A Quietus Interview – Bleak Psychedelia: Michael Gira Of Swans’ Favourite Albums (November 13th, 2012)

Michael Gira and Swans have cast long shadows over 2012, via two critically hailed albums (one live, the other the monumental The Seer) and an extensive series of tours and gigs. Whether appearing solo or with the full backing of his near-legendary band, Gira projects an incomparable aura onstage, an intensity so potent it transfixes the imagination.

As we discovered while quizzing the man on his thirteen favourite albums (or the thirteen he thought of when contacted – he’s keen to stress this isn’t a definitive top thirteen) on the eve of Swans’ performance at OFF Festival in Poland, that intensity doesn’t just apply to his shows or records, but to interviews as well. It’s rare that talking about music is this scary…

You can go here to listen to a Spotify playlist from the 13.

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Miles Davis – On The Corner

I didn’t discover that until ten years ago but I love the grooves on it and it’s interesting in that there’s no melodies. It’s sounds like electronic music, except it has the fortunate aspect of being played by humans. It’s influenced obviously by James Brown, one of my favourite artists. James Brown is like the Bach of modern music, a fantastic composer, so complicated and yet so much below the hips as well. I love On the Corner because it’s kind of abstract but also so compulsive. I guess it’s uncharacteristic for Miles, and it caused a lot of controversy at the time. I’m not so fond of, say, Bitches Brew, with the electric guitar, but I also love Sketches of Spain, with the great arranger, Gil Evans, who also did Out Of The Cool. I like really arranged and cinematic jazz. That’s enough on that one!

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Kraftwerk – The Man-Machine

Well, this is one of any I could have chosen. I’m not fond of when they started using computers, like on Computer World. I found it interesting to learn in a recent biopic that those drum sounds were actually played with chopsticks. In the punk days – when did this come out, like ’78? – I listened to it obsessively, not for any reason, I just thought the songs were beautiful and that it was a new way of making music. But that was just secondary to how beautiful the songs were.

Did any of those sounds filter into how you made music?

I would say that it influenced the early way of making music with Swans. It’s changed, obviously, considerably over the years, but in the early days it was very diverse and ranged from The Stooges to Throbbing Gristle to Brian Eno, and Kraftwerk. Just people using sound as a way of making music. Obviously, I was a bit more visceral, but that was inspirational to me. It was very liberating, the idea of abandoning structures and making something immediate.

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David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

That’s just a brilliant work of art.

He’s one of the only living people to have a blue plaque up in London, where the cover photo was taken.

He deserves it. He had ten really good years. The rest has been really dismal, unfortunately, in my opinion. But that album is a masterpiece in terms of arrangements and songwriting, everything. It manages to sort of rock, but at that same time it has this sort of cabaret song aspect to it, and from a producer’s point of view, which I suppose you could call me, it’s impeccable: no sound gets in the way of another sound, it’s always changing with every four to eight bars. It’s to me as good as, if not better than, Sgt Pepper’s. One of the best rock albums ever made.

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Throbbing Gristle – 20 Jazz Funk Greats

It’s a sort of pop album, some of it, although ‘Discipline’ is hardly a pop song! That was something I looked up to at the time, and it was inspirational, I guess. I wasn’t really thinking of it that way, I was just a fan and enjoyed it. Their single, ‘United’, was very beautiful, and I’ve always admired Gen [Genesis P-Orridge] from the early days of COUM Transmissions.

I was a fortunate art student, in that I knew about COUM Transmissions. I followed him the whole way, and I was so fortunate to meet him about ten years ago. He remains a hero to me, in the way he lives his life as an act of imagination. He seems to have immense courage and dedication to living life as a magical act. I don’t care about it being groundbreaking electronic music or anything, that doesn’t matter to me at all. I just find the atmosphere, the will and the intent behind it to be really beautiful.

Were you drawn to the confrontational aspect of their music?

I don’t think it was confrontational, I think it was insistent upon making something happen at the moment, and if people liked it, they did, and if not, fuck them. It’s a simple notion that Swans has always had. People have always assumed it was confrontational, but it wasn’t really that. It was extreme, but not an attack on anyone.

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The Stooges – The Stooges

That’s another one I listen to constantly. I heard that when it came out. I didn’t know anything about them. I was in a bar in Germany, where I was living, very young to be in a bar – I was 14 – and the bartender was a kind of hippie guy who knew music and he’d play that. I didn’t hear it again until the punk days, and it always resonated with me because of the song ‘We Will Fall’. It’s fantastic, what can I say? Iggy’s a brilliant lyricist in his own way and the production on that album by John Cale is stellar. It doesn’t get any better than that and, again, I don’t care about them being the forefathers of anything, I just enjoy the music.

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The Doors –  Strange Days

Another one that shaped my DNA with the aid of illicit substances! Just a beautiful voice, beautiful production and it has ‘When the Music’s Over’ on it, which is a masterpiece. A great performance – I don’t know how many overdubs it has on it, probably none! There’s a very early use of synthesiser on there at one point. In retrospect, I think Jim Morrison’s pretty corny, but it works with the music, and to be blessed with a voice like that is an act of God.

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The Mothers of Invention – Freak Out!

That I listen to, again, contemporaneously. When I was 12 or 13, and with the aid of various substances, it implanted itself in my mind and I obsessed over that record. I had an instinct: I didn’t gravitate towards the light pop music of the day, I liked the really unwholesome aspect of the Mothers. They were much more an affront than punk ever was to modern consumer society, they were just outrageous. America was very conservative at the time. It was very outrageous, but the music was there too. ‘Help I’m A Rock’ is a fantastic piece – it’s as freaky as Can, for sure, with a fantastic groove and tape sounds coming in and out. A brilliant piece of music, and I guess that whole double album was an influence on the Beatles making Sgt Pepper’s, which would have rankled Zappa! So he did We’re All In It For The Money, another great album. I like Zappa for the first three albums and then I don’t care one bit about him.

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Nick Drake – Pink Moon

I didn’t know about that until Jarboe introduced me to Nick Drake in the 80s. I was blown away, I listened to him constantly, for a long time. For better or for worse, I’d be hearing him and revisiting early Dylan convinced me that it was time for me to start trying to write songs on acoustic guitar. It took a long, long time to figure out how to do it. Unfortunately many early attempts ended up on record [laughs].

Drake was inspirational to me in thinking about the simplicity and about creating something that has genuine power and truth in it, with very simple means, as opposed to Swans, which relied on volume. There’s nothing wrong with that – we still do it! – but at that time I wanted to venture into doing things in a very simple way. As far as Nick Drake goes, he was an absolutely amazing guitarist and singer, totally genuine and lacking in irony or solipsism. Truly beautiful and honest. That’s what I look for – I don’t like cynicism.

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Henryk Górecki – Symphonie No.2

I just found about that recently. As opposed to the “pop hit”, Symphonie No.3, which is very beautiful as well. Symphonie No.2 is an apocalypse, with a series of percussive stabs in real odd time signatures that really, in a way, sound like Swans, in retrospect because I didn’t hear this in the early days. It sounds like the end of the world, but at the same time it’s very compelling and uplifting, with a very beautiful lament at the end of the symphony. Like Penderecki and Ligeti, it just speaks to me in a very natural way.

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Bob Dylan – Blood On The Tracks

That’s an album that I come back to every five years I guess, and listen to obsessively, and then don’t listen to for a long time. I haven’t listened to it for quite some time right now but it’s been important to me throughout my life. I can’t pontificate on its value, culturally, but to me it’s just had a lot of resonance in personal situations I’ve been in.

I recall listening to that album when I was peripatetic at one time, driving around in my van across America, sleeping in state parks -this was in the mid-to-late 90s – just driving around. I’d escaped where I was and just spent several months by myself, cooking food on my propane burner at night, drinking a six pack, going to bed and then driving again in the morning. I remember driving through Montana in a pretty torrential rain, listening to this album and just crying, weeping. It was one of those moments where an album just kind of conjoins exactly to the circumstances of your life. Does it give you hope? I don’t know, but it’s just such a beautiful record. It’s so extreme and heartfelt, so I guess it gives you hope in that way.

Of course, it has really quiet, beautiful moments like ‘Buckets of Rain’ and ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’. ‘Idiot Wind’ is the infamous one because it has this really wonderful line “We’re idiots babe/It’s a wonder we even know how to breathe”. It’s a break-up song. I don’t think you can get any better than that, I think it’s one of Dylan’s best. It’s not really groundbreaking in any way, because it’s a work of art, except for that stupid-ass song ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’. It’s like this goofy moment that ruins the whole album! [laughs]. I try to edit out the fact that it’s his “most personal record”, because I don’t really care about his personal. It has to some meaning to other people too. Maybe because it’s so personal is why it’s so universal. I don’t know.

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Arvo Pärt – Tabula Rasa

Again, I discovered that with Jarboe in the 80s. We were in a record store and just liked the cover. I just gravitated towards it naturally. There’s a piece on there called ‘Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten’ with these shifting time signatures, and it keeps cascading over itself and never seems to rise. It’s very deep and emotional, I suppose, it goes to the back of your head. Arvo Pärt’s music is really important, I think. It’s a little tedious sometimes when it’s only the vocal pieces but, some of the big symphonic efforts go to the deepest place possible. I guess he’s very spiritual, but all of us hopefully are.

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Howlin’ Wolf – The Chess Box

Well, that’s my hero!

When I saw you solo at Cafe Oto, I was thinking of him.

Well sure, he’s a true inspiration for me. Let’s just say he’s my demon, the guy that lives with me always. He’s a sort of litmus test: does what I’m doing hold up to the Wolf? People talk about the blues being dark, and he has that aspect, but it’s really visceral and fun at the same time. It’s just great music. His voice is operatic, as far as I’m concerned: he goes from this deep, low growl to a falsetto, which I just found out was inspired by Jimmy Rodgers, the yodeling cowboy. Any black man in those days had to find a schtick, you had to stand out from other people, and that was one of his ways. He worked it as much as possible, as well as getting down on his knees and shaking his ass in the air with a tail hanging out.

He was very crude, but also like an angel and he, to me, having grown in the rural South, is like a titan. He didn’t have his first pair of shoes until he was 13, he pushed a mule around like a deadbeat, learned to sing by banging a can or stones – it’s inspiring. I guess it’s the same as prison work songs. He could never play guitar that well, ‘cos his hands were like catcher’s mitts in baseball, huge, but he was a showman and by dint of will and raw talent. He managed, along with Muddy Waters and a few other, to change the face of modern music and culture. That’s magic if there ever was.

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Pink Floyd – Ummagumma

That’s very meaningful to me. The live part, particularly, because of the ever-ascending song structures. Things just keep building and building, to the heart of the sun, really. It’s psychedelic rock at its best. They were always looking for transcendence, and this was them at their height. I like that era better, in some ways, than the one with Syd Barrett. I lost interest in Pink Floyd pretty much after Meddle. I had the good fortune to be a runaway kid in Europe and I went to this rock festival in Belgium and saw them playing then.  And it was transcendent. It’s stuck with me throughout the years, and it’s another piece of music I hold up as a litmus test. It’s an experience, something really profound. Pink Floyd was the best psychedelic rock band ever.

I’ve heard Pink Floyd described as “bleak psychedelia”, and that’s something that comes to mind with Swans, particularly The Seer

Well, at times, we have the same dynamics. I don’t want to be pretentious, but we’re going for an epiphany. The electric guitars and sounds are amplified to something extreme and played repetitiously and just slowly grow. I liken it to stacking up strings in a symphony. Electric guitars have the possibility for total self-immolation and simultaneous actualisation.

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