Michael Gira refines and expands his band’s orchestral din.
If not for music, Michael Gira predicts he’d still be a construction worker. It was his day job during the early ’80s, when he trashed and renovated New York lofts and apartments. At the end of 10 hours’ labor, however, Gira pursued another form of release with his band, Swans, pounding with guitars instead of hammers.
“I’m hanging Sheetrock still, just with sound,” says Gira, who revived Swans in 2010 after a 13-year hiatus. In the process he’s refined elements of both the band’s brutal early work and its atmospheric later permutations.
“The first seven years of Swans were pretty much watching the room empty as we played,” Gira recalls. The band emerged in the wake of New York’s No Wave scene, sharing roots with Sonic Youth in the loud, minimalism-inspired guitar orchestras of Glenn Branca, though also reflecting the primal repetition of the blues.
“It was an extreme experience that I had to have, and I inflicted it on the audience,” Gira says of that confrontational period. “These days, it’s a little more inclusive. I look at [the music] as an instigator of joy, whereas I don’t think I would’ve ever used that word in those days.”
It’s a sound both matured and expanded on Swans’ new two-disc album, The Seer, which patiently develops riffs and rhythms into cyclical crescendos that can prove incessant and unsettling, as the band strives for something like a Sufi state of ecstasy.
“There are lots of nuances within the basic chord,” says Gira, now 58. “It’s just an open swirl that you can lose yourself in. That’s what I gravitated toward, from growing up in the ’60s, listening to psychedelic music. It’s just looking for the peak experience inside the sound. But it’s not that highfalutin. The Stooges did the same thing in a [proto-punk] way.”
Swans incubated songs for The Seer onstage during their last tour and continued to build on them in the studio. The title track and “The Apostate” run 32 and 23 minutes respectively and have stretched longer on a tour that hits the Paradise on Oct. 11.
“It’s very structured, but there’s lots of room within the sections to move around,” Gira says. “I just let the thing grow and corral it into shape. The music sort of dictates where things go. I’m not a composer, so I kind of respond to what’s happening at the moment, sort of like a film director, like Cassavetes.”
Gira says he’s been trying to make records that work like soundtracks since the late ’80s. “In that instance, you’d need poignant, quiet moments as well as the more eruptive or apocalyptic things,” he says. To that end, The Seer features a broader palette than 2010’s largely austere My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, including strings as well as backup vocals from Akron/Family (the psych-rock combo that Gira launched on his Young Gods label), Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker from indie-rockers Low, and Gira’s ex-wife and onetime Swans mate, Jarboe.
On this album, however, the female presence centers on an aching lead vocal from Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O on “Song for a Warrior,” which shines as a stark, acoustic changeup. “I felt like some cranky old man trying to sing this beautiful lullaby,” Gira says. “I’m a producer as well as a singer, so I try to remain objective. Where my voice isn’t working, I try to get someone else.”
But on tour, says Gira, “I guess what we’re doing is a man thing.” That’s the impression cast by a shaggy, oft-shirtless guy named Thor Harris banging chimes in a chiseled, stern-faced ensemble that also features lap-steel force Christoph Hahn, longtime guitarist Norman Westberg, bassist Christopher Pravdica and drummer Phil Puleo.
On tour, the band’s been serving brand new pieces as well as a few tracks from The Seer, ignoring My Father Will Guide Me in favor of resurrecting “Coward,” an ’80s song that “doesn’t sound like the recording at all.” Gira dismisses nostalgia. “I’d rather die,” he says of reciting old material. “It has to be something that makes me feel like I’m maximizing my potential on Earth.”
Swans play the Paradise Rock Club on Oct. 11.