Guided by the wit, wisdom and solitary zeal of band leader Michael Gira, New York-based Swans are something of an uncompromised ideal in the shadowy worlds between post-punk, industrial noise and post-rock.
The band has just capped 30 years since forming and nearly three years since Gira reconstituted the band after a long hiatus with the release of The Seer, a double-length dose of music that unfolds chanting drone-rock, ambient builds of percolating guitar and noise rock blasts.
Several of the songs developed on tour, including 23-minute closer “Apostate”. The band then laid down one-take recordings of several songs both mid-tour and at the conclusion of a tour.
“I have this great group of friends that I can work with live,” Gira says.
Currently, Swans are developing three unrecorded songs as part of the live set. The songs, which expand to fill an hour’s worth of the set, don’t even have finished lyrics yet, Gira says.
Gira built other songs on acoustic guitar, aided by his drummer. It sets up for two types of songs — ones that thrive on the full-band dynamic and others, like “Lunacy”, that Gira could strip down and play on acoustic guitar.
The acoustic-led approach guided Gira, as he played under the name Angels of Light, during the more than ten years that marked Swans’ hiatus. The idea was to make something happen musically without the aid of electric amplification and volume.
“Angels of Light was almost exclusively that,” Gira says.
With Swans, volume is back, especially live. But Gira is quick to note that the high volume isn’t just a macho affectation or done just for the sake of extremity.
It’s more of an experiential thing, where repetition and noise elevate the player and, hopefully, the listener to new sonic worlds.
Gira compares it to the sensation of flying or the moment just before orgasm — where one is in control and out of control simultaneously.
“It’s like being lifted up to heaven. It’s a very positive thing to me,” he says.
Gira experiences the full blast of volume on stage, leaving him a little hard of hearing while on tour. Once off the road, the hearing gradually returns to normal.
“I don’t wear earplugs and doing this every night is a little challenging,” he admits.
Whether coming from a loud or a quiet beginning, once the basics of a songs are done, Gira adds to the tracks in the studio, doing “orchestration in my own hapless way,” the self-effacing Gira notes.
“I build things up and then hack away the excess,” he says.
The recorded songs that subsequently re-appear at Swans live show also remain in a perpetual state of adding and subtracting.
The night-by-night versions of a song are unique, as the six-member band find new avenues to explore each given show. Gira says simply reciting the songs as if they were pop tunes holds no interest to him.
“I don’t like to look at anything as finished,” he says.
Since the 2010 revival of Swans, Gira and longtime guitarist Norman Westberg are joined by Thor Harris, Christoph Hahn, Phil Puleo and Chris Pravdica. Jarboe, another longtime Swans collaborator, does not play with the group, but did contribute vocals on The Seer.
The same line-up has been in place since reconstituting as a band, making it one of the few Swans line-ups to not be in semi-constant flux.
“I love this group of gentlemen,” Gira says.
During the last ten years, Gira has also found the means to pay for his albums through a sort of crowdsourcing method that predates Kickstarter.com and other such funding websites.
Via his Young God Records label, Gira has offered up limited edition, handmade CD that he personally packages, numbers and signs, in order to raise money for future recordings.
A solo CD funded recording for Swans’ 2010 album My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope To the Sky. A live Swans set provided money to record The Seer.
“It has to do with the state of the record industry really. It’s one way to continue,” he says.
The growth of Swans fanbase, aided during the act’s hiatus by the internet, has been instrumental in letting the limited edition releases find success.
Gira says that people who have an inclination towards the music Swans play have found an easier time finding the band.
“We’re not fashionable. We don’t have a scene or really a style,” he says.
The 2010 album paved the way to The Seer, as it showed the band learning just how to play together. Subsequent touring laid rest of the groundwork and now Gira is unequivocal about how well The Seer and the new material have come together.
“We reached our stride here,” he says.
Swans w/ Xiu Xiu and Vverevvolf Grehv play the Bourbon Theatre, 1415 O St. in Lincoln., Thursday, Sept. 20th at 9 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 day-of-show. For more information, visit bourbontheatre.com.