New York's seminal No Wave band Swans, led by singer Michael Gira, spent much of the last of three decades making uncompromising music. Now, Gira has emerged from a long hiatus with the release of My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky in 2010 and The Seer in 2012 and, this year, a world tour that is bringing them wider audiences and greater critical acclaim than ever before.
"The longer you hang around and the longer you manage not to die, the more likely you are to be noticed", Gira said in an interview ahead of a show this week in Istanbul, one of the far-flung destinations where the band is playing.
The young Turks at the sold-out show applauded politely as the group of musicians, very much their seniors, ambled onstage at the Istanbul Culture and Art Foundation's smart new venue. What awaited the crowd was something not best described as heavy: a performance that started with an enchanting drone and gradually built into a tremulous, raucous wail.
Swans established the stylistic groundwork for a generation of heavy rockers and art bands in the decades that followed, including Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Tool. Early records were almost unbearably dense. Later output lost the tinnitus-inducing volume but maintained the menace.
In Istanbul, the stage was densely packed with tall stacks of amplifiers and speakers, as well as a drum kit, pedal steel player and percussionist with two gongs (and by the end of the show, no shirt).
The songs relied on ecstatic repetition but were still disparate, at moments sounding like the motorik blues of early Hawkwind or a Parliament-style bass groove. There were jazzy shuffles and hints of Morricone, all overlaid with Gira's mantras on personal failure and expressions of obsessive love.
All the while, the performance edged towards grander and grander crescendos. After a little more than an hour, they reached the upper limit of volume and intensity and stopped. The band was exhausted. Gira said, "Thank you", and waved to the crowd. And then they started again and went on for another intense hour.
"The goal for us is to be inside the sound just as much as the audience", Gira said. "The music is playing itself or playing us. We're not really playing it".
The Swans set is almost fully comprised of brand-new, unrecorded material. (They plan to put out the songs a year from now, funding the new record with the release of a limited-edition live album on Gira's own Young Gods record label). "I'm more interested in things that you have to struggle to make, because it's about making it happen with your blood and with your body, as well as with your intellect and your soul", Gira said.
The band thrives on discomfort. To get the blood pumping, Gira has been known to have the venue shut off its air conditioning, mostly to save his voice from blasts of cold air. The side effect, he said, is a breakdown of the divide between performer and audience so that they can more closely share the same physiological experience. It's not without its risks: Gira has almost fainted onstage.
The 59-year-old singer has had trouble supporting himself at times in his career. Even at the height of Swans' popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, money from record sales was often not enough to live on. The Young Gods label and other groups Angels of Light and Skin, with Swans member Jarboe, were also labours of love.
Gira came to Istanbul last year to play a solo show. Previously, he passed through Europe's largest city in the late 1960s as a long-haired 15-year-old runaway. He ate at the famous Pudding Shop featured in Oliver Stone's film Midnight Express, in which the protagonist ended up in a Turkish prison for drug smuggling. Gira met a similar fate, but in Israel, where he spent time in the clink for possessing hashish.
After a brief stint at art school back in the US, Gira formed Swans in New York in 1982. He was joined on the band's first album Filth by guitarist Norman Westburg, who is part of the new incarnation. They now are joined on stage by former Swans member Christoph Hahn on pedal steel, Thor Harris of Shearwater on percussion, Chris Pravdica on bass and Phil Puleo of Cop Shoot Cop.
Gira said the decision to reform the band was one of the best he has ever made. This time, the media and the music world are listening more closely. While the new interest is appreciated, Gira said it's not essential. "I'm not impressed by the attention. In the very recent past, I was worried about how I was going to feed my children. It's just good to be able to keep working", he said.
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