The Swans ? The Ugly Duckling Unabridged
Your parents would definitely not like the Swans. To explain them
would be as defeating as explaining Taoism. The Swans are, &
always have been, the voice of irony ? musically & lyrically.
Like the endearing story of The Ugly Duckling, they've matured into a sleek
& lovely God-given creature, but not without varying degrees of pain
& personal turmoil.
Where once, the Swans' live performances ? more art than music ? involved a great deal of Michael writhing & throwing himself about as if to beat himself numb in an effort to exude the essence of each song's meaning, they are now gently persuasive on stage. Jarboe, often credited for being the grace & charm of the band's image, stood mostly to the side, playing keyboards & controlling minimal samplings. She stepped into the spotlight only twice to air her lush voice. Michael now (following the release of their latest LP Love of Life ? as perfect as the Swans have ever been) stands nearly still, inducing the already entranced audience every few songs with gentle acoustics & bits of explanation.
I had to examine & weigh the images & smooth the subtle changes in recalling the Swans from their beginnings to now; weigh what all was in my mind against Gira's oftimes jaded answers to rather personal & thought provoking questions to understand, & even empathize, with all the mystery & all the poisonous rumors that stand behind the Swans like a thespian backdrop.
Beauty & sadness, stirred in with the horror of longing & the nightmares of disbelonging. Isolation, ant-isms & aesthetics....
The first time I ever heard the Swans I was driving through one of the blackest nights in history; driving alone along a narrow strip of road that embroiders the lofty cliffs surrounding a portion of Seattle's Lake Washington. Something from Children of God came on alternative radio. I stopped the car on the sharp point of a hairpin curve & did nothing but listen It was my first lesson in learning how not to breathe.
Aesthetics is a word I can't seem to force from my mind when I think about, listen to, or observe this band. So I ask Michael about his aesthetic views.
"I don't look at them. I just get drunk a lot."
Okay. So then what's your source of strength? Where do you go to rejuvenate your personal power?
"I haven't found a source of rejuvenation yet... but I'. in the process of it, I think. But right now I feel like meat stripped to the bone."
There's a deeper tiredness here than that which grabs a hold of a man whose long & sometimes frustrating tour ended only days ago. Life, for Gira, has basically gone like this: He lived in Europe with his father until he was 13, quit school at 14, & at 15 ran away. At 18 he found himself involved in L.A.'s punk scene & in art school, but neither ultimately pleased him. He lives in New York now, devoting more energy than he actually has to the running of Young God Records, the Swans' own label. If he could be anywhere else at this moment, he'd choose New Mexico's north western corner. If he could be anywhere else ideally, it'd be 100,000 years from now; some other kind of organism.
If Gira sounds anti-human, it's because he is ? anti-waste consumption, anti-mindless capitalism, anti-fascist, anti-government, & anti-most people under the age of 78. But a vocal protester, Gira is not. He finds this kind of display limp & impotent.
What needs to be expressed, the Swans say in their music. While Michael once felt that White Light From the Mouth of Infinity their previous release, was an epitome, but he since changed his mind with Love of Life which he says is an artistic progression that pleases him.
As for the future, the band ? at least Michael & Jarboe ? plan to practice "vegetation." But not exclusively. During this loll, Michael has his own acoustic project in mind under Europe's Subrosa label. & he listens to music: the Beatles, King Crimson, Joy Division, Hendrix, Dylan, Zeppelin, Bach, Cann, the Stones, Pink Floyd, & A Feather on the Breath of God, a collection of devotional songs done by an abbess in the year 1179 A.D. He reads Nelson Agrin, Russell Banks, & William Kennedy & prefers not to dwell too much on sadness, on problems.
I inquire, if given the choice between being a devil from heaven or an angel from hell, which would he be.
"Neither," he answers quickly. "I'd be Ronald MacDonald."
It's all beginning to make sense in an ass backwards sort of way....
Does he use dreams & nightmares as song themes? It seems so....
"I rarely, if ever, remember my dreams, although on Love of Life there's some songs which talk about LSD nostalgia. Jarboe, on the other hand, has very florid & detailed dreams. Some of the songs simply start from something spiritual or personal; some memory or single perception. They used to be predominantly about body hate & the work/slavery issue."
White Light from the Mouth of Infinity was supposed to expand your audience & make the Swans somewhat more accessible. Did this happen?
"No. Unfortunate circumstances such as Rough Trade going bankrupt caused that album to get pushed aside. The major labels had the college market pretty well tied up, & so it was hard for the indies."
Do you have plans of keeping Clinton Steele? The demise of Mary My Hope [Steele's old band] is truly a loss.
"We hope so, but we just don't know. Usually people leave the band because there's inevitably some kind of conflict."
Somehow, conflict brings Jarboe to mind. It must be the ugly rumors, or an exaggerated imagination judging them in motion together. Jarboe officially joined the band in 1987 with the release of Children of God. But she'd begun working as a roadie in 1985, even playing a bit of keyboards on a couple of tours prior to being put on vinyl. Jarboe ? her presence -- suggests soft & strong; a woman who'd win an arm wrestling match, if not from sheer strength, then by executing piercing eye contact.
Jarboe takes time away from the Swans through her side projects, predominately (though ironically) in World of Skin, the Swans alter ego also on Young God Records. But there's also her solo work, particularly 13 Masks, her "very eclectic, very weird, perverse, even deranged" 14 vignettes -- 13 masks plus one real face. Which is which she refuses to disclose.
From their first release, Filth, 9 years ago, through Holy Money, Greed, Children of God, The Burning World, White Light..., & Love of Life, the Swans have gone through quite a metamorphosis. When Holy Money & Greed became self parodies & that mode exhausted & was no longer real, the Swans changed, yet remained lyrically as dark as ever. They were in the process of becoming more open & more natural musically. But never mis-judge the surface optimism of a Swans song. Still waters run deep.
One last question, I ask Michael if he's nocturnal by nature.
"It ends up that way. My apartment has no windows, & so I'm never sure what time it is. I guess i usually get to sleep around 4 or 5 a.m. Sometimes I'm most creative at night, but not for the past few months. I've been a zombie these last three months.... I'm usually going to sleep about the time last night's hangover is setting in."
I ponder his definition of sadness. Having nothing to do with your life, or hunger. The real things....
This man is quite thoroughly tired, but this man is not so very sad as he sounds. But then I remember a swans cry of pain is pure silence.