Earlier this year, experimental rock band Swans released "To Be Kind," its third studio album since leader Michael Gira jump-started the band after a 14-year break. It's a sprawling, sometimes punishing work, with a 34-minute centerpiece called "Bring the Sun/Toussaint L'Overture" that could have been an album on its own.
CTNow spoke to Gira, who'll perform with Swans at Toad's Place in New Haven on July 6, about his music and influences. [This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.]
CTNow: "Bring The Sun/Toussaint L'Overture" holds my interest for half an hour, and it does so in a way that's very different than, say, a Fela song, or a Beethoven symphony, or something else. As a musician and songwriter, why are you attracted to longer spans of time?
Michael Gira: Well, I think the analogy of Fela is kind of apt, actually. I think those pieces are that long because that's how long they are. They just need to be that long. It just grows. In those pieces, the rhythm takes place for that long, the changes that are in there happen because of the players and because of the exigencies of the situation. It's the same thing with [Swans]: that's how it develops through playing, and playing in a very committed way, and that's what felt right. I didn't see any reason to stop it, it's not like I'm trying to make a single or something, so I just played it until it was spent.
CTNow: So a song like that, did it develop in a live moment? Is it something that came out of a combination of composition and improvisation?
MG: Yeah, that piece grew out of another 30 minute song, "The Seer," from the previous album. We just started improvising with the end and gradually going back and forth in sound checks and then also in improvising again live. It morphed into what it became, so at one time live we were playing "Bring The Sun" and then this whole piece, and it was like 60 minutes of music.
CTNow: When you take a piece like that that comes out of a live situation, and now here you are in the studio, and you're setting out a canvas for yourself to record that piece: does it have a structure in your mind?
MG: By the time we finished playing that piece, it's not really a song. Or that thing. By the time we finished performing that for a year on tour, it had a structure, pretty much, so we went in the studio and just performed it live. There's some overdubs on there of course, some orchestration, but the core of our band — we played it all together in a room with all the amps in the same room, the drums in the same room, and sort of like played it, I think without headphones actually, and just played it how we would live. I dubbed the vocals later, of course, so that was very much performed. Creating from the bottom up is important. I'll just do whatever's necessary. Some songs on the record are created from the bottom up. But this one happened to be performed live.
CTNow: Have there been some cases in the studio where you do try something new, and the results are not to your liking, whether it's a first take of something like "Bring The Sun" or something or..
MG: This is the only take of this, by the way.
CTNow: This is a first and only take?
MG: Yeah. The song "Just A Little Boy," for instance, truly sucked. Once we recorded it I realized how infantile it was and we just on-the-spot decided to play it as it appears [on the album], which is something with a lot more dynamics and feel than we had previously been playing it.
CTNow: When musicians and composers are laying out a canvas that's long — half an hour or an hour, or so whatever — they will sometimes use certain devices to sustain interest. They'll veer off into different keys, or they will develop a melodic idea until they feel it's run its course or so on. With Swans, the drone seems to be a kind of unifying element.
MG: Which is constantly shifting, however.
CTNow: What do you mean by that?
MG: Well, there's one note or a chord for the duration of each piece. I think those are sort of two different pieces, "Bring The Sun" and "Toussaint L'Overture," but those chords are shifting constantly within themselves. They're voiced differently, and played with varying degrees of intensity. There's lots of dynamics involved, tons of dynamics, and that's very deliberate, so through dynamics and through the way that you voice the chord — the way that you play the chord, how it shifts over time — is what keeps your interest, although that really isn't the goal. It just feels natural to do that.
CTNow: If you had to narrow it down, in some sense, what is the importance of the drone for you?
MG: I don't know how to describe that except to say I'm attracted to it and always have been. Even if you listen to a song like "The End" by the Doors, there's just kind of a raga that has a drone. That's something I listened to when I was a contemporary listener, when I was 12 or 13, on acid.
CTNow: That's a song that I thought about when I was listening to "Bring The Sun" this morning.
MG: Yeah, I did too, afterwards. It's not something we set out to do, but certainly that music is inside me, as much as anything else can be. The first two albums by the Doors to me are just... They're still stellar, you know?
CTNow: Absolutely. Now, is the sense of drama: is that another way of organizing a piece for you, whether it's a narrative arc of some kind, or tension and release? The Doors had a lot of that sort of thing going on. Is drama an organizing principle for you?
MG: Well I suppose so intuitively, yeah. You know who started that whole trope is the Rolling Stones, because if you think about the song "Goin' Home" ... Do you remember that song? I forget what's album that's on. [Answer: "Aftermath."] It's in the mid-'60s. In my memory, it's incredibly long, but maybe it's only six minutes or something, but it has all those dynamics and builds, and it's sort of like the precursor to "Midnight Rambler." But it's in the mid-'60s, with Brian Jones still very much active. It was in the dark, beginning part of psychedelia, some really dark hippie stuff that they did.
CTNow: You mentioned dynamics. I think that a lot of people tend to write about the loudness of Swans, but I hear just as much quietness. I hear a much wider dynamic range than in a lot of other music.
MG: Absolutely, that's why I think it's truly, frankly stupid to describe us as this "turns up to 11" kind of group, you know. It's nothing to do with the intent, so, yeah, the dynamics are very important.
CTNow: What has to happen, in your mind, for a Swans performance to be a successful one?
MG: Well, during the performance, I think it's imperative that you absolutely forget who, what, and where you are inside the music. And at the end of the performance, I suppose it would just feel like you've been run over by a truck.
CTNow: Does that go for you or the audience?
MG: Maybe both. I was talking about myself, actually. But I'll include the audience in that too.
SWANS performs on Sunday, July 6 at Toad's Place in New Haven, with Xiu Xiu. Showtime is 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $25. Information: manicproductions.com