Since its reactivation in 2010, the post-punk pioneers have balanced a tireless tour schedule—sets that often feature 30-minute songs—with cross-continental sessions for Gira’s bravest album yet. Mind you, his career’s been full of ‘em, from the nihilistic no-wave of Filth and Cop to the majestic sprawl of Soundtracks for the Blind. Due out tomorrow through the frontman’s Young God imprint, The Seer isn’t a woe-is-me meditation on mortality; it’s a full-fledged attack on mediocrity, balancing moments of pure, unadulterated beauty with battery ram barrages of noise and downward spiral drones. Several tracks are so dynamic and long they practically warrant their own EPs; instead, we’ve been blessed with nearly two hours of transcendental music.
“I didn’t give a fuck how long it was,” Gira says, after we ask him when he decided to spread The Seer over two discs. “I thought I’d take the material to its greatest extent and figure out how to deal with it later. Paradoxically, the best way to listen to it—maybe not sonically, but thematically—is digitally because you can listen to the whole thing all the way through. I guess it’s the revenge of the digital age.”
With that in mind, we interviewed Gira about every track in depth, all of which are available to stream exclusively alongside his commentary down below…
Where was most of this album recorded? In Berlin?
We had 10 days in Berlin. Three quarters of the way through the last tour cycle, we’d developed these songs and I had some basic things worked out on acoustic guitar. Eventually I added lyrics and they developed organically with the live lineup, who are stellar I might say. So we recorded those—the ones that had been written at that point—in Berlin, and at the end of the tour, we had some more things develop and we recorded those in a place near me in Upstate New York with Kevin McMahon. And then I had more songs written on acoustic guitar, so we developed those from the ground up, just myself and our drummer Phil [Puleo]. I spent about four or five months there, sleeping on the couch, doing overdubs and bringing things into the state they are now.
That’s always been your process right—starting with your acoustic guitar and building the songs from there?
Yeah. This was different because four of the songs were developed live first. That was the first time in my tenure as a musician where we developed songs before an audience. They grew into their recorded state by being performed every night for a year.
What four songs were that?
“The Seer,” “93 Ave. B Blues,” “Avatar” and “The Apostate” were all developed live.
So all of the intense ones then?
They’re all intense man. [Laughs] I like a lot of variations and dynamics in a record.
This really feels like one of your bravest records, one that’s a culmination of not just old Swans material, but Angels of Light and things like the Body Lovers. It’s a great overarching statement, one you could feel comfortable with leaving behind if you retired tomorrow.
I hope I’ll always be making music, but yeah—I just put every resource into this, intellectually, emotionally, financially. I decided to go for broke, and I actually did. I went broke. [Laughs] What matters is doing the best work I can. What else am I on earth for?
One thing I want to say is that interviews usually end up sounding really egotistical, because they’re always about me, lyrics and production, but this band is really the best lineup I’ve ever had in Swans in terms of us getting along and feeding off one another…When I restarted Swans, it was really my only option, my only way to keep doing music and keep being vital. I guess i didn’t have a second album in mind at first, but it became apparent that it was really fertile, so I decided to keep pushing it.
Let’s go through it all track by track now then, shall we? And please make a mention of anyone who helped out, although that’s going to be tough considering around 40 people contributed to this record.
Yeah, I’m not sure I even remember everyone at this point [laughs].