Michael Gira and Swans head back into the maelstrom of sound

Swans, clockwise from top left: Michael Gira, Christoph Hahn, Thor Harris, Chris Pravdica, Phil Puleo, Norman Westberg.
Swans, clockwise from top left: Michael Gira, Christoph Hahn, Thor Harris, Chris Pravdica, Phil Puleo, Norman Westberg. (From Swans)
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By Grayson Currin
Friday, September 24, 2010

When Michael Gira describes what it's like to make an album, his words recall the song "Failure" written by his chamber-goth rock band, Swans: "It's no surprise that I'm pushing the stone/Up the hill/Of failure."

"You write the songs over two or three years, and then they gestate and they have a vibration and you think about the people you want to perform on it," says Gira, recounting the ordeal rather cheerfully. "And you go to record with them and you pound it out."

That's when making music gets painful. Nothing ever sounds like it's supposed to, Gira says, and every project reaches a few points where it might as well be abandoned. But the band keeps pushing -- the layers keep building and receding, the arrangements keep shifting. There are sleepless nights spent trying to determine how tracks transition. And finally, some semblance of a record emerges, ready to be mixed.

"That's the worst part because it's final," says Gira, 56. "Then it sounds like some dead hamburger on the street because you've listened to it so many times. I'm a horrible person to be around at that point. All I think about is music, at the expense of everything else."

Gira is speaking from outside a small rehearsal space in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. The room is crammed with amplifiers, guitars and drums, evidence that the latest iteration of Swans is preparing to take its first album in 14 years on the road. A delightful, dark and demanding record, "My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky" is, as Gira puts it, the sound of his decision to once again "make love to my demon brother." It's a loud album, heavy on crack-the-sky dynamics and sounds that, without warning, do their best to shatter the speakers.

"You [Expletive] People Make Me Sick," for instance, is a duet between Devendra Banhart and Gira's 3-year-old daughter, Saoirse. It begins as an eerie lullaby, both singers cooing over a sea of mandolin and mutated percussion. Then, suddenly, it sounds as if the whole world has crashed into a piano and a drum kit. Horns howl over the seismic clatter, and the room quakes. Even "Reeling the Liars In," the most immediate and understated track, backs Gira's stentorian baritone with a choir of ghouls, seemingly ready to storm at the master's call.

"Swans is about embracing these kinds of maelstroms of sounds again. Sound has a physical creator and destroyer property, and it's something you can't escape. It makes your body atomize," Gira says. "It's something I very intentionally cut off when I cut off Swans. But we're known for our sonic intensity, and it's something I want to embrace again."

In the 14 years since Swans' farewell album, 1996's "Soundtracks for the Blind," Gira released a half-dozen albums under the name Angels of Light. He started a family and ran Young God, a record label that has become a surprising clearinghouse for ambitious, ascendant bands. Gira produced the best two Banhart albums when Banhart was but another bearded wastrel. Similarly, Calla and Akron/Family made their most adventurous music with Gira, years before they signed with much bigger independent labels.

"I'm a record producer. I look at it as a clinical task, with quiet and nuance and opposition," Gira says. "I think about things pictorially."

Today, the picture is pretty good. The record is done, and the band has 10 more days of rehearsal at Gira's Catskills home before hitting the road. When he decided to reconstitute Swans, Gira asked only those musicians he knew he could tour with for the better part of a year. He wanted bandmates who understood where the group had been and where it might go. And he wanted it to be loud. Back inside the Brooklyn rehearsal room, that's exactly the sound of success.

"I decided to start touring Swans, and it's like mainlining heroin," he says with a laugh. "There are six people in there with really large amplifiers playing at loud volumes. It's like being in some chamber of ecstasy."

Currin is a freelance writer.

Swans Appearing with Baby Dee on Wednesday at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets: $20 in advance, $25 at the door. 202-667-4490. http://www.blackcatdc.com. The Download: For a sampling of Swans' music, check out: From "My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky": "Reeling the Liars In" "Jim" From "Young God": "I Crawled" Michael Gira

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