Formed in New York in 1982, Michael Gira’s no-wave-derived Swans are unlike any other band on the planet. An experimental approach isn’t unique to Gira, but there simply isn’t another band that sounds remotely like Swans.
In fact, Swans isn’t really a band at all anymore. It’s always been Gira’s baby — or cygnet, perhaps — anyway. But following the conclusion of the current tour in support of last year’s typically excellent-yet-difficult album The Glowing Man, Gira announced he’ll let the rest of the band go and continue to work under the Swans name with a revolving lineup of collaborators.
To hear of such a move would be a shock from most musicians, but it’s the kind of thing Swans fans have come to expect from the enigmatic, talented, and charming Gira, a multi-instrumentalist as well as the band’s singer-songwriter. This is just what he does, and it’s why Swans has always been such an unusual and compelling project.
Gira always looks for ways to create something completely fresh with new bodies of work, and to find new ways of reinventing old songs live. What better way than to say goodbye to everybody else who has been a member of Swans for the past few years — including guitarist Norman Westberg, who has been with Swans since 1983, and bassist Christopher Pravdica, who has been there since 1988 — and go it alone?
“The Glowing Man is the final album with this lineup,” Gira says. “No disrespect to the current band. It’s been together longer than any other lineup of the band: seven years. After this tour, I’ll revert to the mode I employed in the mid-to-late-’80s and ’90s, where I use different musicians for each album and tour. But this was the most committed, telepathic group of individuals that I’ve ever worked with. Inevitably, when you stay in the same room for that length of time, you start to read each others’ thoughts to the degree that nothing is surprising.”
That loss of spontaneity and surprise is like a virus to Gira, who thrives on the ability to come up with something unique. In essence, Swans is still a rock ’n’ roll band. For the most part, the musicians employ traditional instruments and, when you dig and scratch through the experimental noise a bit, there are even traditional song elements, like a verse-bridge-chorus structure. In that regard, Gira is very much like a musical David Lynch. The linear elements are there, but you might just have to mentally arrange them so they make sense. Or else just go along for the ride.
This begs the question of who will tour with Gira. For now, the frontman is focussed on the current tour. Only when it ends this November will he move on. The Glowing Man record is still fresh in Gira’s mind, and he wasn’t entirely happy with the critical reception it received.
“But that’s irrelevant,” he says. “I certainly do succumb to temptation and read reviews sometimes, but it’s unwise even when they’re good. I want to stay untainted and not be colored by a direct dialog with the public and critics.”
To Be Kind came out two years before The Glowing Man, and Gira points out that the group really grew together as a unit, as one body, between the two albums.
“On tour, we were doing older material and remaining faithful to the recorded versions, but then we had a moment where we thought, ‘Fuck this,’ ”
Gira says. “Then the material started writing itself. We came up with a couple of longer pieces. It would be too generous to call them songs. But that revitalized us. To Be Kind was the peak of that, and The Glowing Man is the aftermath, the exhale.”
As Gira and the current incarnation of Swans prepare to wrap up the tour — which hits The Independent on Tuesday and Wednesday, Aug. 22 and 23 — he admits that each night is starting to feel a little more poignant. But he’s enjoying himself, and he’s looking forward to getting here.
“I love playing in San Francisco,” Gira says. “I have spent a lot of time there, for the advanced liberalism, and the music history in particular.”
Regarding the Swans set in San Francisco, it’s never easy to predict what we’ll get, not even for Gira, but he makes a valiant effort.
“There will be two entirely unrecorded pieces, though they are on a limited live album,” he says. “There will be things that we are working out just for the final tour and not just recorded material. There will be some recorded material, and it may bear some semblance to the original — but it’s mutated so much by now. We’ve not played in a month, but there will be new iterations of the music.”
We wouldn’t have it any other way. Gira has always made it his business to be as difficult and awkward to get to grips with as possible. That way, he knows that Swans devotees are the real deal. (The project isn’t attracting radio-rock fans, and one suspects that’s the way Gira likes it.) No two shows ever sound the same, and now, with Gira going alone with the name, never will those words have been more accurate.
plays with Okkyung Lee at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 22 and Wednesday, Aug. 23, at The Independent; 628 Divisadero St. 415-771-1421; $35.