With the pandemic having put the brakes on touring around their last release, Swans have returned with sold-out shows and a fantastic new album, The Beggar. Their sixteenth studio album, The Beggar was recorded in Berlin. Primary songwriter, singer, and producer Michael Gira assembled a group of trusted collaborators who “hacked at, dissected, reconfigured, discarded, and revived” his songs “again until their true nature was finally revealed.” The album also contains an extended (44-minute long) soundtrack-style track, “The Beggar Lover (Three).” In an email interview, Gira discussed the new album.
“The Parasite” seems like the perfect track to open the album, and from there the overall flow through a variety of styles and moods makes it seem that a lot of thought went into taking the listener on a journey. Is this the case; do you feel that a lot of effort goes into coming up with the track sequence, or is it perhaps obvious to you?
Michael Gira: Sequencing is the most difficult part of making a record for me (along with mixing, which I love and loathe). It must have something to do with the finality of it, that there’s no going back. The sequencing of The Beggar was finished on vinyl much earlier than the CD/Digital version, due to the long production time and wait for vinyl, so I had time to regret my choice for the vinyl and to change it for the CD/Digital, which I feel is superior. But yes, it’s very important to me, in that I want a record to be a total experience and an immersion in a sonic world. Nowadays though the whole enterprise is perhaps irrelevant, since the songs appear out of sequence all over the place online, but I have to at least do my work in the hopes that the people that are interested will experience it as conceived.
“Los Angeles: City of Death” has dark lyrics, but musically comes across as more upbeat and rock-oriented than other tracks on the album. What was the inspiration for the song and style of it?
Michael Gira: It’s all in the chords, how I play them over and over alone in my room, listening closely with my ear down close to the guitar for the voices that will guide me forward. The entire arrangement and words are there inside that sound and it’s just up to me to reveal it and bring it forward. I don’t know about the words being dark. They’re just a fantasy or a reverie, how I dreamed Los Angeles (the city of my birth) at that particular moment. I have fond and terrible memories of the place and they’re all conjoined there in the song.
With “Michael is Done” are you referencing yourself? Structurally, the song is really interesting in that the vocals at the beginning/end are over quiet, limited instrumentation but it launches into a soaring, majestic composition in between. Was this contrast the intention from the start, or did either part serve as the initial basis of the song?
Michael Gira: The word Michael in the song is entirely arbitrary. The song was originally called Julie is Done and at some point I decided that was silly and suddenly it made sense to insert Michael instead. The words are a picture of a mind eating itself, a closed system, a fairy tale where the protagonist wears lead boots while swimming. I felt that the near-whispered vocal was appropriate for the nursery rhyme aspect of the song. But yes, the sonic trajectory of the song was conceived on my acoustic guitar and fleshed out with the aid and collaboration of my cohorts in Swans. I wanted it to sound as grandiose and positive as possible. Somehow, there’s a Beach Boys influence in there!
Could you discuss the line-up of musicians you worked with for “The Beggar”? When seeking collaborators, to what degree is it looking for certain sounds versus wanting to work with particular people?
Michael Gira: The core Swans members for this record are Dana Schechter, Phil Puleo, Larry Mullins, Kristof Hahn, Christopher Pravdica and myself. They’re all skilled musicians but if I didn’t trust their souls I wouldn’t work with them and spend countless hours alone in a room with them. The shared goal is a search for ecstasy through sound. It’s an impossible goal, but the struggle to reach it is everything. In extensive rehearsals before going into the studio the songs were played repeatedly as an ensemble, hacked at, dissected, reconfigured, discarded, and revived again until their true nature was finally revealed. Then this version is played live in the studio, and then that version is again subject to shredding and reconfiguration again until a shape appears that seems to have some truth in it. After the record is completed the songs are again subjected to this process for live performance and ultimately twisted, strangled and stretched until they bear little resemblance to the studio version. I enjoy this process. In fact the process is everything. The music is always shifting and changing. It never ends until finally the songs are sucked dry and ultimately left in a garbage bin to die.
Did you all work together in the studio, or were there any long-distance collaborations?
Michael Gira: Nope. None of that business around here. Music making probably started with people sitting around a fire banging rocks together and grunting and shouting and that’s how it should be.
What was the creative process like behind the 44-minute song “The Beggar Lover (Three)”? Were there initially separate ideas that went into it? To what degree might it have been driven by improvisation?
Michael Gira: The title The Beggar Lover is an awkward reference to a piece of music I made in the late 90s called The Body Lovers (Number One of Three). Along the way, I made another piece that could be considered Number Two. So The Beggar Lover could be considered to be Number Three. The way of working on a piece like this started with the album Soundtracks for the Blind all the way back in 1997. I take previous recordings, mixes, individual instruments from a variety instances in Swans music from along the way and I put them into a computer in one place then I slowly (and with much frustrating trial and error) string them together as a sonic narrative, and then I record more and more sounds and performances to go with these pieces of the narrative until a convincing shape is determined. Then once that shape is determined, I fuck it up some more. Always, I’m looking for interactions that are determined by chance but reveal themselves as obvious and perfectly inevitable. This piece reflects my interest in making soundtracks without the encumbrance of a film.
You’ve said that you don’t have an interest in replicating recorded versions of songs live, but are you giving any thought to how they will be presented live as you are writing and recording? Do you ever have ideas in your mind, or encounter things that come up in album preparation, that you realize are more appropriate for the live setting?
Michael Gira: We’re in the midst of a year-long tour now, so the songs have had a chance to mutate. In most instances, they’re completely different than the recorded versions. As I mentioned, in the early stages when I’m playing the songs alone in my room while writing them, I have all kinds of visions as to how they’ll sound performed by other people, but that changes instantly as soon as other people are actually physically present and involved, and I like that, and the trick is always to discern where the song is saying it wants to go at this particular instant of its existence. Follow the music, where is it leading, that’s always the question. Often it can be like trying to guide a mass of stampeding cattle along a path and the best thing is just to get out of the way.
Did Covid-19 and having to cancel tours have any impact on your approach to making “The Beggar”? Perhaps in terms of having time when you thought you’d be on the road, or the uncertainty as to when touring would start again?
Michael Gira: I prefer to just erase the whole memory of the Covid nightmare. It’s like the Samuel Beckett quote: I can’t go on. I will go on. Like trying to walk coated in slowly hardening glue. But it did afford time to write songs, and I also wrote and compiled a book of all my fiction and journals and song lyrics (The Knot), and we also had a baby around here, so things were busy, if static and confined. And I suppose I was preoccupied with mortality to a certain degree, though I view that as healthy. Still, it’s been great to get out and work again, in the studio and now in live performances, and my bones don’t creak as much as they were and I feel I’m doing what I was put on earth to do, so I’m grateful. And it’s been encouraging to see and feel audiences truly receive the music in a deep way, and especially to meet people after the shows (as I do) and to see 15 and 16 year-olds that are newly interested in the music along with people that have followed it for decades. So it’s been like crawling out of a dank pit and suddenly finding yourself waltzing naked through a field of flowers breathing cool clean air.
The album artwork is really interesting – is there a story behind it?
Michael Gira: I’m always searching for an appropriate icon to use for Swans cover art. I chose 4 icons for this release – a set of lungs, a liver, a prostate, and a heart – one for each panel of a double LP or CD. I asked my friend Nicole Boitos to make an image of each of these things. Nicole was a medical illustrator at one time and is an extremely skilled draftsperson. I asked her to make sure that the images weren’t in any way macabre and just looked matter-of-fact and neutral. She did a great job. The initial idea for the front cover of the LP/CD was the set of lungs, but for some reason that didn’t seem strong enough as an image so I chose the heart as the front cover…
You’re currently touring Europe and hitting the UK before performing in America in the fall. Do you see major differences in your audiences in different places? If so, does your set list get adjusted at all depending on where you are?
Michael Gira: The set is always changing, but incrementally, of its own accord, from night to night, but no, I wouldn’t think of changing the set based on audience expectations. That would be a disservice to us and to the audience. When we play festivals we have to cut it shorter sometimes. Fair enough. But otherwise I feel that people come to see us do what we do according to the dictates of our imagination, not theirs. Sometimes though, I’m tempted to turn out the lights, lock the doors, and just start playing and see what happens. Maybe we’ll do that soon!
Thank you very much for your interest in the music and your questions!
(Having completed initial European tour dates, Swans continued with shows in the UK, Ireland, North America, and then more European dates. For more info, visit younggodrecords.com/pages/swans.)