Swans’ Loud Song

Bandleader Michael Gira on how the experimental rock band’s legendary volume can take its toll

While most concertgoers are used to instant gratification, Swans’ orchestrated cinematic performances crescendo into giant moments, requiring patience and attention. But the payoff of watching the experimental rock band’s live shows is exactly that kind of elevated experience. Distressingly dark, esoteric and unrelentingly loud, Swans had no chance of being a commercial success when they first appeared in the ’80s. But that was never bandleader Michael Gira’s concern. The band’s indifference and dedication to performance earned them an equally dedicated audience that followed them into 2010, when the group’s second incarnation appeared as a complex, freakishly synchronized version of what it once was.

Almost eight years later, that same lineup is playing its last tour. The musicians’ Sunday set at Psycho Las Vegas marks the second leg of their last hurrah and the first of only a handful of U.S. shows. We talked to Gira about the physical punishment his ears have endured, the pros and cons of reconstructing the band and his honest opinion of Las Vegas.

How is your hearing after the European tour?

My hearing is getting worse as we go. That’s one reason for us dissolving this particular lineup in November.

Really?

Yeah. You know, I can’t wear earplugs. It’s just too disembodied for me, so I don’t. It’s taken its toll over the last eight years, but nevertheless, it’s still quite a fulfilling experience to be playing these concerts and to be immersed in the sound, and to feel it physically as well.

I wish people could hear what I hear. We intentionally set up the amplifiers the same way every night, no matter if it’s a huge stage or small stage. [They’re] very close to each other in a sort of semicircle, gently facing in at me. So I’m hearing everything and everybody. It’s just kind of the sweet spot. When it works, it’s pretty tremendous. I’m gonna miss it after November, when I change Swans and make it into something else. It’s been a great experience.

Other than the physical toll, you’ve said this current lineup has pushed itself as far as it can, musically. What were the benefits of staying together that you considered before making the decision to move on?

We’re virtually telepathic at this point because we’ve been around the world, essentially in the same room together, in different places, over 200 days a year for almost eight years now. … Any long-standing band could tell you that you intuitively can tell how people are contributing. It’s a fantastic experience.

However, that has a flip side in that you become so familiar with the other person, that their smells repulse you, for instance (laughs). You know, we’re all friends, but I think that, were this to continue, it would reach the potential of becoming self-parody. The reason for disbanding is exactly that. I wanna just, as we used to say in the punk days, “fuck shit up.” Just see what happens. I may fail ingloriously, but that’s what I want to do.

You’re playing Psycho Las Vegas this weekend here in Las Vegas. What do you think about music festivals?

When someone asks me a question about the general direction of music, I’m just kind of indifferent. When we play at a festival, we just do what we do. I guess some of the band goes to see other acts, but I don’t do it because, well, first of all, my ears are oversaturated already, but I’m just not that interested, to be honest. I’d rather stay in the hotel room and read a book.

If you are living, breathing music 24/7, I could see why you wouldn’t want to be around it during your free time.

There are types of people, for instance, my friend Thurston Moore [of Sonic Youth], he’s a [musical] omnivore and collects everything. I really admire that trait in him, actually, but myself, I have almost no records, and I’m not interested in something unless it really reaches out and grabs me by the throat and I have to listen to it. I don’t think I’m alone in that. I remember reading an interview with the esteemed Quincy Jones once. He said that he found it impossible to listen to most music because his ears are so exhausted, just like mine, from always being in the studio and working so much. I just find it mostly to be a complete distraction.

What’s your honest opinion of Las Vegas?

Well, I’m not overly familiar with the current version of Las Vegas, which is, to me, a sort of parody of corporate capitalism. I’m no fan of corporate media capitalism. It’s resulted in a lot of bad things for human culture, and the earth, for sure. However, I did hitchhike through Las Vegas once, in the very early ’70s. I think I had $20 to my name. When I left, I had nothing. … That was when Las Vegas was, like, one and two stories high. I liked it. I’ve been back a couple times. I could see myself, back in my drinking days, running amok there. I think that’s a worthwhile pursuit. 

Want more Psycho Las Vegas? Check out our interview with the Melvins at vegasseven.com/melvins. 

Psycho Las Vegas

Aug. 18–20, 11 a.m., tickets start at $99, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, hardrockhotel.com

 

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