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Rising from the cracks of the New York City postpunk scene in the early '80s, Michael Gira and Swans' signature sound remains — even three decades later — an otherworldly sonic disturbance, pure aggression turned musical. Not obnoxious noise, but fearsome magnificence.
Gira is known for his ponderous baritone, the perfect vessel for lyrics like: "And I am the sun/I rise above the world/And when the light goes out/I kill another child." But when New Times speaks with him, the 58-year-old's voice is bright. He is eager to talk about Swans' new, epic, two-hour masterpiece, The Seer.
Despite the album's often-ominous quality, there are moments of bliss. "On this record, there's so many different atmospheres and dynamics," Gira says. "But I suppose one salient aspect is the kind of total, overwhelming sound that we achieve sometimes, which I think is a very positive thing.
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"I love it. But there's lots of nuance in it. Everything needs everything else in order to allow it to shine. I think the loud parts don't sound as big without the quiet parts, and I think the quiet parts sound even more poignant because of the other things."
Most of the songs on The Seer started as partly improvised experiments. Four began as instrumentals, some of which lasted longer than 20 minutes. And as the band explored these compositions in front of live audiences, they expanded and deepened, becoming the products of Gira and Swans' deep belief in the power of performance as a process of discovery.
"At the best moments, music plays you and not the opposite. As the sound grows, it seems like the music's leading us, and we find new things. That's why some of these pieces on the record are so long. We started playing them live, and they just kept growing and morphing just through performing, and it's not like you're playing verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure. It's open. That doesn't mean it's improvisational. We're all in the sound."
In keeping with that commitment to fresh and open exploration, Gira and Swans don't perform their older material. Besides selections off The Seer, they play only new songs from what was their first album in nearly 15 years — 2010's My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. All earlier cuts are off-limits.
"I don't want to go out and replicate what's on record or see peoples' need to experience something how it used to be," Gira explains. "I just want to make new music."
Of course, he doesn't do this to piss off those fans who might come hoping to hear the band's cover of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," which became its calling card to major labels in the late '80s. It's just that he and his bandmates work for the present.
"[Our followers] know it's not going to be some nostalgia tour," Gira says. "The responses I saw last year to the tour were absolutely tremendous, the best year we ever had. I think the Swans people come expecting to see something unique, and I just don't want to be like a lot of other bands who try to sound like their records.
"I want to make something immediate and real happen. That's what we're after."