Swans: Sacrifice And Transcendence: The Oral History 1911036394, 9781911036395

"I’m no stranger to failure, and I’m aware it can arrive at any minute—as it often has. You have to keep things clo

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SWANS SACRIFICE AND TRANSCENDENCE THE ORAL HISTORY NICK SOULSBY A Jawbone ebook First edition 2018 Published in the UK and the USA by Jawbone Press 3.1D Union Court 20–22 Union Road London SW4 6JP England www.jawbonepress.com Text copyright © Nick Soulsby. Volume copyright © 2018 Outline Press Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this book covered by the copyrights hereon may be reproduced or copied in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in articles or reviews where the source should be made clear. For more information contact the publishers.

For Stacey, Kalijah and Devaune: it’s an honour knowing such an exceptional family and such good people.



INTRODUCTION The enduring creative vitality of Michael Gira and Swans across a period of four decades is near-unrivalled in the annals of music. Music history divides fairly cleanly into artists who have been popular and artists of significance to the future direction of sound. Swans were most definitely the latter— their influence is all over countless subgenres of modern rock-orientated music—but, as impressively, this past decade has established them as a band with a burgeoning fan-base and well-earned acclaim. Founded in 1982, the band established a formidable critical reputation prior to their initial dissolution in 1997. Swans’ music created suspended moments where sound was so all-engulfing that both audience and performers existed briefly outside of the mechanics of time or flesh, forgetting oneself entirely. Few bands are willing to attempt, let alone succeed in attaining, such physical and metaphysical intensity. Swans, in 1997, already deserved to be expounded on in book form. It’s surprising, to me, that this volume—in 2018—is the first. At this point in time, with the band having accomplished the feat of returning to life and eclipsing their existing reputation and heritage, a book testifying to their remarkable journey was certainly due. Four new albums revitalised Swans’ existing legend and earned them a new standing as one of the finest bands to tour the planet in recent years. There was no talk of a ‘return to form’—a damning phrase nearly always indicating wishful thinking, pale pink echoes of past triumph, and a talent long-since dissipated. Swans created music that leapt into the future, never sounding like a rehash of their past, yet bore the considerable weight of the band’s legacy. The critical response was resounding; audiences grew year on year throughout the band’s six-and-ahalf year return.

With the current line-up disbanding in November 2017 and future iterations in the pipeline, the time felt right for a book on Swans. This work is an oral history composed of the voices of some 125 individuals who played a part in the past four decades of music created by Michael Gira either with Swans or as part of other identities under which he has travelled. Across this introduction I’ve adopted a thematic approach, tackling Gira himself, the people who have made up the band, the time and place in history during which the band arose, and then their position as a unit operating within the music business. My desire is to provide at least some dissection and context for the story that unfolds, given that pauses for contemplation play little part in the flood of life and memory therein. In The Orbit Of Gira The beating heart of Swans is, and has always been, Michael Rolfe Gira. It is impossible to disentangle the man from the project: it is his life’s work, and it is fair to say that there would be no Swans without Gira. There is a misguided tendency, however, to speak in absolutes: ‘Gira is Swans and Swans is Gira.’ This is a significant oversimplification. More accurately, Swans are a phenomenon called into being at the intersection of four elements: the unknowable vision in Gira’s mind; the part of it he is able to articulate at a given moment; the reactions of a shifting cast of musicians interpreting what is communicated to them; and the way the music changes in response to how those individual interpretations are combined. It’s very telling that Gira has always declined a solo career. Over 90 percent of his considerable output has been expressed via collaborative entities: Swans, Skin, Angels Of Light. The arrival of computer technology in the mid-90s provided musicians the opportunity to abandon communal creation altogether in favour of warping and designing sound alone via machines. Gira experimented with this path on 1996’s Soundtracks For The Blind, and with the Body Lovers/Body Haters albums of 1997, only to declare this approach unsatisfying. A common reading of musical figures is the cheap trash approach of ‘great man’ history in which reality is reduced to single individuals— usually men—who impose a near-divine will upon characters who simply act out the role dictated for them. This approach belittles both the influence

of the many people who have contributed to Swans and the power of Gira himself. Gira’s desire in music is not some egotistical confession of self, hence why he rarely releases solo works or works under his own name. His greatest talent—and Swans’ defining feature—is the way the band’s entire sound flexes to utilise the strengths of the musicians involved. Gira has shown an ever-maturing ability to shape and steer the surprises and happy accidents that arise through the active participation of a community. Given Gira provides Swans’ core vision, lyrical bite, and the overall form into which all collaborators must fit, it is inevitable that observers look to Gira’s personal biography to explain the band’s character. Gira’s childhood is barely conceivable to most people. A wealthy Californian family background, intelligent parents, and the vast US federal government support unleashed by the G.I. Bill created something that looks, in retrospect, like the American dream of the 50s. This would all collapse spectacularly in a welter of alcoholism, parental abandonment, divorce, and a family home gutted by fire. Gira’s brother, Daniel, recognises a critical factor: ‘Mike was at that vulnerable age. You could call it the sweet spot or the bitter spot—he was seven or eight.’ Daniel was much younger and unable to comprehend what was occurred; Robert, their older brother, was entering his mid-teens and better able to detach himself both mentally and physically from the situation at home; Michael was old enough to know what was happening but still too young not to internalise it. He developed a stutter, acted out violently, took drugs, was thrown out of formal education—and all before reaching teenhood. The next act would see him living as a teenage runaway in Europe and the Middle East, spending time in jail and working manual labour positions, before eventually being returned to the US, where he would achieve the academic requirements for admittance to the Otis Art Institute. One response would be to rehash the dull and lazy cliché of a traumatised childhood birthing a suffering artist. Nonsense. Suffering rarely creates great art. More usually, it creates social dysfunction, criminality, chemical addiction, malformation of personality—none of which are inherently creative. The truth is, it is impossible to claim that Gira’s traits as an adult are simply consequential damage. Who can say who Gira would have been given other circumstances?

An alternative reading of Gira’s life sees him cast as living testament to corporate conservative platitudes in which force of will overcomes all obstacles to an individual’s inevitable rise. Again, nonsense. Gira’s musical objectives relied on him finding creative collaborators, and his wilfulness has sabotaged him repeatedly by alienating people. Whatever force of will he possesses has mattered only so much in the face of wider circumstances and others’ wishes. A better reading is that it is impossible to quantify or measure the impact of Gira’s youth upon Swans: it is both certain and unknowable. One can be shocked at his youth while acknowledging that educated parents created a highly literate child; that an Israeli jail was no place for a child while accepting that the tatty library therein provided the first seed of Gira’s desire to be an artist; that his entire family possess an admirable work ethic while noting it has still meant a life lived, in Gira’s case, in semi-poverty and obscurity. The most crucial point is that Gira, the primary witness, does not consider himself as a victim. His achievements, and his flaws, deserve to be appreciated without being reduced to an acting out of trauma. Where does that leave us? With the need to measure Gira’s actions as an adult, and how they have influenced the music. Before Swans, from 1978 to 1981, Gira’s earliest attempts to build a life in music failed for discernible reasons. In his first band, Little Cripples/Strict IDS, he shared leadership with his friend Alex Gibson; in his second band, Circus Mort, a degree of democracy was maintained, with input from all of his bandmates. Gira was unable to adapt to either scenario and was sacked in both cases, and each band then reformed without him. Being unable to negotiate his way to satisfaction, being unable to compromise, he was forced to decide that the only option remaining was to be the unequivocal leader of a band. His driven nature may not be essential to all bands, but it is uncontroversial to say that, when it comes to the sound and story of Swans, Gira’s unbending nature certainly was and is. Gira’s articulacy is laced throughout the music of Swans, even as exbandmates and colleagues simultaneously recount how utterly awful he can be at communicating emotionally. Stories abound of Gira’s aggressive reaction to compromise, interruption, broken concentration, and so forth. His perfectionism, too, could be infuriating to those called upon to endure marathon rehearsals in search of whatever mystery he is seeking. The space

for other voices within the band expanded and contracted depending on the individual or individual circumstance at a given point in time. Time and again, resorting to psychological explanations for the entirety of Swans’ chequered career fail firstly because Gira is a rational human being who reacts differently at different times, and secondly because, while Gira may be the boss, the musicians in the band possess agency and do not simply dangle from puppet-strings. The People Between 1981 and 1997, Swans would be riven by volatility. More than thirty individuals were members across a span of barely fifteen years. It is fair to trace the evolution of Swans’ sound to this churn of humanity, and not just to deliberate artistic and creative decision-making. It is unsurprising that it took a full year, across 1981–82, for a still-shifting iteration of Swans to come together around Gira and drummer Jonathan Kane. Most new bands undergo change as their creative identity coalesces, but while this arrangement was sufficient to allow a first EP to be recorded, what distinguishes Swans is that this instability would be the norm, with no lineup lasting more than a couple of years. In 1983, Swans would lose guitarist Sue Hanel, co-founder Jonathan Kane, and a slew of percussionists and bassists before attaining some degree of stability around guitarist Norman Westberg, drummer Roli Mosimann, and bassist Harry Crosby. By the close of 1984, the wheel had turned once more, and the only official band members were Westberg and Gira. Another period of change saw two drummers—Ivan Nahem and Ronaldo Gonzalez—arrive and leave before a new line-up solidified with Jarboe on keyboards and vocals, Al Kizys on bass, and Ted Parsons on drums. By the close of 1987, Parsons had departed, and Kizys was soon to follow. The recruitment of Virgil Moorefield and Jason Asnes—on drums and bass, respectively—for The Burning World wouldn’t last as far as the record’s release in early 1989. Having been a point of stability across five albums, Westberg departed after a subsequent tour with yet more new people: Kristof Hahn, Steve McAllister, and Vinnie Signorelli. It was Jarboe who would prove the most enduring presence within Swans. Far more significant than her romantic attachment to Gira, Jarboe

utterly identified with Swans’ motivating vision. She had no interest in the delinquent joys of touring, so she devoted herself to attaining perfection at every appearance. Simultaneously, Jarboe could carve out a space separate to Swans across the three Skin projects with Gira, her 1991 and 1995 solo albums, and the Beautiful People Ltd album of 1992. In each case, the fruits of those projects would find their way back into Swans, whether in the form of Skin’s more acoustic sound or the addition of Lary 7’s experimentalism. Swans ceased to exist as a touring entity between late 1989 and the Love Of Life tour of March–May 1992. As a studio band, meanwhile, there was little consistency: six individuals contributed guitar to White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity, while its successor, Love Of Life, has four bassists. The quickening pace of the revolving door—with Gira and Jarboe as the sole constants—was not accidental. Without label backing, there was no way to finance a full-time band all year round. Also, Gira drew a rational conclusion based on the evidence of Swans’ fractious line-ups. A decade of instability confirmed that musicians simply wouldn’t endure. Musicians left to join more democratic outfits, to regain creative independence, or simply because they couldn’t stomach his aggressiveness. This was far more fundamental than a question of personalities. Musicians would relish Swans’ peaks, then grow jaded, tire, and leave exhausted as Gira pushed them to find those same peaks but in new ways. The seeds of Swans’ future had, however, been planted. One unintentional benefit of Swans’ constant shake-ups was that it created a pool of individuals for whom Swans was a known quantity, and who could be invited back once they’d had time to put the exhaustion wrought by the band behind them. Roli Mosimann returned as producer as early as 1988; Westberg played on White Light; Al Kizys returned as touring bassist in 1992; the entire mid-80s line-up—Kizys, Westberg, Parsons—reconvened to record 1994’s The Great Annihilator. Other trusted partners would come back and forth. Most significantly, guitarist Clint Steele contributed to ten Swans records and side-projects between 1990 and 1998, while Bill Rieflin has been present on ten projects between The Great Annihilator and 2016’s The Glowing Man. The final studio recordings in the ‘original’ run of Swans were made by a 1995 touring line-up consisting of guitarist Vudi, percussionist Larry Mullins, and bassist Joe Goldring alongside Jarboe and Gira. A line-up of

Phil Puleo, Clint Steele, and Bill Bronson would exist for the 1997 tour, but otherwise the absence of an actual band for the creation of Soundtracks For The Blind felt like a logically inevitable end-point, with Gira working alone with engineer Chris Griffin to convert archive recordings, the session material from the ’95 tour, material by Jarboe, loops, found sounds, and ambient noise, into a remarkable magnum opus. This was the end: Gira named the tour Swans Are Dead and spent interviews describing the band’s history as a legacy of failure. Gira intended his next guise, Angels Of Light, to feature a shifting cast of characters, but he couldn’t help forming a band around Thor Harris, Dana Schechter, Larry Mullins, and Cassis Staudt. That line-up surfaced for touring around the New Mother album of 1999; peaked on its successor, How I Loved You, in 2001; then fell apart during the recording of 2003’s Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home, for which Gira dumped the band and finished the album with guest musicians. He would subsequently tour with Pat Fondiller, returnee Kristof Hahn, and recent Young God Records signing Devendra Banhart before embedding his next protégées, Akron/Family, as his band for the final three Angels Of Light releases. The earlier seed came to fruition in 2010, when Swans returned with a line-up forged from trusted friends. Norman Westberg, Kristof Hahn, and Phil Puleo were all former Swans; Thor Harris (and Hahn, too) had been a part of Angels Of Light; then they were joined by a newcomer, token youth and Young God Records recording artist Chris Pravdica, who had known Gira more than a decade. Perhaps more surprisingly, this line-up would make consistency a hallmark, the departure of Harris and the integration of keyboardist Paul Wallfisch being the sole amendment. Observing a history in which only a bare handful of people managed more than a couple of years in Swans, then one in which everyone lasted half a decade, one might ask: what changed? One key point is a touch ‘chicken and egg’: in Swans’ original run, the band did not tour very regularly or extensively, with the result that musicians needed to have other outlets—certainly a job, likely another band—in order to sustain themselves, because musicians need to play both for creative satisfaction and for money. At the same time, the regular exits would further prevent Swans from touring while the band had to find new members, prepare them, and get to a point where they could perform with the required precision.

The most recent line-up, by contrast, were on the road with few breaks or pauses, thus allowing them to earn a living and the enjoyment of creating music. Familiarity also matters: Gira’s strong leadership offers significant benefits, and these were people who were not unaware of his more abrasive tendencies. Jarboe had called her first album following the break-up of Swans Anhedoniac: a direct summation of the creative drive underpinning Swans, in which there was an inability to feel pleasure. As the inner vision driving Gira remains impossible to express in its entirety, each fresh pinnacle reached by Swans would be succeeded by dissatisfaction and a need to find it anew. Gira would recognise this conundrum by initially considering ‘The Pleasure Seekers’ as the name for his next project before adopting the redemptory promise of Angels Of Light. Jarboe is accurate—despite Gira’s insistence to the contrary—in recognising that Swans, as originally constituted, was not a band—a concept bound up in the imagery of brotherhoods and family—but an art project working in the medium of sound. Demanding that people try to answer a vision only he could see was, understandably, too much, particularly when combined with Gira’s lack of tact as a people-manager. Since 2010, there has been far more focus on, and celebration of, fraternity as a critical part of the band’s performance, whether in the way the musicians are described or even the way they link hands and bow together at the close of each show. Alongside this has come greater scope for creative involvement by the various members and the reining in of Gira’s indelicacy. Equally importantly, finally, there has been a chance to make a genuine living. The result is a discography marked by both iterative change and seismic shape-shifting. The band’s taut and wired debut EP from 1982 bears little resemblance to the spit-flecked growl of the following year’s Filth; the weight developed on Cop in 1984 grew into the spaciousness of 1986’s Greed and Holy Money albums, before giving way to 1987’s Children Of God and its dynamic shifts between pounding heaviness and loud quiets. The warm, Americana-tinted sound of 1989’s The Burning World was succeeded by the baroque orchestrations of White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity. After 1992’s Love Of Life interspersed its songs with arresting pieces of spoken word over instrumental backdrops, 1994’s The Great

Annihilator stripped down to Swans’ most ‘rock’ arrangements, before Soundtracks For The Blind forged an epic tapestry from a range of audio sources. The Swans who gathered for 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky did not rehash past glories. Instead, they hybridised the acoustic vibe of Angels Of Light with the impactful dynamism achieved on the final two Swans tours of 1995 and 1997. The subsequent three albums —The Seer, To Be Kind, and The Glowing Man—form an unofficial trilogy in which, for the first time, a musical vocabulary was honed and fully explored over successive albums and across a relentless period of touring. The Window The very existence of Swans owes much to a particular moment in history. Post-bankruptcy New York presented unique circumstances for artists, as Lydia Lunch perceptively comments: ‘There are many artistic cycles either when a place is completely bankrupt or decrepit, or when a war has just happened or is about to happen. We could talk about Paris in the 20s, Germany in the early 30s, Chicago in the 40s, Memphis in the 50s, HaightAshbury in the 60s, LA, New York and London in the late 70s, Berlin for a while in the 80s.’ Economic collapse drove businesses and workers out of former industrial areas, creating a brief window in which a surfeit of cheap or abandoned urban space existed right in the heart of the city. This was doubly significant because New York was the East Coast hub for the music, art, and film industries—the world’s most concentrated physical and intellectual infrastructure supporting performance, promotion, and distribution of the creative arts. The combination of these two phenomena —outlaw space and established industry—within a single geographically concentrated area allowed an array of exceptionally esoteric artists access to the numerous forms of support needed to turn their difficult work into a sustainable existence. Furthermore, New York’s crisis period forged a community consisting of musicians, filmmakers, visual artists, performance artists, writers, and poets—all within a walkable geographic space. Well-connected luminaries of previous generations rubbed shoulders with young firebrands, and breakfast after a night out might mean coffee and donuts at a table alongside Phillip Glass and Allen Ginsberg. This intermingling encouraged

neutrality regarding medium. The tight circle of individuals involved learnt to prioritise the underlying expression and to be flexible regarding format because they relied on one another fulfilling the vacancies in each other’s work. What one saw in the late 70s was musicians taking part in theatrical performance; actors presenting their friends’ poetry; poets writing screenplays; filmmakers recording bands; visual artists making music. Observing the community that came of age in this unique time and place, one sees this openness repeatedly in Lunch’s career as musician, actress, writer, spoken-word artist; in musician Arto Lindsay’s theatre work and creation of carnival events; in Thurston Moore’s existence as musician, poet, visual artist, publisher. There were tangible benefits. Swans could rehearse right in the city centre; they didn’t need a car to get to gigs; they could find rental accommodation on occasional wages; Gira’s friend Sonda Andersson Pappan could design their album cover; her cousin, Glenn Branca, would release Swans’ early recordings; Sonic Youth would team up with them for a first tour; friends like Jim Thirlwell would pitch Swans’ music to UK record labels; A&R people like Kate Hyman would recommend Swans to industry friends, while Michael Alago would sign them himself. Beyond the people, Swans were able to access a range of studio options, to hone their sound and establish their reputation at a number of nearby venues, and to make friendly connections that allowed them to tour the US and also to make the leap to Europe. For Swans, a crucial further benefit of arrival in this ‘window’ was that this was one music scene that wasn’t centred on any particular sound. The openness toward format meant no pledge of allegiance was required to anything that could be lazily slapped with a genre tag. This has allowed Swans to outlive and outgrow any scene or sound they have ever been associated with. It is one of the rare moments in music history where a band could arise and exist forever as a polyglot, speaking in whatever tongues arrived with its collaborators, echoing but never belonging to any specific musical lineage, always moving on, on. It is why, in 2018, we can look at a band that is simultaneously an enduring link to that fertile New York moment, a rare surviving name of both 80s and 90s underground music, and a brand new band working far beyond nostalgic appeal. How could there be nostalgia for a band that never repeated itself?

The Business Swans came into being at a time when, particularly in core hubs like New York, a new wave of independent labels emerged to cater for and sell bands building on punk and post-punk. Swans’ trajectory, across the 80s, was unremarkable in many ways. The band’s first releases would emerge on ‘one-man’ imprints such as Heiner Stadler’s Labor Records and Branca’s Neutral; then they moved on to London-based labels Some Bizarre (on the sub-label K.422) and Mute (on the sub-label Product, Inc.). A typical circle of virtue existed, with each new release stoking audiences, press, and interest at labels, thus fuelling the next move. Swans’ next step was more audacious. Signing to a major label subsidiary was not, in 1988, a tried-and-tested path for US underground bands of their generation. Swans benefitted from a wider industry trend that started with Hüsker Dü’s move to Warner Bros. Records—the canary in the coalmine—and would then accelerate, leading to a veritable frenzy across 1990–91 and the gradual integration of the indie and mainstream corporate structures in the 90s and beyond. Michael Alago’s signing of Swans to MCA’s UNI subsidiary made the band one of the underground’s frontrunners at the time. The deal was ill-fated. UNI was an experiment that ended in closure after barely two years; by then, the label had already declined to pick up its option for a second Swans album. Swans had never been selling in huge amounts, nor would involvement with a major label convert the band’s critical cachet into figures likely to interest corporate leadership. At the time, an entire genre drawing inspiration from Swans was arising around bands like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails, while stars like Metallica would cite them as a favourite—but no one wanted to sign Swans. The question arises as to why that was. Swans unpredictability, while a boon in terms of the band’s creative longevity, was poison for traditional marketing and A&R. Who knew which Swans they were signing? The ‘loudest band in the world’ had become a folksy Americana troupe covering Blind Faith’s ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’, then something else by 1991. Swans had shed their increasingly macho, male audience but they were only just building a new one. The sonic shift did not lack artistic integrity, but it confused audiences and critics—basically anyone listening.

Responding to crisis—the need to repay debt incurred while on UNI, and to generate an income—Gira would form Young God Records to allow Swans’ music to be licensed elsewhere. A bustle of activity in 1990–91 would see two reissues, an archival compilation, a live bootleg, one album as Skin, and a new Swans record, White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity —all of which would be catastrophically undermined by the bankruptcy of the label’s distributor, Rough Trade, in 1991. The remainder of Swans’ existence would see the involvement of a confusing number of entities: Sky Records, Some Bizarre, Rough Trade in Germany, Invisible, Revolver, Atavistic. The next crisis brewed. Swans were able to keep going but could barely afford to tour, and as such there were only brief flickers of live activity during 1991–97. In the background, since 1982, Swans’ music had been released by or sub-licensed to around twenty-five labels, creating severely tangled finances. Gira couldn’t see which ex-members of Swans were owed money, or for what, and nor did he own the rights to a lot of his out-of-print music, thus restricting his ability to reissue it. Swans’ frugal economic condition made the band extremely vulnerable, and responsive, to economic reality. Conversations with Todd Cote and Kevin Wortis around 1994–95 would open the door to Gira having professional tour organisers and management. Their support would bring resolution to the issues regarding revenue, and would also restore Gira’s ownership of most of Swans’ back catalogue. The price, however, was the decision to annul Swans. Wortis couldn’t envisage taking responsibility for Swans’ considerable legacy and reputation. Those around Gira saw the end of his relationship with Jarboe as the end of the band, too, although Jarboe feels those other voices were more significant than the change in circumstance for her and Gira. Gira’s interviews at the times simply reiterated the end of Swans as a chance for liberation. The next decade would, in many ways, be a flourishing. Young God Records expanded from being an outlet for Gira’s work into a chance to release the work of those he respected, and then into a label actively signing artists to develop and move onto larger indie labels. Gira’s canniness saw him build a compelling package that could be offered to artists. His reputation mattered in terms of drawing attention; his name on a tour meant he could give exposure to artists on their first tour; he was a talented

producer and arranger of their works; he could partner them with Cote as their booking agent; and he would actively collaborate with and mentor younger artists like Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family. The move from full-time artist to business/back office is not uncommon in advancing musical careers—Gira was just doing it on a DIY indie scale. MP3s, the internet, online video, and streaming would devastate Young God Records. Regardless of how critically well-received each new release was, sales were a fraction of what had come before, and the vastly reduced revenue—after the significant costs involved in recording, production, manufacture, distribution, PR—left little to divide between Gira and the musicians involved. Since selling perfume or taking cheques from oligarchs was not really an option for the average grassroots independent artist, and with tours recouping some costs but margins too low to give new artists much leeway to development, Gira ceased releasing new artists. Restoring Swans made artistic sense as well as commercial sense in 2010. Jarboe had initiated Swans’ online presence in the mid-90s, so there was already a mechanism for Gira to communicate directly with core fans and to promote his releases. A further early innovation was Gira’s adoption of handmade releases, since that tangible connection to the artist was one of the things that couldn’t be reproduced and shared electronically. To fans, it was not insignificant to receive a personalised thank-you note in the post or a limited-edition product with a hand-painted/printed cover. Gira would sell a home demo release to provide funding for the first Swans’ album of the twenty-first century, and this pattern would be repeated, given the low margins on touring a band with as many members, as much equipment, as many breakages, as Swans. The collapse of the music industry continues to be a factor. Gira mentioned in interview a tense phone call sometime in 2013–14 during which he had to ask his wife what to do: the money needed to complete one of Swans’ new albums would empty his entire life savings at a time when Swans were more successful than ever, in most respects. Jennifer Gira told him to go for it, and luckily the gamble paid off. Touring and recording for a majority of the year, with young kids, a wife, a home, and with the full costs of Swans as a recording and touring entity falling on the shoulders of Gira—there was still a refusal to cut corners. The crucial point of Swans has always been an adaptive combination of responsiveness to commercial conditions while not allowing

those conditions to prevent the attainment of the total experience Gira wishes to create, experience, and share. Committing Swans To The Page A grown man describing a shared psychedelic experience brought on solely through sound; a grown woman brought to tears as Gira roared, ‘Love! Love! LOVE!’ in a moment of ecstatic communion with an audience; a woman witnessing a performance of such intensity that she felt it was a deliberate attempt to die on stage and could only say ‘Good job!’ when she met him afterward … what words could describe the power of what had been witnessed? Throughout the research for this book I was reminded that it is a privilege to have someone share a part of their life and time. My liking for oral history has always been that it honours the stories people want to tell, rather than a single privileged view, and the way it which it prioritises the rush of events, the feeling of a moment, over calculated appraisals. It’s underappreciated how much energy is transmitted when someone tells a story. Finishing a phone interview, I would walk away elated, enthused, delighted by the people who spent time with me for this book. The energy they gave to me is what fuelled the book to completion. This book has been built up on the basis of 140 interviews with 125 individuals, representing 250–300 hours of testimony, requiring 500–600 hours of transcription, in addition to the countless hours hunting individuals across the internet, emailing back and forth, reviewing the transcripts, writing thousands of words of questions, and so forth. My desire has been to forge the first comprehensive portrayal of one of those rare bands of the past four decades to have made music that matters. It has been a fortuitous coincidence that Marco Porsia has, simultaneously, been working on the documentary Where Does A Body End?—the most comprehensive visual document of the band’s existence—which will also see release this year. I’d like to thank Marco for his decency and supportiveness throughout. Part of my motivation for writing the book was how under-documented Swans have been. Their bibliography, barring entries in rock encyclopaedias, consists of Phil Puleo’s My Time In Swans: A Photo Journal. I admit I’m envious of how Puleo’s photos capture the relaxed, fun, carefree camaraderie of life on the road. Beyond that, there are only

two more works of note. The first is Thor Harris’s An Ocean Of Despair, in which he describes his experience of depression—a compelling tale from a man who purveys such enthusiasm for life, and worth reading as context for his role in keeping up morale in Angels Of Light and Swans. The second is Michael Gira’s The Consumer, alongside smaller collections such as Eight Stories and The Egg. Devendra Banhart summarised Gira’s gift for words to me as follows: ‘Michael can write an entire film in four lines.’ As if written with a scalpel instead of a pen or typewriter, every tale is cut precisely, even as the most hallucinatory scenes are spun. The connection to his lyrics is very clear. As editor and interviewer, I’m always keenly aware that I wield a degree of power through the questions I ask and the stories I feel are compelling enough that I reproduce them in the final text. While that in itself is unavoidable, I did attempt to mitigate that power. In interview, it meant learning to be quiet so that people would fill the blank space in whichever way they saw fit while also keeping interventions to a minimum, so the interviewee would steer as much as possible. I did make a point of validating stories involving criticism of other individuals within the book. With so many interviewees, this was rarely difficult, given the number of others present, in the vicinity, or who observed/experienced moments that could be interpreted as fair corroboration. In cases where individuals might tell the same story in different ways, one of the pleasures of oral history is —for me—that differing perspectives get to coexist without judgement. My intention has been to come as close as humanly possible to Swans as a living, breathing entity. My assumption has always been that words on a page offer a completely separate experience to the emotional tone of a human voice, let alone to the unique power of the music—not superior, just different. I hope the book captures the strenuous efforts expended over the years to bring Swans into this world. Thank you to my agent, Isabel Atherton; to Tom Seabrook of Jawbone Press; to my various supportive readers—Dr. Franklin Ginn, Emma Burton, and Devaune Scarlet; and to my girlfriend, Elizabeth Adair, who has patiently accepted being made a book widow while I pursue a ‘romance’ with 125 other human beings. Her ability to react cheerfully to the hundredth anecdote about Michael Gira, Jarboe, and Swans has been hugely

appreciated. A final thank you to the LiveNirvana community for showing what true fans can achieve together. An observation: during my interviews with Gira I rapidly ceased to ask questions requiring him to make a qualitative statement on Swans or his music—he simply couldn’t voice unqualified appreciation for his past work. As a stark example, Gira’s comment on the title of this book was that he would prefer it to be The Sacrifice, because transcendence ‘seems to reach too far and might seem a bit pretentious’. Moreover, at no point in our extensive conversations did Gira ever voice blunt criticism of anyone else’s contributions: the faults, the failures, the errors all rested on his shoulders. I found it rather endearing, both the inability to feel pleasure outside the moment of creation and the refusal to look back and place responsibility or guilt on anyone else. Observing this trait, it seems understandable why every moment of Gira’s work feels utterly crucial to him. On the one hand, these high standards clearly make him challenging to work with; on the other, the person he places under the most extreme pressure is himself. It looked like a hard way to live, but maybe that’s the key lesson: that sustaining creativity and remaining genuinely innovative across a lifetime means never being comfortable; means living life as a Sisyphean feat with no end and no moment of enduring triumph or satisfaction? One last thought. To this very day, whenever I’m at a gig, everything is measured against Swans at Koko on October 28 2010. I’m always terrified when I attend a show with any kind of hope because prior imaginings can leave reality seeming flaccid. Swans are one of the rare occasions where every expectation was eclipsed. I’ve never seen a band sustain intensity for an entire hour and a half to two hours; the carefully suspended mood as the band members stepped on stage one at a time, taking some fifteen, twenty minutes to complete the ritual entrance; the way songs crashed into one another or flowed without pause from one to the next; the lightning crack of violence as Gira’s voice pierced silence, intoning a lyric everyone in the world must have known; a later drop-dead pause as everything ceased and Gira sang a brief blues a cappella before the next song rent the air; seeing musicians breathless, reddened, and stretched taut; beauty and brutality all wrapped up in one. Swans’ is the only music that deserves the word ‘God’ on its lips.

Nick Soulsby February 2018

1.0 JUST A LITTLE BOY 1954–76 Michael Gira My parents were a paradigm for post-war America. They both had this trajectory upward and then crashed violently. Daniel Gira I’ve got to say it, their lives were nothing like the bright flames they were when they young. My dad was an Army Ranger and quite a brawler, too. My mom told me a story about them driving down Hollywood Boulevard in his convertible, and some servicemen throw their Coke on his car. There were three of them but he knocked two of them out and put his fist in the other guy’s mouth and ended up with teeth stuck in his fist, so they had to go to the emergency ward to get them removed. He played for UCLA, then for Marquette University the year they won the championships—he was a recognised star, NBA material. My mom was a Kappa Kappa Gamma girl at UCLA, and she was a Samuel Goldwyn ‘Golden Girl’—she was a recognised beauty and a happening person in her own right. For example, she knew President Nixon’s two chief aides—their wives were her roommates at UCLA. She had become very well connected. I don’t want to call her a socialite. She was a smart woman, but … she was a socialite. Michael Gira My mother was discovered by a photographer for Look magazine—the main competitor to Life magazine back then—and they did an eight page spread featuring my mother as ‘That American Look’. It showed her fixing a car with a little strategic grease on her nose, or holding a baby—not hers—playing tennis—doing other things ‘That American Girl’ would do. She was discovered by a film scout and went to see some

Hollywood producer who suggested the casting couch, and she stormed out, so that was the end of that tract of her life. Daniel Gira Me, my two brothers, then across the street were my two cousins, and we were all within six years of age—we were used to being pretty rough and tumble. Mike was a gifted athlete—baseball, football, basketball—incredibly coordinated; he was an all-star. My dad used to say, ‘Mike got the best of the Giras,’ and I’d say, ‘Hey, thanks Dad.’ But as things went south with the family and Mike took some of the brunt, he went through a period where he was scary to be around. He would lose his temper and he’d be sorry afterward, but he had a really strong temper. Michael Gira I don’t remember all that much because I apparently blacked out a lot of my childhood. I don’t know if it’s a laudable characteristic or not, but something I developed early on to shield myself was that I’m able to divorce myself from the emotional content of my past and look at it just as I look at other sources for writing: as fodder, as what’s available to write about. I use what I’m reading about, what I see, people I’ve known, my life, things in the media—it’s all just there to draw upon. I’m not a tortured artist whining about my childhood, and I don’t ascribe to the puerile tendency of rock confessional or overtly personal lyrics. Daniel Gira My dad was quite a successful international businessman; he made a huge pile of money early on with his brother. When the divorce happened there was nasty shit that went down, like my mom tried to stab my dad one night, and we were all watching as she goes for him with this butcher’s knife. We were very well-to-do, but that vanished in a pall of flames. Michael Gira As she drank more my father fled and all the money went away. She fell asleep drunk with a cigarette and I woke up—I smelled smoke. I went into her room, woke her up, and she threw the bedding— which was burning—across the room, and it ignited the curtains and burned the house down.

Daniel Gira Mike started stuttering. He couldn’t complete a full sentence for something like two years. That wasn’t something that was there before. It was an obvious emotional effect of the trauma—it devastated him to the point he couldn’t talk. I was younger, so I was only sort of aware of what was going on, but Mike was at that vulnerable age—you could call it the sweet spot or the bitter spot. He was probably seven or eight. I was five, so I didn’t really recognise what was happening; our brother Rob was twelve or thirteen, so he was better able to just go hang with his friends. Once Rob moved out to get away from the family collapse, Mike and I were totally on our own. We would shop—our mom would drive, but it would be hazardous to say the least—and I would cook and clean, because otherwise Mike would beat me up. My grandmother would come by—she was a saint—and she took care of us in many ways, but for two years, when I was in third and fourth grade and Mike would be eleven-twelve, we were pretty much on our own, cooking, cleaning, going to school—no guidance, no supervision. Michael Gira From the age of twelve I was heavily drugged. I was expelled from elementary school for breaking windows, being caught stealing things, caught with drugs. I was doing everything from inhaling gasoline, spot remover, glue, to taking huge amounts of LSD, Seconal, all kinds of barbiturates and amphetamines—it’s a tender age to be saturating your mind with these kinds of opposing chemicals. I still have an abscess in my left bicep where I injected dissolved Seconal powder into the muscle with a veterinary syringe. At a certain point I really had no idea who I was. I fell prey to some much older kids with bad intentions and was taken advantage of. Daniel Gira My mom never recovered from my father leaving her. She commenced drinking again and she did not recover. She was still there but she wasn’t present. My dad was gone—he did not pay child support, so we went from what had been a pretty idyllic and wealthy existence to one of taking care of ourselves while our mom frittered away the family fortune. I love my mom, she got dealt a raw hand and she dealt herself a raw hand, but that’s just the way it was.

Michael Gira I was there for some time just with her alone, and she didn’t really provide. I fed myself by stealing her money out of her purse; I found an extensive collection of silver dollars and spent them; I stole drugs from her medicine cabinet; I stole cameras and sold them. I vividly remember my mother’s long-distance phone calls—a big deal in those days—drunk and raging, trying to track down my father, and obscenities pouring out of her mouth at some hapless operator in Germany. She was a poet of invective and quite inspirational in some ways to me as a writer—these long discourses on the mental and physical deformities of my father, like a suburban Los Angeles degenerated housewife Lautréamont. As a woman, she did not have a career, and some of her demise, separate to alcoholism— which is a disease—was related to the fact she did not have an outlet for her intelligence. She was expected to be a housewife—I can imagine how frustrating it must have been for her. I remember, even when I was twelve, thirteen, she would sit at her desk ranting to no one. I got arrested when I was thirteen, walking down a trail through some fields that led down from the little housing development where we lived toward my school. Right there in front of the school I was staggering and falling down, holding a big plastic bag—out in the open—full of Reds, which is Seconal. I don’t know how many hundreds of pills there were, and I don’t know how I got them or where I got them. Someone called the police about this stumbling child and I was put in jail. The police said they wouldn’t release me into my mother’s custody, so they said either someone —i.e. my father—takes me or I’d be incarcerated at Juvenile Hall until I was eighteen. My father, who had abandoned us, I guess had a pang of conscience and flew out to take custody of me. He took me to South Bend, Indiana, where he was working for a year. Of course, I found mischief to get into there, but generally it saved my ass, because I think I would have died if I stayed in California. Daniel Gira My dad took him because he had caused such hell for the people around him, and particularly the vice principal of the intermediate school. My uncle once ran into Michael’s vice principal—this was twenty to thirty years after Michael had left the school—and basically he was terrified while talking to my uncle and more or less ran away. Michael is a

fine person, don’t get me wrong, but I think the things he did at school … now, there’d be police involvement. Back then it was like that Oingo Boingo song, ‘Only A Lad’. Michael Gira My father got a job for ITT Corporation in Europe. We were in Paris for a couple of weeks and I ran away. This was ’68 or ’69; I found some hippies who were hanging out on the Pont Neuf and I wound up in Belgium, where I attended this rock festival, which was—in retrospect—a pivotal experience for me. That’s where I saw Pink Floyd in the Ummagumma period, Soft Machine, an early version of Yes, the Chicago Art Ensemble—this confluence of experimental jazz music and hippie psychedelic music. We ambled up to Amsterdam and were living in abandoned buildings. One day the police walked into the building—a horrible place with holes in the floor, and you had to get into it via a subbasement, walking on planks over water—and arrested us all, so I spent a couple of weeks in jail, which is like staying at the Hilton—it’s quite civilised. My father had been looking for me through Interpol and communicated with the jail, telling them to leave me in there for a while to teach me a lesson. When I got out, my father gave me an ultimatum: I was going to a private school in Switzerland or I was going to work in a tool factory in Solingen, Germany, that his new wife’s aunt had some association with. I stupidly chose the factory and lived there for close to a year, working in an apprenticeship programme at age fourteen. After a time my father decided this was ridiculous and told me I was going to go to the school, which is when I ran away with some older hippies and hitchhiked down through Europe to Istanbul, then to Israel, because these hippies knew some people who could get us in. I spent months working on a kibbutz and met other hippies who were trying to send hashish through the mail back to America. They left the kibbutz and left me with a bunch of it, and I was continuing to send it to an address they’d provided. A sympathetic person at the kibbutz told me late one night that the police were on the way, so I dug up the hash from the woods and high-tailed it down to Jerusalem. I was in a hostel trying to sell the hashish when the police arrested me.

I spent a month and a half in jail without being charged, seeing some pretty awful things, but also I started to read, because there was nothing else to do in there—Jean Genet, Marquis de Sade, an assortment of Oscar Wilde. The itinerant hippies who would come and go would leave these books behind. I think that opened up my mind, and I started to think about my position and who I was in relation to the world and what my time on Earth was going to be spent doing. It’s not as if I immediately became a dedicated artist or writer—it just planted the seed. Finally, one of the hippies who’d been released contacted a lawyer, who got me out on bail. I spent time in Jerusalem, staying at a very kindly Arab man’s hotel—he let me stay in exchange for designing brochures and handing them out to tourists at the various gates to the city. Other than that, I would panhandle or sell my blood to get money to eat. I went to court and was given another two months at a minimal security prison. This was meant to be a juvenile facility, but it turned out it was definitely not! I was a young, pretty, blond-haired American boy stuck among these criminals, and it was pretty scary. I was harassed constantly. I saw—and worse, heard—one of the younger prisoners orally raped by multiple prisoners nightly. Each night he’d throw up in the sink as the older prisoners laughed. Fortunately, the hippies I knew from the kibbutz had also been arrested, so they protected me to a certain extent. I was scared shitless every second I was in there. I served my time, got out, and went down to Eilat and found a job in the Timna copper mines while sleeping on the beach. The most memorable job was jackhammering crusted sulphur off pipes in outdoor pits—the sulphur would ignite sometimes. The worst job I had was working in another, much deeper, underground pit—a room with a twenty-foot-high ceiling and a little square hole through which you could see daylight way up above—and they’d send the chunks of copper up a conveyor belt. Dust would fall as the chunks progressed up the belt, so this way station would end up knee-high in dust; the air was copper-coloured brown, we had useless paper masks, and our job for twelve hours a day was to shovel that copper dust back onto the conveyor belt. The dust would be in your nose, in your pores, in your pee—everywhere. My quixotic goal, aged fifteen or whatever I was, was to save up enough money so that I could, somehow, hitchhike from Israel to South

Africa, where I’d heard you could work and get paid a lot. Fortunately, an older guy I was working with found out I was living on the beach and invited me to stay with him, his wife, and his mother-in-law, who was a very fine woman called Lena. She was extremely intelligent, very literate, and she took an interest in me, eventually contacting my father and strongly lobbying for me to go home. She probably saved my life. I flew to Germany, where my father met me and said he couldn’t deal with me, so he sent me back to California. Here’s the selfishness of youth: I did not once consider how incredibly terrified either of my parents must have been by their son being God-knows-where on Earth. Daniel Gira My mom got out of rehab—she’d been there for quite some time—and she also moved to get Michael back from his peregrinations. We lived together for a couple of years from around when I was a sophomore at high school. Mike came back after living this pretty gritty existence; he had been through some pretty traumatic experiences. My mom said, ‘Well, he’s just going to want a white terrycloth bathrobe and nice thick towels and everything will be OK.’ I had to say to her, ‘Mom, I don’t think that’s going to make everything OK.’ Neither one of us was grateful to my mother for bringing us back together. Mike didn’t really want to be where he was, in a little apartment in Torrance, California, and I didn’t want to be there either. I wanted to be back where I grew up with my two cousins—my best friends. We both got out of there as fast as we could and abandoned our mother to her fate. Michael Gira I went back to high school in Torrance—typical southern California flip-flop-wearing surfer-tanned kids. It was a horrible experience after I’d been on my own as a runaway. I felt they were children, and I didn’t belong at all: ‘Who are these people?’ I quit high school after a year and worked in a plastics factory, as a plumber’s helper, as a hod-carrier, as a roofer’s apprentice—I even joined the roofers’ union. I think after a year or two I decided it wasn’t for me. I started reading again. I went to the local library in Redondo Beach and started reading eight hours a day. I figured I had to better myself. I would go there every day when I wasn’t working. I read a lot of Sartre, Camus, Hemingway, Céline. I went to night school and

took some courses, so I got my GED,1 meaning I had my high-school diploma. Then I went to a local junior college and took courses in art—and failed horribly at first. My major was art and English, and after a couple of semesters of really low grades I decided this was ridiculous, so I applied myself and got straight As. On the basis of that, I received a scholarship to go to the Otis Art Institute.

2.0 MOTHER, MY BODY DISGUSTS ME Los Angeles, 1977–79 Tom Recchion [drums, Little Cripples] Mike was in my class at Otis. We were studying with a guy called Miles Forst, who was a really interesting teacher. We spent a lot of time getting drunk and stoned with our teachers. It was kind of a free-for-all because it didn’t matter if you came out with a degree—there wasn’t as much pressure. Fredrik Nilsen [bass, Little Cripples] I remember the first time that I saw Mike and he had a very soft look with flowing long hair. My, my, how he changed. Thurston Moore [Sonic Youth; also bass, Swans, 1982] He would talk about, ‘I had long hair in a ponytail and I was filming X and Margot from The Go-Gos reached up and pulled my ponytail and said, Cut your hair, hippie! So I cut my hair the next day.’ He was radicalised by LA punk. Tom Recchion He had really long blonde hair and wore almost like white robes, then he came in one day with all his hair cut off and he was wearing black pants, suspenders, a white shirt, and a skinny tie. I remember looking at him like, ‘Aw, man, punk is already over and you’re just buying the uniform?’ The LA punk scene was pretty narrow-minded. Supposedly they were all about anarchy, but really it was about conformity in a punk style— not a popular opinion, so I kept it mostly to myself, but when Mike showed up in punk gear I was definitely pretty suspicious. He was a powerful presence, and I liked the art that he liked—the Viennese Actionists, Fluxus, Chris Burden, Paul McCarthy—the more dangerous performance artists.

Michael Gira I started drawing every day. I’d read somewhere, a professional cartoonist said that you had to draw fifty drawings a day to get good, and that’s what I did—fifty a day. I became quite adroit as a draughtsman. Once in art school I was exposed to more formally quote/unquote ‘serious’ art such as Francis Bacon and the avant-garde ‘art du jour’, which was Chris Burden, Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Hermann Nitsch, Günter Brus, Otto Mühl. I started thinking about art in different ways, not just pictures. It could be an event. ••• Susan Martin [co-founder, Some Serious Business; also co-founder, Labor Records] I had started a non-profit organisation called Some Serious Business with two other women to produce performance events on a shoestring: Hermann Nitsch in 1977; punk concerts; we presented Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Robert Wilson for the first time in LA. The performance by Hermann Nitsch was organised in a studio in Venice. We spread the word at colleges for volunteers, because he needed a full-scale orchestra, some active helpers, and we needed two passive performers who would have the blood and guts poured on them. We thought nobody would want to do this. Of course, the very first day, the first two people who walk in volunteered to be the passive performers! The entire punk scene showed up to play, so the orchestra consisted of co-eds who didn’t know what they were getting into and punks who came with whatever instrument they played—or didn’t play. Nitsch actually taught these thirty-some people to play this whole three-and-a-half-hour score in two days using only hand signals. Those that didn’t play instruments blew on the loudest possible police whistles you could ever imagine. The last two people to come in on the day of the performance were Mike and Bruce Kalberg. There was only one job left, and it wasn’t very glamorous: sponging off the passive performers between scenes behind a wall in a small closet-like back room. When I told them, they said, ‘We’d be happy to do it!’ Mike got my attention because he said, ‘Listen, that’s a dirty job, would you mind if I took my clothes off so I don’t get them all bloody?’ I said, ‘OK, but the only people who can be naked are the passive

performers, so you can be naked back there but you can’t come out into the public space.’ That was my first meeting with him: naked behind a wall, sponging off blood and guts and very happy to do it! He was delighted to be part of this massive performance that went on and on and on. It was so loud—there was a music-business guy who rented the space next door, and the rehearsals of the band set him off right away. We had to calm him down. After the performance was over, we cleaned the room by hosing all the blood out onto the sidewalk. Well, the water seeped under this guy’s wall, blood poured into his living room—he went nuts. The place we used was owned by the producer Tony Bill; SSB had an office in another building he owned, and he came into the office on Monday and said, ‘What did you girls do over there?!’ I met Mike again one night. I had been to a party where one guy smashed a bottle of wine over the head of another—I was really freaked out. Claude Bessy and Philomena Winstanley were my best friends, they lived on the beach in Venice, so I was upset and I went over and there was Mike. ‘Oh, I remember you …’ What bonded us? What drew us together was a sense of unlimited freedom and creative potential—and also a dark, alienated side. I think, fundamentally, I was attracted to people who were dark and who understood suffering. I was always an ambassador between cultures: I toggled between the straighter, moneyed international art world and the cutting edge. Mike, who was as dark as they come, was also smart and funny, and he understood that mixture of art and music and everything else that was coming together. Daniel Gira I remember one project he did: a construction art piece that consisted of twelve old cylinders thrusting out of a violent red background with 246 sharpened pencils driven through them with blood on the ends. For an eighteen-year-old, it was a striking production—and clearly good, especially to an impressionable younger brother. Michael Gira My friend and cohort at the time was Bruce Kalberg. We were both pretty serious about being artists, because it was obvious that was

all we could do in life. Bruce had gone to St. Martin’s art school in London and gotten some pretty serious education before coming to Otis. He was very intelligent, a naturally mischievous and disruptive person—we hit it off. We took out full-page ads in Slash, the main LA punk publication. My ad was a full-page photo with text at the bottom—no one was meant to know it was me. I was interested in a kind of aggressive solipsism. I wanted a creepy personage I’d invented to say hello to the local punk rockers. I made a cartoonishly elongated and curved penis out of plaster and wire. It was supposed to look like the penis was rising up from between my legs and landing in my mouth, so I was essentially fellating myself. But the angle didn’t end up looking correct. I wore a straitjacket—emphasising the separation of myself from others. And I was obsessed at the time with film make-up—I even thought about getting into that as a day job—so I studied Boris Karloff in The Mummy and tried to replicate that, ineptly, and put prosthetic putty and make-up over my face. So there was this weird creature, perched on a chair, sucking on his own weird penis, saliva dripping down from his mouth—a monster face. The caption underneath said, ‘Here I Am Seen Thinking Of You’. I was very distressed when I started No Magazine and was doing an interview with The Go-Go’s, and they said, ‘Oh, you’re the guy with the penis from Slash!’ The make-up did not disguise me in the least! Forever more I was known as the guy with the straitjacket and the penis. For his art piece in Slash—in the issue before mine—Bruce shaved his head down the middle so there was a strip of bald head, then he took a piece of manicured cow’s liver and put it in place with some surgical tape and published that. For about a month he went to shows wearing it. Rick Oller [guitar, Circus Mort] The one thing I was privy to about Mike’s time at Otis was a project where he was chained to a post and had an electric drill that was plugged in. He would attempt to inflict the drill on anyone who came too close, but since he was constrained by the chain, he couldn’t manage to drill into anyone. Mike said, ‘What I really liked about that performance was that it was so … DEAD.’ •••

Ewa Wojciak [No Mag] The idea of No Mag was something that belonged to the two of them. Bruce always spoke of Mike as his partner on No Mag, and they did it together for the first two issues. One was the issue with the picture of Mike’s father that they used as part of a collage with autopsy photos. Susan Martin The first cover was autopsy photos, so you get the mentality … charming. It wasn’t nihilism; it was like complete and utter alienation. Michael Gira Bruce and I, we decided that what LA needed was a really disruptive and vile publication that encompassed punk and performance art and the stuff that was bubbling underneath people’s usual sightline. We decided to do it right, so we did a newspaper-based publication the same size as NME. We gathered illustrations; did interviews with Suicide, X, The Germs; we had some of my writing in there; interviews with performance artists like Gina Payne, Kim Jones. We would sell it at shows for a dollar, and we even got some on newsstands. Ewa Wojciak For Bruce, I think No Mag was his entire life. It was his artistic output—he was the writer, he was the photographer, he was the publisher, he was the conceptual director. It came out of the LA punk ethos, which was about negating everything and having a lot of fun while doing it. It was hard to get the magazine printed because punk was thought of as pornography, so to find people to print some of the images we had to drive to San Jose, which is six hours away. We had to sit in the parking lot while it was printed on the sly by a printer who also did pornography. The general public was scared by this stuff, but if you read it or look at it now, it’s all pretty humorous. The magazine plays with a lot of social values—there’s a lot of sexuality, but no pornography or anything like it. Bruce had a rough relationship with Mike because he felt Mike wasn’t committed to art or to the magazine—he wanted to go off to be a musician and do music instead. They had built the magazine together, and Bruce resented that Mike wasn’t interested in continuing.

Susan Martin At one time he and Bruce lived above a porn theatre on Broadway in downtown LA, which was broke down, dangerous, a black hole of drugs and homelessness. They found this utterly derelict place they rented for what must have been nothing—some kind of factory floor above the theatre. It did not have a toilet so we peed in the sink, no electricity— even for me, this was hard to take. The ticket-taker got to know me, and he would let me in the lobby and I would call Mike from the payphone and he would come down the outside staircase and open the door for me. As a domicile, it was the lowest of the low, I must say. Ewa Wojciak When Mike and Bruce were living together, Mike got drunk and thought it would be funny to flood their studio. All of the issues of No Mag were in six inches of water, with Bruce having to try and save them— it was one of the reasons he moved out. In the month or two before he died, Bruce mentioned Mike a few times. He was always really aware and very positive about what Mike was doing; he was very proud. I wouldn’t say they had a happy relationship, but I think it was an important one.2 Michael Gira Myself and a few artist types lived in a huge abandoned warehouse in Pasadena. Through interviewing X and The Germs I made connections and decided to put on a show at this warehouse. I had X, Fear, maybe The Mau-Mau’s. They played on the ground floor and the usual 250 punks came. I decided to put on a ‘performance’ on the upper tier of the space. There was a loft from which you could look down on the ground floor. The loft had big plank-wood floors, a hundred yards long at least. I had this elaborate scenario that I would have sex with a complete stranger in public but we would never see or know each other. This was a decidedly more liberal time, so I just asked around if someone was willing to do it. I bought two cassette players and gave her one through a friend—I never met her, and, to this day, I have no idea who she was—and we were meant to record our sexual preferences and fantasies, then tape them to our chests and have the tapes play constantly during the piece. We had prosthetic make-up put over our eyes, so we were eyeless. I built these abstract chairs out of plywood and two-by-fours and put them maybe sixty feet apart and

rolled out a roll of white butcher paper between the chairs, so there was this white processional between the two figures sitting at either end. Along this processional, as something to hold onto, I built these boxes which contained functioning light bulbs, then a square tube coming up about three feet from the box that would shoot the light straight up. I built probably thirty-to-forty of these things—they were very phallic—and it was very dark in there, other than these funnels of light shooting up into the air. We would grapple with these while we worked our way toward the middle, where we would have sex—which we did—while our taped fantasies played. I think that’s the last art performance I ever did. I didn’t see the reactions, of course, but I’m sure people thought I was an incredible creep. I was obsessed with the dichotomy between a personal space and anything outside of that, and kind of thinking it was either intractable or irrelevant—I wasn’t sure which—and simultaneously I was also obsessed with television and its invasion of our consciousness, with mass-media advertising and how it shaped identity and turned us all into willing consumer wage slaves, ambulatory pods whose consciousness was shaped by the media landscape. That interest in the mind as this passive sponge for stimulus led me to be this solipsistic person, or at least that’s how I was thinking at the time—it’s probably a leap of logic that makes no sense. ••• Susan Martin Mike never stopped making art the whole time I was with him—ever—but he did start making music. When we lived in Hollywood we knew The Germs, Flipper—you name it. Mike was always listening to other things, though. We didn’t own any LA punk records—I’m not even sure there were any out. There were some experimental music people in Little Cripples/Strict IDS, so I’m sure there’s a progression. Fredrik Nilsen I’m one of the founders of the Los Angeles Free Music Society. One of the groups that developed in the LAFMS was called Airway, the brainchild of Joe Potts—an extreme high-volume noise ensemble. The musicians’ signals were all channelled through Joe’s mixing system and blended with subliminal instructions for the audience. Joe was a

graduate student at Otis. Other students included Tom Recchion, also a founding member of the LAFMS, and Mike Gira and Alex Gibson—that’s where they saw Airway perform. Alex was a fan and wanted to start something up himself. Airway may have inspired Mike. I can’t say that for a fact, but I know that it prompted Alex to get something together with Mike. Tom Recchion Mike and Alex knew that I was a drummer because of Airway. When they decided to get together to form Little Cripples, they came up to me, told me they had this band going and that they had a show booked in San Francisco at the Deaf Club. I remember a really early rehearsal at Otis, just the three of us—the first time I’d played structured songs—but we really didn’t have much rehearsal time. The bill was Little Cripples, The Plugs, and The Bags, and the band for that show was Mike, Alex, me and Rob Graves—Rob Ritter—and a guy named Rick Morrison. I remember sitting on stage thinking, ‘I don’t remember any of these songs, I don’t know what we’re going to do,’ but we pulled it off. Fredrik Nilsen It was pretty much Alex and Mike writing the songs. It was their thing, conceptually. I went and saw them play at a theatre called the Vanguard. They opened for X, and they blew X so far off the stage it was hard for me to take X seriously. The Cripples were like nothing I’d ever seen before. The music was really aggressive, confrontational, and angular, but at the same time irresistible. It pushed you back against the wall; it made your jaw drop. It was very different from bands like The Germs: complex and yet trance-like, odd time signatures woven with a droning quality. I’m not sure how many gigs they did with that line-up, but before long Rob decided he had to leave because he was forming The Gun Club with Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Someone, probably Tom, suggested me as a replacement. Alex said I could try out, so I called Rob. He came over to my house and stayed for about a week, and we played bass all day for six days. He taught me how to play properly, and he taught me the Little Cripples songs.

Tom Recchion We did maybe ten, twelve gigs—which was a lot in those days, because there just weren’t very many places to play. Everything was changing very fast. Just when you started to have a sense of identity, the name would change—both Alex and Mike were at loggerheads. Alex had a very different idea of what Little Cripples/Strict IDS could be, so it was two very different personalities clashing. Those two were at each other’s throats all the time. Fredrik Nilsen The first gigs I played with them were as Little Cripples, but then they decided they didn’t want to use that name anymore, so we went through this stress of trying out different names and then settled for a couple of gigs on the name Strict IDS. It was a pretty quick turnaround—a matter of months—between my joining and Mike leaving. We only played out maybe five times in that line-up, and the band lasted less than a year start to finish. Mike had something in his head that he wanted and he couldn’t articulate it in a way that was friendly, and Alex was the same way —it was rough. The amount of rudeness was hard to take. Mike could be really nasty, Alex could be really nasty, and I think that they eventually insulted each other to the point that Alex told Mike he had to leave. Every rehearsal was explosive, with an edge of cruelty. The thing is, though, the music was so compelling and Mike’s singing was entrancing—the effect was so powerful that it usually rose above all the bickering. The music, the lyrics, his performance—that’s why I would tolerate the terrible atmosphere, because it was astounding to me, and he was a creative force to be reckoned with. His vocal style was this kind of croaking-singing thing. Lyrically, I remember the words being provocative, poetic, and dark. The cadences in the music and the way he vocalised around them had a percussiveness. He would sing between the beats and on the beats and would percuss through the rhythm. I was in awe. Rick Oller I first met Mike through a college friend of mine, Bibi Humes. The LA punk scene was fairly small, so everyone knew each other. Mike, Susan, and I became a unit and would hang out constantly. She was acerbic, funny; Mike was cynical but also witty. My kind of people. Mike and I

quickly became best buds. I quit my day job and came to work with him, painting businesses, signs, and houses. Strict IDS had recently broken up, and Mike told me he wanted to start another band. It wasn’t long before we were writing songs together. Mike didn’t seem too interested in sounding like any of the LA bands. He was more into British bands like Wire and Joy Division. Adjectives Mike would use to describe what he liked were ‘dark’, ‘stringent’, ‘negative’. Mike definitely had a Germanic discipline streak running through everything he did. I liked Mike’s lyrics—they were unusual. He explored internal states, states of alienation, lack of freedom. Much of it was about control—forces trying to control him, his own reductivism. The songs had a strong undercurrent of negation. Mike had a chip on his shoulder and wanted to let the world know it had fucked him over, but in an oblique way—a non-obvious, non-clichéd way. Songs would begin with a phrase he thought of, and I’d start banging on some guitar chords. He would usually have a seed, an idea, a sound, and we would build on it. We were very in sync; we didn’t clash over anything, really. Early in 1979, Mike was invited to San Francisco to audition for the band Flipper—a lost weekend if ever there was one. We stayed with Will Shatter, the bassist, a cool guy but far gone on speed. There was a houseful of people who shot speed all weekend. Mike auditioned, but there was no chemistry—or, rather, the chemistry was all in people’s bloodstreams. Nobody slept the entire three days we were there. It was a little scary. Early that summer, my girlfriend—now wife—Sean-Marie came to LA. We soon began to talk about relocating to New York City. It suited me, as I was kind of sick of Los Angeles. Mike, Susan, Sean-Marie, and I kind of came to the conclusion at the same time that New York was the place to be.

3.0 WORKING FOR PLEASURE Circus Mort 1979–81 Susan Martin We moved to New York at the end of ’79. I went there for a weekend and I saw Suicide, The Contortions, Teenage Jesus, then came back and said, ‘What the hell are we doing here?’ Mike was not seduced by the punk scene in LA, and it was just that easy. I said, ‘Let’s go to New York,’ and he said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ A mutual desire to wipe the slate clean. It was a really quick break—there was nothing keeping us in LA. Rick Oller We landed in New York with around fifteen songs penned. The time writing together with just Mike and me was probably the best, purest part of the whole thing for me. This felt like it had real purpose—we were working on building a foundation for a band, and that was really exciting. Mike had the advantage of having already been in a band, and I think a lot of his impetus for this new project was to not repeat the mistakes of the past. Mike and I started auditioning people. We met Don Christensen, late of The Contortions, who invited us to practise in his rehearsal space. He played with us for a short while—maybe a couple of weeks. I don’t remember everyone who auditioned, except fairly quickly we auditioned a pair of twins … Josh Braun [keyboards, Circus Mort] I had moved to New York in August ’79 and was completely obsessed with starting a band, being in a band, meeting musicians. I was spending a lot of time at Tier 3, where I met Don Christensen. He told me he’d been jamming with these two guys from Los Angeles. I said, ‘Sure, whatever—let’s meet!’

I showed up at their rehearsal studio—251 West 30th. I found Rick very intimidating—he was mean-looking—while Mike, he was strange-looking, too, but he was friendly. I had a vibe with them; it felt like a very natural addition, having me in the room. We all went for a drink, and then I played with them again. That second time, they asked me, ‘Do you want to start this band with us?’ It didn’t have a name, and after the third or fourth rehearsal, Donnie said he couldn’t be the bass player. I’d been telling Dan about it, and he was interested, so I asked everyone if they were OK with him auditioning. They liked the fact that we were twins and how we played together, given we’d been in our own bands for a long time. Dan Braun [bass, Circus Mort; also bass, Swans, 1982] I just started playing with them and clicked immediately. They had songs that were all really interesting and unusual: ‘Floor Rising’, ‘Excitement’, ‘Up Down’, ‘An Action’, ‘Picture’, ‘1,000 Fears’. Circus Mort was a name I thought of: a contraction of ‘The Circus Morticians’. At one point we were referring to ourselves as The Metal Envelope. Circus Mort stuck, although I don’t remember any of us ever really loving it. Josh Braun When we came up with the name Circus Mort, we all joked people might think it was a solo artist called Mort and—in our drug-addled state—we thought that was the funniest thing ever. We wanted it to be ‘dead circus’, pretentious and dark, but we had a laugh—it was funny, too. We were looking for drummers, and this guy turned up who, honestly, I thought he was seventy—he seemed extremely old—Angelo Pudignano. He seemed like someone who had been in big bands in the 40s, but somehow his simplicity made sense for us. Rick Oller We rented space in the Music Building on 8th Avenue, a dingy, noisy, wonderful place we shared with other acts—notably a young chanteuse by the name of Madonna Ciccone. We fleshed out the songs Mike and I had brought with us, and it was exciting to see them take on life and volume. We rehearsed constantly and haggled about the minutiae of the multiple changes each song went through. Mike led the way, always arriving at rehearsal with a mental agenda of what he wanted to work on.

We all had input into the crafting of the songs, though I fought with Mike increasingly over various aspects of the music. Sometimes it would seem like we had a great set of songs, but Mike had to worry and tinker with everything, so we would lose ground as much as we gained it. Dan took the lead for rhythmic direction of things, working with Angelo to craft a compelling driver for each number. He also had a lot of suggestions for me on guitar, as he was always more accomplished and intuitive musically. Meanwhile, Josh added a unique layer of keyboard sound, sometimes reminiscent of The Doors, sometimes of calliope music you might expect to hear at some kind of demented circus. Perhaps that drove us toward the name Circus Mort? The rehearsal discipline was pretty good, and it showed in the music. I would attribute that to Mike. He always wanted to work, and it frustrated him that the rest of us didn’t want it as much. Josh Braun We were so well rehearsed. We had been rehearsing six months straight before we played a show. And we weren’t rehearsing once a week, we were rehearsing four or five days a week—that was the ethos. So many bands of that time were operating under a punk ethos—self-taught, it doesn’t matter about musicianship, Johnny Rotten making fun of Pink Floyd—while we were more musical even though we were atonal and dark. Dan Braun Circus Mort prized originality over any other virtue. We wanted the most unique sound. Rick had a 1971 Telecaster Custom—a hollow-body cowboy guitar—and it fed back terribly, but that was Rick’s sound—full reverb on an early-70s twin—and it sounded huge. I used a cheapo Hagstrom bass through a gigantic Peavey head with built-in distortion and a custom cabinet with eight six-inch speakers. It sounds like a machine gun, not a bass. Josh used a ‘fast five’ Farfisa organ with a Moog synthesizer. We worked long and hard on our individual sounds—there was nothing accidental about it. Rick Oller We were soon playing gigs all over Manhattan. It was miraculous, in retrospect, how fast we pulled it together into a functioning

unit that audiences—for the most part—stayed to listen to entire sets of. I would credit this to Mike’s driving ambition and Susan’s connections. Josh Braun The premier venue was a club called Hurrah that was booked by Jim Fouratt. We did a demo—two songs called ‘Require Require’ and ‘Working For Pleasure’—and it caught Jim’s attention. He booked us to open for Judy Nylon and her group Snatch. This was the start of our terrible reputation. Backstage, after our second gig at Hurrah, there was a booking agent called Ruth Polsky. Mike said some really insulting things about her and we were banned from the club. Dan and I were more easy-going than Mike and Rick, but we started getting pulled into this dynamic of a lot of negativity. Mike had a lot of conceptual ideas about very negative images: he was very into a dark world of thought, which filtered into us. Susan Martin I don’t think ‘happy’ is a word Mike would have used about himself in any way, shape, or form. I was madly in love with Mike Gira. I was fascinated by his mind; I was attracted to his critique, his authenticity, and also his sense of humour. I appreciated the kind of energy and genius that he was creating in his life. There was an intellectual connection—I was very stimulated by his ideas. Authenticity, directness, honesty, energy— that’s what I’m talking about. And Mike wasn’t humourless—he was a lot of fun, too! Dan Braun One night, when we finished rehearsal, we decided to go down the stairs—nine long floors down an old commercial building. It became a race with five grown boys running down cement industrial stairs at breakneck speed, like The Beatles. At the last minute, Mike had to win, so he leaped in the air to get the final jump, but he hit his head full force on a concrete beam that was hanging lower than expected. His head snapped back, and we all thought, ‘He’s dead, he’s broken his neck.’ We went over and told him not to move, we would call an ambulance. He got up and shook his head, very embarrassed but no apparent injury. This guy was one hard-headed dude in more ways than one! Although I believe he did go to the hospital.

Thurston Moore I met Michael because Kim3 had been to Otis Art Institute. She told me that someone she knew, his band was going to be playing: Circus Mort. I said, ‘Oh yeah, I know of them. They’re complete assholes.’ The band I was in during the late 70s, The Coachmen, we would hang our flyers on telephone poles, and one night when I was at Tier 3, the rest of The Coachmen came in and told me, ‘We just got in a fight with these guys! They were tearing our flyers down because they said we put our flyers on top of theirs. So they tore ours down and we tore theirs down and we ended up in this huge screaming match with this guy.’ It happened to be Michael. I’d seen Circus Mort play at Tier 3. Michael had this short hair with one long strand at the front, leaning on the microphone, doing his thing. So this was the guy who got into a fight with my band! I met him again at a place called Inroads—a little art venue in Soho—and we started talking. He and I were sort of the same age and doing something that wasn’t too dissimilar. Dan Braun When we weren’t fighting, we would spend entire rehearsals trashing other bands and saying how terrible they all were compared to us. We really thought we were as good as any band out there, and we had a strong camaraderie, despite all the bickering. We generally assumed that all the bands in New York hated us. We all went to see A Certain Ratio at Tier 3, and Mike proclaimed they were the greatest, because they were so alienated. He went to the bathroom and saw one of them and said, ‘Hey man, you guys were really great!’ In his heavy English brogue, the guy told him, ‘Fuck off, mate.’ Mike came out a little shattered and deflated. He was a pretty earnest guy when it came right down to it. He thought he had a kindred spirit and didn’t expect to be treated like common American trash, but the British bands generally treated us like dog shit. We opened for Bauhaus, and Mike had a huge screaming fight with Peter Murphy about where our drums would go. They insisted the ‘support’ had to have their drums in front of the main act’s gear. And we were like, ‘Fuck that.’ Mike went crazy on him. Susan Martin We hated the punk scene in New York. We hated The Ramones and Blondie and all that shit—we didn’t like that at all. We loved

Suicide, Lydia Lunch, Joy Division, No Wave—that’s what we listened to. Mike was never a fan of the scene—he always had a touch of distain. He was twisted, but I wouldn’t call him a punk—ever. Neither one of us were joiners. ••• Josh Braun We did a crazy show opening for The Kipper Kids at Danceteria, and I had this ridiculous idea to create a percussion instrument, which was a cellophane tube filled with lightbulbs, so I had it mic’d, and every time I smashed a lightbulb it would explode but be contained within the tube—it was a great percussion effect. Unfortunately, when I went to hit it I was using a drumstick and I couldn’t find it, so I picked up a beer bottle and used that, but the bottle hit one of the two metal clamps that were holding the tube in place, so the bottle smashed and sprayed broken glass into the audience. If this wasn’t the ultimate act of subdued aggression, Susan Martin—our manager—was the only person who was injured. She got slashed between the eyes and was bleeding. The club called us assholes and banned us from there, too. Then we got banned from Hades: I think they were telling us we couldn’t turn our amps up, so we turned them up all the way, and they were furious and turned off the power. We were reckless, angry, and obnoxious—a really bad reputation—but still people liked us. Circus Mort was a dysfunctional family, but we all hung out. Later, we got a new drummer, Mike Pedulla, who hung out with us a little less because he was a total nut job. Rick Oller Mike Pedulla, one night, announced that he would, from that point on, be called ‘Thai Sticks’. He was a workmanlike drummer but a very erratic individual. Jonathan Kane [drums, Circus Mort; also drums, Swans, 1982–83] I was in another band at the time, but there was no question that Circus Mort was a hotter property, and my competitive side was not at all happy that Pedulla had a better gig that I did. They were getting weekend spots at all the best clubs in town—I wanted in. When Pedulla inexplicably quit, Circus

Mort and the band I was in were both rehearsing in the Music Building on 8th Avenue. My band had just broken up—no loss. I knew Circus Mort were auditioning drummers, so I went upstairs to their space and banged on the door. They were in there with the hundredth ringer. One of the Braun brothers opened the door. I asked if they had found a drummer yet and he rolled his eyes. They were in the midst of a terrible try-out. I asked if I could have crack at it. The next day I came back and had the gig on the first song. Dan Braun Circus Mort went through three distinct phases, influenced by the drummers we were working with. Fall of 1979 to February 1980, we had Angelo Pudignano—the first phase of Circus Mort. Almost all the songs were written by Mike and Rick, with a few new ones written in collaboration. This was phase one, which I like to call the ‘Pure Phase’, when we didn’t have much outside feedback and the songs were brought to power by my and Josh’s arrangements. When Angelo left, we auditioned a lot of drummers who were all completely wrong. Finally, we auditioned Michael Pedulla, an odd egg but a good technical drummer. He seemed to be influenced by Frank Zappatype music, and all of our songs ended up sounding herky-jerky, clunky, new wave-y and small. He played with us for a little less than a year. When he suddenly quit out of the blue—no warning—that was the end of phase two: our experimental phase using bad new-wave clichés, mostly brought on by the drummer and Mike trying different vocal styles that didn’t suit him. When Pedula left, Jonathan wanted to audition immediately. This was the beginning of the final phase. I still remember the first time we played with him: it was like flying a jet plane after riding in an old Cessna. The band soared with Jonathan, and he was clearly the guy we were looking for. Rick Oller Jonathan did have one down side: for the kind of music we were playing, he was too much. It seemed like every sixteenth note was now filled with drumming. We haggled about that, tried to throttle Jonathan back a bit—which worked, sometimes. But Jonathan was so great that the overfilling was a minor issue compared to the jet engine he provided to propel

the songs. With Jonathan, we could have really gone far, were it not for our rotting foundation. The twins also had a growing network of connections that would add to the mix, but they played in other acts along the way, which frustrated Mike to no end. Josh Braun Jody Harris, the guitarist for The Contortions, said he knew this French singer—Lizzy Mercier Descloux—who was looking for a bongo player. I didn’t really play bongos, but I said I did because I wanted a chance to audition. All the other musicians at the audition were session guys, and they looked at me like I was joking—Lizzy just liked me and I was hired. We played a couple of dates, then they said we had a European tour. I had to tell the Circus Mort guys I didn’t want to miss this opportunity and I was going to go on tour for two weeks. It meant they couldn’t book gigs during those two weeks—I think that was the first seed of contention. Rick, more than Mike, was really resentful, but Mike was also furious. It was a little rocky for a while, and the dynamic of playing with Lizzy was different, too: I was reminded that I didn’t have to be abused and yelled at and getting into giant fights. Even if it wasn’t me, if it was more likely Mike and Rick, or Susan and Mike—we were all fighting all the time. Mike lived with Susan in a brownstone overlooking Tompkins Square Park, which just felt really luxurious compared to the squalor the rest of us were living in. When X first came to New York, John Doe and Exene Cervenka crashed in their living room because they had space; none of the rest of us had anywhere people could crash. I was on 15th Street in an unbelievable place that was literally five feet by ten feet, almost like a hallway that had a refrigerator, then a bathroom in the hall—it was actually a convalescent home for people dying of tuberculosis, so on every other floor there were people coughing and dying. Dan was in a tiny apartment where you had the bathtub in the living room, and Rick and his girlfriend was the same thing. Susan Martin Believe me, we were really poor, but you could be poor in New York then—nobody had any money. I worked for Meredith Monk part-time and was paid a pittance. Mike got work from time to time. I co-

founded Labor Records shortly after arriving in New York as a creative outlet for me and as a DIY showcase for Mike’s and others’ music. I met Heiner Stadler—my partner in the revival of Labor Records— through Meredith. Heiner had been at Tomato Records; Labor Records was trying to be a more cutting-edge Tomato Records. Everything was so mixed up, we thought we’d be able to distribute our label even though we did jazz, blues, new music, experimental music, and Circus Mort and Swans. We were so wrong! ••• Dan Braun Early winter 1981, our manager told us we would be flying to LA to record a full album. Our spirits were never higher. By around March we were told it wasn’t happening, and depression set in. Josh Braun We had a very crucial moment where we were supposed to go record an album at Capitol Records Studios. We were going to play at the Masque, and we were going to get recording time. So, we were at this place we used to eat lunch—it’s called the Odessa, and it’s still there—and we were all packed, but nobody knew what was happening. ‘Are we getting on a plane tomorrow?’ We didn’t even have tickets. Susan came over and had gotten some call and told us it wasn’t happening. Rick was furious with Mike and Susan. That was the turning point: the disappointment of that moment when we were all so ready for it, and when it didn’t happen we decided to make other plans. Dan Braun Susan did arrange for us to record an EP, which was better than nothing. The album would have basically been our whole live set. We had no extra songs, except some old cast-offs, and we had a bad habit of constantly changing the arrangements of the songs, so the choice of what to put on the EP was pretty unanimous. Rick Oller I drove my father-in-law’s Chevy Suburban with the band and all our equipment—minus, I think, Jonathan, whose equipment required a

vehicle of its own—to Minot Sound in White Plains every day for a week to cut the EP. It was a state-of-the-art, twenty-four-track studio—really high quality. We snorted rails of crystal meth before each session, which I can hear in the music to this day. We never played them that fast in rehearsal or at gigs. Dan Braun That may have contributed to the band’s instability—we were doing a hell of a lot of speed then. When we recorded our EP, our producer, Peter Ivers, sat in the control booth eating sprouts and cashew nuts, while we were snorting copious amounts of crystal meth. I’m not sure he was the right producer for us. Although the sound of the EP was good, it sounds like it’s on 78rpm, but it’s the crystal. Josh Braun The song ‘Yellow Light’ in particular was meant to be a much slower and creepier song. The two songs I really wanted were ‘Children Remember’—the more poppy tune, but it’s so fast it doesn’t quite work the way it did live—and then ‘Yellow Light’. Susan Martin Circus Mort was too new wave in terms of image for Mike. That EP is a weird aberration, and I have no idea why he went forward with it. But of course I was going to put Mike out. If he wanted to put out Circus Mort then it was going to be done—no question. Rick Oller Labor Records was an odd choice for Circus Mort, but it did give us the luxury of a very clear, well-produced EP. If you listen to other punk and post-punk recordings from that time, very few, except the big acts, had audiophile-quality recordings. Damaged by Black Flag was recorded the same year and sounds like they produced it in a toilet. Susan Martin I think all of our recordings were digital. Heiner was a maniac, a real producer, so we were top of the line. I had never been in the music business; Heiner knew where the studios were, what the latest technological advances were, how to get a record out. The designer we had worked for Milton Glaser, one of the top graphic designers in New York.

Peter Ivers, who we knew in LA, produced part of the EP, probably because he was the only person I knew who was brilliant and could produce. I’m sure Mike hated him, and I know Mike hated the band and the image and everything—I had Marcia Resnick do the photographs, and Mike hated them. I’ve no idea why he went forward with it, or why it got released. Thurston Moore Michael would talk about humiliation a lot. He told me that when he was playing Circus Mort gigs he would often feel so humiliated by the performance that he wouldn’t leave the apartment for days so nobody would see him. I’d try to tell him, ‘Dude, there were only fifteen people there, and they probably didn’t retain anything past the next concert—so don’t worry so much!’ But he’d really feel bad if the presentation of his work wasn’t up to his standard. Josh Braun Our final gig was in Boston, a crazy night when someone from another band threw a bunch of acid on the ground, four hits, so the four of us—not Jonathan—were all tripping on acid during the gig. I had a Syndrum and was putting it through the synthesizer and processing it. I was barely using the organ—we were being compared more to Killing Joke now, while in the early days we were compared to The Doors. Dan Braun Mike was lobbying Circus Mort to change their name to Swans, and we all resisted it, but one week he pressed us and we all sort of backed down, ‘All right, we’ll be the Swans.’ Susan squashed that idea— we were back to Circus Mort the week after. Our EP was coming out, so it would be ridiculous to change the name. Rick Oller Mike’s behaviour, in the waning days of Circus Mort, was both nasty and a little pathetic. He would cut and insult, and it would be returned to him—by myself and Dan, mostly. He and Susan were on the skids. He felt sorry for himself. It had to end. I think it came down to a matter of who would end it, and we had to because Mike wasn’t going to because, for him, there was nothing else. I think being ‘fired’ only fuelled Mike’s anger and hatred—a kind of ‘you can’t fire me, I quit’ dynamic.

Josh Braun Mike was twenty-six, so he seemed like an adult, while we felt like kids in our late teens. Mike and Susan were the authority figures, to some extent, and I think that’s partly why the band didn’t hold up. There was so much resentment—particularly from me and Rick—of Mike and Susan taking control and running the band. That dynamic started getting sour. Dan Braun The main issue was Mike and Rick not getting along. They fought a lot. Circus Mort was getting better and better as a band, the songs were starting to become tighter yet more abstract and powerful, but the musical players started to become more of a separate unit versus Mike and Susan. I would call what happened a mutiny: Mike was the captain and the crew no longer wanted to listen. Josh and Rick led the mutiny; Jonathan and I reluctantly agreed. Susan Martin I have no explanation for Circus Mort. Honestly, it’s an aberration. By the time the EP came out, Mike had already disbanded the band. I did try to promote Circus Mort, but he was done with that. Rick Oller Mike’s issue with Circus Mort could probably be boiled down to this: not enough Mike. The music increasingly had a life of its own and didn’t hew religiously enough to Mike’s stringent anti-aesthetic. Also, truth be told, I don’t think Mike liked his own vocals much of the time. I think he had a picture of how he wanted himself and the band to sound, and neither met his expectations frequently enough. They needed to be all Mike, all the time. The only allowable deviation from this catechism was when a collaborator contributed something that enhanced the Mike message, in a Mike-approved way. Jonathan Kane The band was powerful, but it was unravelling by the time the recording was finished. Eventually the differences were irreconcilable. The other guys were more interested in pop/rock song structure: melody, harmony, hooks, and a four-on-the-floor beat. Michael and I were moving toward experimental music, atonality, noise. In a way, Michael and I met in the middle. I was in the process of rejecting my training and chops, and

Michael was stretching his conceptual training into a more visceral realtime music performance. We were not only not afraid of what the other had, I think we felt we could benefit from it. Rick Oller Mike was very angry—he felt betrayed by the breakup. I think he felt particularly betrayed by me, since I sided with the rest of the band against him. It had been building for a while. He had become unbearable to work with. Things just crossed some kind of threshold. Soon after we disbanded, the twins and I got together and formed a new band, Deep Six. When we played, Mike would come to gigs and skulk in the background with some new, rather seedy-looking friends he had accrued. On occasion he tried to stir things up, make trouble for us. I think he may have trashed a dressing room during one of our gigs. He was not a happy camper.

4.0 GANG EP / Filth 1981–83 Michael Gira I was breaking up with my girlfriend and needed a place to live. I walked out the door, turned left on 6th Street, and there was a door open with some guy clearing out a storefront space. I said, ‘Hey, is this space for rent?’ He said a hundred bucks a month. You couldn’t live there legally; there was a toilet but no shower, no kitchen—nothing, just a concrete box, 800 square feet total. I made a deal with the landlord and let him know I’d live there but I wouldn’t bother him. He said he didn’t want to know—that I could live there but I could never complain. Jonathan Kane After having to leave a nice Upper West Side apartment, I ended up living with Michael Gira in a lightless, airless ground-floor space that the poet—and my future wife—Holly Anderson dubbed ‘The Bunker’, on 6th Street and Avenue B. Jonathan Tessler [percussion, Swans, 1982] Mike’s apartment had been a Spanish Iglesias, which the local Puerto Rican or Dominican immigrants used for Sunday services and Bible meetings. There was even a mural, or at least a hand-painted, graffiti-style sign in gothic lettering in Spanish saying something on the side of the building. You would enter from the street and there were two rooms: an antechamber that you would immediately enter into, then a larger room which was where they had chairs set up, a pulpit for sermons. When Mike took it over it was stripped of furniture—the only things left were lighting, power sockets, then all four walls were covered in shipping blankets and large old commercial egg cartons for soundproofing. The antechamber eventually became Mike’s apartment. When he was

dating Madonna I remember the two of them, for at least a couple of weeks, living in that part of the space—there was a bedroom alcove made by the addition of a hanging curtain. Jonathan Kane The former parishioners were probably freaking out from the abrasive sounds now emanating from within. One evening we found a plastic bag hanging on the door containing a beheaded chicken—head included—broken coconut shells, and some coins. Totally creeped us out. Michael slept on a single bed nestled into a little niche between the bathroom and studio walls. We had a refrigerator for beer and milk, and a hot plate so we could make coffee, but that was the extent of the cooking. Meals were usually at Polish restaurants like Leshko’s or the Odessa, where you could fill up for under five dollars. Catherine Ceresole [photographer] We hosted dinners for friends—it was pretty funny because we only had two hot plates, so it was usually tortellini. Michael thanked me once for feeding him at that time because he told me he was living on beer, that he didn’t have a penny, so coming to us for dinner was something to him. It’s more of a European thing, I think, to share lunch or dinner with friends, to talk over food. A lot of the musicians would come and get to know each other over food. Jonathan Kane was like the gentleman of Swans, always well dressed and well spoken. Seeing them live, you thought, ‘Holy cow, they must be really hard people,’ but then you discovered that they’re really nice human beings. Thurston Moore After a gig, both bands would go to a diner and we’d all sit together and eat. Michael, without fail, would regale everyone with some story of grotesquery. ‘Dude! We’re eating?! Why is it every time we eat you have to say these things?’ And he would just laugh. Dan Braun Mike and I had conversations about what he would do next. I advised him not to worry about music, to just make it a ‘scream from hell’—that’s what I thought he was after.

Michael Gira When Circus Mort broke up, Swans became the crucible. I had to do something that was powerful—it had to be the real thing. Jonathan Kane It started as the two of us. He would bring in great throbbing bass chords. My desire was to do anything other than play a fouron-the-floor rock beat. Dan Braun Mike called me and asked me to play bass. He told me Jonathan was playing on it, and he had a saxophone player. I assumed we would be writing together, as we did in Circus Mort, but when I went over to his apartment and I asked when we would work up the songs, he said he was going to be writing everything. I just wasn’t really into that idea, so I told him I really couldn’t do it. He was disappointed, but neither of us dwelled on it. Jonathan Kane I was working in a duo called Transmission with saxophonist Daniel Galli-Duani. We were influenced by Moroccan trance music, Ethiopian vocal polyphony. There is a rhythmic subdivision involved: you have a rhythm on top, then another one underneath, then another, and you can break it down until you have a groove that’s fast on top but underneath it’s slow. That fit nicely with my blues background: in some of the great Howlin’ Wolf material they break down the beat, take what started out as a shuffle and stagger it to where it becomes a slow blues. Very cool, but it usually happens over just a couple of bars. I wanted to take that essence and stretch it out over the course of an entire song. Daniel Galli-Duani [saxophonist, Swans, 1981] Transmission was a very unique sound: these long lines which anchored Jonathan to be the soloist. I bought one of the first digital echo devices on the market, then a harmoniser, which allowed me to play chords. I doubled that to the echo, and Jonathan would work out the drum parts. Mike came to the studio one time when we were rehearsing; we played some stuff for him, and he asked me if I was willing to be part of the first Swans recording. Obviously I accepted, because it was the first time I was going to be in a recording studio. He made no demand at all in terms of what I would play. It’s not like

I’m a sax player; what I was doing with Transmission was more soundlines. Jonathan Kane We went into a recording studio in late 1981 with Daniel on sax and a young guitarist named Bob Pezzola who played in a punk band that Michael was producing for Labor Records. The EP hardly counts—it was still skittish, faster. Daniel Galli-Duani What I remember was the bassline, then the guitar player who had never played with Mike or Jonathan before and was instructed by Mike, who told him exactly what he wanted. It was pretty loose. Mike had an idea where it was going, and he let it flow without interruption; he wasn’t saying, ‘No, change that note,’ or ‘I preferred that other thing you were doing.’ The way I saw it in the studio was just to make this long line—not a drone, because there were slight variations. There was a beautiful bassline, a good rhythm behind it; there was very little I felt I could add, so that’s why I put that sound into it. It was totally arbitrary on my part. The shaping wasn’t done with the musicians present. We went home and Mike worked with the engineer. Mike had the idea how to make everything gel—he confirmed that when we had the first listen of what he had done. It was beautiful, how he made everything work together. Susan Martin That first EP is transitional—I really liked it. Mike and I split up right after that, and I took myself out of Labor Records. My reason for working at Labor was him—that was the main motivation, to put out that music and the other experimental sounds I was hearing. The music business wasn’t really my world—the ‘business’ of it sucked. Jonathan Kane Late in 1981, Michael and I began almost a year of developing the music. Michael and I had both played with Rhys Chatham, and Michael was working with Glenn Branca—we were both more interested in these large-scale minimalist approaches to sound.4 There was a song Transmission was working on called ‘South Wind’, and that song directly evolved into a Swans song called ‘Weakling’. For ‘Weakling’, I took the toms out of it, put the top patterns on a hi-hat—these were all

things I was working on in Transmission and now applied to Swans. They seemed to work and fit: Michael would bring in great roaring, rumbling bass chords, and I would do this slow, half-time groove that also was kinda swinging over the top. Jonathan Tessler I answered an advert in the Village Voice—it was Michael Gira on the end of the line. He invited me to his apartment and I played some recordings I had made in my friend’s studio. He played me the first EP. I turned up for rehearsal, and he said, ‘We don’t really need anyone else on bass.’ So for the next six months I wound up playing percussion, tape loops, keyboards, and there was a little Minimoog—as well as tons of pieces of percussion that Lee Ranaldo had in that room we were sharing with Sonic Youth.5 First day of rehearsal was Jonathan, Daniel, and Michael. We briefly had a guitar player from New Jersey—he was one of those guitarists who showed up with the right look, the ‘heroin chic’ guitar dress code, and everybody really liked him that first audition, but he just completely wigged out, and we learned that he was a heavy drug user. Michael would play some completely destroyed 60s bass with two strings on it, both in Martian tuning, but they got exactly the sound he wanted for the low end. Jonathan would be against the far wall, I’d be to the left of the door with Thurston, then Michael would take position in the corner opposite with his amp set up there. Michael Gira When I was drifting, I met Rhys Chatham and played one show with him. He gave me a bass to use and told me where to put my fingers, he showed me how to tune, he showed me how to work the thing— and he ended up giving me that bass that I played for a number of years. Being the obsessive devil-may-care type that I was, I decided the frets were in the way, so I took a pair of pliers and pulled out all the frets. I had the marker left by the empty divots to indicate where the chord would go. Lo and behold, years later, Rhys knocks on my door wanting his bass back, and I gave it to him—without the frets. He was pretty furious.

Jonathan Tessler We were just in the rehearsal phase—no live shows. One of my friends became the owner of a recording studio in Brooklyn with whom Michael and I recorded a whole bunch of tape loops and sound effects. The tape loops ended up being my contribution to early Swans—I think they were used on Filth. I did a Robert Fripp: I took two TEAC reelto-reel tape recorders and I put them head-to-head on a table and ran the tape loops through them. I also did things like taking the physical tape loops and down-mixing them to cassettes, and I would have two, three, four, five tape loops running at the same time with these overlapping, polyrhythmic loops going on. I would feed that through a Big Muff pedal and in and out of my bass rig. I eventually wound up leaving because I wanted to be more of a traditional bassist, and I’d gotten an offer to join another band. Michael Gira We were using cassettes containing sounds like clanking metal or drones—there was one of a slowed-down kitten crying. The percussionist would bring that sound in and out with the rhythm using a foot-pedal played through a really loud Ampeg SVT amplifier. That gave a backward sucking sound when it came in and ended on the downbeat. We tried to play a couple times with rhythms on the tapes but that was so constraining and artificial that it never worked, so we kept using these chunks of sound, manually interjected into the groove. Jonathan Kane Michael and I played constantly and auditioned dozens of people. No one was quite right. The sound we were making was extreme, even for downtown NYC. People we auditioned didn’t know quite what to make of our music—most seemed to palpably hate it. We were also pretty particular. Finally, Sue Hanel came along. Sue was probably the most ferocious noise guitarist in the city. Her arrival cemented the band, and her contribution can’t be overstated. Once Sue got involved, the music began to coalesce, and other musicians could begin to understand what we were doing. For a while, the second bass player and the percussionist parts were filled by different people, but now we were ready to get some gigs. Ivan Nahem [Ritual Tension; also drums, Swans, 1985] I’d seen them at Mudd Club, where Sue Hanel blew me away—what a beast! Her energy

reminded me a lot of Patti Smith at her most intense. Thurston Moore Sue is a legend to all of us who were part of that scene. She was this young lesbian girl who played the most incredible loud splaying guitar. It’s such a great mystery, how she vanished. Bob Bert [Sonic Youth] Sue arrived from the Midwest, all wide-eyed and kinda preppy-looking. She said she was playing with this band Swans, so I went to a show and, holy shit, she was! Lee Ranaldo used to compare her guitar sound to brontosauruses fucking. She just kept getting weirder and weirder. In 1986 or 1987 I had this side-project called Bewitched and got asked to play a benefit show for a fanzine. I asked Sue if she would do it. We got together to rehearse and she was just going nuts on guitar, then she invited me over to her place on 2nd Avenue. She’d been there seven, eight years, and I’ve never seen anything so bizarre. She had not a stick of furniture, nothing—there was one folding metal chair, a boom box, and a poster of Motörhead. I asked her, ‘Sue, where do you sleep?’ She opened a closet and showed me a sleeping bag. Even when we did the gig, she was drinking cough syrup. She got really skinny; she only ever wore black pants and a black cut-off T-shirt; black make-up circles under her eyes; and she was a bike messenger, so I’d see her haring round the streets at a hundred miles an hour. Then all of a sudden she disappeared, and no one ever heard another word about her. She’s pretty much disappeared off the face of the earth. Catherine Ceresole The last time we saw her was in ’89, ’90. She got really sick and went to the hospital, then got even sicker because they gave her good food and she was used to junk. Thurston Moore I was playing in Sonic Youth, playing with Branca, playing in the hardcore band Even Worse, playing with Lydia. Michael was like, ‘I don’t play with anybody.’ I told him I’d play with him. I would take him to things: he would hate most things, but occasionally he’d like them. He really liked Black Flag because of Rollins losing his shit on stage and getting really into the audience—he thought all other hardcore was toy

music. He went by himself to a Black Flag gig and told me about it later. ‘Really?!’ ‘Yeah, and I felt really foolish because I was at the front and Rollins was putting the microphone in the audience to sing “Rise Above! Rise Above!” And I was screaming it into the microphone and I felt like an idiot.’ Jonathan Kane Thurston played second bass on the first couple of shows. The very first was at CBGBs in July 1982. Craig Kaftan played percussion, then he was replaced by Mojo, who played with us on the second gig at Tramps. The Tramps gig was part of a series featuring new bands from downtown. We were quite good at that show, and we scared the hell out of the audience. The place was pretty packed, but when we finished songs only a smattering of people clapped—most of them were sitting there slackjawed, as though they couldn’t process what they had just seen and heard. Did I mention we were loud? We brought a ton of gear. Big amps. I had a pretty large kit, and I tend to hit my drums quite hard. Early Swans gigs were some of the only shows I’ve ever played where people told me they couldn’t hear me. That’s loud, believe me. Susan Martin I was their booking agent, but they were unbookable: way too extreme, nobody wanted ’em. One of my best friends to this day booked the club Privates. I called and called: ‘Do you want Swans? Do you want Swans?’ One time, I got her on the phone, and she said, ‘Susan. I am never booking Swans.’ And she hung up. You had to establish yourself, and they didn’t fit in. Danceteria was too ‘pop’. Tier 3 closed. They weren’t really a Mudd Club band. They played the Pyramid Cocktail Lounge, which always had an amazing line-up. They played CBGBs, of course. There were places that put on loud experimental music: the natural place for Swans was these clubs—they were down and dirty, they were hateful. ••• John Hood, aka Jonathan Prosser [percussion, Swans, 1984] I was one of the first Americans Roli Mosimann ever met. We were both living in the Chelsea Hotel—me on the second floor with a gal I’d lured up from Philly,

he on the first. My guitarist pal Sanford Ponder also had a room on the first floor, and every day we’d hear these drums. Ponder and I were talking about starting a band and said to ourselves we needed a drummer so finally went and knocked. Roli barely spoke English—he was learning it via American TV—but when we asked him if he wanted to play drums in our band-to-be, he was like, ‘Oh yes, sure.’ That was the genesis of Radiant Boys: a pretentious Ivy League dropout on vocals, an MIT grad on guitar, a broken-English Zurichean on drums, and future Prong leader Tommy Victor on bass. We racketed around Manhattan for two years or so, then, when the first Swans EP came out, Susan Martin gave me a copy. I dug it, so I asked Michael if he’d be open to being interviewed for the East Village Eye. During the interview, Michael asked me about drummers, and I told him he should meet Roli.6 Jonathan Kane Roli was in a band that opened for us at Danceteria, and he wanted in right away, so he jumped ship and joined us. Dan Braun I saw them with Thurston on bass, then Thurston left and Mike called me and asked if I would play. I was glad as I felt a twinge of guilt for not playing on his EP. I said yes and began rehearsing. The line-up was Mike, who was also playing bass; Jonathan on drums; Sue on guitar; and Roli on drums. Playing with Jonathan again was a pure pleasure: he was playing a stripped-down version of what he was doing in Circus Mort. John Erskine [live sound engineer, Filth/Cop] I went to a show right around Halloween at CBGBs: Lydia Lunch was the headliner, with Don King, Sonic Youth, and Swans. Having just moved there, I didn’t realise that people didn’t even go to the bars until midnight. I showed up at nine o’clock thinking, ‘Woah, where is everybody?’ I started to mosey over to the soundboard and talked to the guy—that was the first time I realised a lot of sound people don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. He wasn’t even paying attention—I was a little bit aghast. The first couple of tunes that every act played sounded totally terrible. You want to make an impression, so the first thing you play is always one of the strongest things you have— it’s an introduction to your strengths. I loved what the bands were doing,

but it didn’t sound great unless you were right next to the stage. I foisted myself on all those people that night, with the exceptional of Lydia, and did sound for them for the next couple of years. Sonda Andersson Pappan [Rat At Rat R; also mechanicals, Filth] Michael Pettis’s S.I.N. Club was an important venue for many bands starting out: I begged him to let Rat At Rat R7 open for The Honeymoon Killers. The night of our gig, Mike and Thurston were in the audience, and that was how we met. We all hung out together, went to shows together, played together. I went to hear Swans at S.I.N. Club and I loved them! Every muscle in my body was moving to their music—there might have been a few bones rattling as well! Mike and I had a brief affair—needless to say, things did not work out. Mike was sweet, kind, and brilliant. I’m not saying this to paint him as perfect—I’ve heard some say he could be cruel. Well, I never met a human who didn’t have a cruel side: after twelve years in parochial school, I know that even the most pious can cause pain. Tom Recchion I moved to New York City and told Mike that it would be nice to see him. He invited me to CBGBs, and when Swans took the stage it was like, ‘Holy fucking cow!’ It was like dinosaurs dancing: so big, so loud, so powerful—I was near knocked to the floor. I felt good for him— he’d really stuck to his guns and created what he was hearing in his head. We had never reached that intensity: either he didn’t have the right people or he wasn’t able to express it. John Erskine Swans had several basses on stage. You’d be like, ‘Oh my God, there’s so much low end in this room!’ It was just roaring right at you! Sue was fabulous but she was also one of the most unknown characters you could ever encounter. We got along really well, but she did not get along with Mike very well. On occasions they would damn near come to blows while setting up or during soundcheck, but once they started playing that was it: Mike was focused and Sue was intent on getting the sound she wanted. Mike played bass with such intensity, so with two basses on stage and Sue howling over the top of it, at gigs like the Pyramid, you’d have a

full room, and by the end people would be stood outside panting—it was way too much. Michael Gira Two bass players playing what we called ‘the staircase chord’. I had no idea what notes I was playing, but I’ve since found out that, say you’re playing an open E, then you play the octave of the E on the next string, then on the string after that you depress the fret in between, it creates incredible dissonance: the shape of it on the frets is like a staircase. I believe it’s called a flattened fifth? So I would hit the downbeat with this chord, and the other bass player would answer with the next beat. Then you also had these tapes going, two drummers, the guitar, me singing. It was an overload of sonic information in a relentless, albeit crawling rhythm. That seemed to work to exorcise whatever needed to come up. Jonathan Kane The percussion was Roli smacking a metal table to the backbeat of my drum groove to have an extra layer of rhythm accentuating the backbeats. Roli also manipulated tape loops that were pre-recorded and put on a different cassette for every song. Doubling everything up, it was about the impact, the crushing intensity when you double things up. Michael Gira I wanted the drums and the percussion to be just so physical it was like a cannon going off. Being familiar with construction, I went to Soho—an industrial area at the time—and I started buying these metal shelving systems used in industrial kitchens. With a drumstick it just sounds like ‘plink’—it’s nothing. I figured out how to make it this incredible ‘crack’ and that was to use the supportive struts, and so you could hold onto it, I would wrap socks around one end then gaffer-tape it so it was this handle you had while whacking the table. Catherine Ceresole The Pyramid was the loudest show Nicolas—my husband—and I had ever been to. Mike was so happy when people saw the band performing; he was so excited to make music that he would perform even if nobody was there. Michael’s personality, his presence; he was just incredible. Swans were a very strong band right from the beginning: no concessions. You did not forget a Swans performance. The audience was

surprising: we were struck by the fact there were maybe ten people. But Swans were so good: full of energy … hate … electricity … power. They had an unusual sound: it was like an explosion. Kate Hyman [ZE Records] The audiences were fascinating. There was a bunch of crazy kids, but then there were a lot of guys from Wall Street, most of them were taking cocaine and heroin—a lot of heroin. They were into this music: I think it was their way to decompress from the stress of their job—they’d go out to these really loud dissonant industrial shows. That was the audience, a strange mixture of so-called straight guys—who were all closet freaks—and then the hipsters. It was very much a New York scene, it wasn’t an East Coast scene; mostly this music wasn’t happening anywhere but New York. ••• Dan Braun Mike playing bass made him feel completely part of the band: a great idea for Mike, and it integrated him in a way he could never find in Circus Mort. I ended up only playing one show with them at CBGBs, with maybe seven to ten people in the audience—of whom three were Lydia Lunch, Thurston Moore, and Bob Quine. The music was unbelievably loud and just my bass alone would have driven almost anyone from the room, but as a unit, it was a serious sonic onslaught. I was surprised at how much easier he was to work with in Swans: that may have been because I was basically a hired gun, but I knew Mike respected me as a musician. I came in with a hollow-body Vox bass, which I played at 11; it fed back like crazy but that all fit in. It was almost all improvised, and I’m pretty sure I never played single notes, just highly distorted, dissonant chords using a Vox wah-wah peddle to create a shriek, and I followed Jonathan’s slow, syncopated blues drumming. Mike invited me to join them on a tour that was about to happen. I wanted to do it but I had already committed to tour with Red Decade. Jonathan Kane Harry Crosby became the second bassist and a full-time member. He was pursuing acting but was capable of playing the bass parts,

plus he looked good and was committed. We were done with temporary members and became a real unit. A big improvement. Michael Gira Harry, I think I met him drinking and I just asked if he wanted to play bass. He was a really intelligent individual, and very witty: he was British, and I believe he went to public school. For us ‘rube’ Americans he was very educated, and his ability as a raconteur was truly awesome. He was a big guy and liked to fuck shit up and cause trouble— which was fun. I lived at his apartment for a while, and one night I was passed out drunk and I heard this tremendous clanking—all these horrible metal sounds. I went out into the kitchen where the entranceway was, and he had—quite drunk—grabbed the entire front end of a car and carried it— this was several hundred pounds of metal—I don’t know how many blocks, and he slammed it down in the middle of the kitchen, then passed out. Tom Recchion Mike recommended me to Sonic Youth when they needed a drummer, and I played for about two months then had to quit a couple of days before they were leaving on a tour with Swans. They were going to be travelling in a VW van in the dead of winter, right after a huge blizzard. I knew I couldn’t take eleven people in a van—especially with Mike in tow. I asked where they were going to stay and they told me they didn’t have anything lined up, so I told them that I’d love to do it but I wasn’t built for the road—I told them Mike would drive me crazy. I left and Bob Bert came back. That’s known as the tour from hell for those guys. Thurston Moore The first tour was all based on Lee having toured with Glenn Branca and getting in touch with all these places that they’d been through. Some of them said we could come and do a Monday or Tuesday night. Both bands were at their most chaotic, falling-apart noisy, and Michael came up with the name the Savage Blunder tour. We rented a van and got a driver named Chassler who had been part of the NYC punk scene —he was a poet, a well-respected elder cat, and he had a driver’s licence. We were sleeping slave-ship-style in the back. There were only a couple of fistfights in the van between Michael and his band. It was the Midwest in wintertime, so we were travelling in ice storms and blizzards.

Bob Bert It wasn’t many shows—maybe seven or eight—but it was definitely the first time that either band left New York. It was billed as one tour, but it was in two parts: first we went down south, then we came back for a couple of days, and then we drove out to the Midwest. I was the only one who didn’t smoke cigarettes, so I was travelling in this cloud. At one point, Michael and Jonathan Kane got into a fight and were throwing punches over the top of everyone. Jonathan Kane Poor Bob Bert—everybody was chain-smoking. Everybody was piled into a rental van with no seats in the back, with a UHaul trailer that held all the gear. And it wasn’t carpeted: it was basically just a metal box; everyone had to bring sleeping bags and pillows to try to make themselves reasonably comfortable. Most of the gigs were sparsely attended. In New York, people could barely understand what we were doing, so when we got out on the road it was pretty challenging. People were screaming ‘Jimi Hendrix!’ at us during the first show—a reaction to the volume and feedback, and a huge complement, but probably not meant that way! Bob Bert One of the first nights we played at Maxwell’s. It was pouring outside, about three people there, and while Swans were doing their soundcheck, Michael went over to the soundman and said, ‘I want the bass drum to feel like this,’ and he shoved the guy right in the chest! The soundman was like, ‘Yeah, OK, asshole.’ The 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia—there were people pogoing and Michael jumped off the stage and started beating some guy up for dancing. He should have been happy there was an audience for once! Michael Gira A fairly mundane explanation: there was, at the maximum, twenty people, and there was this guy in the front wearing this bright yellow Devo suit—one of these people who would show up and apparently felt it was their obligation to pogo all over the place and be part of this scene when they were actually just poseurs showing up to be cool. So he’s bumping into people and distracting me immensely, so I instinctively just jumped off the stage, threw him down, and said, ‘Get the fuck out of here!

Get lost!’ He was a pain to everybody there, and to myself. It wasn’t like I attacked him and hurt him—I just wanted him to leave. Dan Braun Red Decade was in Minneapolis, the entire band sleeping in one room. Around 7am there was a loud pounding on the door—everybody jumped out of bed expecting the police. I went to the door and there was Mike, Jonathan, and Lee Ranaldo, screaming at me to have breakfast with them. It was the entirety of Sonic Youth and Swans, and let’s just say the vibes were weird: nobody seemed to be getting along. It made me think I dodged a bullet by not doing that tour. Jonathan Kane There was the usual amount of arguing, fighting, bitching and moaning. A lot of sofa-surfing and crashing at people’s houses. When we played Washington DC we found ourselves with no place whatsoever to stay. Roli had made friends with a young woman and was poised to go to her place—which would have probably been great for them, if anybody else had a place to go. She very kindly offered we could all come and crash. She had a flatmate and just this two-room studio; four in the morning, this poor roommate, sound asleep, was descended on by ten people barging in to camp out. Bob Bert Michael and Sue’s relationship ended on the tour. The problem with her was that she wasn’t disciplined. She never played the same thing twice—and that doesn’t fly with Michael. After a show I went backstage to grab a beer and Michael and Sue were there having this huge argument, so I wound up trapped on the other side of the room—I couldn’t walk out because I wasn’t going to walk through the middle of this fury. I remember Sue picking up cans of beer and throwing them at Michael, yelling, ‘Don’t you ever touch my amplifier while I’m on stage!’ Michael Gira Sue was an incredibly gifted—though also unstable and unpredictable—guitarist who created a tremendous wailing sound, but she could never replicate what she did from one night to the next. She was a very nice person, kind of troubled, but very down to earth. It just didn’t work out artistically because she wasn’t interested in repeating anything:

her sound would be different, her chords would be different, from day to day. Jonathan Kane The Kitchen, just before Christmas 1982. The tour had worn Sue down, and she left after the show. That performance was great, though: our volume gave us the badge of honour as the only band that ever shut the Kitchen down. We were so loud that somebody called the police— and the Kitchen had a lot of loud music. We’re playing, and I can see over the heads of the audience that there were two uniformed policemen speaking to Anne DeMarinis. Anne was curating at the Kitchen, so I see her furiously gesticulating, trying to explain to these policemen what’s going on —then the next thing they’re demanded she show them the power-breaker and they turn the power off. Suddenly all you can hear is the drums and percussion. That was the end of the show. ••• Norman Westberg [guitar, Swans, 1983–90, 1991, 1993–94, 2010–17] I had no other interest than playing guitar in a band. I moved to New York in 1980 and answered advertisements from the Village Voice. I knew the bands I liked, Public Image Ltd and Killing Joke—anyone that mentioned those groups, I would call them up. I answered what later became Live Skull, went to the audition and failed, but the drummer, Ivan Nahem, liked me. Ivan Nahem We auditioned a bunch of guitarists, and one of them was Norman Westberg. I loved his playing—it was so orderly and yet spoke to a deep appreciation for madness—but they were set on only taking a female guitarist. I decided to leave and start a band with him and my friend John Griffin. At first we called ourselves The Blue Balls, but Norman and I had thought of Carnival Crash and liked that better. Norman always lived small, and he moved to a tiny hotel-like room in Gramercy, where he lived like a Japanese hermit, everything crazy frugal. We did two recording sessions then he said he was going with Swans. That didn’t surprise me so much—for a guitarist like Norman that was certainly a more reliable future.

Norman Westberg Carnival Crash played a party, and the doorman was Harry Crosby—I got talking to him. I knew he hung out at a particular bar, so I went in one night, didn’t see him, so I asked the bartender, and he said Harry went on tour with his band. I was shocked—I didn’t realise people went on tour. When he came back, he said, ‘Hey, I think you can do this band I’m in. Why don’t you come down and audition?’ That was it. I was at Ivan’s place and he had the Swans EP. I felt it was like free jazz —it was very free-form, in a way. Then I showed up and it wasn’t that at all. I recognised Roli from Radiant Boys—you run into people you know, given there weren’t that many venues. I auditioned using Sue Hanel’s amplifier, and they just explained what we were doing. I’d been to some auditions where they’d give you a chord chart—there was none of that here. In Swans there wasn’t a key: it was all about the rhythm, and I just had to join in and play what sounded right. I had a feeling right away that I’d know what would sound right. They had a little huddle and decided, ‘Yeah, let’s keep him, we’ll try.’ We rehearsed five nights a week, so I showed up the next day. Michael didn’t have the musical experience yet to really understand what he was asking for, so we all designed our own parts. Michael would play the bassline, then the rest of us would play what we wanted to play until it worked. A lot of rehearsals were Michael listening to what we would play then telling us to do something else here or there. My first show was in Philadelphia, opening for The Birthday Party. Jonathan Kane At Norman’s first gig he broke a string, and it was taking him a while to get it changed. Just to ease the pressure, I got on the mic and made an announcement that this was our new guitarist, that he was terrific, that we were really happy to have him here … ah, man, I got shit all over afterward—the consensus was I shouldn’t have done it, that it was hokey. I couldn’t relate to the attitude these guys were trying to project. There was this idea at the time that you had to be mean and you had to be a brute and you couldn’t be pleasant or kind. Thurston Moore If anybody made some kind of joke about Swans, it wasn’t funny to Michael. One incident, Lee said something making fun of

one of Michael’s lyrics, or he used one of Michael’s lyrics as the butt of a joke—whatever it was. At the other end of the table, Michael caught wind of it and he stopped everything. ‘Lee, excuse me. Did you just say … ?’ And Lee says, ‘Errr, yes, Michael.’ Mike tells him, ‘What I write, I take it very seriously, and I don’t appreciate people making light of it.’ Lee’s like, ‘Sorrr-rrrry.’ It was so jarring. He could be so polarising. I was attracted to that, to his extremist personality. He wasn’t loud or gregarious—it was completely selfconscious and self-involved. Norman Westberg Jonathan, Michael, and Roli were eager to get into the studio because the EP wasn’t really reflective of what was happening with the band. They needed to update it and to go on tour. I really wanted to be in a band that was serious—I knew I wasn’t the guy to lead the charge, so I’d join up with other people that were really going to take the lead on that. Jonathan Kane When we were getting ready to record Filth, I raised the idea that we bring Sue in to play on one or two songs, because she did them so well and she had put in a lot of work with the band—she should have something to show for it. This idea was met with enormous derision, a totally negative reaction: ‘She left, the hell with her!’ Norman was either not at the conversation or too polite, so he stayed out of it. Norman was fantastic, no question about it, but Sue had helped build the sound. Everyone said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ I was put off by that—I didn’t relate to that kind of attitude. Norman Westberg I never listened to anything she played. Harry, Michael, Jonathan, and Roli would describe what she did—so I would just do my take on their description. They’d just tell me, ‘Oh, then she would do this, she’d play low here, high here.’ I was more a pattern guy and I made my own version of that for songs like ‘Stay Here’ and ‘Big Strong Boss’ that were previous to me. The Swans formula was that you play one thing for a while, then it shifts into another part—there’s no verse/chorus. I liked it because it seemed free-form: no real keys—I could do whatever I wanted to do.

••• Peter Wright [Neutral Records] I met Michael when I moved from Manchester to New York in 1982. I got hired to run Neutral Records. Michael had done the first EP on Labor, but it wasn’t really an appropriate label for Filth. The obvious place for the LP to come out was on Neutral.8 I set up a meeting between Glenn Branca and Michael to discuss it, and they did a deal. Mark Berry [engineer, Filth] I’m not sure how Michael got on to me or Vanguard Studios. The studio used to be the ballroom to the Carteret Hotel on 23rd Street and 7th Avenue. We had this huge room that had a mustardyellow velvet curtain we could draw, with one side of the room rugged and the backside painted concrete. The only other facility around of this size was the Power Station, and maybe the Hit Factory. John Erskine The fact Mike scared up enough money to do Filth was amazing. He got some money from a couple of different people, then there was money he saved from construction work. I got involved with a lot of other things, which didn’t always sit very well with Mike. ‘Why don’t you focus on us?’ ‘Well, because you can’t pay me.’ Nobody could afford to pay anything, so you’d get $10–12 bucks a gig if you were lucky. Everyone was robbing Peter to pay Paul. Michael Gira Construction was the go-to day job for artists, especially visual artists: they ended up being carpenters or Sheetrockers.9 One company I worked for was pretty well all visual artists. One reason I never refined those skills was that I refused to buy my own tools: I didn’t want to end up like many of the people who, as they made really good money at carpentry, got sucked into it, and eventually stopped making their art—the art went away and they gradually became carpenters rather than artists. Jonathan Kane I worked a variety of odd jobs: taxi driver, truck driver, painter, construction worker; anything you could step in and out of to pick

up some bucks to pay rent and eat but keep yourself free to play gigs anytime. Our jobs, in fairness, were not every day, but when we did work we still had rehearsal at night, and there were a lot of rehearsals. It was rigorous. Norman Westberg There was never any money—all it did was cost money. I had a day job forever, all through my Swans career. My father, he didn’t understand at all; he didn’t even hear what we were doing as music. I told him, ‘Unless people’s attitudes change completely about music, we’re not going to be having hit records or making any money doing this,’ and for my father, that didn’t make any sense. Why would you do something you feel is just for you and not for anybody else? Mark Berry When Michael had some money, he’d come in, book some time—five hundred bucks here, five hundred there. I controlled Vanguard Studios and I had control of billing. I was always helping Swans out with regard to the recording bill as I wasn’t punching a clock—I was on salary. They’d come in at seven in the evening and we’d work until three or four in the morning, and I’d just sleep on the couch. I would just bill ’em for three, four hours. It was a win-win—I wanted to record, and I was getting my name on a lot of records. There wasn’t any stress on Michael. I took that all away. He could stop looking at the clock, he didn’t have to worry, we could work and fix the parts up, and he wouldn’t be getting charged for them. Jonathan Kane Vanguard Studio was a beautiful room. It was a pleasure to be in a room like that, rather than the claustrophobic smaller spaces we’d been in before. Mark Berry When I opened up that big curtain, Michael went, ‘Oh, God, this is great!’ The reason they had such a big room at Vanguard was because they needed the space for classical recordings if they had a thirtyto-forty-piece orchestra.

Jonathan Kane In my enthusiasm to get in and start recording, I hurt my back moving gear, so I was in excruciating pain. I’d pulled a muscle dragging an amp in. I had to see a chiropractor to get me together for the rest of the session. Terrible timing! Mark Berry I remember Michael—in spite of the esoteric nature of the music—he had a very clear vision of how he wanted everything to sound. He had a very clear thought process about how it was going to be recorded. The guitar tones, he was very particular about them; very particular about his vocals; and Roli was very particular about the drum sounds. These vocals on top of this music, it was crazy, but it all came together like a painted picture. If there was something in the recording that sounded like a mistake to my ear, that brushstroke was something Michael wanted: it was like watching an artist put that added touch that you think looks weird, but you see the finished effect and it looks so right. Norman Westberg Filth was two new songs that evolved with me in the band—‘Power For Power’ and ‘Right Wrong’—then there’s the older songs, which I did my own take on. There were moments where I had no idea what I was going to play. That song ‘Thank You’, Michael said, ‘OK! You and I start,’ and I went, ‘Oh, really?!’ I had no idea—I just went along with it and ended up playing something I really liked. Sonda Andersson Pappan Mike knew I was a graphic designer, so I designed the cover of Filth for free. All of the type on the front, back cover, and label was created with ‘press type’—a sheet of letters that are burnished one letter at a time. I handled the layout design, colours, and fonts. The only direction from Mike was to make the word ‘SWANS’ more distressed. The teeth came from Alexa Hillman—Roli Mosimann’s wife—who was working at a dentist’s office. Instead of giving myself a credit of ‘designer’, I used the title ‘mechanicals’, which is more of a production term. Trying to be less pretentious, it just confused everyone. •••

Jonathan Kane Michael and I were always fighting and arguing. It had very little to do with making the music, though it did have something to do with why I got fed up and left. Holly used to call us ‘The Yin-Yang Twins’. She’d say we were like an old married couple. People ask but I can’t remember for the life of me what we used to fight about—probably nothing, when it gets down to it. Josh Baer [director, White Columns Gallery] It was a pretty small scene, so White Columns was super-well known by young artists, more for visual arts than music, and it had grown from almost no money into a stable organisation.10 The Speed Trials festival was going to be my last event before leaving White Columns. Tom Paine of Live Skull mostly set it up, but as an aside, I did a fundraising event for it at Studio 54 and flew Flipper in from San Francisco. They got pulled off the stage after three minutes, and Studio 54 screwed us and kept the money. Jonathan Kane Speed Trials was a great event—all our friends in one room for three nights. We were all excited about The Fall playing, and there was this new group of young kids called The Beastie Boys whose parents delivered them to the gig in a station wagon. Sonic Youth and Swans, though both fairly new, were two of the more anticipated acts. It was great to hear everyone and to hang out, but the space had terrible acoustics, and the PA was not very good—everything was a ringing trebly mess. I’m sure we all lost some hearing over those three nights. The night before our set, Michael and I had a big fight in the venue and were yelling at each other, probably in front of people—very embarrassing. I said, ‘I quit!’ and he said, ‘You can’t quit, you’re fired!’ I said, ‘You can’t fire me, I’ve quit!’ It was like a cartoon! We still had a show to play, though, and the next day we played—played very well actually. My last show with Swans. It wasn’t really all that dramatic, my leaving. I had a lot of respect for Michael and was reasonably proud of the work we’d done together, but aside from my contributions to the rhythmic concept, Swans was Michael’s band, his vision. I liked it, but not enough to commit. Michael also didn’t really like the band members working with other people. I had other

priorities that didn’t include playing only one type of music. The fighting and arguing was also a bit tiring. By the time Sue left, the only members whose company I enjoyed were Norman and Roli. Michael Gira Jonathan and I did not see eye to eye on the use of drums. He was a very skilled drummer, but his vocabulary was way too big in my view, so he overplayed. No hard feelings, just different approaches, but that was the reason for the parting. Roli said, ‘Well, I can just do the drums?’ So he did. That’s when Cop happened, when things got really simple.

5.0 THIS IS MINE Cop / Young God 1983–84 Norman Westberg Jonathan was out. It was much more stripped-down, less free-form, stricter. I contributed to that; I liked the repetition. I knew exactly what I was playing on every song. Jonathan Kane My observation was that when Roli played drums on the slow approach that I had instigated, it felt more like Black Sabbath—it didn’t have much of the curve or the swing that I utilise. But that may have been better for Swans in the long run, because it connected with a preexisting interest in some rock music fans: a little metal crawl, still slow, but more rigid. Norman Westberg Swans’ second tour, my first, was Bludgeon America. It lasted one day. September 9 through November 1 1983, it said on the posters, but it ended up just being Pittsburgh. Detroit was going to pay a certain amount of money then they reneged, so the tour wasn’t financially feasible. No one had credit cards, we didn’t have any money—we weren’t siphoning gas but I have a feeling that tour would have been like that. John Hood Michael approached me while I was on a payphone at the corner of Avenue A and 6th Street, in front of a restaurant called Leshkos. After I hung up, he asked me if I wanted to play second drums. I told him I don’t play drums. And he said, ‘Yeah, I know, whatever—but we’ve got some shows coming up and you’ve got the right idea.’ I told him, ‘Sure, I’ll play,’ not even thinking what I might be in for. It felt like marine boot

camp: we were rehearsing four, five times a week for hours at a time, and it was beautifully brutal. I would literally see colours. Prior to Swans, there’d only been one other time when I saw colours: when Motörhead played the Ritz. Picture the Northern Lights being launched from a tank and hitting you in the face. Swans was like that, but instead of being in a crowd of thousands, we were in this tiny room with just the five of us. We created this maelstrom where the Northern Lights were swirling around so thick you could touch them. Maybe it was just volume—that we reached the pinnacle where sound becomes light. Physically, it wasn’t like you’d worked out at a gym and were just a bit sweaty; it was like you got pummelled by some invisible, invincible force. I’d leave rehearsal feeling bruised, battered, beaten to hell, and euphoric. It was great! Who doesn’t want to reach that kind of divine light? Whatever it takes! Second drums consisted of an industrial metal table strapped with a chunk of air-conditioning duct that was smacked with something Michael called ‘the sword’. He had taken one of the steel braces that held the table together and wrapped tons and tons of duct tape around one end. Then he got two kick-drum-sized floor toms, which I hit with the thickest fibreglass sticks I could get. I had to wear gloves while I played. There are no clocks in this world that capture the intensity of the timelessness we made: full on, full tilt, full blast. I tell ya, it would take an hour after rehearsal for our ears to readjust so we could even talk to each other again. Lydia Lunch I loved Swans—they were one of the most devastating live experiences of my life. I had left New York before Mike arrived, then I came back in ’84 with Jim Thirlwell—Swans were fully developed by the time I saw them. Swans were an immaculate concept: brutal, unbearably loud, plodding aural torture of the most magnificent kind. Their shows were the most intense—and beautiful. I appreciate that in music, when you can combine those elements and you’re also getting deep into emotion. Even though Swans seem unemotional, what they’re really getting into is extreme repression and oppression. In the simplicity and brutality of the music, the overawing loudness, underneath it was those flesh wounds.

John Hood Sometimes, when we played live, it was like showing off how loud and ugly we could be: ‘If you didn’t like it, fuck you!’ Like we were showing that we were so cool we didn’t even need people to like us—that maybe we preferred them to hate us. You can’t go out and make that racket and not know you’re not going to be welcomed—you have to be really confident or really don’t give a shit. You’d have forty to fifty people who would stay at the front because they obviously loved being run over by steamrollers, then there’d be the hundred people who would flee as soon as the first notes hit ’em in the face. Jim Thirlwell I first saw Swans live at the Pyramid: this line-up of Roli, Harry, Norman, Michael, and John. It was one of the most extreme outpourings that I had seen, ever, of sweat and snot and saliva, visceral desperation and anger—both visually, because of the amount of energy and exertion Michael put into it, and musically as well. The music was incredibly slow, incredibly heavy. On the one hand, it seemed like it had no precedent; on the other, you could see some of the building blocks. One was the Stooges, for that iteration. I thought about Black Sabbath—because of the speed—but it seemed like they had a very singular sound. Roli’s drumming had a kind of John Bonham thing happening. The subtlety in some of the fills—it was really stripped but it wasn’t just some primitive caveman thing. Michael and I threatened for a while to do a duo under the name The Gods Of Pus—he came up with the name! Nothing ever came of it; I don’t think we knew what the hell it would sound like. One of the things that made an impression on me was, Susan Martin was managing Lydia and had an apartment on 6th Street. The kitchen wall was covered—floor to ceiling —in these drawings that Michael had done. They were grotesque figures in various acts of degradation—one was a figure that had a pipe going from its ass into its mouth. They were done in a very tortured scrawl, and that was a real declaration of one part of Michael’s aesthetic. Susan Martin He had started it in LA, and it was a series of pen-and-ink drawings that he did that were a kind of horrific narrative. Each one existed as a separate letter of the alphabet—an alphabet that took up an entire wall.

Jennifer Gira Michael did these amazing eight foot tall by ten feet wide rolls of paper covered in drawings in charcoal, pastel, black and red, of these characters with tubes going into them. He saved this his whole life. His art means a lot to him—it’s precious. When we were moving, by accident, his brother didn’t open them up—it looks like wrapping paper— and he’d stuck it by the trash. I mentioned to J.G Thirlwell. that, at the last second, I’d saved those—and J.G. said, ‘Oh my God, he still has those? They were my first introduction to Michael before I even met him.’ Jarboe [Swans, 1984–97] The drawings were done in the early phase of our relationship and are inspired by and illustrate the raw passion and psychological dynamic of male and female as one and as both. They feed off of each other both with raw physicality and essence of energy. The female has a buzz cut and is representing me. The ‘Screw’ video is actually a companion to those drawings, as both Michael and I are depicted in the video kneading and pulling at our flesh. I narrated one of his graphic stories, then it was filmed with the narration as the audio in an attic in London by Charles Neal. The ‘Screw’ video incorporated those images, and Michael had himself filmed at Southern Studios twisting his own flesh. Lydia Lunch Michael had drawings—which I loved—all over the space he lived in, as well as his writings, of which I was a fan. He would write all over these drawings, all in the same vein as Swans’ repetitive sloganeering of obvious torment, frustration, suppression, anger, black-and-white images on large pieces of paper—I was very impressed. The music was so brutal, the artwork was so brutal, the writing was so brutal, but Mike was basically a gentle, soft-spoken, and very sweet character. He could also be a prickly asshole, but that happens when you have a strong vision. It’s not necessarily even what you do, but the extremity of what you do can alienate a lot of people—you’re going for it, and fuck anything that gets in the way—no compromise. Jarboe There was an address on Filth saying to write for a lyric sheet. I wrote a letter, a photocopied lyric sheet arrived, and there was a note on the back from Michael saying, ‘Here are the lyrics, such as they are, thank you

for your interest.’ The lyrics I immediately understood were metaphors for worker/slave, worker/boss relationships. I made a cassette with some of the audio I was doing and I sent it. One of those pieces got a positive response, and we started this dialogue. I’m sure it was very odd for a girl living in Georgia to be a fan of the work and to be informed of all the different music that he was aware of. Also, I was connected to the people from the radio station, so I’m sure he was interested for exposure and promotion in this part of the country. Then there was the art that zine friends and I were doing, and as I was going up to NYC anyway, I asked if he would be interested in doing an interview. He said sure, come to the rehearsal. Thurston Moore I remember Michael looking at a piece of mail he had gotten, and in it was a fan letter to him and to Swans. It basically stated, ‘I’d like to meet you,’ and name-checked Whitehouse. There was a picture of two people—a young woman, a young man—and Michael said, ‘This letter’s freaking me out—this guy wants to meet me.’ I read the letter and said, ‘Mike, I don’t think that’s the guy—I think it’s the girl who wrote the letter.’ He did a double take: ‘Really? You think so?’ The name Jarboe could have been either, but I told him I was fairly sure. I told him to write back. Mark Berry [engineer, Cop] We did the recording for Cop in early ’84. When the cash was there we went into the studio. Michael and Roli were both very involved in the production: my job was to facilitate what they wanted to hear. After a while it became a very natural process, I knew what they were looking for. Once it got laid down on tape there weren’t many changes at all: it was a very immediate process. The drum sounds were Roli’s baby: ‘Mark, let’s move the drums to the back of the room for a live sound, then let’s move them back over the rug and close the curtain for this sound.’ Michael was the overseer of the whole recording. Outside of the studio, Michael was quite a calm presence, but once he was in the studio he became extremely focused. We took advantage of the room by putting two microphones way over in the back over the concrete floor but recorded the drums on a riser in the centre, so it sounded like they were in a canyon.

Michael Gira You can hear the gestation of the sound of Cop on Filth if you listen to ‘Weakling’—the second part, that’s where I think we discovered that slave-ship pushing-pulling rhythm. Jim Thirlwell I was at the studio when they were making Cop, and I played the ladder. There was a ladder there, and we used that as a piece of percussion—it got whacked on one track. Michael Gira I remember reading Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology Of Fascism in ’83, ’84, and it had a particular influence on the song ‘I Crawled’ from the Young God EP. In that book, if I can summarise it in a very plebeian manner, he draws the parallel between the typical model of the family with a strong father as a microcosm of the state. He talks about how that shapes behaviour and identity and helps to inculcate a kind of obeisance to authority very early on. It was written pre-World War II, and he talks about the parallels between Hitler and Stalin, which was pretty prescient of him; he notes how both men reached back to this mythic atavistic past when everything was great in the country, and their goal was to bring it back—they were like avuncular, paternal figures for the nation. At that time, Ronald Reagan was being re-elected, and I thought the parallels—though less overtly deadly and destructive—were very apposite. I wrote that—‘You’re my father, my father, I obey you’—and took it a step further. I had read this essay by J.G. Ballard, Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan, and thought the image of Reagan fucking and choking me was an apt image for the times. I had been obsessed with the media’s—not that the media is one entity or one conspiracy—colonisation of our consciousness and its formulation of the anxieties that compel one to consume: a recent phenomenon that didn’t begin until the end of the Second World War, when advertising and production amped up and corporations had to create need. It had a lot to do with having all these factories that needed to do something, so they began manufacturing anxiety in people so they would consume products. Nowadays, that equation is rampantly out of control, culminating in the probable destruction of the planet and the species—all the horrible social effects from mass media on our consciousness and our sense of who we are

on the planet. I felt this whole process, along with working as a low-level wage slave for most of my life, was akin to being raped: being invaded against your will by stimuli over which you have no control, and where you’re helpless as it impinges on your consciousness. I carried that sort of imagery on for some time and then grew weary of it because it became a cliché in its own right to harp on such things. John Hood The reason why I’m only thanked on Cop and not featured is because I was doing speed—walking around snorting crank off a switchblade and kicking back Jack Daniels, thinking I was a real outlaw motherfucker. Guess what? That’s probably not the guy you want keeping time. So, even though I recorded during the Cop sessions, Roli went in and re-did my parts. I don’t blame them. I showed up an hour late on the first day of the sessions, then I showed up an hour late the second day, then the third day I didn’t show up at all. I think I’d only been with the band maybe six months—a dozen shows at most—so I didn’t deserve a pass. I may have believed my respect for Michael was obvious, but I wasn’t all there for those recording sessions. That’s sheer disrespect. Jarboe entered the picture after I left. Jarboe Very early in life, I learned I had an ear, that I wasn’t tone deaf, and my father—who was an extremely talented musician—he encouraged it in me. He had me learning to pitch notes by playing them on the keyboard and having me sing them. There were Hammond organs brought into the home; formal lessons; singing in church, in choir, in school. He would travel to exotic locations and come back with little costumes for me, and I was performing for my parents’ friends when they came over, so the idea of theatricality was rewarded, too. I was being shown a path but then, when I started to voice the idea that this might be something I did professionally, it was discouraged. I had voice lessons with a woman who was sending me in this Gilbert & Sullivan light opera direction, and I told her I wanted to do pop, something contemporary, and she said, ‘Well, once you learn the formal vernacular, then you can do that crap.’ That’s where the individuality started coming through, because I knew it was the wrong thing for me. I began to rebel, musically: I was

expressive, whether I was singing or playing; I was taking liberties with time, bending notes, always giving these very fluid interpretations—and then being told that what I was doing was bad, that I wasn’t being strict like a metronome. I thought, ‘Screw this, this is not the way I hear.’ I was developing this very natural attraction to avant-garde fashion, film, and music—anything that was outside of the mainstream—and, ultimately, I took hold of my voice and my music—owned it—and I’ve never let it go, not ever. I had everything from avant-garde to punk to metal to free jazz to blues to synthesizer to classical to country to world music records in my collection—Filth was something I had not heard before. I analysed it. I went to the college radio station where I had first heard it, borrowed their copy, and picked apart all the things that were going on inside of it. I was aware of the industrial movement in the UK, so my ears were attuned to bands like SPK and Nurse With Wound, but Swans was very different to those. It was something that was breaking rules and expectations. When I first went to New York, I didn’t even know that the East Village existed. A cab would not take you to Avenue A—that’s how dangerous it was. My instructions were to walk to a payphone on the corner of Avenue A and East 2nd Street, and then call; then Michael would be at the door, ready to let me into the building. It was all very clandestine. I was wearing this big baggy coat and I had a friend with me who was going to college up there—he was like my chaperone. It was a hellhole: windowless burned-out buildings, shooting galleries, torched cars. I met Michael and I went to the rehearsal, but I wasn’t allowed into the back room where they rehearsed—I had to stay in the outer raw space that would become my home: 93 Avenue B, rear storefront, with the entrance on East 6th Street. When I interviewed him, as a premise I said ‘the project Swans’ and he immediately corrected me and said, ‘Project? I think it’s a rock band.’ It was a shock. That was the last thing I thought it was—I thought it was an art project. So when Michael claimed it was just a rock band, that was the very example of his dismissal of something that he felt was pompous and aggrandising. I saw this attitude later when somebody on the corner of Avenue B and 6th Street put a red neon sign in the window that said ‘Poet’. Poet was another word thrown into the gutter—‘art’, ‘poet’, these were words that weren’t said because they weren’t self-deprecating enough or

cynical enough or humble enough or plain honest enough. It was an attitude I saw over and over in New York. I processed it as reverse snobbism. From the very beginning I thought of it as an art situation: it didn’t bother me when people came and went because I didn’t think of it as a band, so it didn’t matter that it wasn’t a set group of people—it was a revolving door of people working on an art project. Apparently I’m the only one who saw it that way. Virgil Moorefield [drums, Swans, 1989] New York takes all comers … if you could survive and not get sucked into drugs or get killed. The first couple years I was there, you never left the building and went left—Avenue B was off limits. The heroin dealers were three doors down at a place called the Toilet, an abandoned building, and there were lines in front of it that just kept getting bigger every month. The police had no interest—I assume they were on the take. Daniel Gira When I first visited, I think they had one window with bars on it, which looked out into an alley where people shot up. I came to the front door, hair down to my waist, wandering up in my flip-flops, and I had to push my way through this line of people to get to this big steel door. The people in the line, they’re all yelling at me and I’m thinking, ‘What the fuck are you yelling at me?’ They’re shouting, ‘No cutting!’ They were waiting for a heroin distributor who was right next door to Michael’s front door— they’re all lined up putting their hands through a hole in the wall. I pounded on Mike’s door. I can hear him cursing because he thinks it’s some junkie. He comes charging out with a baseball bat, ‘Fuck you people!’ The line scatters—it looks like they’re used to this kinda outburst. I spent some time looking up and down the street, and I kid you not, I look one way and there’s this cleaned up area on the other side of the walk, it’s kinda nice, while on the other there’s a car upside down and on fire. ‘Mike? There’s a car on fire in the street?’ And he says, ‘Yeah. Go that way—get killed. Go the other way—get cappuccino.’ Jarboe I remember Michael saying to Dan, ‘Dan! You’re wearing flipflops?’ And Dan just said, ‘Well, it’s what I wear.’ In the East Village, no!

You didn’t dress that way. There were hypodermic needles and broken glass, dog shit and human shit, puddles of urine and vomit and everything else on the sidewalk. Michael had a sign on the inside of the rehearsal space door with a skull and crossbones that said, ‘Keep Door Shut—Death Outside’. Michael said the same thing to me when I came to live there: ‘Go out the door and take a left—death awaits. Take a right—always take a right!’ Michael Gira That’s what it was: the Bunker. I had stayed there for about a year before I decided to fix it up. I tore down all the surface walls and Sheetrocked the place; put some insulation in the walls. I split the place in two, making one half for rehearsal and one half for living. I think Harry Crosby was helping me, and as we were tearing out the walls of the little closet-like bathroom, the floor collapsed and a two-foot crawlspace was exposed. The drainpipe coming from the domiciles above led directly into that space, and whenever they would flush their toilets it would just go into the dirt under my floor—shit, paper, everything. There was mounds of it. It didn’t drain out anywhere. It had just accumulated. There were rats everywhere. They’d previously been underneath the floor and I’d not noticed them—now they were everywhere. But there was nowhere else for me to go, so I just figured it out. I borrowed a jackhammer and jackhammered a trench in the concrete floor over to the wall of the local bodega next door. Then I got some sewage pipe and had a plumber friend help me connect the drainage pipe that came from upstairs to this pipe. Then I put in a toilet and took that pipe along the length of my space going downward into the space under the store next door. I went into the basement beneath the bodega—a frightening sight, the ceiling was five feet tall, cobwebs everywhere getting in your hair, water a foot deep on the floor, with boards so you could balance as you walked across the disgusting puddle. There were used condoms hanging from the ceiling. I guess the owners were having sex with prostitutes, then tossing their condoms through a hole in their floor. After much work I connected the pipes to the sewage main: most disgusting thing I’ve ever had to do. Then I hooked up the toilet to the drainage pipe and hooked the pipe from upstairs to it as well. Then I filled in the hole and cemented over it. No

more rats. Also, I had a plumber friend help me put in the shower, and that made it somewhat more liveable. Jarboe There was a lot going on in that building. The guy that lived upstairs would get water and pour it through the ceiling—there was animosity with the volume. He would retaliate by blasting The Clash at 5am, or having his German shepherd roll a bowling bowl around on his floor. If the fuse blew you had to go outside—even if it was brutal wintertime—pick up the metal grate in the sidewalk, go down these metal steps to underneath the building where there were planks of wood over standing water, and there was the fuse box. There was also ever more duct tape holding together the space between the floor and the wall during the years we were there. Michael Gira It was a really bad neighbourhood, kinda the Wild West, but it was really unpopular for us to be playing our music. People would bang on the doors with baseball bats. We had these really superb police locks on them, luckily. Jarboe We spent a lot of time putting insulation for sound all over the ceiling and the walls. Before that, even hearing it from the other side of the wall, this sound was devastating—the whole place was shaking. Before we insulated, I was walking along recording sounds of the neighbourhood one time, and I walked by the rehearsal space and you could hear it out on the street. The people who lived upstairs heard the rumble as long as we were in the building. Michael Gira In New York, these old buildings have a flat roof with a parapet. If the drains don’t work properly, the water will fill up on the roof, then it has to go somewhere. So, during a massive storm, all the water ended up flooding into the Bunker through the ceiling. I had to rush to shut off the electricity, because it was roaring in right where the electric breakers were. The next day I needed to replace the ceiling, because it was soaked and falling down—it was going to get mouldy—so I tore down the ceiling in the bathroom, where most of the water had come in. The Sheetrock I had

so laboriously hung fell all at once onto my head. There were rats living between the ceiling of our place and the floor of the place above. I’d hear them all the time, scratching their claws on the metal joists. So when the Sheetrock ceiling collapsed, along with it came mounds of wet rat shit, like poison mud, all over my head. It was like God saying, ‘Can you take it?’ That place was a constant struggle! ••• Norman Westberg We finished Cop in Switzerland, where we did the next EP. We were staying in Zurich, then we’d drive out to the studio. This was my first ever tour—three months—and it was easy because I didn’t know any better. We didn’t play that much. We spent a lot of time just sitting around talking. John Erskine I had the good misfortune of being the road dog for that tour. When I got asked I said, ‘OK, but you’ve got to make sure people have enough power,’ and I was told, ‘Look, we’re going to take whatever gigs we can get.’ We ended up with little funky PAs when here’s Norman with a double Marshall stack and he starts every song by stomping a pedal and the guitar would go WOAHHHHHHH! It was fabulous, but I didn’t know how I was ever going to keep up the intensity. It was very easy for the stage sound to totally overwhelm whatever you could get out of the house system. I ended up blowing up a lot of little PAs: you’d be in the second song, Mike would be roaring away, and all of a sudden you’d see smoke coming out of a speaker! There was no money, nobody knew who they were. There was this place we were crashing at, a former municipal building on Lake Geneva that people had gotten permission to turn into an artists’ residence but the money to do it hadn’t come through yet, so we were there before any of the work started. It was so bloody cold! We barely had any heat; we’d have one gig a week, and the rest of the week we’d be there, freezing or bumming around. We were kinda stuck there, playing very few shows—Lausanne, Geneva, Zurich.

Catherine Ceresole The first concert in Europe, there were two dogs, so Swans played for the two dogs. At first no one was watching them, then little by little people noticed that the music was so powerful, and they started to go. Mike had a lot of rage inside of him—you could feel it when he performed. There was a physical power that was more than just the sound of the music. The first concert in Geneva, first he took off his shirt, he’s down on the stage, he’s living his music, then he had the microphone in his mouth and was yelling—he could scare you if you didn’t know him. The police cut the sound because it was too loud—he was pretty mad! Norman Westberg We were focusing really strongly on the rhythm. Harry would play tape loops using a volume pedal, which used to be the percussionist’s job. Michael no longer played bass—he focused on vocals. We were very stripped-down. John Erskine There were some good gigs, some wild ones. My job was to try and make Swans as big as possible, like a tractor-trailer rolling through the club. We did the Totentanz in Basel, a club that I swear was an exswimming pool—you walk down into the club and it’s all lined with tile— you can imagine what that’s like with Swans going. They had a really good PA, too, so I cranked it up, and you couldn’t even open your mouth it was so loud. That was one of the few times that I really had to tell them to turn down the stage sound if they wanted to be a little bit intelligible. Mike was like, ‘Intelligible? We’re intelligent, we’re not intelligible!’ There was a gig in Grenoble at a bar run by an Algerian guy who clearly didn’t like Swans at all, even though he had booked it. We did a soundcheck and he was trying to talk us out of playing, and we were telling him that there were promotions out, that people were going to show up to see the band—so he allowed us to play. He hated it. He kept coming over telling me to turn it down, then he came over and said that there weren’t enough people, so he wasn’t going to pay—he didn’t want to reward us for punishing him. There were a few insults exchanged, and we walked away with a little bit of money and some hopping-mad Swans.

Jarboe At the recording studio in Zurich I was right outside the glass vocal booth and Michael was doing the singing. I suggested that he take a note and just hold it and sing from his chest as this long descending note. He tried it and it sounded great! He was delighted, and I was very excited because I thought it was expanding his sound. Singing was very important in my childhood household and my education. This is where I finally put it to use for someone else. Michael Gira Jarboe wasn’t yet part of Swans but she was on tour with us. I realised, at her behest, that I could maybe be an actual singer—that’s when I started to carry notes and create melodies, rather than just declaiming and barking. She was instrumental in encouraging me and teaching me some rudimentary techniques for how to actually sing rather than just scream from my throat—she taught me to sing from my stomach, so the air isn’t trapped up in your head. For many years my attempt to do so was awkward, and maybe a total failure in some instances, but eventually I found my voice—she was a big part of that, and I have to thank her. Carlos Van Hijfte [tour manager] I was involved with Sonic Youth, so being involved with Swans was a very tiny step. The four of them came to Eindhoven and I booked them some shows. Their first album came out on Zensor, which gave them a link to Berlin, as well as Nicolas and Catherine Ceresole being their friends and a bridge to Switzerland. In Holland, the circuit was Groningen, Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Nijmegen, Utrecht—there were five shows that everyone did in those days. Alexander Hacke [Einstürzende Neubauten] The underground in West Berlin was thriving, and it really felt like New York was divided from West Berlin just by a subway line. We were at the abyss, right behind the Iron Curtain—an island in the middle of a Soviet-occupied sea. Berlin had a certain aesthetic to it. You could still see bullet holes in buildings on a regular street, you could really see and feel the Second World War—it had a post-apocalyptic feeling. There was a certain flirtation with apocalyptic thought, which made it very hospitable for projects like Swans.

The first time I saw Swans was in a venue called the Loft, which was a side-room of an old theatre called the Metropol on Nollendorfplatz. Monika Döring would invite all these bands. We already called her ‘the punk granny’—she had a very colourful shock of hair and she was in her late fifties. She was very nourishing to the Berlin scene. There was the Loft; the Metropol; Risiko was very important; the Jungle; there was SO36, which was the punk club in Kreuzberg. I spent my formative years skipping school and going to a record shop called Zensor run by a guy called Burkhardt Seiler—it’s where I first heard all of the weird stuff. Swans released Filth on Zensor, then Monika or the guys running SO36 would invite those bands over to play. John Erskine The Swans tour was when I quit drinking. You’d say you wanted a case of beer and you’d get twenty-four one-litre bottles—it was fun! Everyone was getting smashed. Roli and Harry, I’d pick them up out of the gutter after the gigs back then. We ended up stranded in Berlin between a couple of gigs. At one end of the month Swans played the Loft, and at the other end we had another gig there—a full month with nothing going on. Harry and Mike made a deal with the guy who ran Risiko that Swans could drink for nothing in exchange for a gig. They ran up a hell of a bar bill, but then everyone realised they couldn’t play there because it wasn’t much of a space. Vinnie Signorelli [drums, Swans, 1989–92] I met them in Berlin in ’84. They were so strong, it was profound. We all hung out together at the Risiko, and they were supposed to do an unannounced show there, but this bar could only hold maybe a hundred people, and Swans probably would have torn down the building. Alexander Hacke The line-up I first met in Berlin, they were pretty charismatic characters. Roli’s drumming style was so great because he could do these Latin fast syncopated rhythms, and that made their slowness groovy and exciting—it would have all these tiny little figures and patches in there. Norman is such an iconic personality on stage—I know quite a few people who were scared shitless by Norman’s presence! It was just the way

he looked back then, his posture and the way he would stand and look at the audience. Then, if you met him, you’d realise he was this roly-poly sweet guy. They stuck around for weeks so we got to hang out and became friends. Carlos Van Hijfte Swans had some days off in Eindhoven and I had found them places to stay—I can’t remember if it was my own house or my friends’ houses, but Michael didn’t want that. He wanted a hotel. We slept on floors—that’s how everybody started and how they made connections, because you’d sleep on their floors then they’d sleep on yours—but Michael had a different way of looking at it. He was different to other Americans I knew. The Sonic Youth and Live Skull people were my reference points—totally friendly, open-minded, curious people. Michael was polite but way colder—he was a different guy with a different sense of humour. Alexander Hacke Michael, sometimes, he could treat people awfully—he didn’t give them the respect they deserved, and that happened more as he became more sure of his craft and what he was doing. Earlier on, he was more vulnerable, and his artistic stance was informed by a little bit of insecurity. Jarboe I was in the dressing room when Roli and Michael had a fight. I had been studying Bondo boxing, and so with that confidence I tried to get in between them, then I backed out because I could see it was this emotional venting that they had to do. Roli was a talented jazz drummer, and one of the things that made the recordings and live shows so distinctive was that he was using restraint, but he would do these drum fills that really added colour to the heavy dirge of the bass and the feedback and shards of Norman’s guitar. I recall he had played too many drum fills at that particular show, and Michael had not been pleased. ‘Too many notes’, in terms of what a musician was playing, would become a recurring theme. John Erskine Other than Norman, the rest of the band really couldn’t drive. Harry said, ‘When it comes to England, I’ll drive, because I know which

side of the road to drive on.’ So we take this regular left-hand-drive van that we got in Zurich, and we go across the channel on the ferry. Only he’s on the wrong side of the vehicle, and I’m not sure he realised it—so the first thing he does is pull off into the wrong lane. It took about a quarter of a mile before Mike shouted at him, ‘Get out! Let Erskine drive!’ ••• Kate Hyman I was working at ZE Records. We had Lydia Lunch, that brilliant first record; John Cale’s first solo album; Kid Creole & The Coconuts; Alan Vega; all this fantastic alternative to punk and new wave, the weirdest of the weird. I met Stevo Pearce, who had the Some Bizarre label—the first time he walked into the office, he was wearing these shoes that looked like frog feet—that’s how he came to the meeting. Basically, I just put them in touch. Swans was the perfect band for Some Bizarre. I knew Michael because, back then, it was like you went out nightly and stayed out all night; you knew all these different bands and people. Swans were so loud back then, so dissonant—not really punk, that post-industrial sound. Some Bizarre made sense. Jim Thirlwell I was going back and forth to London, and I was involved with Some Bizarre. This guy Rob Collins was working there and had started an offshoot label. Swans had just finished recording Cop. I gave him that and told him he really needed to check out this band. Chris Bohn [NME] The first time I met Michael Gira, Lydia Lunch came to meet me at the NME offices in Carnaby Street of all places. He was sitting in the lobby and Lydia introduced me. He had a copy of Autonomia, which was a Semiotext book I had lent Lydia. We got talking and he was immediately somebody I liked. Shortly after, Swans supported The Fall at Heaven. That was an extraordinary experience. There with a noose hanging from the ceiling, and Michael spent most of his time singing with one arm through the noose. Like a lot of first shows, it’s about impact. That first impression was like a body blow.

Rob Collins [founder, K.422] I met Swans while I was at Some Bizarre. It was Jim Thirlwell who suggested we go and see Swans one night at Heaven. I don’t think we’d heard their music. Me, Stevo, and Jane Rolink went down to the show and just stood there: ‘Fucking hell, what is this?’ It was pretty unlistenable, to be honest—bad sound, inadequate PA—but it was just the vibe of Swans, the whole thing about their sound and their look and their attitude seemed to tick all the right boxes. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, the music is amazing—we’ve gotta do it,’ it was everything! This music was so challenging live—we absolutely enjoyed it. It didn’t strike us as a great gig because of the music; it was a great gig because it was physically amazing. There wasn’t another band around doing something like that, with that amount of energy, with that kind of singer. It felt like something we should put out. Richard Thomas [promoter] I promoted Swans as the support band to The Fall in June 1984. Norman, Roli, and Harry all stayed with me and slept on the floor. It was one of those things—word could spread among certain people very quickly because there were three weekly papers in England at the time. You had NME, Sounds, Melody Maker, so if you knew how to cultivate the press you could get names around. Those three papers were unbelievably powerful. It was the first show Swans had played in England. They did split opinions, but anyone who went to see them had a fair idea what they would be like. John Erskine A great gig. Every single time I’ve dealt with English sound engineers, unless you’re the headlining act, you’ve got a limiter on your output—nobody is allowed to be as loud. So, at Heaven, there was this guy who was going to have his hand controlling the limiter all the way through Swans set, but Mark E. Smith intervened and said he didn’t want that: ‘I don’t want you to fuck with Swans, let this guy push it!’ The guy still wasn’t sure, he told Mark that it wasn’t the way they did things, and Mark just told him how it was. Michael Gira We had ZERO monitors at the show. I could not hear my vocals at all, not one bit, at any time in the whole set. I confronted the

monitor person and he basically told me if we’d bribed him then we could have had monitors. Rob Collins Michael came to the office the following day and was pretty full of himself. He sat down in my rickety old chair, at my rickety old desk —we had AstroTurf for carpet, it was that stuff you used to get on the greengrocers’ trollies—feet on the desk, quite intimidating, but we decided, ‘Let’s do it.’ I can’t remember if we started K.422 for Swans and I don’t know why Swans didn’t go on Some Bizarre—essentially the same people were both labels. I think it was my idea to have another label. We did things for strange reasons—maybe it was more something I wanted to do, and Stevo suggested, ‘Why don’t you set up your own imprint?’ I remember coming up with the name. Absolute Zero is the lowest possible temperature where no heat energy remains in a substance. It’s defined as 0k on the Kelvin Scale. Kelvin 422 was the melting point of plastic—a piece of vinyl that was on fire, too hot to handle. Edwin Pouncey [Sounds] I’m a record collector, so I was going down to Rough Trade every week and what money I had, I’d spend it on records. I picked up a copy of Filth. Hearing it, I thought it was great. I was working for Sounds at the time; I’d have to go into meetings with the editors, and they’d ask, ‘What do you think is worth writing about?’ and I told them Swans. It wasn’t hard to get your ideas across if you had a bit of enthusiasm —they’d let you go and try it. Sounds, at one point, sold a million copies a week. The music press at the time … there was so much going on, it did create healthy competition: ‘Look what we got—you haven’t got this.’ It created opportunities for new music to come through. I loved the mad rivalry. We would try and get the record first and review them before anyone else. When Swans were on K.422, Cop landed on my desk. Looking at the cover, you think it’s some kind of Throbbing Gristle-type LP, but with a Hans Bellmer photograph in the middle of it—a body part—and you’re thinking, ‘What the hell is this?’ Cop was even better than Filth: it was way ahead of anything that was happening. No quarter, it was just coming at you.

Rob Collins There was a lot of support for Swans in the music press, and when they came over here I remember a lot of five-out-of-five album reviews, front covers, big features. The English music scene was more accepting of Swans than the US. There was the weekly music press, so you could just send a few cassettes out to the right journalists and suddenly you’d have nine-out-of-ten album reviews, a lead review in Sounds for our first Swans record—it just took off from there. People like Jack Barron, Edwin Pouncey, Don Watson, Chris Bohn—they were really important, and they picked up on Swans right in the early days and really supported them. Michael Gira Sonic Youth and Swans were thoroughly ignored by the New York press and the Village Voice, which is where Robert Christgau wrote. He wrote this review of Big Black and said, ‘Big Black make Swans and Sonic Youth look like limp dick poseurs.’ What I did in response to this idiotic slight was, I got a glassine baggie and I masturbated into it, sealed it, and sent the baggie to Christgau care of the Village Voice with a note saying, ‘Mr. Christgau, please drink this. Yours sincerely, Michael Gira.’ Jarboe, with whom I had recently started a relationship, sent him a dozen roses ceremonially surrounding a big white dildo. Sonic Youth—being more savvy, media-wise—wrote a song called ‘I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick’. It took us years to get reviewed in Village Voice—Christgau never mentioned us once, and I can’t say I blame him. It was juvenile behaviour, overkill, but I was inspired by this situation where Christgau had written something snide about James Chance & The Contortions, and later at a gig at CBGBs James saw Christgau sitting at one of the tables so, mid-song, he waltzed out on the tables and beat up Christgau. It brings things down to the reality of holding people responsible—in a very direct way—for their words. It doesn’t matter if someone is critical, but when they’re snide and obnoxious, it’s revolting. Dele Fadele [NME] The whole philosophy of the 80s—and maybe we were naive—was that music was actually moving forward from 1980 and the end of Joy Division. This was the second stirring of the independent music industry, and it was completely different to what had gone before, then you

had to dig a layer under that to find bands like Swans. Swans were never a fashionable band, but within the circles where we moved they were the height of fashion—they were it! I don’t mean ‘catwalk’. Wanting to know about them, you had to really dig deep, and there was a game of oneupmanship going on, to find the coolest band no one had heard of. I thought Swans was the best thing in the world. Cop was the first album I heard. It wasn’t like anything I’d ever heard before. I used to listen to it all the time and even play it when I was DJing—it was about playing music people hadn’t heard and trying to challenge them. People I worked with at NME, they hated Swans—they thought it was unlistenable. It was an uphill struggle to try to get music you liked known and enjoyed by a wider audience. Edwin Pouncey I always like extremes, whether that’s in jazz or in rock. Swans was extreme. I didn’t really listen to bands like Einstürzende Neubauten; Throbbing Gristle didn’t really appeal to me either, I felt they were trying too hard to shock me. I didn’t feel Swans were trying to shock me, I thought they were trying to levitate me to some other planet, some other plane. They were the first band to truly introduce me to noise and how it can be such a liberating force; how you can luxuriate in it and get lost in and find these other things drifting inside it that other people probably couldn’t hear. I liked going into a transcendental state, and you can’t really do that when someone is showing films of people’s penises being chopped in half. Swans were saying some pretty brutal things, but somehow the main thing was the state of mind where the music could take me: like all really great rock music, it made you feel invulnerable, all-powerful. Chris Bohn I don’t like the word ‘extreme’ because it became idiots talking about concentration camps and making false alignments with these things, using these clichéd elements in a cheap and cruddy way—then if you challenged them they’d claim it was because you couldn’t take it. It wasn’t that—it was because it was people throwing atrocity in your face and not making any artistic statement or connection with it. Swans did something different. They took the musical structures far further than what was happening in the centre.

Jarboe At certain shows in ’84, I was the sole member of the audience. I would lay down on the floor in an empty venue and really experience the frequencies moving through my body. I think of what I experienced on that tour as intense sound art. They were unknown in Europe, so the promoters and audiences did not know what to expect. Audiences that did show up usually, pretty much always, put their hands over their ears and ran out of the room. This sound was something so inflamed and powerful. We’re talking mega-volume and brutal onslaught, beyond thundering. To sustain that kind of momentum, where would you go from there? There was nowhere you could go—you’d taken it to the nth degree so you had to diversify or stop. Carlos van Hijfte One show—I’d seen them a bunch of times by then, so I wasn’t surprised—I was standing outside the venue and I looked in and the whole place was empty, except Jarboe dancing. Everybody else had left because it was too loud.

6.0 PUBLIC CASTRATION IS A GOOD IDEA Greed / Holy Money 1985–86 Jarboe I could see signs of it before Roli quit—that they were having tension. I recall the photo shoot in the kitchen of the apartment on 2nd Street. Harry had lit a fire on the little gas-burning stove. Michael was talking about press that was happening for Swans and things moving forward, and Roli said, ‘Well, I want to be on the cover.’ And Michael said, ‘Yeah, we are!’ And Roli corrected him: ‘No. I. Roli.’ That was when it became very clear to me that he was leaving. Michael Gira Roli quit while we were on tour. We came back and did a show at Danceteria, then he was gone. I was bereft—I didn’t know what I was going to do. Harry was still involved, but only tangentially. Ivan Nahem I was lead singer for Ritual Tension when Norman called me up and asked if I wanted to drum in Swans. We did a recording at Wharton Tiers—I guess it was a demo—the first time I recorded using a click track. It was a gas to play with Norman again, and I really liked playing with Harry—he and I hit it off. He was like someone you’d play rugby with— someone you might think would be an extrovert. He was chipper, but there was also a quietness about him. I really liked the man, and he was encouraging to me in that musically intense environment. John Erskine Harry was an extra in a couple of horror films, playing things like half-zombie monsters. He saw that being a musician was a hard lot in life where the chances of getting paid were pretty slim. He also saw people he knew end up in soap operas and films—people who would get a gig and

be all set up for the next two years. That appealed, the idea of funding your life and your leisure through a job that you’d like to do. He was artier than that in a way, but he was never as focused as Mike was about anything. Norman Westberg Harry left during the recording of the ‘dollar sign’ records. He plays on most of them. I think he left because what was wanted of him, he just didn’t want to do it. He wanted to play percussive bass and Michael wanted more melody, more bass playing. Michael Gira It was a blow. I really regretted it when Harry quit. But he never really committed himself fully to the music, ever. He came up with one bassline in his entire time with Swans, which was to the song ‘Another You’—a song about a guy walking and counting his paces in a room—but it was a great bassline, a really excellent contribution. Jarboe Swans could have ended in 1984. Michael said to me that he was considering going into the visual arts again and exhibiting in galleries. We had that discussion in the autumn of ’84, and he asked, ‘If I did that, would you leave?’ And I told him, ‘Yes, I would. I don’t want to be around a quitter.’ That may have led to this thing my father had on his desk: a poster that talks about the power of persistence, and that there are all these people who are talented but the world will never hear from them because talent only has so much to do with it—it has to do with persistence. I gave that poster to Michael, and he had it above his desk the whole time we lived in New York. Michael Gira It put me right to the wire as a fledgling producer, having to figure out how to make an album without this group to which I had become accustomed. I just had to decide to take responsibility for the work completely. I have to work, I have to produce something: it’s better to be in an uncomfortable position than doing the same thing over and over. So I try to figure out how to move into different terrains, making tons of very public errors, but it goes with the territory. Around Greed and Holy Money, I had to decide to be the leader. I always wanted a band, but it was never to be: people came and went, so there was always this struggle of having to take

the reins when I really wanted some mates, but I never had any. I had to pull the situation together, in a different guise, time and again. There were a couple of moments where there was stability for a year or so, but generally someone would quit, and I had to figure out how to deal with it. I just had to decide this was my thing, and I needed to take charge. Jorge Esteban [engineer, Greed/Holy Money] When Swans first came to the studio, I set everything up as I would for any rock band, but the moment they started playing I knew they were not a regular band. I started paying attention to the lyrics. I would ask Michael what it was about—Michael was a very enigmatic person, very charming, and I liked speaking with him. He was a storyteller—he told me about how when he was young he went to Europe to travel around. It made me start paying attention to the lyrics, which I usually never did—I just thought they had to sound good. He was talking about a subculture as much as he was talking about these political, universal things. He was looking at the darker part of someone: the Mr. Hyde of consciousness. Chris Bohn Michael’s lyrics were so finely honed that getting past the title of something like ‘Raping A Slave’, the song really worked. The words dovetailed with the rhythm section—this honed, bare approach. The shift to Greed/Holy Money was extraordinary. There was something very Samuel Beckett about what Michael was doing; the way everything was slashed to the limit. The words were down to the bone and so were the bass, drums, guitar. Talking about lyrics can get very ‘English literature’ in the way people talk as if they’re poems, when I think they’re better than that because they’re sung, so you have to take into account the sonic impact. It’s especially important with Michael because of the depth of his voice and the pacing of it. Line by line, there’s nothing poetic about them, but sung, the way they built up, they were perfect, and the way they were part of the rhythm. Michael Gira A lesson that was imparted to me about production came from a meeting that Norman and I had with John Cale. We were about to record Greed and Holy Money, and a woman I knew set up a meeting for

him to possibly produce Swans. We met at a bar and I remember being very intimidated. We couldn’t even approach the idea of him producing—he was so expensive it was crazy—but the thing I took away from our talk was he had listened to Cop and Raping A Slave and he commented on how low the voice was in the mix. He said, ‘It’s the voice that the kids want, they want to identify with the singer, that’s one thing you’ve got to remember.’ From then on, the vocal has always been prominent. It’s a true aphorism. Ivan Nahem We went into Intergalactic in Hell’s Kitchen—the only studio I’ve ever been in that I absolutely hated. What soul the place had was deeply buried. It reminded me of being in a hospital ward. I had some fun times there at first: I did some racketing around in the stairway, banging on pieces of metal with hammers and sticks. Then Michael brought in another drummer, Ronaldo Gonzalez. This really messed with me. I didn’t know if it was because my drumming wasn’t hacking it, or Michael just wanted this huge pummelling sound and one drummer was not enough. It wasn’t explained. Ronaldo and I got along fine, I liked the guy a lot, but I had to admit that he was a much more accomplished drummer. I never felt comfortable after that. Suddenly having another, technically better, drummer was unnerving—anyone would be intimidated by suddenly having a peer in such a specialised part of the band. Jorge Esteban I had a sampler, and some of the sounds on the record are things we sampled to create percussive effects, like the chain on a bicycle— that was used as some kind of hi-hat. Then I remember sampling a rivet gun. It was a six-floor building and it had an iron stairway as a fire escape, so I put microphones all the way up to the sixth floor and started shooting this gun—I got explosive sound and reverb from it on that metal stairwell. Michael Gira I started using samples and drum machines as well as drummers with the aesthetic that all that really mattered was it didn’t have to be melodic: it just had to have a physicality and a sexuality to it. It didn’t matter what source it was generated from. Greed and Holy Money explored that and started using more orchestration.

Norman Westberg I walked around banging on stuff with nunchucks and they sampled them with primitive early samplers then used them. We played a lot as a band when we first went in, then later, same as on any of the records, I’d go in and re-do stuff or add to it with overdubs. Ivan Nahem I suggested to Michael that we use Tibetan bowls, but he just nodded and wondered aloud about sampling the sound, and there the idea died. We were standing at the console, and I thought, ‘This isn’t me, suggestions ignored, this is not how I like to work.’ On the traps I was on the click track again. I could feel Ronaldo waiting in the wings; I fucked up a few times and that just felt really bad, wounded my pride, Michael in the headphones, ‘No, you’re lagging again.’ I remember thinking, ‘There’s only a very few people in my life who intimidate me, and this guy is one of them. Just go with it.’ And I did until I didn’t want to anymore. I wound up thinking there wasn’t much point in me being in the session, since Ronaldo could play it all better than me, so I dropped out. I probably just told Norman I was out and didn’t come back. Algis Kizys [bass, Swans, 1985–89, 1992, 1993–94] Problem Dogs was my very first band when I was going to the University of Illinois at Chicago. I had a dream of being an astrophysicist since I was a kid, but I was flunking out of physics, so I was discovering music and decided to veer that way instead. I joined Bag People in February ’82, and eventually we couldn’t do what we wanted to do in Chicago anymore, so we decided to try another town. I came to New York on my birthday, September 8. Funnily enough, I decided to go to CBGBs that night and met Ted Parsons—a memorable day. Bag People stayed together until summer ’84. I moved back to Chicago for a little bit, to Florida for a little bit, back to Chicago, then back to New York in summer ’85. On Avenue A, I met Harry Crosby. ‘Hey Harry, how you doing?’ He was pleased to see me, and he told me he was just leaving Swans and that I should try out. I was interested, so I called Michael. My bass rig was way underpowered for Swans so I ended up buying Harry’s rig from him: a mid-60s SVT head and some bass bottoms, two 225 JBL

speakers. That thing was perfect for what we were doing, and it helped me get into it sound-wise—a lineage factor from the last bass player to me. Norman Westberg Al came in and he was an actual real bass player. I suddenly had a guy who really knew what he was doing, so that meant I had to think about what I was playing more, be in key. You have to have swing; the music has to breathe. I always say the best Swans have ever sounded is usually at rehearsals, where it locks in—it doesn’t happen all the time. If everyone is on the same page, you might have a lucky day where everything swings. It has more to do with the person and their relationship to the music, rather than because of amplification or effects. That’s what makes that happen—really good drummers help a lot. Algiz Kizys I played with Teddy in various projects before I joined Swans, so when they needed a second regular drummer, I told them, ‘Yeah, I think I know the right person for this.’ Ted Parsons [drums, Swans, 1985–87] Al and I went to the studio where the band were recording. Michael basically just told me to go into a stairwell where they had a snare drum set up and to do a couple of single hits on the snare—that was it. They recorded it and I went home. It was a bit weird—and funny, too—but that’s what they wanted. ••• Jarboe I was already there, working in a capacity, doing grunt work: photocopying press kits, walking through snowstorms to do the mail, organising all of Michael’s writing. Upon hearing my own work, which was using multiple voices and also crazy audio installations of my voice, he realised I could be an asset, so my first recorded vocal was a blood-curdling scream opening ‘Time Is Money (Bastard)’, and then I went on to do the layered choral vocals on Greed and Holy Money.

Michael Gira I had her sing a little vignette, ‘You Need Me’—just piano and voice. Then I had her do orchestrated vocals on ‘A Hanging’. She contributed a lot, and it just seemed natural to have her perform. She added dynamics, light into the shade, and it moved things forward. Of course she has a great voice, and it helped influence the future direction of the work. Jorge Esteban The song ‘Blackmail’, they played something I believe they hadn’t used before: acoustic piano—a prepared piano played with drumsticks on the strings. Jarboe The whole foray into industrial dance music—‘A Screw’, ‘Time Is Money’, ‘Money Is Flesh’—that came from me. The clubs had these big sound systems, and it was something that was happening at the time that resulted in those singles, which were very exciting: they had this intense club drum sound. We walked into the Palladium on 14th Street—a huge disco on different levels in an old movie theatre with balconies way up high, people dancing in suspended cages. MTV filmed there for a while. Michael and I were going up the ramp to the main dance floor, and ‘Time Is Money’ was echoing throughout the massive venue. It was exciting to hear that. I told him at the time, ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever heard!’ Dele Fadele Around ‘Time Is Money’, rhythm was totally paramount. That music had a really propulsive dance element, and it’s only later people picked up on this. We used to dance to it. We were tired of listening to mainstream pop. We thought that the new sound could become the mainstream of music—we were delusional, it sounds demented, but we believed it. Michael Gira What a leaden beat to dance to! A lot of post-punk was using these kinds of grooves, and we did something like that in our own way, decidedly more stilted and less funky. There are still conventional grooves in that record, but then there’s the uncharacteristic ‘Time Is Money’ and a few other things which are made from primitive loops.

Jarboe Algis and I were brought into the live line-up at the same time. We started rehearsing in August, and by December we were on stage in Los Angeles for a festival. Through my involvement as singer and musician— and somebody who had a record collection of thousands of albums and had listened to them all—my ear was utilised. You begin to hear the sound changing as a result of what I brought to the table. I imagine if someone else had brought something else to the table then that would have been utilised. Algis Kizys I was working a day job, then going immediately to rehearsal and brutalising myself—it was intense. There was a reason for that, and I understood: the stuff we were doing, in order to get good, it was important to play it very tightly. To play music slowly is the hardest thing you can do. To play music fast is way simpler, because your mistakes aren’t exposed. If you want to get four, five people to hit something simultaneously, if you do it faster, you can blur those together, but if you expose each hit with a lot of space around it—and our hearing got to be attuned to this—then it’s like you view those mistakes much more closely, so they seem bigger than they are. That’s why we rehearsed so much. We became this human metronome as a band and our thing was to not slam—that’s why you had these big sucking, pinpoint rhythms. It was very labour-intensive. Martin Bisi [BC Studios]11 I remember them visually: they were very intimidating figures, especially Algis. He didn’t look like a post-punk person, he had very long hair, almost like a metal person and there wasn’t a lot of metal in New York at that time. And Jarboe, she had a sort of gothic look, very detached from the audience and sort of aloof. That was very different at a time, when bands tended to look either glammy or just kinda ordinary. Swans had this ugliness about them—a real vibe. Norman Westberg At the time the music made me feel, ‘I can’t wear a shirt to this, you have to be close to naked, you have to be hard.’ We’d never been a band where you wore some other band’s T-shirt—that just seemed obvious. As far as sitting around talking about impact or the way we look: we weren’t an LA band, we didn’t discuss it. When I was in

Detroit, there was a thing that you moved to New York if you were artier, or you’d move to LA if you wanted to be more pop. I chose New York because it felt dirtier. Jarboe ‘Blackmail’ was the very first thing I sang live in Swans. I came out onto the stage in New York and opened the whole set, alone—that was pretty nerve-wracking. I walked to the theatre alone and some guys on the street hassled me, making comments, because it was common for guys in New York to loudmouth on the sidewalk. I still remember what they said, but the point is I didn’t need it then, I needed all my courage. I remember Michael backstage gave me a flask: ‘Take a belt of this! It’ll ease your nerves.’ I think I had one gulp of whatever it was: blah! I had the piano looped, and there was a loop of my voice going with atmospheric background vocals. I continued to sing ‘Blackmail’ on stage alone, kneeling at the edge of the stage, for a tour. There was the infamous show in Manchester where these guys were unrelenting in their yelling and harassment; I was so focused that I was never remotely fazed. Then I hear these boots. It was Al storming out; he wore these cowboy boots with the chains around the ankles, and he yelled at them, ‘Shut the fuck up!’ I continued even with Al now screaming at the guys in the audience; I stayed cool, calm, and collected, as if these things weren’t happening. It was sort of trial by fire. You’re in this loud musical group and then you’re going to be singing almost a cappella, so of course the audience is going to treat you like shit. I had bottles hurled, I was spit on—everything you could imagine. As time went by and the audience changed, people would then applaud when I’d start to sing—and they’d listen! I had to earn that. Things changed to where I’d sing and you could hear a pin drop, and it was great. Norman Westberg Sitting talking to Ron, if I was playing, I could ask him, ‘What do I do now?’ and he’d give me some options. I learnt quite a few things from him. He’d been to school to learn to play guitar, so it was like having a guitar teacher around all the time. Ron was a very good musician: a multi-instrumentalist, great jazz guitarist, but he played drums for us on

tour. He told me he’s really a guitarist but they could never find a drummer, so he switched. Jack Balchin [live sound engineer, Holy Money/Children Of God tours] First trip out, Ron was the runt of the group, so I had a target for verbal aggression, as all good drunks do. I have a very vague recollection of Michael chastising me for being so mean to Ron. As to the effect of two drummers, it had its point: two big fat kits with one cymbal; rhythms were slow, slow, slow, and that brought enough room for the full force of the drummers to penetrate. Some strange quality of peace came at the end of each performance, usually lasting a couple of minutes, mostly in a daze from sonic shock. Some strange effects happened to me and the audience during the shows. I’d come to during a piece, finding myself in some dervish-like dance-shape at the mixer. Jarboe It was decided to replace the cassettes Harry had played by creating sounds on the new sampling keyboard. That involved purchasing the very first sampling keyboard—the Ensoniq Mirage—for $1,200 dollars. Then there was the Calzone road case, and the pro utility stand—an expensive investment on my part, then I had to learn how to use it. It was about mathematical parameters, with a big manual. There was no monitor—you had to create the sounds based on the numbers you saw on the digital readout! You couldn’t see the sound waves; there were no pre-set effects unit; you had to do it all yourself, and it was a bloody nightmare. It failed the test as a road keyboard—that version was much too delicate to expose to extreme cold and extreme heat, so when you’re driving through the Alps in a blizzard, which we did, and you get stuck in a snowdrift, which we did, the Mirage didn’t like that. It’d freeze, and then you take it into a hot, sweaty club with the stage-lights and so much heat. So this thing was malfunctioning the whole entire time. We had a cue point, because Al was standing right next to me on stage: I’d take my hands up, dramatically, in the air, and I’d be standing in full combat posture, ready to spring into action as a warrior. You put your hands down, and instead of a powerful burst of sound, it’d go, do-de-do-ti-do-de-too-ti—a laughable R2-D2 robot sound! At that point Al would raise his leg up in the air and come down

hard on his bass to mask the embarrassment. And when we blew the fuses in a venue, which was frequently, and the electricity would go off, that keyboard would need to be rebooted with its operating system before the sound diskettes could even be loaded back. Algis Kizys I found, in Bag People, that you could get distortion out of strings, rather than speakers or heads, by the veracity of how you attack a string—depending on how hard you hit it. You know how tubes glow? If you push the tube it glows hotter and brighter and has this roundish form and condenses again—that’s what sound does to it, especially if you use string distortion. So if you whack a bass string very hard, it’ll oscillate a lot, and as it’s wobbling you’re going off the note but you’re creating a rounder sound because you’re not hitting a perfect note but going around it in conjunction with other strings of various tunings. You can orchestrate those and make a whole new chord. It was very much more sculptural than anything that I’d done before. It was how I intellectualised moving from what I used to do to what I became fond of doing, which was that instead of playing fifteen notes for a passage of a song, I took those fifteen notes and condensed them into one block of chords, then I used all the energy that it would have taken to play those fifteen notes and condensed it into one blast of sound. Michael Gira My approach on stage came out of the music. Jarboe was playing this sampling keyboard on which she played noise and some piano. The set would start with her triggering these samples super-loud, then the drummers would come in, and then we’d go into a song. It was incredibly slow. The music would inspire these things I would do on stage. I would pace back and forth; I’d flip my body and land on my back and move across the stage that way; I’d slam my torso, my head, down toward my feet and lift, down and lift, over and over; I’d put myself through these torturous physical routines—of course, with a certain degree of inspiration from Iggy Pop and Alan Vega. Gradually the set would become this one long performance piece that grew organically from what the music inspired in me. That way of performing went away: it was kind of preposterous, once I

was in my mid-thirties, to keep on being this masochist avatar for my audience’s fears and desires. Algis Kizys I ripped muscles and tendons in my thumbs; I started having to tape my hands together to make it through these long tours of that sort of brutal playing style. It took a toll on the body, but that was how I needed to play it. The physical nature of it was part of what was enjoyable: I had a lot of energy and I wanted to crush things, crush sound. This wasn’t just an auditory event. I played sports my entire life, I used to lift weights and work construction—a little bit of cardio on stage was OK. I wasn’t worried about that—it was keeping my hands together, because trying to play those chords with a torn thumb muscle is a bit of an effort. Jarboe Some of the venues had primarily male audiences, and they were hardcore clubs. I didn’t stop performing when I was taunted; nor did I complain about it. It was important to me to tough it out. One of the most colourful incidents took place at the Boston Rat, where the club had locked the door to the steps going down behind the stage from the upstairs, so I had to go through the audience from the main entrance into the venue and climb up onto the stage. That night, there was a mob scene in this place, and I’m trying to push my way through a squish of humanity. The bouncers refused to let me go down the steps. I could see Michael literally pacing like a tiger in a cage. He was angry I was holding up the show; everyone else was on stage. An argument ensued because a bouncer refused to believe I was in the band. It was very loud so I couldn’t just shout to the band to acknowledge I belonged on stage—nobody would hear me—so I just said, out of sheer frustration, to the bouncer, ‘Fuck you! Let me show you I’m in the band! I’ll prove it to you!’ I pushed my way past him and began to make my way down the steps. At that point the bouncer came after me and grabbed me, threw me, and kicked me against the wall. I fell down, and no one gave a damn because this is a punk club, right, so who cares? Another bouncer got behind the guy being rough in this room of festering sweating testosterone and repeatedly says, ‘STOP!’ I had to get to the bathroom after that, and when I finally came down again, I pushed my way and I was able to get up on the stage to do the show. Before I got on stage, I spotted the

promoter talking to our soundman, so I said what had happened and that I would never play that venue again, and the response was a laugh and ‘No one cares if you don’t play here again.’ This was an era where you had violence and all kinds of language and behaviour toward women from the people in the crowds and the people associated with the venues. Things happened all the time: the shouting, the spitting, guys slapping me. I’m grateful to have experienced it at such a young age, because it made me strong in performance—nothing gets to me. It changes you to where you’re not self-conscious about performance, and you can do it with a steely reserve. It hardens you and makes you stronger, so when I look back I don’t feel like a victim, I feel like it was a kind of boot camp. I signed up for it, to be in the loudest band in New York City—I wanted to be part of it. ••• Norman Westberg We did a flying tour of the US, which was kind of a debacle, though we did some good shows. We went all the way over to LA, San Francisco, Denver, then back through Toronto and Detroit. A big band, lot of equipment—we had six people and a soundman all having to be some place at a given time—and we’re renting equipment supplied by the venue, and our standards weren’t being met all the time, so there was constant arguing or showing up and we’re at the mercy of other people. You’re much better off having your own gear so you’re in charge of your destiny. There were way too many different people we had to depend on. Ted Parsons Someone—I assume Michael—decided to take planes everywhere in the US, so whatever drums the promoter had there, that’s what I had to play that night. That was completely different to the consistency in Europe! Norman would be playing through a Marshall stack, and then he’d get some little Twin Verb or something—it was laughable. I’d get a drum kit that was maybe a kick drum, a snare drum, and a tom— maybe one cymbal? I would go to the gig and say, ‘I’m playing that tonight?!’ I couldn’t get that pummelling sound with a little twelve-inch tom-tom but I played what I had to play. You never knew, from venue to

venue, how it was going to be. I think it was a little naïve, that maybe Michael was trusting the promoters too much—he was likely just thinking about cutting cost. It just made for a peculiar tour. Algis Kizys Almost no one knew us here in the States. We had some real ‘what the hell are we doing here?’ types of gigs. I remember playing in this one place, a horrible strip mall, and the opening act sang the lyrics of Bon Jovi’s ‘Wanted Dead Or Alive’ to the music of Bauhaus’s ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’—that was spectacular. I cackled immensely at it and, to this day, I can’t hear one song without referencing the other. On all those tours, there was this feeling that no band played better that day on the face of the planet. We were so tight and we rocked it so hard; we would get off stage knowing we kicked ass, that we’d nailed it. It’s what kept us going. Michael Gira There’s this part of me that’s been there from the early days, when I was doing these intense physical performances but I’d also be simultaneously counting heads in the audience. That decided how much you got paid, and the promoters would always lie, so we would count how many people were there while doing this animal performance at the same time. The typical thing in the States is you would do a show and have a massive fight with the promoter to get paid at all. One time we went to a promoter’s house because he wasn’t going to pay us, and we took his stereo and television! I don’t know how to fucking fight—I haven’t been in a fight since I was thirteen—but I was able to yell loud, and once in a while we’d get paid that way, but oft-times, no. One show at this big place on the Lower East Side—kind of an abandoned building, but they’d fixed it up in certain areas for discos and rock concerts, and they’d brought in a PA—rain was coming in through the holes in the ceiling in the dressing room, so we were sitting there with puddles around us. We played a terrible show and there was no one there. We went to get paid and the promoter said, ‘Get the fuck out of here, I’m not paying you!’ He had some sizeable New York bouncers standing around, so we left humiliated and didn’t get paid.

Algis Kizys Trying to get pennies out of some clubs was really difficult, especially if you don’t play pop music. At times they’d expect you to sell tickets for them in order to play at a venue and make no money. The only logic is that sometimes you do have to go there to promote your band—if you can’t play at a place in that town then no one would know who you were, so club owners would use that as leverage, and unless you had a name you wouldn’t make any money. Jack Balchin Promoters that didn’t respect the rider was a constant. Not enough PA was a blight, especially in the US, where I had many fights with house engineers, often blowing up their systems if they whined too much. Live, it was violent, as I was in top form on the echo-flange stereo-pan dance. Noise flew through the room and the punters were ducking and tortured. Algis Kizys What I really respected Michael for was his tenacity: to require clubs to fulfil their contractual obligation to provide us the PA we required in order to present the band in a proper framework, so not only could people understand what the band was trying to do but the band could transfer what we were trying to do to the audience. It was on Michael to stand up for the band and say, ‘You signed this, we need this PA—you need to get it.’ There was a lot of warfare going on between Michael and the clubs. Usually, after they’d seen what we do, they understood that we weren’t just being difficult. I was still new and, at first, didn’t understand the animosity, all the yelling, but there was a reason, and I respect it now. ••• Paul White [artwork, Greed/Holy Money] I’d taken desk space in a studio complex in Kilburn, and one of the other people in there was Ken Ansel. He was doing a lot of work with Virgin, and Some Bizarre had a relationship with Virgin for the release of the Einstürzende Neubauten album Drawings Of Patient O.T. He asked me if I would take the job because he didn’t have a good feeling for what to do. I put the project together, and that was my introduction to Rob and Stevo. Rob had signed Swans, and I was given this

little blue-and-white cassette of Cop and fell in love with it. I had an office space down the end of a corridor, and thankfully there were three or four fire doors between me and the rest of the population, because that album used to get belted out at chronic volume. The ‘dollar sign’ was definitely Michael’s idea, but the interesting thing about that work was that all of it was hand-drawn; it was all sketched and drawn up, and the penmanship was really good. Michael had the skills to make clear what he wanted, as well as the intention and desire to control it. Generally, Michael would come and visit when we were working on records, and he’d have drawings and sketches and layouts. He would bring sketches to the meetings, and we would use them as the establishing documents of the project. We worked well together, and what I could bring to it was a visual precision and clarity that fit his vision. I think Michael liked that we always worked in a clean and methodical way: whatever the visual idea was, it had to be presented in the strongest and most powerful way. There were no advertising budgets, so everyone was always conscious of the fact that the best advertising the record was going to get was the record cover in stores. Having a sleeve—and a record—that people in the store would really like meant you stood far more chance of being put on the shelf or the front of the counter, or near the entrance. Rico Conning [remix, ‘A Screw’; also engineer/producer, Children Of God] I was working in a studio that attracted this type of act. I started at Guerilla when it was an eight-track facility—one of the first studios that was designed for electronic music and mixing, built by William Orbit and Laurie Mayer. In 1983 they got their deal with IRS Records and were able to upgrade to twenty-four-track. In early ’86 I was working in Paris on the album Pop Satori by Etienne Daho when I first heard from Swans. They asked if I was interested in doing a remix of ‘A Screw’. To be honest, I found the tapes pretty scary, but I felt it was a challenge I couldn’t refuse! I flew from Paris to London early one morning and went straight to the Soho studio where the remix was done. Any apprehension I may have had at working with Michael quickly evaporated. Although he is an uncompromising person who makes no attempt to hide his personal

darkness, he is also a complete gentleman, at ease with himself and impeccable in his manners. Chris Bohn I think people were often scared of Michael when they first met him. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, but anyone asking intelligent questions, he’d respond to them. He hated the idea of Swans being seen as the most extreme band, or the ultimate of something, as if playing really slow was the thing they were aiming for—it wasn’t. It was necessary to express what he wanted to express, but it wasn’t the point of it or the aim. He would get really annoyed by that. Carlos Van Hijfte To me, Michael always felt frustrated that he couldn’t get what he wanted. He wanted his thing to come across, and that involved a lot of sound but it also involved having a decent amount of people coming to hear it and getting a decent amount of money, too, so he could live. It was hard; if we spent all the money on a decent PA system then it meant there’d be nothing left for the band. Michael never cancelled a show, though: he would just take it out on me and the local PA guy for not giving him what he wanted. At the Paradiso in Amsterdam, the PA wasn’t enough so the whole disco sound system had to be involved, which didn’t make any sense because the disco sound system was for records—it wasn’t prepared for a live rock band. It made everything sound awful but it was really loud. If you want overtones then you need good quality stuff, and when they were first coming over, most PAs in rock venues were crap. All you could get was something sounding loud, something that punished your ears. Algis Kizys Sheer volume was something I was into because I found out about the scientific end of the harmonic confluxes in rehearsal or live spaces, where sound is at a perfect volume and you can create these harmonic overtones. It was hard to get people who understood that volume could be a good thing and not just damaging—you don’t do it to get your rocks off, it serves a purpose. Sometimes it would just be chance: temperature, volume, room sizes, humidity, people in a room; sometimes the harmonics don’t flow properly because of those other variables. When

it’s right, it’s quite a wonderful thing—you’re inside it, and it’s so beautiful. If you don’t make it all the time, that’s normal. Mark ‘Harry’ Harris [roadie, Holy Money/Children Of God] It was actually Marc Almond who played me Filth. I was living in York and Marc told us he was going to be away for a few days and we could have his place in Soho if we wanted to stay there. When Marc came back, he told me, ‘Oh, you’ve got to hear this record.’ Swans came back in ’86 to do some more dates. I was still up in York, but if you collected wrappers from Mars Bars, you could get half-price coach tickets, so I collected them then got a ticket to go to Brighton—a six-hundred-mile round trip to see Swans at the Zap Club. It was a small, tunnel-ish venue on the seafront. The show, how to describe it? It was really dynamic, menacing, primal. They had a slightly sleazy edge to them as well. I was down the front and got chatting to the band afterward. They seemed genuinely touched that I’d travelled all that way—they said it wasn’t something that happened to them in the States. They’re sweet guys, gentle giants—if you took them on face value, you might cross the road to avoid them. Algis Kizys The Zap was my first gig with Swans in the UK—quite the memorable show. It was as loud as you can possibly get because the walls were very reflective. Back then we were bringing a lot of gear with us, and places weren’t used to that. A lot of the time the sheer amount of amplification on stage was much greater than the PA system. Mark ‘Harry’ Harris Those early shows were among my favourites because they had the two-drummer thing going on. The way they linked up, the timing they used together, the way they looked at each other—they’re leading everything, the galley slave drummers controlling the whole beat and rhythm. Visually it looks great to see two blokes pummelling drum kits —it’s a powerful thing to see. It’s like you’re stuck on this thing with them. Edwin Pouncey I first saw Swans live at the University of London in ’86. I went in there, it had wooden panelled walls, and it was packed—they’d done a good job getting people in there. Swans were so insanely loud; that’s

when I felt that feeling, this ‘transcendence through noise’ feeling where you were being lifted up. It was so loud there was something like G-force coming at you. I could feel all the membrane in my nostrils quivering and my clothes and my coat shifting and shaking in the air. ‘My God, this is so good!’ I was hooked. You did get this feeling that it was Michael’s band, this impression that he was controlling them; they were like a machine, and he was the one with the big lever that manipulated it. It seemed Michael was the only one who could improvise regarding his actions and what he was saying. Those songs are almost orchestrated. Paul Kendall [engineer, Skin] I remember vividly the first time I saw Swans perform. I’d come from a background of listening to early heavy metal. I’d seen Led Zeppelin at the Royal Albert Hall in ’68 and put my head in front of the speakers—I liked loud noise. Swans was totally allencompassing—the most physical experience of a band I’d ever come across. It was slow so it just poured into you. The Swans approach of really slowing the music down and having two very heavy drummers—that sound was brand new. I hadn’t heard anything that original in a while. Dele Fadele Swans played at the old University of London Union in Malet Street, and it was crushing. A couple of weeks later I saw them play at the ICA, and it was the same thing: they were playing this seriously rhythmic music, noisy but with pauses between the beats that went on so long you heard it almost like silence. At the ICA I had a toothache, and it went away altogether while they were playing—it was so punishing I couldn’t feel it! The music had a physical effect—you’d feel it right in your chest, your rib cage. I saw them several times in just a few weeks, and the songs were already different. It might be the same song, but they would play them differently—it was like it changed according to their mood, the energy of the audience. The shows weren’t as well attended as people might try to tell you—the ULU gig was half-full. I wrote something outrageous and over the top in NME and got censured by a priest—he wrote in to complain. I used some horrible metaphors, but Swans were brilliant.

Mark ‘Harry’ Harris I went to the next six gigs. I missed one in Nottingham, but I went to ULU, ICA, the Hacienda in Manchester. Each gig was different. The ICA show was amazing—they had these bodybuilders as a support act. When they played at ULU there were people behind me shouting, ‘Louder! Louder!’ That must have gotten irritating to Michael at some point. Then we were up at the Limit club in Sheffield, and there was only about thirty people there—Cabaret Voltaire and some of their friends—that was probably the smallest crowd they played to on the tour. There was a massive difference between playing in London and anywhere else. Thurston Moore There was a tour manager talking about how she’d had to fight off having a nervous breakdown because spending every night in the room with this band watching a guy with his shirt off killing himself on stage with this noose hanging over his head—it became a nightmare for her. I can see how that would be so affecting to deal with: the band pummelling these chords, this singer yowling into the microphone with a noose behind him. I thought, ‘That sounds wonderful!’ What a minimal, direct, and stirring stage set for these small venues! Jarboe Everybody probably gets drained after they do a performance. You have to have a disconnect if it’s too psychological, otherwise you can’t even do it the next time because you killed yourself the previous night. This is something I battle as a performer: not giving so much that you have to be picked up off the floor in a puddle; walking that fine line of being convincing in the sincerity of your performance but protecting yourself to a degree. Certainly every Swans concert I’ve ever seen, that was my experience: that it was absolutely draining, and that Michael was giving it everything he had and was exhausting himself. Algis Kizys Oftentimes you’d just kicked someone’s ass for fifteen minutes with a song, you’d stop and look at the audience and just see these dumbfounded faces like, ‘What the hell just happened?’ I don’t know what we wanted—did we want applause? Often, audiences would come because they’d heard it was this wild band from New York, then they’d see

something that they couldn’t understand—their neurones weren’t meeting. Sometimes people did get it, and you did get, ‘That was cool, thank you.’ Sometimes you got, ‘Boo, you’re horrible!’ Carlos Van Hijfte In Utrecht there was a venue with sound-limiters. I was hoping they’d deal with that, but instead Al put up his bass rig, touched his bass, and that was enough to cause every alarm to go off. That meant Swans weren’t allowed to play. We had to find an entirely different venue for the same night. We did, but the amount of equipment we brought in meant the electricity went down during the first song, and again another two or three times inside the first fifteen minutes. We had to give up and cancel because all the fuses were broken. Rob Collins The live record, Public Castration Is A Good Idea, ended up being part of the Some Bizarre contract. The record came out because the tour had lost a load of money, so we needed to work out how to recoup the loss—we thought a live release would do it. Great T-shirt as well!

7.0 OUR SUFFERING BODIES WILL SUFFER NO MORE Skin / Children Of God 1986–88 Michael Gira Jarboe’s father had one hat, which was a fedora, except more western—the brim was wider—and she let me put it on one day, this heirloom. I started wearing it all the time. After wearing it for a while it didn’t feel right to leave the house without it. It started to get a little worn, so she told me I had to buy my own hat because she wanted to keep that one. I did, and I’ve been wearing a hat ever since. Also, I had quit smoking cigarettes, and a friend of mine gave me a cigar, so I decided that was a good way to feed the beast without smoking cigarettes—and, lo and behold, I became reliant on cigars and smoked a couple a day for some time. Neither thing was a calculated style decision, needless to say. Ted Parsons I think we all said ‘uh oh’ the day Michael turned up to the studio with an acoustic guitar. It was kind of a surprise, after the European tour and the slave ship type of Swans. Michael came into rehearsals strumming the three or four chords he had learnt. Al and I told each other Swans was going to change—we thought it was a good thing, because you can’t play that vigorously, you can’t play that kind of music all the time. Jarboe’s arrival had definitely changed Michael as a person, so it changed Swans, too. Michael Gira All this press saying we were the loudest band in the world and all this crap—I felt it was really stupid. Some of that music is transcendent and great, but the world it started to draw toward us was something that repulsed me. I was in my thirties and I found it mortifying when people reacted to Swans like we were some kind of heavy metal,

volume for the sake of volume. I thought, ‘God, what am I doing?’ These quieter, more vulnerable types of pieces were anathema to the kind of audience we had begun to draw. I started to pick up an acoustic guitar in part just to say, ‘Fuck you!’ There was one show in Germany at a big echoing rock club, and I remember thinking how stupid the audience looked—it was all males, all drunk, just dumb. I was thrashing myself on stage; I’d throw my body down on the ground or smash myself over the monitors. I knocked half my front tooth out on the microphone and broke my ribs on the monitors, then went back to the stinky, disgusting dressing room and thought, ‘Enough. What have I gotten myself into?’ I always want to give more, but I wanted a different way of going about things. The desire to make music, for me, comes from the desire to find some truth in it. I don’t mean that in the profoundest sense, but there needs to be something that is real, and true, and carries you. It’s not just something you place there, it’s something that carries the audience with it. If you rely on the same methods constantly then it necessarily becomes spurious. It has to change. Jarboe No one ultimately had an impact on our sound because we didn’t care what anyone else was doing. We created our own world in our work. Just being alive means a lot of things come into play and influence your vocabulary, but we didn’t feel attuned or aligned to anybody. Listen to the music—it has zero connection to what others were doing. Swans stood alone, and I think it still stands alone. There are entities who have their trademark sound—even if it’s completely different from album to album, you still know it’s them. I think the music business had a really hard time putting a stamp on Swans because it’s unclassifiable. Michael Gira Jarboe got out her Nick Drake records—this was pre ‘the commercialisation of Nick Drake’. I was struck by the undeniable beauty and power of these incredibly simple performances. I started to work out and write things on acoustic guitar and to try to sing. I was also thinking about sounds: that you could use the studio as a tool—which had been kind of the obvious understanding of the studio since Brian Eno—so I was able

to convince Mute to fund us to go into the studio and do these two Skin records, which are really uneven affairs. There are some good things but a lot of it is heavy-handed and way too overstated and effect-laden. It was a way of trying to make music without the encumbrance of loud rock guitars and bashing drums. Rob Collins Michael came over and lived in the UK for a few months with Jarboe, renting a flat in West Hampstead, and they recorded the World Of Skin project at Mute’s studio up in Kings Cross. I don’t know if the two of them needed that kind of exorcism, to get that out of them, to allow them to carry on making Swans records. Paul Kendall I did a fair bit of vocal recording with Jarboe and a few sessions with Michael at a place called the Chocolate Factory. Michael was quite hard on Jarboe in terms of the performances, particularly on a track I love that was made famous by Julie London called ‘Cry Me A River’. Jarboe’s performance was unbelievable, and what it took to get that was a very long journey down to very dark places. It was harrowing for her, and Michael was quite imposing, saying exactly what he wanted and what she wasn’t doing. I think it was worth it to create this beautiful performance from her. Basically, what you do can be quite cruel: you wind the person up, make them emotional, make them virtually cry. There’s a hardness to the way some producers work—and it’s not one I’ve ever used—but Michael was quite singular. He knew what he wanted, and she was fine—no blood was spilled, though maybe some emotions were irritated a bit. Was it worth it? You look at it and yeah, those two or three hours of exposed emotions mean we’re left with an article to marvel at for a lifetime. Jarboe The Skin projects began with the original idea that Michael might be interested in producing a solo album for me because he heard all the things I could do, singing-wise, that he didn’t feel were appropriate for Swans. When I first joined there wasn’t anything really melodic or songorientated in Swans. The idea of the Skin album was that it would be the singer, the songwriter, the voice—the voice would always be upfront and the production centred around the voice. Michael enjoyed working on

Blood Women Roses so much that he wanted to do his own companion album, and that became Shame Humility Revenge. Paul Kendall I remember doing a cover of ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’—we recorded that in about five minutes. It was totally off the cuff as far as I could see. I’m not sure I even knew the original when he did it. Michael was going into this new area, musically, and he didn’t talk about why, but it’s what he wanted to do. I don’t think anybody would ever dictate to Michael. It’s so difficult being British in front of Americans: they have no doubts about their decisions—they’re like people who went to Eton, very self-confident. Having someone like Michael in the studio, it really helps, because democracy doesn’t work in the studio—you have to follow one vision or you water down the ideas. Jarboe There was a lot of enjoyment in being able to work on those records. I do think one member of the group saw it as taking away time and energy from Swans, which is something I disagreed with because I saw it as helping to fuel Swans. You can hear how that approach to songwriting influenced Swans. Soon, Skin and Swans had sort of merged in terms of having space for more melodic songs, opening up the sound. Swans had become something so slow, sparse, and heavy, there was nowhere it could go except to change. Rob Collins Some Bizarre were in some financial trouble and they needed another label to help them out. There were talks between Some Bizarre and Mute about a deal to be done—and it fell through. I was quite vulture-like, I suppose, and went to Daniel Miller and said, ‘I could come over and start a label, and I could bring these acts with me.’ He said, ‘OK,’ and it was as simple as that. A month or so later, I was in the Mute building working on Children Of God. Geoff Muncey [tour manager, Children Of God tour] Swans were about to start recording Children Of God down at Sawmills Studios in Cornwall. Rob Collins asked me, ‘The band are coming over, would you drive them down?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ It was only Al, Norman, and Ted, so we jumped in

the van and I did the six-, seven-hour drive. The thing about that place is that you can only actually get into the studio at certain times when the tide is right so I ended up staying overnight and spent time with those guys. They were great, a real Three Musketeers vibe. Rob Collins It was going to be a single album, then I got the phone call from Michael: ‘We’re going to make a double album but we need more studio time, is that all right?’ We said yes, of course. It was hilarious watching the Ampeg SVT amps and heads being loaded into the little rowing boat to be rowed over to the studio. The only way to get to it was to drive to the end of the road and put everything into a boat. Simon Fraser [flute, Children Of God] My family lived in the house, and there were various wooden chalets in the grounds that the bands lived in— the studio is in the basement. It was a medieval sawmill and it’s actually in the Domesday Book. The creek that it’s in—there’s no road to Sawmills— comes off the River Fowey and is called Bodmin Pill—old medieval for ‘creek’. When Swans first turned up, they were so unlike any of the other musicians we had. We worked with long-haired British players, mostly, and these guys turned up and they were very New York. There was a guy with tattoos and muscles who brought bodybuilding weights with him. We were slightly wary of them because they didn’t seem cool in the laid-back English meaning of the word—they seemed uptight and intense. While they were there they more or less stayed in the studio, working hard. Ted Parsons The sessions were a lot of fun. One night we got drunk on cider and Norman and Al decided to get the boat we had used to get our equipment to the island and to go out in the boat. So they were out in the river and they hit something and knocked a hole in the boat. Not a huge one but enough. So it’s like a cartoon—there’s water in the boat and they’re bailing it out to keep it afloat long enough that they can row it back to the island before they go under completely. They made it, but … Jarboe Listen to ‘In My Garden’—that was a really hard vocal to do because it is solid breath. It’s so quiet on the mic, it’s singing like the flute.

This is not what you’re taught by the formal teachers. I had to go my own way. I wrote that music on a piano I had in my apartment while I was going to university—then one day Al was practising his fingering on the bass while sitting on the floor watching TV in one of the cabins at Sawmills, and I said, ‘Hey, that pattern would work with my song.’ I thought it was just going to be flown in as a texture—I didn’t think of it as songwriting. I wrote the music for the title track ‘Children Of God’—another thing I had worked on previously—and created the rhythm and the sound pattern to it. Michael Gira Sometimes she had a song she’d written or something, and I would orchestrate it; inevitably I’d try to guide and direct it. Because it was my group, I always wanted her to sing a certain way. Of course she sang everything great and she would have done so without my direction, but, inevitably, I gave direction constantly. The song ‘Children Of God’ is built around a keyboard loop she had, and I directed her to build that up; I suggested the vocals rounds she was doing, then it was a back-and-forth from there. She had a lot of input, and I could never downplay that. My role as director was to produce it or orchestrate it. Audrey Riley [cello, Children Of God] I’d been out of college for two years, slowly establishing myself in the profession—still very poor, studying hard, but at the same time going to everything experimental I could hear and recording with Test Dept. With the background of work I was doing I was so used to just turning up, getting an idea of what they wanted—their vision—and just playing. They probably told me an idea for the part and I improvised to find something. The cello sound was processed, distorted—a pretty cool idea they’d had. Ted Parsons Michael would never really tell Norman what to do. Norman had this attitude of, ‘I’m going to do what I’m going to do,’ and Michael seemed to accept that because Norman had been in the band long enough that they understood each other really well. Being the drummer, I wasn’t writing the songs, and I just wanted to do what was right for the song. Usually we would just play and play, and Michael would make suggestions

about what we should keep doing or stop doing. We’d concentrate more on certain pieces then work them out into songs. Rico Conning It was a perfect place to hole up with a band and get some serious work done. I can’t really recall the exact number of days spent recording in Cornwall and then mixing in London. It was something like three weeks for each, with a break in the middle. I may have been a bit intimidated initially, but I soon got over it and ultimately got on very well with Al, Norm, and Ted—we had a few good drinking sessions together. The recording days were intense but generally during daylight hours, and we’d relax in the evenings, take the boat down to the pub. Sawmills’ house engineer, John Cornfield, did a great job and really freed me up to look at the bigger picture. The initial sessions were very much a live affair: we set the band up in the recording room and let them have at it. Most of the backing tracks were done in that way with overdubs added subsequently, but the essence of the tracks is that of a live performance. As the sessions unfolded and the full scope of the album became clear, I felt an ascending level of awe and astonishment! Michael Gira I was directly inspired by American televangelists and their approach to religion. I was thinking about mind control a lot—how people want to dissolve into something, or how they’re fed an ideology that takes over their identity—and it seemed that televangelism was a rock-related perversion of it. These televangelists were quite something to watch. There was one, Jimmy Swaggart, and he was an amazing performer: he inspired me to write from the point of view of religion on that record. I wanted to do it in a way that was not patently disparaging of Christianity, however, so I tried to embody it and use it and be inside it. It would have been too obvious and predictable for a punk or a post-punk band to attack Christianity. I saw the power of it as an ideology and a way of looking at existence. It wasn’t meant to be an ironic or sneering approach to the subject—everyone and their fucking mother was doing that, and I thought it was stupid because there are a tremendous amount of good people who are Christians, and it’s a laudable pursuit done as a spiritual exercise, rather than something used for social control.

Rico Conning Mixing was just me and Michael, working fairly long days at Guerilla Studios. The most difficult phase was the mastering. I think it was the fourth time around that Michael was satisfied with the vinyl pressing. I’d attribute that to the compromises that have to be made in cutting vinyl, which perhaps didn’t quite jibe with what he was hearing at the mix sessions. Ted Parsons Children Of God was a real shift. There’s a lot happening on that record, but it’s still heavy, too. We ended up doing a video for ‘New Mind’ for the TV show The Tube, which had Michael singing into a torch and waving an axe around—that was pretty funny. It did feel like we were getting more popular—which is not necessarily a good thing—but we were getting audiences and people were paying attention to us. Mark ‘Harry’ Harris Ted fell asleep and missed them making the video. He flew over, got the train up to Newcastle, fell asleep, and woke up in Glasgow. Jarboe Channel 4 used to have music shows and experimental films—it was the arty channel—and they produced videos for us. They were behind the videos for ‘1,000 Years’ and for ‘New Mind’—really nice professional video-production places up by Newcastle at a great big soundstage studio. The ‘New Mind’ video, they had the camera on a track and we’re standing on either side and Michael is at the end, on the floor, writhing. He was giving his best performance for this particular take; the camera is rolling down the track, getting closer and closer to the climax, and then suddenly a whistle: ‘Stop!’ Even though they only had seconds to go to finish the song they stopped due to the union—they could only work a precise amount of minutes. Michael wasn’t too happy. The ‘1,000 Years’ video was a delightful foray into adventure. I showed up at the studio, was taken into a room, and there’s a table there with all these writhing snakes. The idea was the snakes would be filmed, then that’d be flown into a collage. Then it changed into, ‘Wear the snakes round your body! Wrap them round your hips! Stand in a sea of them and lift the giant python above your head!’ All on camera. While lip-synching. I swear that

python weighed fifty pounds, if not more—all the muscles in your neck and back are straining while you’re lifting it, but you’re trying to look graceful at the same time. Some of the snakes were having problems: one was shedding and got testy—it shot up and tried to bite me, so the handler came in with a hook and got it away. Another snake defecated around me—it was intense. Snakes are crawling in my braids and I can hear the sound of their scales on my head—that sound didn’t leave me for days. There was a separate photo shoot down in London, and for that one the snakes had come off the Indiana Jones movie—professional movie and photography snakes—so they came in special cases and they’re kept in a state of cold to keep them at a certain temperature so they’re not writhing around, and they can be wrapped around you and they’ll stay that way because they’re cold, they’re dormant. They feel like big cold meat, horrible, not a pleasant sensation. They are literally moulded around you. ••• Algis Kizys The more times you go through a place you get friends, so we would know people, and eventually there’d be an instant social net, which gave us a reason to go out. Being adventurous Americans, we were exploring. It was still a novelty to us—travelling in Europe is fun! I miss the way Europe was to American eyes. It was pretty alien—every place had its own currency and customs and language. Michael and Jarboe would couple-off while the rest of us would go and try to have fun. We would go out every night to see what night life was around because we were basically stuck in a town, and also we were good friends in the band—we liked chumming around with each other! Ted Parsons As far as when we were touring, things weren’t particularly regimented—at least compared to Prong afterward, when we’d be touring seven or eight months of the year. Al would call me up and tell me we were going to do a couple of shows the next week, or that we’d be going on the road for a couple of weeks. The main thing was, it wasn’t like we put out an album on a label and they’d promote us and we’d go on tour. With Swans,

we’d tour whenever we could, which wasn’t all that much—it was a very random schedule. Geoff Muncey August to October 1987, kicking off in Germany, we went into Scandinavia as well as touring places behind the Iron Curtain, too. Western bands weren’t really allowed or generally promoted in countries like Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia. Rob asked me if I fancied being the tour manager and driver. I was a young guy in my early twenties, so I thought it all looked great—I’d thoroughly enjoyed my time with Al, Norman, and Ted, and I loved the music. Jarboe We were on the Kings Of Independence shows in Germany, riding in a bus with The Bad Seeds, Crime & The City Solution, Butthole Surfers —a lot of fascinating characters—and I sat next to Nick Cave up front by the driver. So we’re in Hamburg and the event was oversold, and all these kids rioted and they overturned a police car and set it on fire and all this stuff. Alexander Hacke A legendary disaster of a tour. The promoter in Hamburg, she had sold double the number of tickets than what the venue would hold, so there was a riot. Geoff Muncey We kicked off, just two crew—myself and Jack Balchin— and the first thing we did was Kings Of Independence. That was the start of things to come: a crazy introduction. There were huge riots outside but we were inside, so we were oblivious. We soundchecked, then at one point I walked up a set of stairs and looked out the window: there was a full-scale riot going on with police fighting people. Jarboe Butthole Surfers had just finished, and they had the Akai sampling unit—the same one I was then using—so when they finished the show Gibby Haynes picked up his unit and threw it—these things were quite expensive—and destroyed it in disgust. We’re up next and I’ve got the keyboard sampler, and someone at the venue had decided to use what was

probably an oil-based rather than a water-based smoke for atmosphere. It’s the worst thing you can do when you’re dealing with computers—that oil gets into the circuitry and destroys the machine. I had come prepared as the person playing this delicate stuff—I had plastic tents, tarps I would put over my gear to protect it, because not only would we encounter things like this oil-based smoke but, with our volume, sometimes the ceilings would rain down plaster and paint chips. There’s a photo from that show of Michael next to me with this angry look on his face as the sampler had malfunctioned. I managed to save it by rebooting. Geoff Muncey Never a dull moment! I was driving, setting up the backline, loading the gear in and out, working with Jack, making sure everything ran smoothly. It was pretty lean—we didn’t have a lighting guy and that kind of stuff—but it all worked. Everyone mucked in and it was a real team effort. It was very much Michael’s band, and he and Jarboe would spend a lot of time alone. It was the five boys—Norman, Ted, Al, Jack, and myself—who would head off to have a drink after the show or maybe beforehand or on a day off. Not to say Michael was being aloof but he had other obligations, including being the lead person for PR—his existence was different from the others. He very much decided what we did, how we did it, and when we did it. We all travelled together in the one van, and we did socialise, but while the boys were out until early hours, Michael and Jarboe usually headed back earlier if they did have a drink with us. These weren’t separate camps but there were two different lifestyles going on. Jarboe Jack Balchin said something like, ‘Got to carry your own shit, mate!’ He just made it clear to me that you’re responsible for yourself and your stuff. The Ensoniq Mirage had this steel, hard, road case: you couldn’t leave it in the back of the van—you couldn’t leave it anywhere—because it was too valuable. I had to push the thing into my hotel room every single night, and if the stairs were steep then you just did it bit by bit by bit, even if you’re close to flat on your stomach pushing up narrow steps—you get it there, you didn’t ask for help. Everyone had their own stuff to worry about. Frequently the guys in the band wanted to go out and drink after the show, while I, as always, was back in my hotel room asleep. I never went out or

socialised—to me it was always just about being my best at the next show, and the next show, and the next one … I remember straddling an elevator in Brussels one night, trying to keep the elevator door from closing as I moved in all the guitars, with everyone’s passports in my back-pocket, because they’d all be going out drinking. ‘Hey! Jarboe, she’ll take them back to her room.’ I took on that role. I had to—I was the only one who didn’t go out and get wasted. Jack Balchin All the equipment was subject to an international guarantee against sale abroad with the various tax levels in different countries. And each country had its own little ways of playing the game of filling in procedures. I used to assemble these ‘Carnets’, so I knew the game, so to speak. Crossing from France to Germany, you’d present departing France papers along with passport for stamps for individuals, then go fifty yards to the German bunch and do the business for entry. Germany into Switzerland: same thing. It made a small amount of sense for me to hang on to passports when we were buzzing borders so often. Bands were a constant target, and there could be many hours of delay if ‘things’ were out of order. Quite often it would be me out of order, as the more times across frontiers, the drunker I would be, seeing how far out to lunch I could get away with—kinda hobbylike. It worked really well until it didn’t! Algis Kizys We played behind the Iron Curtain when Poland, Czechoslovakia, and places like that were still Eastern Bloc. Fun shows. In Prague it was in an old restaurant with vaulted ceilings. We had to camp outside and wait for a signal from the person who organised it, who was waiting for a signal from the person in the restaurant to say that the owner was gone, because it was being done without their knowledge. The manager left, we got the signal to load in; people were moving tables aside; they didn’t have a PA, so we used my bass rig as the PA and played acoustically for that one show. You couldn’t blast in there anyway—we would have obliterated the windows at our normal volume. They were really appreciative! The next day we wanted to hang out, it was a sunny afternoon, and we were in one of the main shopping areas; we’re just chatting, and this guy

comes over, ‘Excuse me but are you speaking English? Do you mind if I listen?’ I thought that was funny, so I asked, ‘Of course you can, but why?’ He was a teacher and he said that he hadn’t heard English in such a long time that he’d just like to hear it. It’s one of the times it hit me what the Iron Curtain really meant in those times. We played Brno, too. I remember hanging out with the organiser afterward, hearing all the stories about how cut off they were from all the music in the West since the Prague Spring uprising in 1968. I was at the apartment of one of the people who organised these things, and I saw stacks of these mimeographed pages—not Xeroxed, a really old-school way of printing. I asked why he was mimeographing books, and he told me, ‘I’m a translator, and because we can’t get these books in Prague, when we get a book from the West, I translate it, write it out, type it, then we put it through the mimeograph process so we can give copies to our friends.’ That’s how they’d pass books around: these books would get smuggled in, copied, then shared. I’m guessing they did something similar with music, and that’s how Swans had an audience there. Geoff Muncey There was a weird moment where Michael was getting in the van and sat on Jarboe’s hand, and that became a drama because she wasn’t sure she could play. Another time we got somewhere in Czechoslovakia and our accommodation was youth hostel dormitories. Michael said, ‘We’re not staying here!’ We got hold of the promoter and told him that we needed alternative accommodation. We didn’t want fivestar treatment but we weren’t students, either. Ted Parsons We’d drive, we’d play, sometimes we’d stay over and other nights we’d drive all night to get to the next venue. Occasionally we would have a couple of nights off, but otherwise the long drives were the only other time off. We had a lot of crowds coming in, and I realised this was an important project. I think Prague was the only time it was half-full, and that’s when we did the ‘Swans acoustic’ thing in a little café. I was surprised by how popular we were!

Geoff Muncey There was one show we played downstairs in a wine bar— the full Swans gear down a winding staircase to a room where you’d probably smoke a cigar and drink a glass of Chianti. It was ludicrous, but the promoter there loved the band, so that’s where he could get us. There weren’t normal venues on the circuit that we could play there; we had to play in these unusual places, but Swans wouldn’t downsize or reconfigure for these smaller places. The promoters were desperate to have the band play, and the band wanted to give the people who were lucky enough to go the same experience as you’d get in Paris or Amsterdam. The setup wasn’t as professionalised or westernised, so we would make do—everything was covert and under the cover of darkness. There was a circle of people, and if you knew, you knew. These places weren’t totally cut off—they were still getting music magazines, they were getting radio—and people who loved this kind of music would champion it maybe even more passionately than in places where the music was freely available. We were invited to a party in Poland where the host seemed intent on getting us all drunk on potato vodka—we made our fun. Algis Kizys In Poland we became friends with this band called Apotheker —when they heard a band from the West was playing, they’d try to get on the bill—so we ended up staying at one of their homes in the country on our days off. It was really wild seeing the real Polish landscape, and we went to a real Polish wedding—wild scenes. We weren’t travelling with a support act, so the organiser would have some friends or contacts that they’d put on. In Warsaw we played with a whole bunch of bands—this Frank Zappasounding band playing wild psychedelic stuff and so on. They’d put stuff together and it didn’t have to sound like the other bands. Jack Balchin My worst ever event happened in Poland. We had a couple of days off and were taken to a lake with a cabin and a few crates of vodka. I came out of a blackout one morning and Michael asked me for his passport. What the fuck I was doing with all the passports I couldn’t tell you! I couldn’t find them. It was turning into the worst hangover ever. I went into whatever town we had been playing in: no passports. We were in Gdansk before that; couldn’t contact anyone there and blind panic setting in, as this

was a very fucked situation. Somehow, still desperately hungover, I got a train to Gdansk and set about finding bodies. By this time I was deep in the hole and on the vodka again. After a couple of hours, I found a face that recognised me and helped me rouse the promoters. The passports were still in the safe at the youth hostel we’d been in. I passed out on the train back to Warsaw. Fortunately, the track ended in the station and they turfed me off. I got back to the lake just in time to jump in the van and go to the next gig … and Swans didn’t let me have the passports again. Michael Gira We were booked in Paris by some fly-by-night promoter, and he added so many opening acts that by the time it came for us to play we were told we had fifteen, twenty minutes before the curfew. We were understandably pissed off, told him that we couldn’t even begin to approach our set, so we did one song—the same riff over and over while I extemporised vocally. Geoff Muncey Michael was so exasperated that the set consisted of a twenty-minute version of ‘Your Property’—which wasn’t in the set. Michael was pumping the crowd up, there was anger, but he didn’t care; he lapped it up. The more the audience reacted, the worse his attitude got toward them. So, yeah, another riot after that one. Paul Wallfisch [keyboards, Swans, 2016–17] I saw Swans in Paris. Michael said something like, ‘We only have a few minutes, we’re going to make some noise now—do what you have to do.’ He incited a riot. The PA columns came down, and people were fighting in the streets. The show lasted all of twenty minutes—it was the nastiest thing I’d ever seen. I’d seen lots of punk shows but I didn’t realise you could do this on stage—you could smell them off the stage, they were so nasty! Norman says he had a guitar string he hadn’t clipped and it went through his finger, so for the entirety of that show he was bleeding all over his guitar. Michael Gira I was pissed, so I exhorted the audience to destroy the place —which they did. A riot ensued and it carried on into the street and they dug up the cobblestones and were breaking windows. At that moment it

dawned on me, the inherent strength one has as a performer. A dangerous thing. Geoff Muncey The sets weren’t all that long from a song perspective because each song was so long, and usually they’d not play an encore. There was no keeping people sweet, no playing old favourites—none of that. We were lean so there wasn’t much that could be messed around with. Michael had a carpet he had at the front of the stage, so I had to make sure that was in the right place for him, depending on the stage configuration. Ted Parsons We brought around a sound system from Germany that would tear your face off, and we’d bring it into any venue—big or small—so that period of Swans, people went to hear us play this pummelling and loud music. We were really consistent. Michael Gira We toured very expensively. We had tour support— something I’ve never repeated since—and we toured with our own PA and lighting rig, because normally we would arrive and find the PA was entirely substandard, so we’d blow it up during the first song. We got hold of this company, through our friends in Neubauten, and they brought their PA and set up basic lights for us, too—expensive. Jarboe The keyboard sounds were like slabs: they were percussive and abrasive. Then it evolved, primarily because with Children Of God and the Skin albums, a lot of the songs were composed on piano, so I think this led to the organ and piano sounds being more utilised. The organ sound was run through a bass amp, so it had this big heavy sound—a dimension and depth to the sound. This is something that I really liked—it added a richness and a texture live. No one instrument was standing out—you were part of the texture of the refrain and the orchestration, which is so great because you can get notes weaving in and out of the primal guitar and bass chords. These notes would add a psychedelic texture to it. To me, that was a really great era, where things were very dense and orchestrated but where it also had this psychedelic, Floyd-esque era with the instrumentation. This was transcendent: you could get lost playing it on stage; you’d be transformed

and uplifted. This was something I loved the most, when you were just playing with the other musicians on stage and you would get lost in that meditative state of mantra, and you’d look at the audience and they’d be lost in it, too. Mark ‘Harry’ Harris When they played student places, it was always clear that most of the crowd really didn’t know what they were seeing. At Leeds Poly there was this fairly straight-looking student guy stood right by the speakers. Jarboe would do a slower or acoustic intro, then they’d have this massive slam down into something really heavy after about four minutes. So, this guy, he obviously had no idea what was coming. I’ve never seen anyone so terrified! He jumped about ten feet in the air, spilt his beer, and his glasses fell off. At the Liverpool show I was doing the merch from just by the stage from a bit that used to be an old sandwich bar or something. All the guys had their pints along the bar, and when Swans started playing all the drinks fell off. Glasses and bottles moving of their own volition along the stage— that stuff always happened. I’ve heard people say that the walls were bouncing, and when we played Birmingham there were bits of plaster falling out of the ceiling, but the stories about people vomiting—I’m pretty sure that’s not just down to the volume, but it makes for a good story. Richard Thomas I did the live shows for them in London: Heaven, ICA, University of London, Town & Country. The Heaven show was sold out due to The Fall, then ULU was a thousand people sold-out; Town & Country was about eighteen hundred. Being a promoter was fairly easy in those days, so long as you knew the right bands to put on. That era in London, the post-punk crowd was so small that you could very easily get to know the people at Rough Trade, 4AD, Factory—everyone like that. People would be thinking, ‘What do we do tonight?’ There was this different way of attending gigs where you’d maybe sell a third of the tickets in advance and everyone else would just turn up on the night—most people didn’t have credit cards, and you didn’t book online, so you had to go to a ticket agent or to the venue. People tend to over-romanticise the 80s indie scene when it

was still a fairly small audience. Joy Division, The Smiths, Birthday Party —even those bands weren’t playing to huge audiences. Chris Bohn The Town & Country was phenomenally intense—the audience left shell-shocked but totally thrilled. The club put out a savage thing saying they weren’t going to put on any more concerts of that nature —I think they’d had a lot of complaints from neighbours. It said things about how they didn’t like the kinds of people Swans attracted; they claimed people were shooting up in the toilets; it was this blanket condemnation of a certain culture, with Swans seen as the peak of it. It was an extraordinary concert, though, the physicality of it. Mark ‘Harry’ Harris A lot of people quote the Town & Country gig as the loudest gig they’d ever been to. There’s a guy I worked with at Rough Trade who said to me at the end, ‘I’d rather stand on the runway of Heathrow Airport than listen to that!’ So not everyone was a fan. Geoff Muncey Jack Balchin was in his element because he knew how far he could push things, and he wasn’t going to be told no or made to limit it. He did it his way, and it was always the Swans way. There were stories about people throwing up because it was so loud; people making love in the audience because the noise hit some kind of button; I remember thinking when the band finished that it was something special. Richard Thomas People were leaving and being physically sick—believe me! There was a house behind the club and the house was vibrating, so the man who owned it tried to get the club closed—that’s the one time Swans were able to use the PA to its full effect. Mark ‘Harry’ Harris They played some smaller places, too. I remember being in the tour van and there were the usual grumbles: not seeing any posters, not being sure if the gig was being promoted properly—the stuff that every up-and-coming band has probably said. The Mardi Gras in Liverpool, they had a barrier across the stage, and Michael was livid: ‘What

the fuck’s this? Get it off or we’re not doing the gig!’ Then there was a famous show at the Rooftops in Glasgow. I was at the bottom of the stairs, and I remember the guy saying, ‘The lift’s not working and there’s no one here to carry your stuff up the stairs.’ It was obvious they didn’t want us to do the gig because they’d heard the rumours from the night before in Edinburgh, about people throwing up and stuff. Michael turned around: ‘Fuck this! We’re not doing the gig!’ There weren’t many issues, there were just times Michael would put his foot down. The angriest Michael ever got with me was when I ate a whole pineapple, including the leaves, out of his dressing room. He thought that was ridiculous. He didn’t seem to be the type of person who wanted to get close to people—nothing wrong with that. The first time I saw him do anything even remotely light-hearted was at TJs in Newport, where, before the soundcheck, he was skanking round the jukebox to some ska that was on. I’d known him a year and it was the first time I saw him relax. Ted Parsons Michael was always so serious! We were joking around one day and he said, ‘Never let anyone laugh at your art! Never laugh about your art!’ which just meant we laughed even more, thinking, ‘Dude, calm down!’ Michael always seemed to relax once he’d had a drink, but he was just a serious kind of guy, and that was fair enough. It was his band; he had a lot of the responsibility for what was going on. Jarboe and Michael, that was a weird relationship—they fought a lot, and there were times they weren’t talking, or where they couldn’t communicate when it came to the music and what needed to happen—so whatever tension there was in the band was definitely coming from them. It was usually him and Jarboe on their own in their room while the rest of the band was going out—it never felt like a whole band. We were just a nice bunch of guys. Michael was being interviewed once and he was asked about the band, and he said something about us being a bunch of clowns—‘a goofy bunch of guys’. Rob Collins It was always a positive relationship—I worked with Michael a hell of a long time over a lot of records—but it was tough at times. You think you’re really trying to help someone out, you’re busting a gut to make something happen, then something goes wrong—potentially totally out of

your control—and he had to have someone to … blame? Vent at? Let his frustrations out at? A lot of the time it was me, or someone in the band—a lot of people took it. I was the one who got the phone calls at two in the morning when Michael was on tour somewhere in Eastern Europe and the hotel was wrong or the van hadn’t turned up—I was the one who got the screaming Michael at the end of the phone. Algis Kizys From the outside looking in, it probably looked like Michael was in charge, but at the beginning—sure, he was the singer and the focus of that thing, but we were doing stuff together, so it never felt like him then everyone else. My tendencies, if I feel constricted, are to rebel, and I didn’t feel that in Swans until a bit later. It’s a hard thing in a band if you do take the reins and want to keep it together. There are things you can do to keep it —give people props, make them feel part of stuff. Not saying this is what happened, but if you start restricting stuff too much then chances are that the band isn’t going to stay together. The history of that band is, sometimes, that there was this revolving door on some instruments. Ted Parsons I left because, really, it was time to do something different. I wanted to be able to play fast again, and Swans had been pretty intense. I mean, we worked hard, and it was all fun, but it was good to stop and do something else. It was great to play drums with Swans but it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I played drums really fast with cymbals and hi-hats and fills because I was always in punk and new-wave bands. My first rehearsal with Swans, I went to do something on my cymbal and Michael interrupted: ‘No, no, no—that’s not what we do here.’ He told me what it was going to be and I said OK. So I was getting bored of Swans and I got an offer to play with Prong. The rest is history. Rob Collins The move to Mute was a big thing: we had more access to promotional opportunities, better structure around distribution, better international setup, touring was at a bigger level. We believed in Michael and thought we were going to have success with Swans. It was building up to that moment where, ‘Right, we’re ready to try and have a hit,’ which was the ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ moment. It was very much Michael’s idea: it

wasn’t me, it wasn’t Daniel Miller at Mute, telling him what we thought he should do—Michael was ambitious and wanted success, and maybe he thought a cover would help. When I received ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ I was surprised it was such a commercial-sounding song. We did go for it in terms of trying to have a successful single by having all the multi-formats and thinking people might go and buy three different twelve-inch singles with different versions—they all counted toward the charts. We played the game. I preferred some of the other versions: there’s an acoustic version, there’s a Jarboe version; I remember there were a lot of different mixes made of the main mix and a lot of ‘Don’t like this one, don’t like that one’ from Michael. Jarboe The ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ single—and I’m talking about the drum machine, MTV, pop music ‘red’ version—was a hiccup. Roli Mosimann was behind the way it sounded. He programmed the drum machine, and I think he wanted it to become a piece for his resume as a producer—a showcase for his production skills. This big production was a problem—the push behind it, the video treatment. Al and I were driving back to Manhattan from the studio one night—it was out in Long Island or somewhere like that—and we just sat in silence, furrowed brows, staring ahead into the distance. We were both thinking, ‘What the hell is going on?’ When we could bring ourselves to talk, I remember Al saying something like, ‘God, can you believe we’re doing that?’ This is how strange it got: my background vocals became a point of drama because I sounded too personable. Roli told me I should sound more like a generic background singer. I tried really hard—I removed my trademark characteristics, my vibrato, made it unemotional and plain as I could—and when Rob Collins heard those early takes, he said, ‘Jarboe sounds like she’s doing a football cheer.’ Trying to work in this alien atmosphere where you’re being told, ‘Don’t sound like yourself’—it was one of those things that just wasn’t meant to happen. If it was meant to happen then it wouldn’t have been like pulling teeth. The ‘black’ version still has integrity, in my opinion, and I still consider it one of my better covers. I really thought hard about how to channel the emotional content

behind the lyrics to create this soulfulness, this minimalist approach—to this day, I’m proud of it.

8.0 ANONYMOUS BODIES IN AN EMPTY ROOM The Burning World 1988–89 Michael Gira Mute spent a lot of money on those records and on trying to make Jarboe into a known recording artist. They took out full-page adverts in The Face, which cost a fortune, and those Skin records still bombed. Then we did Children Of God, and I don’t think it bombed, but Mute had been very supportive of us and they had invested so much money in it that Daniel—being a good businessman—said, ‘Enough!’ Children Of God, for an indie record, was kind of successful—in a way—but there was no way of recouping what was spent on it. I’ve subsequently never done anything as preposterous as touring with our own PA—never again. Steve McAllister [live sound/studio engineer, bass, Swans, 1989–91] I’d toured with Prong and recorded their record, so when Swans needed somebody, Ted recommended me. I met up with Gira, he went over the pay and what was required, and we agreed to do it. That was one thing about him: he always paid a fair price. He was always very fair, honest. A lot of music people are real sleazy—I’ve had major label acts who have ended up not paying me, or have swindled me. Algis Kizys We weren’t bringing in large sums of money—not even regular sums. We would come back and we would just go right back to work. The music was way ahead of the curve of music, so the monetary thing wasn’t in line with what it ideally would have been. It’s hard to imagine, unless you were there, the music that was being played in the normal music world —what Swans was doing was so far away from that.

Virgil Moorefield I played in a band called K-Martians, and we opened for a band called Damage. The bassist, Steve McAllister, invited me to join. One fine day, Steve gets hired to work with Swans. He disappears and comes back with his equipment cases covered with stickers from venues— my jaw drops. The fourteen-year-old in me who loved Led Zeppelin and Cream wanted to take a shot at being Ginger Baker or John Bonham. So the idea came up that I could join Swans. I was living the East Village life, going to sleep at sunrise, copping drugs—by the way, I was going left to Avenue B by now—if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. I had an edge, and if they wanted me to hit, I could hit. I rehearsed, and I had never been in a position before where the drums were too quiet. I was in between Norm’s stack on the left and Al’s sound on the right and I could barely hear myself. Michael looked at Al and Al nodded his approval. Michael wanted me to go on tour from April ending late July. When I asked Michael about whether the money would be split among the band, he went off. It was just a business question, but I remember him saying, ‘Oh what do you think this is? Just come on in?’ This whole thing about how he worked for years to build this up and how I thought I could just come in and blah blah blah. I just said, ‘Oh. OK. That’s not what I thought a band was.’ What it worked out to was, he wanted to pay me $75 a show. I said I’d need $100. He agreed, then a couple of days before we left he turned round and said he was going to pay me $75. I said, ‘In that case, you’re going to do this tour without me.’ He backed down. Our first show was Los Angeles. I had been used to playing to maybe a hundred people, but we get there and there’s 800 to 1,000. We got into the rental car and they’re playing Swans. Cool! We’re somebody … but what was rubbing me the wrong way already was that we were a band—but it wasn’t a band. Michael was the owner, and he made it very clear. There was a sticker in the corner of Michael’s studio that bothered me no end. It was a peace sign, but underneath it said ‘The Footprint Of The American Chicken’. That was Michael: this angry, dominant, sadistic energy. What’s annoying is Michael knows all this, he was fully aware of it, and he’d even say it, but he’d still do it. There’s that 20 percent of Michael that is lovely, but he seemed to operate using what the Germans call ‘zuckerbrot und peitsche’—sugar and whip.

Thurston Moore We saw Swans at Irving Plaza and the place was packed. Swans came on stage, and as they were setting up somebody in the front of the audience was doing something that Michael obviously didn’t appreciate. He went over and was having a verbal exchange, and it became a bit of a fistfight; things got thrown; all over in a matter of ten seconds. I remember Jim Thirlwell laughing: ‘You don’t see that happening with any other band, do you?’ Virgil Moorefield The next episode was when he started shouting ‘Play harder, monkey!’ at me. I just said, ‘Please don’t call me that.’ Jarboe got really mad at him—she was a decent person. Steve McAllister Michael always tried to instil anger in people in rehearsal, and especially on stage, he wanted to make everything a battle, because that was part of his performance, to be always on edge—so everyone had to be on edge when performing. Virgil Moorefield At the start of the tour I gave Steve a bunch of drugs and told him to help me get off them. So over the course of however many weeks, he just kept giving me a little less each day, and by midway through the tour I was completely clean. It was a wonderful feeling. Steve McAllister Virgil wasn’t out of control, but when we toured Europe I had to be his willpower until he was free of the addiction. He wasn’t overthe-top addicted but enough that he wouldn’t have been able to play if he didn’t have a little beforehand, so we had to work out a deal to smuggle some over there, then I gradually worked him off it. Luckily, he wasn’t a bad junkie. He maintained his life, was a pleasant person to be around, he stayed in control. Virgil Moorefield The Southern tour became a joke among us. We played for twelve people in Fort Lauderdale, and they all had white shoes, black shirts, and gold chains—either those guys thought they were the mob or, more likely, they actually were. We played twenty minutes then broke it off.

Norman Westberg Fort Lauderdale was a weird one. We still had a few more dates to go. There was no money. I was the guy keeping track of it, so Michael and I would sit there looking at the money and saying, ‘Wow … what’s going to happen?’ Steve McAllister It was the tour managers who had a big problem with Michael, because they had to work with him quite closely. I saw three tour managers walk off because they couldn’t work with him—I mean literally walk off the tour. The first, Walter Taylor, he was so mad at Gira that we stopped for lunch, he went to the bathroom, and we just never heard from him again. Virgil Moorefield I remember tensions rising, then Michael and Walter getting out of the car. They kept shouting louder and louder and getting closer and closer until their faces were literally an inch apart. Amazing. And Walter was a pretty nice guy, but he’d been driven to that point. Norman Westberg We dropped Walter off on the side of the road with a hitchhiking sign: ‘Yeah, I’m done!’ We were close to heading home and Walter lived in Raleigh, and I don’t think we were going in the direction he was. Steve McAllister The next tour manager got so fed up that he didn’t even pull off at a rest stop. He was driving Gira and Jarboe, he pulled off in the middle of the highway, got out, and walked off down the ramp, hitched a ride, never heard from him again. The third tour manager—who was also the soundman—he basically had a nervous breakdown and went berserk in a hotel room. He’d had a fever, he was working long hours, no sleep. He got very sick—he was ranting and became delirious. He did finish the tour—he just had to have a week off. Virgil Moorefield It was during summer vacation for college kids, so we’d play these shows for a thousand or more. You were signing autographs—it was a touch of rock star! The stage presence we had with Norm and Al was

great—Michael can really put on a show. And when it was on, Swans had this incredible, massive, unified timbre to it: a lot cathartic violent energy. We were in London, in some top photographer’s studio, and I felt like I was in a movie: view of the city, swank studio, umbrellas, lenses, cameras; he had an assistant. We were all really happy. So, NME comes out a few days later, and Swans are on the cover … except there’s Michael in a huge close-up, and four little shadows in the background. Al and Jarboe were maddest about it, but none of us were happy. It was a Spinal Tap moment— we thought we were going to be on the cover, but we’d been cut out. Algis Kizys Touring the record was fun, but things have time periods: my period was coming to an end. You can move on once you’ve done something long enough—you can’t do it in perpetuity. I was playing in four bands at once, so I was stretched thin, and I thought, ‘If you’re not having fun, you’ve got to do something else.’ The reasons why, I might have buried those. However grumpy I might have been, I try not to hold that—I look forward and not back. ••• Jason Asnes [bass, Swans, 1989] Austin was a big punk-rock town. I started playing in punk bands when I was fifteen. When I was sixteen I saw The Misfits, Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, Minor Threat—any band of that era in their prime. Nice Strong Arm, we were on Homestead Records—we opened for Swans here and we went for it. Nice Strong Arm was the kind of live band where we played like every show was our last. A few days later, I got a call from Michael, asking, ‘Do you want to move to New York and be in Swans?’ Totally out of the blue. I told Michael I’d do it if I could keep my band going as well. He said yes so I got on a flight with a bass, a bass head, a suitcase, and $100. Virgil Moorefield There was a period of calm. Michael went to Morocco, got back, and came over to my apartment, where I showed him my studio, and he was really supportive of me getting back to my music. My mother

invited him to Thanksgiving dinner: my brother, my then-wife, Michael, my mother, and me. He can be a prince! It was our best time together. When it came to starting work on The Burning World, he invited me over and showed me the guitar lines, the structures he’d worked out. We sat and we would play through the pieces with me coming up with different ways to approach the drums on each song until eventually I had something Michael liked. We’d make a note of it and move on to the next song. Eventually I asked about arrangement rights—they can be worth quite a bit of money over the long haul, if the record sells. Michael replied that as far as he was concerned, ‘anyone who was in the room’ when the songs were being put together would get an arrangement credit. Jason Asnes Michael sent me a cassette of him playing all of the songs on acoustic guitar, so I learnt the songs from that and wrote bass parts to that cassette. I wasn’t told, ‘Do this, do that, write this or write that.’ He trusted me to write something that fit. Michael Alago [A&R] I admired Swans from the time Filth came out. I was seeing shows every night of the week and Swans were one of the New York bands on the scene. I heard enough of their music that I knew I loved what these people did. If you saw a band and they would play on ten, Swans would play on twelve. You were either with them or you weren’t there at all —that was the way it was. Loving Swans had nothing to do with wanting to sign them. What happened was, I left Elektra and I went to a revived label called Uni Records. I was a wildly successful A&R person and I wanted more money, and when I got there I wanted to do something different. I had worked with everyone from Metallica to Nina Simone, so my taste in music was very wide. I knew Michael and we were fast friends. I thought, ‘I want to make a Swans record.’ And I specifically wanted to make a quiet record—I was aware of the World Of Skin records, and I wanted to make a Swans record that was different to their first five albums. When I spoke to Michael, I let him know that I wanted it to be different. For me, different meant going another route. It meant, ‘Let’s make it almost an acoustic record.’

Loren Chodosh [entertainment attorney] Michael Alago was one of the first A&R people I ever met, and all I knew about Uni was that he was there. I thought so highly of him and he was so keen on signing Swans, it seemed to make perfect sense. In those days it didn’t seem like such anathema for even a band like Swans to go to a major label. Gira was quite keen on it, and it wasn’t a situation where there were a few labels interested: this was the deal we were making. We weren’t talking about a band with a huge sales base, and we weren’t talking about a bidding war. The only reason the deal was made was that Michael Alago was in the right place at the right time. Michael Alago I was a fan of Bill Laswell. At the time he had a record coming out called Baselines—I loved it. I had heard a variety of productions he made with Material, and I was constantly seeing Bill walking up and down 8th Avenue, so we would have little chats about music. I knew that Bill could create the mood I had in mind, so I thought we should talk to him about it. I have to believe that Michael was somewhat satisfied with how we were moving forward because, like we all know, Michael is an extraordinary artist—he has always had a clear focus in terms of what Swans were or were going to be. Bill Laswell [producer, The Burning World] What sealed it was, when I met Gira and we went for a drink—which turned out to be a few drinks— that sealed the camaraderie. I went to a rehearsal, we talked a little bit about it, and—because the songs were already structured and fully formed—we could begin recording. It really was his direction—it wasn’t one of those things where the producer manipulates the artist. I’m guilty of that on many occasions but this wasn’t one of them. The band were together enough to pull it off with a few other minor things that didn’t drastically change the sound. Loren Chodosh From a lawyer’s perspective, it all seemed so perfect. Swans got a major label budget, they got Bill Laswell, they had a Robert Mapplethorpe photo—it was beautiful! The other thing I did was, I secured a publishing administration deal through Island Publishing with a nice

healthy advance, so I thought, ‘Great! I’m getting money for the band too with a fine music publishing company.’ So, to me, it was greatly successful. Oz Fritz [engineer, The Burning World] Like you have yoga masters, Bill is a master in the area of music. He has a vision; he can hear something and envision how it will be and what instruments might help out. Working at a commercial studio, I got the opportunity to work with a number of producers, and I can tell you he’s a cut above in terms of knowing what will work, what won’t work. He has a particular presence, more so than your average music producer. Bob Musso [engineer, The Burning World] The album was recorded piecemeal. After the initial rhythm section recording, almost every other aspect of the album was individually recorded. Most of it was pretty straightforward, especially the rhythm section, keyboards, and vocals. However, the strings and some of the world music instruments required more detailed attention. I thought the song choice was very good, considering the new direction the band was taking. Oz Fritz Producer, engineer, assistant engineer: this was a normal production team, the minimum, even. If you were going for a bigger budget record where they’re spending ungodly amounts of money—not the case for The Burning World—then you might have runners and assistants to the assistant, all kinds of extra people. Then there are always studio staff who can go out to get you food and whatever—but they’re not part of the production. The budget here was $100,000–200,000. It wasn’t something they spent weeks and weeks on—I was there when they tracked the drums —that was done in three or four days, same with the guitars. The mixing, where they spent a fair amount of money, it was basically a song a day. A modest budget in those days. Jason Asnes You can’t imagine what it was like being a twenty-one-yearold kid from Texas recording at a really nice studio for Bill Laswell. Walking into the control room, there was a wall of very expensive collector basses. Bill just said, ‘Pick one and we’ll start recording.’ We tried them all

and none of them sounded that good, so he suggested we try my beat-up punk rock bass, and it sounded better than any of them. We recorded the whole album with it. Recording the parts in front of him was pretty scary, being that age, with the wall of basses, with this bass god producer who says, ‘OK, ready, go, play.’ But we got it done within a few days. For the most part it was just me, Bill, and the engineer in the control room while I played my parts. Oz Fritz Norman was a great guy, very easy-going—he was Bill’s favourite musician of the band. For Norman’s guitar parts, Bill would bring in his own amps, and they’d spend time getting the sound the way they wanted. In the recording studio there’s basically two areas: the live area, where the musicians go; and the control room, where the producer and the engineer hang out. For the guitar overdubs, they would put the speaker cabinet out in the live area, with a long cable, so they could put the amplifier head in the control room, and Norman would play in the control room with Bob, Bill, and I. That allowed them to have very direct communication. Virgil Moorefield We were talking $100 a gig, and then suddenly we can get anything we want. Jason Corsaro arrived to do effects, and he’d just come from doing Keith Richards’s solo album. Bill was always dropping free-jazz names that impressed me no end because I had grown up listening to that kind of thing. He was talking about having Karl Berger come in, or working with Peter Brötzmann or Tony Williams. You’ve heard of the Wrecking Crew? Well, Bill had what I call his World Music Crew—the group of musicians who he always worked with. Richard Carr [viola, The Burning World] There’s a guy in Woodstock, Karl Berger—we formed a group, and Bill Laswell was the producer who would hire us. Karl would get the recordings of what had happened so far, then he would write the string arrangements. Sometimes the producers would want one thing or another and we’d come up with it on the spot, but mostly we stuck to Karl’s written arrangements. That was the case with Swans. For this session the group was three-four violins, viola, cello. We would sit in a circle, Karl would conduct, and we’d be round him. They’d

have it all set up before we got there so we could just walk in and do our parts. I don’t remember meeting anybody except Laswell and the engineer. Fred Frith [violin, The Burning World] I didn’t play in that arrangement. I came to be asked because Bill called me up and said he could hear a violin on one or two tracks. One hour’s work: walk in, unpack, listen to the song in question, get a sense of what Bill is looking for, wing it, out of there. Nicky Skopelitis [various instruments, The Burning World/White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity] If I’m listed as playing bouzouki and baglama, it’s not like I was playing those instruments in the traditional sense. I would just have a lot of stringed instruments that offered timbres of sound and executed very simple parts to add a layer. Using a Greek instrument like a baglama, if you play it a certain way it sounds like a banjo, so that’s kind of what it got used for. I played some twelve-string guitar in certain places, even though I’m not listed as doing so. Maybe Michael wasn’t around when I was playing. Oz Fritz For Jarboe’s parts, Bill brought in Jeff Bova—the top keyboard session musician in New York—and he brought his rig. He once explained it as, ‘Some people buy a house. I haven’t bought a house, I bought this.’ It’s massive, like a whole little studio itself. This was for Jarboe to play. She was so nervous that she did all her keyboard parts playing with one hand and the other she put in her mouth. She did the job, got through it. I liked Jarboe a lot. That’s one of Bill’s great talents as a producer: he can put people at ease. With musicians who weren’t total professionals, like his crew were, he was able to relax them to bring out what they could do. Jarboe There were too many session people brought in. When you say that this band is being signed because you love Children Of God, let the musicians create their own record. When I walked in and there were session vocalists who had replaced my background vocals, I was furious. Mine were put back after I made it known that it was fucked up because, obviously, what the hell did the session singers have to do with us? You’re talking about replacing a trademark sound—my backing vocals to

Michael’s lead voice—with session singers? As skilled as Mr. Laswell and his session musicians are, it created an artifice. Let the musicians of a band be themselves. That’s their sound—you don’t have to bring in the session players, because then you’re taking away the soul of the band. Jason Asnes One thing that gives you a great reference is to listen to all the other albums that Bill Laswell was producing at that time. All these people played on the Swans album that none of us knew; that Michael didn’t know. If you listen to the Public Image Ltd album he did around that time, there are a lot of similarities there. Martin Bisi Laswell had some characteristics that Gira wasn’t really into. Gira wasn’t into, as he would call them, ‘musos’. It wasn’t that he didn’t like people being good at their instruments, but what he was generally suspicious of was the values, the priorities, the attitudes, and the processes of people who were hotshots at their instruments. Laswell actually was that —he was a muso, and he wasn’t really a natural-fit for Gira. They weren’t an organic combination. Virgil Moorefield Bill had this idea that I should play not just to a click track but to complementary patterns based on African rhythms. So Nicky programmed everything out on a Fairchild, a $30,000 machine, and Bill would say, ‘Yes, this is such-and-such an African pattern, and you’ll interact against it and you’ll play more organically.’ I was quite impressed — it wasn’t bullshit. Oz Fritz Michael was there a lot but it was definitely Bill’s show. This harkens back to the old days of music, where the producer was the boss— there was that kind of attitude. There wasn’t any conflict or tension. Michael seemed OK with what Bill was doing and went along with it. I never saw him try to assert control, or where he disagreed with where things were going.

Bill Laswell A lot of bands fight with the people working with them. All it takes is one guy making it a struggle and you can lose a lot of time and energy. This wasn’t one of those times. Throughout the project, it was pretty calm; there was no arguing, no fighting. Michael Gira I realised that I was being humoured a bit, maybe condescended to. A lot of things went on behind the scenes, but that was part of the devil’s bargain of signing to a subsidiary of MCA: Music Cemetery of America. Oz Fritz The production team were working Michael over a bit, stressing him out. Bill and I have a common interest in Sufism, so if someone shows up at a Sufi school and the teacher is there, then they’re going to work on that student to break down their self-esteem and ego. It wasn’t mean, it wasn’t abusive—it was just a way of working. If a musician shows up to play for Miles Davis then he’s going to push that person to be their best, get them outside of their zone, because any other musician is going to be a student compared to him. They were trying to do that with Michael, take him out of his comfort zone—it’s a positive thing. Trying to deflate the ego a little bit, because he’s working here with a world-class production team. ••• Michael Alago As I was listening to the album being recorded, I thought, ‘I’m going to make a suggestion to Michael for art direction and packaging.’ My favourite artist was Robert Mapplethorpe. He was on his deathbed—he had AIDS. I collected and admired his work, and I thought of this beautiful calla lily photo of Robert’s. I showed it to Michael; he loved it. Oz Fritz Paul Bowles was a major influence on Michael at that time. Bowles’s most famous work was called The Sheltering Sky; listen to The Burning World and you hear that lyric come up. Also ‘Let It Come Down’—that’s another name of a Paul Bowles book.

Edwin Pouncey I interviewed Michael and he very kindly bought me a copy of a book he was reading. It was an environmental book about the fact that man was polluting the world and it was all going wrong. I think that was somewhere in his thinking with that title: The Burning World. I thought it was an about face because, before, there’d been this feeling that the music was about destruction. There was almost a ‘born again’ realisation—not so much to do with religion, but more to do with his place on Earth and what was becoming of Earth at the time. Bill Laswell I wanted to do the vocals in a different environment where Michael was comfortable and could feel he was in charge—at the bigger studios, even the clean-up guys have an ego. I was interested in setting up environments and different casts of characters so you weren’t stuck in the same room with the same people every day. A lot of the vocals were done with Martin Bisi in Brooklyn. Martin Bisi Jarboe was exceedingly uncomfortable—she probably would have been even less comfortable at another studio, but I can’t say she was comfortable with us. She sang in the vocal booth and wanted all the glass opaque; she wanted us to use cloth or to put up some kind of partition so she couldn’t see us in the control room. If she was trying to sing and Michael was pacing then that would be a disaster. One time, Laswell, he was a little out of sight because she didn’t want to perceive us communicating while she was singing; he said something to me—I was visible to her—that I found funny and I couldn’t help it; my lip, one corner of my mouth, raised in a half-smile. Immediately Jarboe put her hands in the air: ‘Stop the tape. Stop the tape!’ Jarboe Over the years, Michael would be in the vocal booth and I’d be in the control room with the engineer, and I would frequently be the one giving Michael my opinion about his performance. When we were recording Michael’s vocals, Bill Laswell turned around in his chair and put his hand up: ‘Your call!’ I knew what Michael could do. During The Burning World, this was one of the flags that was raised to me—when I saw he was having difficulty with the singing, this was one of many red flags.

When there is so much difficulty in singing your own songs, there’s something wrong. When something is that strained then, to me, there’s a problem. Michael Gira I felt under a lot of pressure and I couldn’t access that hidden side that needs to come out when you’re singing. I recall being very uncomfortable singing those vocals: I felt very under the gun and a bit intimidated—maybe I just cramped up as a singer? I know, for instance, that ‘God Damn The Sun’ is a stellar song: lyrically it’s very good, the orchestration is fine, it’s the vocal that ruins it. I sing it live now and it’s much more relaxed and comfortable as a narrative. Jarboe’s songs, of course, are beautiful because she’s a great singer ipso facto. Martini Bisi Laswell and his team were sort of making fun of Gira—not completely outside the realm of just how people make fun of each other when they’re working with each other, but it was uncomfortable. I think a lot of it came down to the singing. Laswell made fun of ‘God Damn The Sun’, for instance, how there’s a pretentiousness in Michael’s singing—a gothic drama. Virgil Moorefield Bill was very satisfied. We were going up in the elevator, and Nicky said, ‘Can I get you a coffee, Bill?’ And Bill replied, ‘Yes, extra sugar, I’m feeling commercial.’ Everybody laughed—he was saying we were making a hit. Everything was going along swimmingly. Oz Fritz Jason Corsaro was the guy who mixed the album that made Madonna famous, Like A Virgin. He’s a genius of a mixing engineer. Jason would use drugs to get into a creative zone, and when he did he would get real quiet and real focused, and he’d do amazing stuff that would blow my mind. Jason would hook up these strange combinations of effects units to get these sounds. One example is on ‘(She’s A) Universal Emptiness’: the bass drum has this crazy ambience and reverb. That was four reverbs hooked up in series to create this unique song.

Bill Laswell You had to work very closely with him because he could get derailed very easily. Gira was around for the mixing but smart enough to know that it’s a very long process, and it’d be passing through areas where he didn’t have a lot of experience on that level. Anyone can say they’ve worked with this engineer or that engineer, but when you’re working with someone like Jason, the results have extreme potential you wouldn’t have any other way. He was a beast when it came to engineering. If he works with a producer who had a concept, then he’d always be good. It’s like John Bonham—they say he was so wasted most of the time that he couldn’t even walk, but as soon as he sat down to play, that wasn’t an issue. Oz Fritz For the mixing stage, with any group at that time, Bill did not have the artist there; they weren’t allowed in the studio. Even Iggy Pop and the Ramones weren’t allowed in. He wouldn’t ignore their comments or input, but they weren’t there at the time of the mixing. I was at the mastering and Michael was there too. I remember him enjoying it. Bill Laswell It was a different record before I even visited them in rehearsal. I didn’t manipulate anything; I enhanced things, for sure, but from that basic foundation and direction. I thought we had done something great, that I’d helped realise what he had been thinking about. But it seems that wasn’t the case. Swans went from being this minimal dark machine, then there’s the cowboy hat, cigars, and Morocco—there’s going to be a soundtrack to that transition. Michael Gira Bill had his posse of people who played, and he has a particular sound, which is his right to have a sound that he imparts—I just don’t think it gelled, and that’s said with tremendous respect for Bill and his work. The instrumentation used on the record wasn’t a bad thing, and I’ve used a plethora of instruments across my records ever since, but I don’t think we shared the same sonic vision. I’m not sure I even knew what my vision was. Michael Alago For me, I can speak lovingly about The Burning World. I think that album is a little masterpiece. Making this record was like a holy

encounter with a new sound. I loved that Michael chose Traffic’s ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ because I think that added to the haunted, beautiful quality of the record. I thought it accomplished what I set out to do, which was to make a record that felt almost spiritual, and where the sound would be unlike other Swans records—period. I thought, ‘Wow! This is breathtaking.’ The songs are impeccable. Nicky Skopelitis The Burning World was a distinct departure, but I didn’t think it was a bad departure. To me, there’s a certain level of musicality that is enjoyable. I hear a track like ‘Let It Come Down’ or ‘God Damn The Sun’, and you’ve got really intense songs. You’re wondering, ‘Who is this guy? Is he a new Johnny Cash? Is he something out of a Bret Easton Ellis book?’ Richard Carr There’d been a folk-rock thing in the 70s, then it went quite out of style. By 1988, nothing could have been more out of style than what they were doing. If it had come out at a different time—if it came out now —it’d be more accepted and better received. Dele Fadele The Burning World is a blueprint for what Swans did later. By the end of the 90s, that album made sense. At the time, people were like, ‘What the hell were they doing?’ But as much as Michael might hate it, it’s the root of what they subsequently did. Michael Alago The album was charting well on the college charts because of Swans’ history. But when you make a record, you always want to gain more of an audience. Almost from the very start I felt it wasn’t getting the push it needed. Rob Collins I remember going into MCA’s offices in the UK, talking to their product managers and their press people about Swans, and just these blank faces: ‘Why has this band been signed? What are we meant to do with them?’ I had to lay it out: ‘This is all the press we’ve had; this is where

the band is.’ I think they were quite supportive once they got the point— though I don’t know if that was the same in the US. Bill Laswell I really liked the record, and I thought that everybody else would. Though that label lasted about five minutes, they did absolutely nothing. Those situations—someone gets together the money to make a sub-label, then someone loses interest at the top and it just falls apart and disappears. There wasn’t much support after the record was done. ••• Jason Asnes We were rehearsing for a very long tour that was to ensue. We had a while before that started, and I asked Michael if I could do a week of shows with Nice Strong Arm. Michael said, ‘No, we’re going to be rehearsing, and you can’t do that.’ So I quit. I guess I wasn’t ready at that point to just be in someone else’s band, doing what I was told—unless I had an opportunity to also do my own creative projects. If Michael had said, ‘Sure, go do a week of shows, then we’ll rehearse,’ I would have stayed in Swans. Vigil Moorefield I saw a list of credits and I assumed that I would have arrangement credit. Michael simply went back on his word, denied ever saying that—denied that I had anything to do with the arrangement. Michael shouted at me: ‘Tell me anywhere that you contributed any drum parts!’ I said, ‘How about side one, track one, the opening?’ I told Michael I was going to leave the band. Michael called me and said he wanted to meet. Steve came with me. Michael breaks out what I remember as a scroll—he’d pasted together a number of pages into a long contract, all handwritten. He was very angry. ‘This is my offer. This is what I’ll give you.’ It still wasn’t giving me arrangement rights, or it was giving me arrangement rights in name only but no money—I don’t remember. What I do remember is, ‘You will sign this contract. You WILL stay in the band—sign.’ I looked at him. ‘I quit.’ He turned and started punching his fists against the Sheetrock. I’d never seen him that upset before—he was really banging that wall. Steve

said to me, ‘Virgil, is this really what you want?’ I said, ‘Let’s move my drums out now.’ One thing I should say is that because of Michael always wanting me to hit so hard I had been really stressing my hands. I had developed a bump on one of my fingers and had ended up at the doctor, who said, ‘I can operate, but I can’t guarantee you’ll have use of the finger.’ I really wanted to give my hands a rest. I quit playing for a while, and six months later it was gone. But my time with Swans was up. Jason Asnes Funny thing: we did this photo session out on the beach—it was freezing out, we’re posing in the cold wind next to the water. The artwork for the album was everyone’s faces surrounded by black. After I left the band my face was blacked out, and after Virgil quit his face was blacked out. That was my only criticism: we were the rhythm section; we wrote music for, and we played on, that album. Virgil Moorefield So, I buy a copy from Tower Records and I see the cover. We’d had photos taken and I’d seen mock-ups of the sleeve with these photos arranged very elegantly, five photos. I look at the record now and there’s only three photos. It felt like the Soviet-era airbrushing of people when they’d fallen out of favour. If he’d replaced my parts with another drummer, fair enough. But to take the work that I had done, then literally rub me out, it was kind of poignant. Five years later I met Michael on the street one night and he apologised for being such an asshole, and I replied that I hadn’t been perfect either—we shook hands. There’s that 20 percent again. Norman Westberg By the time The Burning World was out, the gang had dwindled—I didn’t know what was going on, really. It was interesting going to rehearsals and there’d be one less face. If I would have left before the tour, I’m sure my face wouldn’t be on the record, either. It had been a long run, and I had seen the music change from where it started and become more focused on what Michael was doing. I felt I had less input. So I decided, well, if this is where the music is going, I’m not really that thrilled about it.

Kristof Hahn [guitar, Swans, 1989–92, 2010–17; also Angels Of Light] I got an invitation to play at the South By Southwest conference. I dropped by New York to visit my not-yet-ex-wife, and she had a band in which Vinnie Signorelli played. He went for an audition with Swans; I called and asked him what happened. He told me, ‘Well, they hired me, and they were also asking if I knew a guitar player, and I said that I’d met a guy who would fit.’ I was on my way to Texas, and I decided that if they still needed a guitar player when I was on my way back, then I’d give it a shot. Two weeks later, they still hadn’t found a guitar player—or maybe they hadn’t even searched. So I went to meet Michael. He was impressed by two things. One, I could play classical guitar—I could play him a Bach fugue. The other thing was that my job was translating books, and I was translating Hubert Selby Jr.’s Song Of The Silent Snow—he was one of Michael’s favourite writers. That was the beginning of a long, very strange relationship that turned into a great friendship. Vinnie Signorelli Norman gave me a call. I didn’t try out for Swans, they just brought me in and we started rehearsing. I guess if they didn’t like it then they’d have given me the boot. The band was Michael, Jarboe, and Norman, so that’s who the photos were of. Then Norman left and all the photos were just Michael and Jarboe. I never felt like a hired hand; if you were in then you were part of Swans. Kristof Hahn When I joined them I very impressed by the discipline and work ethic that revealed itself to me. We had four weeks to rehearse the set. We would work for eight hours a day, at almost stage volume, going over the same parts of each song over and over—one song a day until it was really cemented. Then we would work on transitions between the songs, so there would be no pause until after the third song. It was built like a theatre piece—certainly not rock’n’roll-style, where you finish a song, wait for the audience to go crazy, make a few nice remarks or jokes, then you go to the next and you slightly fuck it up and that’s OK … Steve McAllister We totally changed all the arrangements. Nothing sounded much like the record by the time we went on tour. People would

say he had a split personality, because you almost didn’t know which Gira you would be working with sometimes. At rehearsals, one of the reasons he changed arrangements so often was that one part of him liked an arrangement, but by the time he came back to it the next day he’d be saying, ‘Why is everyone playing it like that?’ It seemed like these two personalities did communicate with each other but not totally, so there’d be some confusion, depending on his mood. Vinnie Signorelli We played London and it was this incredible gig— everything clicked just right. Then, the next day, we were at the Reading Festival and Norman’s amp blew out. There was nothing we could do. The monitor man was terrible—he was just giving me keyboards—so it went from glory one evening to hell the next. An embarrassment. Chris Bohn I met Michael just after he’d come back from Reading. He was really upset with the way Swans performed, and he told me a story. Harry Crews—Lydia Lunch and Kim Gordon’s band built around the writings of the author Harry Crews—were over in the UK. A whole bunch of those bands were over—Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers—and all the people were staying at the Columbia Hotel. Lydia had reviewed The Burning World, and she’d been very negative, very critical of the change of direction—how they’d gone from this very powerful sound to something Lydia interpreted as kind of feeble. It upset Michael. He arrived at the hotel, he’s in a really bad mood, and there’s Lydia in the bar. Michael, in his words, made a complete fool of himself. He saw her across the room and boomed in that Michael Gira voice, ‘You should get down on your knees and apologise!’ Then he realised that the room was full of all these people he knew, his whole peer group, and Lydia’s teasing him, ‘Yeah, sure, Michael … whatever you say, Michael.’ Lydia Lunch Mike Gira threatened to punch me, so I laughed in his face and told him to go ahead and do it, which is when he paid me one of the biggest compliments of my life: he told me I was ‘walking pornography’! I was writing for Forced Exposure, and he should have read my Pussy Galore review if he thought my review of The Burning World was harsh. I called it

as I saw it, and I shouldn’t have been reviewing records by people I was friends with—I am a harsh critic. But I made it up to him. I thought The Consumer was one of the best books ever written—I think he forgave me after I wrote him a letter saying so. As someone who prides themselves on extremely fat-free music and writing, The Consumer 12was hugely impressive—there wasn’t a stray word. Very few people can achieve that because most people always plump things up. Bill Rieflin [various instruments, Swans and Angels Of Light, 1994– 2017] I first saw Swans in Santa Clara in 1989. On that tour they played a lot of Burning World material, but it was played in a way that you imagined the record should have been like: taking earlier Swans attitudes and blending them with this new instrumental approach. Something significant happened for me at the show. There was a moment during the performance where—there are a lot of different words and terminology describing this kind of experience, so excuse me for choosing a nomenclature that sounds funny—basically, the experience was an extended present moment. One of these moments where the world opens up, or time stops, and your personal experience expands—the world becomes greater than you normally perceive it to be. So, here’s Swans on stage, banging and droning away, then all of a sudden I’m in the middle of this deep, what some might call ‘spiritual’, experience—it was really surprising. I went to the show with three others and afterward I described my experience. And every single one of them, in their own way, affirmed and described the same experience—it wasn’t just something personal to me, it was something objective, in that everybody I was with experienced it too. These are rare things that happen, and it happened at a Swans show. Steve McAllister We were playing in Japan and, on the plane, Bon Jovi were up in first class—we were back in coach. When we landed we could see all of these teenage girls on the other side of the runway, screaming and hollering. Then these police came in, and they came up to us and asked if we were in Swans, then told us we had to follow them to the back of the plane. I tried to explain: ‘No, no, it’s because Bon Jovi are on the plane!’ They ignored us and led us out the back door, and all the girls at the front

ran toward us. We were going, ‘Oh, they think we’re Bon Jovi!’ So we’re being escorted out with this line of police, and we can see they’re holding Swans records, waving them and trying to get us to sign it. We were a big hit in Japan! They followed our limousines, then mobbed the hotel, and the police had to come and clear a path so we could get from the cars into the hotel. It was freaky! Norman was my roommate, and we had jetlag, so we woke up at two, three in the morning and decided to go get something to eat. We walked out into the street and these girls were still there and came running after us. Luckily one of them spoke English really well and took us out to a great place to eat. When we played the gig the next night in Tokyo, the place was full. We did the first song, and when we stopped there was absolutely no clapping— dead silence. We continued, and it was the same after every song: nobody clapped, nobody cheered, not a word. We walked off stage, didn’t get an encore, packed up, and an hour later we left the venue—and the whole audience was outside, and now they’re screaming! We were so confused! It turned out it was a policy of the venue—a classical music venue—that nobody was allowed to cheer or clap. Kristof Hahn We were all not easy. I was thirty at the time, and I was drinking a lot more than now; Michael was drinking a lot more than nowadays. Alcohol has an effect on the character and behaviour, so clashes were pre-programmed in that whole situation. Everyone was drinking a lot, and the moment you got in the van you’d hear beer cans popping before the door was shut. We were all young, inconsiderate, stupid, wild—it was total fun, carefree. Steve McAllister Our very last show, Norman and I had to basically help Kristof to the dressing room because he couldn’t get down the stairs. Michael came into the dressing room: ‘Kristof! You shouldn’t be getting drunk like that before the shows!’ And Kristof said, ‘Oh, now you tell me.’ The end of the last show. All of us busted out laughing—including Michael. Michael Gira After so many line-up changes, people lasting one record or tour—if that—I just resigned myself to the fact that was the way it was. It

was never going to be a band of brothers together fighting the world. It was going to be my thing, and I would bring people in or out —which is kind of not what I wanted, but the alternative wasn’t on the cards for me with my personality and way of inevitably ending up being the boss. I certainly didn’t do a good job of it back then—I did more screaming than convincing —but it was just the way it was. Steve McAllister At the end of the touring, Gira knew that most of the band wouldn’t want to play with him again. It was very bitter; the touring was very hard. He knew people were leaving. I don’t know if I told him right upfront, but we basically all said the same thing: ‘This is it, after this tour.’ I had no intention of going back because I already had another gig lined up. Kristof, all he could say was, ‘I will never work with this guy again. I will never work with this guy again.’ Norman Westberg I left right after the tour. I’d just had enough, I guess. Touring isn’t easy, and it wasn’t a job—you still worked the day job, there was no money, by that point it wasn’t even necessarily a band. Think about it: you had bills to pay, you had your artistic satisfaction. We would go out on tour for three months and make very little money, so you’d come home and have nothing. I managed that because I had a job to come home to—I was lucky. Money is a big factor in allowing people to do it because how many jobs do you do where you’re throwing money at it and making no money? And if you’re also not playing what you actually want to be playing, then maybe you had to have something outside of Swans. If you’re not even making money then how long can you be doing that? It’s not too tough of a formula to figure out. Daniel Gira Swans was not a real living, it was a real struggle. Even when Michael got the contract for The Burning World, he didn’t really know what he was doing when it came to business. He threw away a huge amount of money when he should have saved it. He would play the heedless artist: ‘We’re gonna do this huge tour!’ Then come back saying, ‘Holy shit, we just played a hundred cities but half of them only had a hundred people in the audience!’

Loren Chodosh It was one album plus options—and Uni just didn’t pick up their option. In those days you would try to do a deal for two albums firm so that if they decided not to do the second album then they had to pay the band out of the contract—I don’t think we achieved that. All that was involved was Uni just didn’t pick up the option, so Swans were free. I didn’t have to do anything. It wasn’t like getting out of a contract—the contract was over. Michael Gira I look at it in hindsight—coloured by the horrible outcome and the disastrous effect it had on my career and the career of Swans—and I realise I was bamboozled, in a way, into the notion of being successful and into being slightly inauthentic. I was trying to be authentic by changing musically, but the way the material went was not me—it didn’t speak from my inner self or from anyone else in the band. It became a flaccid product, but at the time I was flailing around looking for new things, and inevitably you make mistakes.

9.0 WILL WE SURVIVE White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity / Love Of Life 1990–92 Michael Gira The way things ended with Uni, there we were without any advocate in this vast corporate organisation, and I had no manager and I had no idea how to talk to these fucking people. I hired some managers—I actually paid them a monthly fee using the advance—and hired a publicist on my own and used up all the money trying to save the record and ended up absolutely penniless, and with zero results. Nicky Skopelitis It’s the old record company formula: you struggle to try and be successful, you get signed so you get a manager and an accountant, and they get paid and end up with the money while you end up with the debt to the record company. It’s an old story—every musician signed tells that story. Clint Steele [guitar, Swans, 1990–97] I remember Michael showing me a royalty cheque for $0.13 cents. He has a dark humour about bad situations like that. I didn’t ask much about his MCA situation at the time—I didn’t want to get into it. Michael Gira The reason God designed it that way, if such an entity exists, is that in the end we were dropped—fortunately, because there are horror stories of bands being stuck on these labels that won’t release their music but won’t drop them—so I was able to forge ahead after recovering emotionally and psychologically. That happening forced me to reassess things. I don’t feel the music was going in a good direction at that point, so,

in that respect, it was a good thing musically, creatively, and also from the point of view of business, that it tanked. Loren Chodosh Lawyers, at that time in the States, would ‘shop’ things. I didn’t do a lot of that, but given that they’d had this major label album and a fan base, I probably reached out to some of my A&R contacts to see if there was interest in signing the band. Michael Gira No one was interested; it was pretty much a wasteland as far as Swans was concerned. I made demos, sent them to labels—no response at all, nothing. I would make the cassettes, send them out, call them up, get humiliated when they didn’t take the call—they’d never say they weren’t interested, they’d just not respond. I did that for some time, and it was a constant humiliation, frustration and disappointment. I was at CBGBs in the interim period, shortly after The Burning World. I ran into a woman I had known for some time, and she was an A&R person at a big subsidiary of a major label—she had signed one or two of my contemporaries to great effect. We drank at one of the tables, and she said, ‘I’m sorry all this has happened, I didn’t know you were looking for a label —of course I want to do the next record, come to my office tomorrow.’ I woke up the next day, incredibly hungover, and put on whatever decent clothes I had—which were not many at the time—and went up to some gleaming corporate tower in midtown feeling really intimidated, because I was pretty scruffy. I went in past the doorman, up through security, and entered this gleaming office with perfect light and huge portraits of the artists that she had signed. The secretary was there behind an intimidating desk, some well-appointed guardian of the gates, and I asked her, ‘I’d like to meet with so-and-so.’ She just looked at me, ‘Excuse me?’ I told her, ‘I have a meeting with her at 2:30.’ And she said, ‘Oh. She’s in Paris for the next month and won’t be available. Do you want me to take your number?’ I deflated, just melted, like the Wicked Witch of the West. I never heard from that person ever again. Ever. That’s just how it was going at the time.

Clint Steele In 1989, my band Mary My Hope was touring on our first release, Museum. We seemed to fit in many different genres, based on the support slots we were getting, and I asked our booking agent to ask about Swans. We did the last few dates of the Burning World tour. Norman was planning on leaving the group when the tour concluded, so I guess that was luck, in terms of timing. Michael knew that I’d requested to open for them —so he knew I was a fan—and he saw me play and saw what I could do— and, of course, he needed somebody at that very moment. Mary My Hope had elements of noise and feedback and drone—I call it ‘miasma’—and there was sort of a cathartic element to the band’s loud/soft approach which I think appealed to Michael. But there weren’t many similarities between what Swans were doing and what we were doing. You can’t fill Norman’s shoes: he doesn’t sound like anyone else. As far as guitar performances, I played a role in the band’s shifting tonality between The Burning World and White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity. I played guitar on the World Of Skin Ten Songs From Another World—that was my trial period. It sounded nothing like the other Skin records, so it was a little confusing. Michael is prolific, and he likes to put out work—he’d been working on those songs, and diving into work was what kept him going. That was a chance for us to try working together in the studio, and it went well. E.K. Huckaby [artwork, Ten Songs For Another World] Michael visited me here in Georgia. I was trying to use unorthodox materials for artwork, in addition to producing paintings with compromised material. Michael responded to work that challenged the viewer’s reception, such as Cerberus Unemployed. There was no exchange of money; no artwork I have made from a sentient being has been offered for sale, and I was pleased to provide Michael with it in photograph. The concept behind the artwork was to express a series of myths as historical artefacts with their present-day strength of belief indicated by appearance. Alongside this was the question of the acceptability of dead dogs as art material. To create it, embalmed dogs—and let me assure you that their lives had ceased long before the concept of the work—were divided and reassembled. A few images were taken on a bright lawn to produce a colour positive. Michael simply

expressed appreciation of the work’s effectiveness and told me he wanted to use the image. I had full trust in the association and was delighted that the wet spark of an idea, produced by my effort, would come to realise an audience of this magnitude. Clint Steele We didn’t have a close personal relationship: I was in Atlanta; Michael lived in New York and was fifteen years older. I was in New York for about ten days working on that record, staying with Michael and Jarboe at their place. Michael would give me valuable NYC advice, like, ‘When the knife goes into you, don’t move, and you will have a cleaner wound.’ There was always piss on the door anytime we came back from the studio— people would duck into the alcove to pee. I would sleep on a cot in the rehearsal space separated by a curtain. There was a heavy gauge rope noose hanging from the ceiling for no clear reason. I thought of it as a mascot. Michael Gira That’s when I started Young God Records. I decided: fuck all this shit. No more labels. I decided to just do it myself and figured out—I think it was a mutual idea between Rob Collins and me—how to start my own record label. I borrowed, begged—didn’t steal—the money to do White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity and put it out on Young God Records, distributed through Rough Trade. It was very much a response to the cataclysm of The Burning World. I was trying to recover from the debasement of myself and my core nature as an artist, but maybe I overcompensated. I felt I had to do something that was absolutely the best I could possibly do as a producer and songwriter, and I went crazy. Kristof Hahn It was half a year after the end of the tour before Michael asked me to come and record. There wasn’t a band. I met with Michael and we worked on the structures and arrangements in his studio every day for two weeks. Vinnie Signorelli Swans, you learn the discipline and the somewhat simplicity, along with the tribal rhythms—this particularly hypnotic pounding and repetitive rhythm with this swirling sound around you. James Brown used to say that the problem with white drummers was they didn’t

know how to keep the beat, keep the groove. Swans was all about that: letting the music speak. As a young drummer, you tend to overplay: ‘Woohoo! Look what I learnt!’ Swans taught me to keep to the beat. It wasn’t very complicated—it was about being intense. Jenny Wade [bass, Swans, 1990–91] I didn’t know much about Swans except I had seen the album cover with the teeth. I thought they were speed freaks. I was friends with Anton Fier,13 and he recommended me to Michael. I knew Michael was financing the record on his own—I think he even borrowed money from his family, and I knew he was having some rough times, business-wise. But he was very focused, knew what he wanted, and didn’t seem to have any doubts about what he was doing. The first time I met Michael was at my audition. He gave me a song to play to, I came up with a part, and that was it—he hired me. I was a very aggressive player: I played with a pick, distortion pedal; I played really fast and loudly. I was kinda dramatic. What influenced me as a player was Bach: it’s relentless; he never stops. Kristof Hahn Michael uses open tunings, and the way he works out songs is he plays chords that he doesn’t really know—he has no theoretical musical knowledge—so he puts his fingers on the guitar until it sounds good, then he asks, ‘Kristof, what chord is this?’ and I say, ‘Well, with that tuning it would be a D minor sixth.’ Then he asks for the next chord and what it would be, and once I figured out my guitar parts in musical terms we would go and explain them to Jenny. Jim Thirlwell Michael contacted me and asked about collaborating on a track, ‘Power And Sacrifice’. We actually recorded a whole version of it at my studio and worked on the arrangements, did overdubs, then it was rerecorded at Powerplay Studios over in Queens. One of my main memories is this humming refrain that runs through that—it was so funny, we were cracking up all the time when trying to make that overdub. That was the first time we actually got together and did some work together. It was another leap on from the previous version of Swans, a new level of sophistication. I remember, from about ’85 on, always being awestruck at

the amount of work Michael would do: constantly rehearsing, constantly getting money together to arrange the next tour, constantly either getting ready to record or recording—he was really hammering it. His work ethic is incredible. Jenny Wade There wasn’t a lot of personal conversation. We came up with our parts and he would give us minimal direction. He had the songs, most of the lyrics, the chord structure, the melodies worked out in advance. He already had the arrangement, as far as song structure; he was a good guy to work for, he had a lot of clarity. Also, he did not micromanage; he treated us with a lot of respect. He was very straightforward—not a passiveaggressive guy, very direct. I appreciated that. It was obvious from the songs what to do: he would say, ‘That’s good,’ or ‘Try this,’ the most general kind of direction. He trusted us to come up with good parts. Michael was a good bandleader. Everyone had a well-defined role. Vinnie Signorelli We rehearsed for a bit and worked out some songs, which we then went into Martin Bisi’s studio to record. I remember one song where I came up with something and Michael said no to it. So we went around for half an hour manipulating the beats but then going back to the original beat I played, but now Michael wrote it—know what I mean? Suddenly it was his part, not my part. Then Michael brought in Anton Fier, which was a surprise … Jenny Wade Michael told me that he and Anton were hanging out at a bar and Anton got down on his knees and begged Michael to let him be the drummer for his next record. Vinnie Signorelli I didn’t know Michael wanted to bring in another drummer. Michael is a bit shady on a few things—I mean, we’d rehearsed all these songs as Swans, and then you go into record and suddenly there’s another drummer in there, doing something you’re supposed to be doing. I knew Anton but I didn’t know he was playing on that record. I was a little bit taken aback. He’s a great drummer, and you understand that if someone can do certain things better, or is a better studio drummer—that’s fine. But

it’s nice to be told. ‘Oh, you’re in the studio? Would have been nice if someone said something.’ Whatever. Steve McAllister Michael was always going for that Neanderthal feeling so Anton’s parts maybe didn’t fit for that reason. It wasn’t about simplicity— Anton could play very simply, he did whatever Michael wanted, but in the end they just … Kristof Hahn Anton has this musician’s attitude: there’s this part and there’s this part, and in order to get from that to this, I need to do a lead into it; how do you want me to do it, and after how many bars? Michael’s and my attitude was that we weren’t going to count bars—the transition comes when it feels right, wherever it comes! So there are discrepancies about when the right moment is to make the transition. That led to frustration from Anton. ‘What do you mean, when it feels right?’ Classical musicians don’t work that way. Sometimes musicians that are that accomplished, they develop a certain contempt for people who are more outsider artists. Jenny Wade Michael and Anton were both very strong personalities. Anton in particular was known for his temper tantrums—they were too much alike to work together. It was Michael’s record, but Anton had strong ideas about how the songs should be arranged, how the playing should be—they had a few yelling matches. Kristof and I would sit outside the rehearsal room and smoke, waiting for things to blow over. Playing with Anton, in some ways it was really great and in others it was really terrifying—he’s so volatile! He really cared a lot about the quality of the music, and he wanted it to be a certain way, so he really locked horns with Michael. He would really sulk— it was like a black cloud forming around his head, like he was Zeus. Thunderbolts. Michael had to contend with that during the whole recording. It was like clash of the titans. Michael Gira Anton is phenomenally talented but he had his own vision, and there was friction. There was a lot of editing involved because of the constant struggle involved in keeping things simple. It wasn’t that he was flashy, but he was very detailed—florid or something.

Nicky Skopelitis It was obvious money was tight, and I’m not sure I even got paid in the end, but it really didn’t matter: ‘Sure, I’ll show up.’ If he needed my help I was more than happy to try and help; I’d do what I could. I remember doing two sessions. This was one of the few times I worked without Bill in the room. Like any producer, Michael was looking for something, and he wanted to encourage me to give the best performance he could hope for. I had a lot of latitude; he just let me do what it is I do, and he gave me simple parameters within which to play. It had to be something he agreed to, but it was very quick—he was satisfied and he was enthusiastic, maybe a little hyper, but that might just be his demeanour when he’s trying to get something done. It was pretty straight-ahead: you’d hear the track, talk about it, try something, and see what happened. Bryce Goggin [engineer, White Light/Love Of Life] Steve and I split up the duty on the tracking side of White Light as the hours were from 10pm to 6am every day. I remember Michael and Anton arguing about the drum fills and making me drop in at every transition point for ‘Will We Survive’; Michael singing ‘Blind’ at 2am while sitting in an easy chair and sipping a glass of brandy; blasting the lead vocals for ‘Better Than You’ through a bass cabinet at 6am and having the downstairs neighbour screaming upstairs at us to please be quiet. Clint Steele Michael was producing, he was writing, it was his group—I just wanted to be useful. He could have given me 100 percent direction and I would have taken it, but he gave me latitude to develop parts and themes —the beginning of ‘Why Are We Alive?’ or the beginning of ‘Love Will Save You’—where I could put a little motif on a song. He was totally open to that. Jenny Wade I never even met Jarboe. We may have crossed paths while the recording was being done, but I don’t think we ever exchanged a single word. Jarboe The keyboard work and arrangements I did in Swans was never really talked about. It’s always about voice, which sometimes got really

irritating when you realise how hard you worked on the music—even singing my ideas for parts that were played by other musicians. Michael would say, whether it was playing the keyboard or singing, ‘That’s too many notes!’ I would edit and we’d try to reach a compromise. I learned the power of minimalism. Another thing Michael would say to me was, ‘Too much jazz’—well, that’s because I have the old-fashioned vibrato and I loved Sarah Vaughan and she used massive vibrato. Not everyone can do vibrato; it became a trademark of mine, but it’s a restrained one. I decided to characterise an Appalachian vernacular, and that led to all kinds of personae: on ‘When She Breathes’ I use this Southern tonality with the way I pronounce words. Martin Bisi It felt like The Burning World broke them up as collaborators —that they couldn’t work in the studio with the two of them. Jarboe had to play parts, she had to sing; and Michael would try to direct that, which did not go very well. Her perception was of Michael being judgmental, or too set in his ways, or not being open to her way of doing it. Also not being kind in his way of addressing his concerns: not being patient. Michael Gira I looked at it as, ‘Here’s the material, now how does it get orchestrated?’ Not, ‘Here’s the material, how is the band going to play it?’ So, for instance, someone would come into the studio, and there’s the basic track there. I would suggest something they should try around it: ‘Try some arpeggiated guitar chords.’ They would try something, and I would say, ‘Nah, maybe go up a little higher on the fret, or maybe just try something else.’ Eventually we would come up with a take I thought worked—then that would inspire, ‘Oh, I hear some horns here,’ or ‘I hear female vocals— I’ll get Jarboe to sing,’ so then we would try that and guide them. It would constantly morph in that way: once something gets on tape, it always inspires more possibilities—too many possibilities, usually. Bryce Goggin I wound up mixing the whole record with Michael, which was all done on a brutal midnight-to-9am schedule. He then took the tapes over to a place in Long Island City and mixed it again. In the end I think he came back to do a little more mixing with me. I am unsure what mixes

wound up on the final record, though I do recall Howie the mastering engineer mentioning that the mastering phase was equally protracted. Steve McAllister I did some tracking with them and then some mixing. That often led to some changes of arrangement after the musicians had left —I would lay tracks down myself, because Michael wanted to change the parts, and I would basically play the new parts in off the computer programming in bass and drums. I was doing a lot of dance music and computer remixes at the time, so I was able to replace some of the music and help with the rearranging. Michael could never settle, all the way up to mix time, and even when mixing he might decide to change arrangements, so we would reserve another few days of studio time with just me, Gira, and Jarboe. I play lots of different instruments and would just drop the parts in with the computer. It was something I was never particularly happy about, because some of what these people had put down was genius. ••• Deryk Thomas [artwork, White Light/Love Of Life] I grew up in Edinburgh and went to Edinburgh College of Art. Around ’87, when I graduated, Swans released their album Children Of God. I loved it and played it endlessly. There were usually some vague contact details on a record sleeve so I wrote to Swans. In those days I wrote to all sorts of people—it wasn’t terribly unusual. I remember getting this fabulous parcel back that was full of all sorts of things like stickers, little postcards, button badges. I started corresponding with Jarboe, who was quite a prolific letterwriter. We were writing like crazy—two or three letters a week? As part of the correspondence she used to cut out magazine pieces she found interesting, and I used to reply with sketches and stuff like that. Jarboe I was the fan-mail person. It was a big job: I was sending out records all over the world for promotion; I’d stand in line for an hour if not longer at the post office to pick up a package or to mail something out. This post office: people would come in screaming or giving speeches, it was a scene of chaos; you had to get to know somebody even to have them give

you your package. What was good was, I became very connected to the fans, and I would write letters back and spend a lot of time cultivating this. I felt that it was important—answering every single letter was important. Deryk Thomas I sent a very small sketch to her, which was something I was working on at the time: it would have the look of a kid’s book but would deal with very adult themes. The rabbit was one of the characters, a miserable suicidal bunny—I sent that sketch. For the life of me, I can’t remember a time when I haven’t been doing cartoony animals. Trying to convey something in human forms never seemed to carry as much clout as when I transferred it onto small animals, so I always had these mournful small animals involved. I could mine it forever—the juxtaposition of the cosy and the comfortable versus the underlying terror. Next thing I knew, I heard, ‘Michael wants to talk to you.’ He told me that he loved it and thought it would be great for Swans next record. I thought he was kidding; their look had been very graphic, not illustrative at all, and I thought that was part of their design. Michael had a very Swanslike take on the image, which I was happy to do. The request was to do the image exactly as it was in the sketch. I can remember doing the sleeve: it was winter, the snow was thick on the ground and my flat was very basic, and I remember being absolutely freezing. I needed to speak to Michael throughout that month to finalise things, and this was all pre-internet so I had to go to a local fax office around the corner—even lining up a phone call took coordination, and it was December 1990 before I packaged up the finals and took them to the post office. I thought it was done and dusted, but then I got a call saying, ‘I’ve had this idea for the back cover: the back cover should be the rabbits facing each other!’ Of course everything needed to be done yesterday, so I sent the back cover off early in the New Year. When I heard the title of the album, I thought that was it: I could see the pairing because the rabbit is more of an existential study—it’s a bit like The Scream or something like that, but obviously in a quieter, grey furry version. Michael Gira Jack London’s John Barleycorn: it’s a fantastic book, positively psychedelic, as is much of his writing. It’s so vivid that it’s

cosmic. Love Of Life and To Build A Fire are absolutely tremendous. He was a social-Darwinist but, paradoxically, a socialist. He was a self-made person who lived in abject poverty and literally worked his way up by reading every book there was and forcing himself to write—I don’t know how many words it was, I think it was ten thousand words a day, and he became this titan. In the book John Barleycorn, he describes, with quite some clarity, his drinking in his youth—he died of complications related to being an alcoholic. He talks about this point where he’s so drunk he drinks himself sober, and it’s this psychedelic ‘white light’ experience of reality because his neurology is so rearranged that it’s similar to being on LSD. I found that inspirational—not the drinking! The state of mind. We also put out a reissue of Filth, distributed on Rough Trade, which apparently sold really well, so I was owed quite a bit of money, plus there was all the money I put into White Light—and then Rough Trade went bankrupt. I lost everything! Again! So I drank a bit, recovered from that, paid back the people who had supported me in making White Light, and— for a short period—started licensing Young God product to other labels. Jarboe All along I was doing my own work. I needed an outlet to fully express myself and my separate ideas—everything that was swirling around in me. That’s why I did all those albums and solo projects. The idea of solo work as well as collaborative work was constantly necessary for me. You have your own voice, you own ideas, your own vision; I didn’t want to be held back or encumbered in any way. You have to keep going to find that voice and to use it in other places if you’re going to be satisfied. Lary 7 [production, Beautiful People Ltd/13 Masks] A funny thing: in ‘82 I had an offer from someone I met in a cafe to go to an audition, a band needing a bass player: Swans. I finished my espresso and headed down to the record store, bought the first Swans EP. I thought it was very interesting but I decided not to bother them because I didn’t want to tour. Roughly ten years afterward I met Jarboe and we started working together. She’d come in and start making tape loops. I had instruments all over, and she’d look around: ‘Oh, what’s this here?’ So maybe it’d be a Hammond organ, or a vibraphone, which you play with mallets, only she’s not going to use a

mallet—she’s not a percussionist—so she had these long fingernails and she started tapping the metal bars, creating this spidery sound—it’s on the track ‘Listen’ on her solo album. The radical thing she did was that it’s called 13 Masks because it was all these different personas, radically different; different production splintered into a wild variety of styles. Michael Evans [percussion, Beautiful People Ltd] The Avant Garde Showcase video was a project Fabio Roberti cooked up initially with Lary 7. He shot Michael Gira as a beat-poet character, Lary 7 as the chainsmoking bongo player, and myself as the free-jazz saxophonist—I combined my version of mixed-up birdcalls with free, improvisational saxophone sounds. It got aired on WFMU-TV, which was on cable TV. Fabio’s friend Mark Rudolph provided the studio, gear, and post-production work. He filmed it from up on top of a ladder looking down upon us. Michael was doing his beat-poetry thing looking up at the camera with a top hat on, along with wearing a fake moustache and goatee! That was the first time I met Michael. That video was a total blast to do! Lary had both Jarboe and Michael up to Plastikville Studios—the analogue recording studio in his apartment—doing some recording and mixing, and he provided some instrumental overdub tracks. He asked me if I’d be interested in playing with Jarboe on some sessions, and I believe some of them, or most of them, paid. So I brought in my crazy ‘Mr. Haney from Green Acres’ junkman drum and percussion setup and set up in his bedroom. Keep in mind, the recording gear is in his living room! His apartment was quite hard to navigate or even to sit in then. Lary had me create some rhythmic foundations for him and Jarboe to work with and also had me do overdubs to things they’d already done. I loved the way Jarboe sings: her timing, phrasing, and pitch choices—incredible! I admired how she and Lary created these songs that each had different moods and were like different soundscape paintings. They usually worked within the conventional, pop-song structure format, but then would creatively add parts or subtract parts from these forms. They worked their magic creating very interesting, imaginative orchestrations and had some very nonstandard ways of working together to make wild sounds.

Vinnie Signorelli I played on Jarboe’s record, and that was really fun because she would be, ‘Make believe you’re in the desert riding a camel and get that vibe,’ so I’d give it a try, and she’d say, ‘Perfect!’ She’s a really funny lady, a real Southern girl. In Swans, it was harder for her to express herself, and there was a lot of turmoil between her and Michael. As a person, though, she always told jokes and funny stories. She had an interesting youth, and she would tell you a story about it then say, ‘But don’t tell anybody, it’s a secret,’ then someone else would say, ‘Did she mention this to you?’ And you’d realise she was telling everyone the same story and telling each person not to tell anyone. Lary 7 I think 13 Masks grabbed Michael’s attention because right away he invited me in to work with them on Swans. I went into the studio—Michael put me to work. All the interludes you hear on Love Of Life, those were all done here at Plastikville. Michael Gira I very quickly had another record’s worth of material, and the same hound at my heels—poverty. My favourite on that record is ‘The Golden Boy That Was Swallowed By The Sea’. The words on ‘Amnesia’ are quite good, the words on ‘The Sound Of Freedom’ are quite good, and ‘Her’—that’s obviously a love song to Jarboe. I don’t usually get very personal on records, but that’s a dedication to her. They were all—with the exception of Jarboe’s ‘She Cries For Spider’—written on acoustic guitar, then I dreamt about how it could sound: how can I make the way this chord sounds now against my belly from this acoustic guitar, how do I bring that sound out? In the case of ‘Amnesia’ and ‘Love Of Life’ it became this electronic beat thing, which is really a sad development, but somehow I got sucked into it. Deryk Thomas Michael said he definitely wanted the rabbits again, so the question was, what could happen to them? He called me back: ‘I really want you to do the rabbits with their heads on fire,’ which was fine because fire colours, lots of reds, they were a big part of my work at the time, and I offset them with the blue skies. I did the White Light image as a small oil painting with different pastels thrown in, then similarly, with Love Of Life, I

wanted to do quite a chunky painting—I didn’t want it too smooth and polished, but a lot of people like the Disney sheen to it. Next they had a video to make for the ‘Love Of Life’ single, so he said he wanted me to do as many as I possible could. I asked how many and he told me they were only going to be on the screen for a millisecond so he wanted hundreds. I put a weekend aside and worked throughout the night doing shitloads of bunnies—about seventy-five in total, in quite raw pastels. When it came to the iconography they wanted crosses, snakes, and daggers: important symbols for them. Vinnie Signorelli All the foundations, I was conducted through the parts when we got into the studio, but playing at Martin’s place is really great: you have this big basement with stone walls. Al was back in the band, and playing with Al is always great. He’s a very disciplined character. Working with Michael is very regimented—it’s great, but I wouldn’t say fun. He was living in the studio, and I give him the credit for it—he’s so possessed he slept there while we were recording. Michael, in the studio, he’s diligent. I don’t remember seeing him laugh. You had to be respectful of the fact it’s his music and walk into the situation knowing that’s what it would be: when you walk into fire, don’t complain that it’s too hot. Jenny Wade Love Of Life was the same process, different drummer: Vinnie. Rehearsals at Michael’s place and then fast, efficient recording—we didn’t do more than two takes. I did my job. After the first record I went through a bad divorce. I was falling apart in 1991, so that probably made Michael wary. Or maybe it was his artistic vision—three different bass styles on the record. It’s kind of a great idea. Steve McAllister Working with him was enjoyable. Where there was a feeling of accomplishment, it came from really getting locked in. The thing that made it rough was that you would come back the next day and he’d say it sucked and he would want to change the arrangement. It was numbing after a while, because he would pick and choose inputs—you weren’t working like a group of musicians would work together.

Michael Gira The song ‘Identity’ was some words I wrote, but there was no way I could deliver those words with any credibility because they’re talking about some weighty subjects, and phrased in a way that wouldn’t make sense to sing. I grappled with having Jarboe sing it, then decided it should be a child. Through friends we found a young boy, maybe eight years old, and we had him recite the words. We brought him into the studio with his parents and walked through it line by line, sometimes even just a half-line, and then pieced it together. I like having someone sing the words while I’m just the producer. Bryce Goggin Whenever I worked with Michael he was always trying to maximise the impact of his music by pushing the dynamic and colour of the sonic sources he was working. The emotion in the music must be exploding out of the speakers. Slowing down, speeding up, EQ’ing, compressing, distorting—whatever it took. Lary 7 The most we have here is eight-track, so when I went into the studio with Michael, that was a place we were seldom going into. We went to Bisi’s and it’s twenty-four tracks, all this tremendous layering, a true wall of sound—it’s a whole different aesthetic from what I do. I went in there and played various instruments—bass, guitar, auto-harp—and when I heard the record I knew I was in there somewhere, but I was somewhere inside of this big thing. It could be coincidental, but I know Michael started getting into these softer-sounding things, like the vibraphone. It’s more cinematic, where you have this kind of mood and then it can go to extremes as opposed to the early days, when it was sort of full-throttle all of the time. Michael Gira The instrumental pieces on Love Of Life, that was me grappling with trying to make records into an overall experience and have things flow into each other without just cross-fading. The ambition was to make an album into a total mini-cinematic experience; to not sound like one band playing different songs; to have it be pieces of cinema occurring where it doesn’t really matter who is playing it.

Lary 7 After her father passed away, Jarboe found these tapes, brought them over, and we put them on. They were really spooky—Twilight Zone. We’d go through them for the first time; it was fascinating, audio like that paints a picture. You close your eyes and just imagine. We incorporated some of the things we found into the work we were doing. There’s one really great one on Love Of Life where it’s her grandfather telling the story about hunting deer. It’s an example of the art of storytelling—the lost art. Jarboe My elderly grandfather lived out west in a very remote area in the mountains. Killing one deer was food for the entire winter—and winters were harsh. To shoot the deer through the heart meant the deer didn’t suffer. The interest in field recordings, bringing real stuff in—some man who was wire-tapped makes an appearance; me as a kid, ‘Boom, boom, boom!’; me as a young girl on ‘Her’—to me, using the field recordings turns them into theatre pieces. To me, that’s what they were—little scenes from a film. Michael Gira The sound pieces that bleed out from one song and into another: that started in White Light, and really it was the germination for the entire notion behind Soundtracks For The Blind. I started to just concentrate on those: fuck the songs, I’ll work with these things! So I started making these little cinematic soundscapes. ••• Kristof Hahn We did a tour with the Love Of Life album, which was a lot of fun. Al Kizys had joined the band—a very down-to-earth character. I enjoyed that tour. Vinnie Signorelli Touring in Europe was great. It was hard not to eat before a show because the food was so good: in Italy, you’d get mozzarella and delicious coffee, while in the States you had Burger King and Taco Bell. America has no food culture—we destroyed it and put up a fake façade. As a kid, I wanted to be a hobo: that was my dream, to just jump on trains with my stick and little polka-dotted bag. Being on the road is like that. The only

responsibility is to play the show. There’s no home life or paying bills. I remember being on tour with Swans, everything was great, you’re the king —you’re being catered to—then I went back to New York and I’m working in this restaurant as a bus boy. I was hauling wet food garbage bags, I’ve got food crap all over me, and I’m thinking, ‘Wasn’t I the king two days ago?’ It’s about appreciating both experiences: you’ve got to love it all. Kristof Hahn I told Michael beforehand that my wife was pregnant, and that if there were any complications I would have to go home. At the end of the fifth month, the doctor told her she was at risk of losing the baby. We did the European tour, then went back to do the American leg of the tour, and I told him after the show in New York—I didn’t want to leave him alone—‘I’m sorry but I’m going to fly home tomorrow, it doesn’t look good at home.’ He was not amused. He wasn’t happy at all. Clint Steele That left me as the lone electric guitar player, which was unplanned, but we adapted. That’s the thing about Michael: Kristof obviously needed to be in Berlin for the birth of his son, but Michael expected him to complete the tour. Bryce Goggin Michael showed up in ’92 to do some mixing and tracking on the Omniscience LP. Swans had just completed a tour and wanted to put out a live record. We did a lot of studio recording, tracked from the drums up, then some live recordings were integrated into the studio performances. Things went down very smoothly—at that point the band was very comfortable with the material, having played it out for so long. From completion of the final mixing through the mastering phase, Michael has always put a lot of heavily detailed work in. Omniscience was no exception. What left the studio and wound up on the record went through another phase of redaction and manipulation. Beth B. [filmmaker, Two Small Bodies] I saw Swans a few times, and I met Michael in a bar. He was leaning up against the jukebox, really drunk, and I went over and started talking. The full glass just slipped right out of his hand and smashed to the ground, so I thought it might be best to walk

away. His music was always so mesmerising, disturbing—it had this definite sense of alienation, which I loved. When I was making the film Two Small Bodies it really felt like it could be the right fit. The film was done in 1992. I couldn’t find any financing in the US—it was a very bad time for independent filmmaking. It took me about six years to get the film going. There was a time when there was a very strong support system for independent filmmaking, but it became more and more difficult. Through the 80s and just into the early 90s, there were strong possibilities of co-production funds from Europe. I ended up sending it to a producer who worked with German television, Birgitta Kramer, and she read it and wrote me a letter, pages-long, saying how phenomenal she thought the film was and that they wanted to finance it. Once it was going through German television, they then said we had to have a German producer, and then they said they wanted the entire film to be filmed in Germany, because they wanted all of the money to be spent there. So that created some conflicts in terms of what I considered a very American story, but it also made me re-evaluate the premise and realise this was more of a universal story. It had to do with these very ingrained roles between men and women and this bizarre dance of domination and submission that occurs between an investigator and a housewife/mother/cocktail hostess who is accused of killing her two children—this psychological cat and mouse they play with each other through the film is very disturbing but with moments that are very tender in the way that they manipulate each other. It was when Jarboe was with Swans, so that added something different and interesting, because there was the female and the male voice together, and their relationship was very … what shall I say? In some ways it echoed the kind of aggression and passion and disturbance that was being acted. I didn’t see that until we started recording. That’s why I think having them score the film worked. Lary 7 Working on the soundtrack here, Michael would come in and we’d be up all night sitting in front of the mixing desk—the daylight would come and he’d still be in there, locked in, smoking a cigar, working very intently.

Beth B. It was a very intense working relationship between all the people who were there, but definitely Michael is the leading voice and really orchestrates how things are being put together. Everything was done on a micro-budget basis—the soundtrack is beautiful, really complex, yet in some ways very simple. It was a very intensive recording session. It was winter; I looked out the window, the Lower East Side was still very abandoned. It was three in the morning and it was snowing like crazy. In a doorway across the street there were drug deals going on and some guy shooting up in a doorway—the perfect backdrop. Lary 7 Michael took it on as a job. I relinquished the tapes to Michael— marched the box over to his house—and I’m not sure how much of it ended up in the film. A funny twist: while we were working, Beth was here, and the phone rang. It was Tony Conrad. He was all fired up: ‘I wanna come over and finish the soundtrack to Normal Love’—the Jack Smith epic film —‘I wanna put my dream team together—you, Gordon Monahan, Beth B.’ And I said, ‘That’s weird—because Beth’s here right now.’ He told me he was jealous I was getting to work with Jarboe. Beth B. It’s very much taking things scene by scene, figuring out which parts of the film need music; what is the dramatic tension in the film we are looking to underscore? Talking to them about that, then what would work best to underscore not overwhelm it. Just as I work with a cinematographer, it’s really important that the film has a cohesive vision. So, even though I’m bringing other people in to create aspects of it, it’s critically important that I’m guiding those aspects, so all of it can work as a whole. It goes back to the vision of the entire film. In some places, certain tracks became thematic with regard to the character; they repeat. The film had so much talking in it there wasn’t room for any vocals, but Jarboe did bring some vocalisation without words to some of the tracks. That’s very distinctive of her singing. I thought it was perfect; it had a certain sense of alienation and loneliness or alone-ness, an otherworldliness. Jarboe The characterisations came in early on, before I joined Swans, because the tape projects were showing how far the voice could go and

what it could do. It was coming from a place of my own experimentation with psychology, so the piece I did called Walls Are Bleeding—that piece ends with me uttering the same phrase over and over again until I can’t even talk. The interest was in psychological states and how far you could push a condition with the voice. That particular piece was played on WREK radio, and people were terrified. They thought it was real, they were calling the station freaked out: a successful work because it got such a powerful reaction! Using the voice as a kind of weapon is what started to happen.

10.0 WHEN THE LIGHT GOES OUT The Great Annihilator 1993–95 Jarboe I don’t mean to be cynical or harsh or unromantic here—and I’m not trying to be noble, either—but it’s a fact that the economic pressures we were under were enormous. We were beating our heads against a wall repeatedly for no reward and living this incredibly meagre lifestyle. Even when the money came in, we could never relax. So much money was being spent keeping Swans going. Every dime was being churned back into paying for independent publicity; to pay the $260 we need for every reel of tape we used; to pay the thousands of dollars we needed for studios; to pay tour costs, even though we toured in the most down-to-the-bone way. It was extremely difficult. The pressure and the tension was constant, but then we would step out in front of an audience and all of those aspects were left behind, because you go to a place where you’re transformed and you’re stripped of everything. There’s a purity that endures in that moment where you’re giving everything, and that’s the entire reason you put yourself through it. I wouldn’t change any of the shows. They were a gift. Michael Gira I ended up living with Jarboe at her mother’s house. How old was I at that point? Forty? That was humbling. Alcohol was an abiding presence and, I guess, a reliable friend to me ever since my early days in construction. It was the thing that at the end of the day would wash the dust out of your mouth. I felt that as long as it never got in the way of the work, then nothing else mattered. Unfortunately, I was of the persuasion that nothing else mattered to me anyway, except the work. I had a love life and friends came and went, but in the end I had this solipsistic view of the world in which it was just about the work and fuck everything else.

I would work sixteen hours a day and drink countless beers, then I’d get up and do it again the next day. I did it every day for I don’t know how many years—maybe forty years? It ebbed and flowed, so there were times it wasn’t as much a factor—always every day, but not as much a factor. When Jarboe said, ‘I’m leaving and going to Atlanta,’ I was alone in New York, and my day would be looking at my watch waiting until I could go to the bar without feeling like a complete loser. The local bar was the Horseshoe Bar on 7th Street and Avenue B—I called it my office. I would go there with a pad and write and drink; maybe someone would meet me there and we’d drink, then they’d leave and I would stay. I would sometimes spend twelve hours a day in that bar. Todd Cote [booking agent] I was working for Neurosis, and the first tour I booked for them, when we rolled into Atlanta, Michael and Jarboe were there. He walked up to our merch stand and said, ‘Hi. I’m Michael Gira from Swans,’ in that deep voice of his. Everyone at the stand was like, ‘Why, yes you are!’ Everybody was a fan, and someone said, ‘We were big fans of your band.’ Michael looked at us: ‘We’re still a band. I think there’s a problem.’ He wasn’t amused, but we got up the gumption to trade numbers. Kevin Wortis [booking agent] We agreed to work with Michael as a booking agent—which was an enormous honour. But I said no to him repeatedly about managing Swans, because Swans were massive in my head. In 1986 I was eighteen years old, and when you discover something musically and culturally fantastic at that age, it imprints in the back of your brain as perfection. Swans were one of those acts for me. The idea that I would become entirely responsible for the career trajectory and income potential of the band was uncomfortable. Michael is one charming motherfucker. We got along, so it became more about the relationship with this human being, as opposed to that guy on centre stage at CBGBs. I could never provide for that guy—but this friend of mine, Michael, that’s a guy I could fail with. I couldn’t do Swans. It wasn’t going to work commercially; I thought it was over, I thought it was Michael and Jarboe, and that he needed a creative outlet without her

because that relationship had fallen apart. So, Michael and I went back and forth and eventually we agree. The agreement I had with Michael was that he would stop being Swans and we could start fresh. Norman Westberg The Great Annihilator was a bit of a reunion with Al and Ted. They were both involved at the beginning. Then Al and I went out to Chicago to record the rest of it, but it never turned into a tour or anything for us. Algis Kizys We were all so involved in that record—we rehearsed the heck out of it. It was five years after Children Of God but the sound was similar, and I was happy with where it was going. Clint Steele Norman was back as guitar player, so my role as guitarist needed to adjust accordingly. His guitar sound is so unusual and dissonant and monolithic—all at the same time—so it was a challenge working out where I could fit in there with my parts without making it muddier or more indistinguishable. Bill Rieflin On tour with Ministry, this writer arrived with a pre-release cassette of White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity. Within two bars, I knew I had to work with Swans. Sometime after, back in Chicago, I went to a bar, and the person I was meeting said, ‘That’s Al Kizys over there.’ I went over, introduced myself, and said that if Swans ever needed someone then I’d be the right guy. Michael called me on April Fool’s Day 1993. I found him to be utterly unlike what I imagined: he was upbeat, excited, and positive about the potential of working together. I met everybody for the first time for rehearsals at Martin Atkins’s loft: Michael, Al, Clint, and Norman—the five of us banging away for days before recording began. The first day of rehearsals in this horribly un-air-conditioned room was pretty loud, and I’m thinking, ‘Well, this is Swans—I really need to go for it.’ After eight hours of beating the holy shit out of my drums, I was beyond exhausted.

Martin Atkins [founder, Invisible] Invisible started kind of accidentally in ’88. I got together with a few other artists who were all sending demos out, and it just seemed such a waste of time. I’d just left Public Image Ltd, so we pooled our money and put the first album out: a vinyl record in a screenprinted shopping bag. Then I went off to join Killing Joke, so things were on hold, and it wasn’t until the first Pigface album that things really started coming together. Jarboe Warzone Studio was this industrial building, and literally you stuck your toe out the door and were now in Cabrini-Green—the most dangerous projects in America. I was stranded there: you couldn’t go anywhere; the cabs wouldn’t go there. It’s where I wrote most of Sacrificial Cake, after weeks of being a prisoner. People have asked me about the symbolism in ‘Lavender Girl’, which I wrote in the small room where Michael and I slept. It was a mosquito-infested studio, and I burned incense to keep them away. The box of incense was in front of me—‘There’s patchouli, Spanish blossom, frankincense and myrrh’—it’s about keeping blood-sucking mosquitos away from me in a ghetto. Martin Atkins Michael and Jarboe wanted to live at the studio and really make this an intense thing: they thought it would be ten days and they were there three months. I knew the people who had put The Warzone together, and I got feedback pretty quick that—‘Stop press! News flash!’—Michael could be a little bit difficult. One person’s view of difficult is another person’s manifestation of driven purpose and refusal to compromise. My contribution to ease the process was to go over there and install a shower. I spent $300 and thought, ‘Fuck it, if this is how I can contribute to the wellbeing of the project …’ Clint Steele The session was chaotic. There was no money to put us up in a place, so sometimes I was on the studio couch—a little tense, once the novelty wore off. There were giant sewer mosquitos coming from the air conditioning vents, which wasn’t a great feature for a studio to provide. There were a lot of construction guys coming and going so I felt I could

have done more, but the distractions and Sheetrock dust—it did affect my work, I’m sure. Bill Rieflin We recorded in a new studio, which is always a profound error because everything that can go wrong goes wrong. I’m sure the introductory price appealed to Michael but, of course, you get what you pay for: a studio with no air-conditioning, shit that keeps breaking, mosquitos, drug-addicted engineers, and Cabrini-Green. But, I have to say, those sorts of things have tended to follow Michael around: it’s nothing but one pointed stick after another, which generates and dials up the heat. The room didn’t sound great, so the recordings weren’t coming up so good—it was a bit of a cluster-fuck, really. Algis Kizys Before we went into the studio we were very happy, but then the product that came out wasn’t totally what I recall us rehearsing. Even if you were just called in to work on a session, what you do is you develop a part. I always thought that whoever you call in for a session, they bring their personality and their style with them. It’s a live sculpture—it always is with sound. For that record, we rehearsed a lot—cohesive full-band rehearsals—and had it sounding really good. Hearing stuff while Michael was mixing it, it was already quite different to what we had while we were developing material. The idea was that we were going to go on to play the material live, but the point was, ‘When you get a sense of timeframe, then we start talking.’ In Swans, there’s a lot of rehearsal so you can’t just say, ‘Let’s do a show!’ That record took so long to do we would all do other stuff, whether day jobs or other bands. By the time they were planning the tour there had been some lines crossed—everyone has their own way of dealing with stuff, and mine was, ‘Fine, I’m not playing with this band.’ Bill Rieflin The first time I really worked with Jarboe closely was during the Drainland record. I was moving from one house to another in Seattle. The house being moved from was vacant but still had a lease on it, so we set up shop in this completely empty house. All we had was a small recording console, one good microphone, a couple of instruments, one sampler, and a few pieces of outboard gear—very minimal. It was hot as

hell—one of those rare times in Seattle when we had consecutive hundreddegree days—and there we were banging away in this very hot, mostly empty house. Do you know the piece ‘You See Through Me’? The recording of Jarboe and Michael having a fight? Michael said they were considering using that as the vocal part, but they were unsure if it was a good idea. I said it absolutely had to be on there. It’s an incredibly gutsy, nervy move. That’s the thing about Michael: he himself is fodder for his work. He’ll present himself in a really bad light if it gets the idea across that he’s going for. The funny thing was, while discussing it, he and Jarboe were laughing —it wasn’t like this deadly serious thing, which it obviously was at the time. In hindsight, they could look at it and laugh, which I thought was astounding—given that the recording is incredibly intense and very uncomfortable. Jarboe ‘You See Through Me’ wasn’t recorded in the interest of art: it was recorded in an attempt to show Michael what he was like when he was inebriated. It was a desperate attempt, trying everything I could, to get him to stop drinking. It’s really strong and, if it were to be in an art gallery—a room with black curtains and it started as the person walked in—it’d be a powerful installation. People saw us arguing, but that was mainly to do with the fact that Michael and I both had strong ideas, regardless of the personal relationship. It’s about working with people who are passionate about what they do. I hadn’t intended this particular recording to be used. I recorded Michael coming home from one of his binge sessions—I thought, if he heard it when he was sober, then it’d be a point of enlightenment, and it might manifest change. He heard it and he thought that it captured something pure, something real, and something true—that’s why he chose the title ‘You See Through Me’. Who sees through whom? Bill Rieflin Michael didn’t take my advice on the title of the record. I thought it should have been called I’m A Bastard, but he didn’t go for it. Michael Gira Sequencing on a record is a statement in itself, which is why ‘Blind’ is at the end, ‘You See Through Me’ is at the start. ‘Blind’ was one

song—one of my best songs—that was recorded for White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity but didn’t appear on that record. I used it on Drainland. That song is an ineffably sensuous performance on everyone’s part. There are a handful of songs I’ve written that are really good narrative songs, and that’s one of them. Bill Rieflin At the end of the working day, we were exhausted. There was nothing left to do except go to bed; we didn’t stay up shooting the breeze. Michael and Jarboe stayed in the empty house. Kurt Kellison [founder, Atavistic] Someone referred to Atavistic as ‘the house that Branca built’. When I first heard the albums Glenn Branca was putting out on 99 Records, and the guitar symphonies he’d issued on his own Neutral label, they absolutely changed my life. There obviously were other fascinating recordings: ‘Why it was so hard to find a Mars record?’ or ‘What about Teenage Jesus & The Jerks?’ It seemed a very natural progression to try to meet these people and see if they had an interest in rereleasing these absolutely stunning recordings. I wrote to Michael and he was kind enough to reply. He recognised that Atavistic could handle keeping his releases in print and assuring they’d be well distributed. We started with two live records, Kill The Child and Real Love, encompassing a stellar period from ’85 to ’87; Real Love also has Michael’s classic rough ‘noose’ sketch. It was good to start with the live recordings so Michael could see that this was going to be a solid, healthy relationship, and that we’d commit all the resources we had to whatever came next. Swans were ending their dealings with an Atlanta-based label called Sky, so we were able to move on to larger projects. ••• Clint Steele I didn’t go on the ’95 tour. That was the very first inkling to me that our relationship was becoming tenuous. He asked me for my commitment to go on tour for three months and then cancelled on me. It was massively disappointing to get used by him like that after five years. The tour was on and I was going, then at the very last minute Vudi was

available and Michael decided to work with him. I was the odd man out, and it was a drag. I didn’t understand why, because I felt my contributions to the band had been solid, but Michael had his reasons. Joe Goldring [bass, Swans, 1995] Michael picks people for the band for specific reasons. He’s very premeditated in that—it’s not a crapshoot. He knows what he wants to get out of somebody. We knew going into it that Swans is Michael Gira—that’s what it is—and we weren’t going to fight that; why would we want to? You want a strong personality in the position of bandleader; you don’t want somebody coming in, ‘I dunno … what do you guys think?’ That was not the case anyway. It was, ‘We’re going to do this, then we’re going to do this.’ Larry Mullins [drums, Swans, 1995; also Angels Of Light] I was a longtime fan growing up, and the first time I got to go to New York—with Iggy Pop in 1990—one of the main things I wanted to do was to find some way to connect with Michael. I managed to get in contact, we got along really well, and we became drinking buddies. In ’95, Iggy planned to take a year off, so I contacted Michael. At that point he didn’t really have a band, what he had was a brand and a name and himself and Jarboe. I was living in San Francisco and had a good setup there—I knew a lot of musicians and had a great rehearsal space—so I proposed for us to go there. When Michael and Jarboe came up, I introduced them to Vudi; I wanted to get him involved, and it was the same with Joe Goldring. Kevin Wortis I remember the auditions where he would get musicians to play one note, because it was all about the texture of the sound. He wanted people to figure out how to play together with dynamics—that was the most important thing. He would say, ‘You can only play a G,’ and he would be the conductor of this orchestra in G—only G, one note only. Vudi [guitar, Swans, 1995] I didn’t realise my group had broken up. We just said we’ll take the season off, but it ended up being the end of American Music Club. So I asked, ‘Hey fellas, if I go out and spend a few

months being a Swan, is that OK? Are we going to do anything?’ And we decided we weren’t, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ I showed up and it was just Michael, Larry, and me. He was polite, asked me a few questions, and I told him that I really had no keen appreciation of his art but I’d been exposed to some of the later material and liked it. He just said, ‘Well … OK.’ We stood in a circle and played one chord at very high volume, with Larry playing some kind of military tattoo. We did that for half an hour, then Michael selected another chord and a different tattoo and we did that for another half an hour. When we finished, Michael told me, ‘Well, if you want the job, you can have it.’ It was just about seeing if I could take the volume, the repetition, the lack of variation —just one chord, not a song or a riff or anything. Joe Goldring Kevin Wortis approached me—I was a bit reluctant. I had a feeling of what it would be like. I turned them down a couple of times but they kept on asking. I enjoyed the music and I looked at the tour schedule, and I knew it was going to be Vudi and Larry, so I thought, ‘This could be fun.’ I had heard some funny stories about Michael, and I actually received an anonymous letter when I was rehearsing with them that said: ‘Dear Mr. Goldring, please ask M. Gira about travelling by helicopter. Signed, your conscience.’ I asked Michael and he said he didn’t know anything about it. I still don’t know what that was about—it was a little odd. Jarboe People are amazed when I describe to them how much rehearsing went into it before we would go on tour. It wasn’t just a matter of learning parts—this was a breaking down of components before things would come together. And we had to come together as a whole, as a unit, so there was a lot of ego breaking down, emotion breaking down. The tremendous amount of hours involved was very important to the transcendence. A lot of people think you can get a tour together in just a few rehearsals—maybe—but you’re not going to reach the point we had reached in those rehearsals until you’re at the end of your tour. Larry Mullins Michael knew I had a long, in-depth education playing concert percussion, and I’d studied Mozart, Bach, Wagner. He really wanted

to pull that side of me out and use that. He knew that I had a vibraphone and owned a lot of instruments, so he suggested we use it all. He came up with the idea for me to have a concert vibraphone on my left, a thirty-inch concert bass drum on my right; I wore a marching field snare-drum on a strap on my shoulder, I had another bass drum on the floor directly in front of me that I stomped on, then I had two really enormous twenty-four-inch cymbals suspended in front of me. It was like a concert percussion section all controlled by one person. It was very complicated to play, and it looked outrageous! I would never have thought of something like that, but he pulled all that stuff out of me. Joe Goldring That was the single most amazing thing about that line-up: Larry. He was literally playing with this giant mallet on the drums—real caveman shit—then playing these beautiful little melodies on the vibraphone with his left hand—really delicately—and then whaling with his right hand. He was the heart and soul of that band—technically and conceptually, what he was doing was incredible. He was really sculpting this whole environment. Vudi The man who owned the building had his office upstairs with a couple of other offices for a management company. Swans come in with all these huge amps—I had an endorsement from Mesa Boogie, so we got Michael a big-ass dual rectifier amplifier, I had some other 100 watt amplifier, Joe had an SVT turned all the way up, Larry is beating on the drums as hard as he can, and there’s some enormous system for Jarboe’s keyboard sampler, and we were playing in a fairly small room at full concert volume. The people upstairs, it freaked them out. The guy, Chris, he looked like an Irish pugilist from the turn of the twentieth century—bald head, big physique—and he’s saying, ‘This has to stop!’ Michael stood there, ‘I pay rent on this studio, we have an arrangement, and if you try and steamroll me, well, come on and try it.’ I thought they were going to scrap right there and then—but Chris backed down, sheer force of personality. You could see Michael was used to getting his way—used to rolling over people—but I was amazed to see he could actually bluff his way through a standoff like that.

Kristin Wallace [tour manager, US The Great Annihilator tour] I had come off the road from tour-managing in order to take a job at Rave Booking. I booked a couple of Swans tours, then they couldn’t find a tour manager, so I ended up taking it at the last minute. I took this tour, I booked the tour, I tour managed, and I handled scheduling of press interviews—so I only had myself to blame when things went wrong. The first show was at Gilman in Berkeley—a piece-of-crap venue—it sounds terrible in there, short stage, really bad carpeting. There was a lot of yelling, a lot of issues because of this horrible sounding room, this incredible tension: ‘This isn’t what it’s going to be like the whole time is it? This can’t be normal?’ Every job I got was, ‘Hey, I hear you work with really difficult people—can you take this band?’ I know what happens on the road and when people are under pressure. But within the first ten minutes, somebody had completely freaked out at me, and at that point in my career I wasn’t someone who took that so well. That first day there was a lot of snapping in people’s faces because of the sound, screaming at the soundman—I thought the soundman was going to quit. Andy Reynolds [live sound engineer/tour manager, The Great Annihilator tour] I got back from another tour and there was a fax waiting for me in Kristin Wallace’s handwriting saying, ‘Oh my God, we need you! Would you mind tour-managing this band called Swans?’ I faxed back saying, ‘Fuck yeah!’ I was tour manager and soundman: that was quite a common role in the freelance industry because you can do two jobs and charge slightly more money, and it’s one less bunk on the bus. I remember Todd taking me through the figures for the tour—you always prepare a budget for transport and accommodation—and thinking, ‘Woah, that is tight! Really tight.’ Imagine sitting in a van and every person except you, there’s a dollar sign floating above their head because they’re costing you money. Even the gas for the van, it’s his money, it’s coming straight out of Michael’s pocket. That’s when you can really get into Michael’s headspace and understand these occasional blowouts. Kristin Wallace I had to leave the tour before it ended because I hadn’t realised I was pregnant with my daughter. Strong smells would make me

nauseous. Larry insisted on bringing a small cooler of this really strongsmelling coffee, so whenever we stopped he took over the centre isle of the van then started this little burner to make this coffee. Michael would sit in the front smoking these cigars, and at one point he kept playing some horrible music over and over—eventually I threw it out of the window while we were driving. The smell of the coffee and cigars was making me nauseated beyond belief. Vudi Larry would come off stage and his hands would be bleeding, then every day he’d grow blisters, then that night the blisters would open and he’d be bleeding. When you watch AC/DC, you watch Angus Young and he’s getting smaller and smaller as the show goes on; he’s sweating so much you can see he’s losing five pounds every night. It was the same thing with Larry: he would lose weight over the course of a ninety-minute show; he’d come off stage and wring out his shirt and a quart of sweat would come out his shirt. Kristin Wallace I realised that the thing to do was to take care of Jarboe: she’s awesome! Her presence took over the stage—I had very much underestimated her at first. I would make sure she had a separate time to be picked up from the hotel, a separate time to have her stuff ready and set up. I wanted to make her feel comfortable. In Seattle we had a day off, so I took her to visit Bill Rieflin, who had this cute house up in the hills. That lifted her, but otherwise she wasn’t in a good mood. A lot of the tension was about the dynamic between the two of them. We were in a parking lot in Cleveland, and Michael and Jarboe had another argument. I had to talk to Michael—I reprimanded him and he was upset, I got an apology. He was struggling and was perplexed why he couldn’t be close with people. When you tour with people you see all aspects of their coping ability. He wasn’t immune. There were clearly issues he had with trying to maintain authority while desperately trying to make things align with his vision—then his inability to have empathy with people at the time. He was careless with a lot of people, and it hurt people when—really—it wasn’t about ‘you’, it was about trying to make something work for a very long time. Anything that was in the way would get a severe reaction.

Joe Goldring When we played in Los Angeles, Michael’s family came to the show. It was sweet—they kinda pushed him around, and I’d never seen that before. I liked his dad. He was a nice bloke. I think he really looked up to his old man. Michael took his own course, and there’s an anger in him because he’s at the tail end of that generation where, if you wanted to be a weirdo, if you wanted to be different from other people, it was a fucking struggle. I don’t think he’s ever lost that fight, wanting to be different. I saw that in him, that he was always fighting for his right to be weird, to be an artist, and it wasn’t easy for that generation. Daniel Gira We don’t have black sheep in our family. Our family is incredibly inclusive: it’s one of the best things about us. Our example is one of inclusivity and forgiveness. We’re not a family that talks a lot about our feelings. We’re there for people, we support people, and we do what we need to do, but it’s not like we sit down and say, ‘How you feeling these days?’ Jarboe Michael was always honest, with me, about how hard he found it to communicate, ‘This is how I feel.’ He’s so stoic, he’s just not in touch with that type of communication. But he was writing prolifically, every day, so many words—and he was reading five or six books a week—so I knew how articulate he was in other ways. That’s what would happen—I would look at rough lyrics as they were being written, or read the short stories he was creating while they were in process on the typewriter—that’s how I would gain an insight into his state of mind and how he felt as a person. It all comes out in his stories and in his lyrics, so that’s where I would turn to understand what was going on in his head, because you wouldn’t hear it otherwise—he wasn’t someone who could sit down and talk about his feelings. Andy Reynolds The venues, some of them had ridiculous sound limits. I remember one gig: house engineers get a bad rep and it’s not usually fair, but this guy really needed a kick in the teeth. He gave me this big lecture: ‘You will not touch this button; you will not exceed …’ It was like Full Metal Jacket. I completely disregarded him and disabled the compressor.

Everyone said, ‘This is the best it’s ever sounded!’ I’m not saying that because of my engineering abilities. If you limit something as dynamic as Swans at that time, it would sound like dog shit. Kristin Wallace I’d stand in the audience hearing what people were saying. There were a lot of unhappy people. Only some people ‘got it’ musically— others disliked the repetitiveness, the vocals changing, the long time it took to get from one place to another. That was weird—the distance between people’s idea of what Swans were, and then they show up and it’s something very different. There’d be people who would leave, or people who would stay to the end and just be angry, then there’d be other people saying, ‘That was awesome!’ Joe Goldring The States was actually good. Swans weren’t playing the size of venue Michael’s ego wanted, but I thought the American audiences were great. The audience who stood out were in Tulsa—honestly, that was twenty kids in their androgynous goth costumes who were really braving it to go to that discotheque to see Swans—they were brave people, beautiful people. To me, that was like, ‘Wow, you’re really committed—you guys are amazing.’ Andy Reynolds So many things can go wrong, and they did. Mama Kins in Boston, there was a 200-capacity room, a 400-capacity room, then a bigger room. We were in the middle one. So we roll up late and there’s a queue around the block, and Michael is really excited, then we get inside the venue and we realise the queues are for the other two venues, not for Swans. To have expectations and have it snatched away from you—it’s difficult for anybody. The van constantly broke down; the credit card used to hold the hotels had somehow gotten mangled, so we’re staying in these motels, and every time we got there the rooms had been cancelled, so there’s me and him just bawling at each other in a motel reception in Bumfuck, Idaho. I’m saying, ‘We can’t stay here! There. Are. No. Rooms. Let’s get back in the van rather than arguing about it!’

Larry Mullins Where it got difficult was the logistics. We were in two vans, travelling with a ton of gear, no roadies, no days off, a lot of miles between every show, so not too much sleep—and a load of shows, thirty-toforty in a row. This was a two-hour show and really physically demanding: it takes a toll on your muscles. It was a lot of setting up and breaking down, barely making it on time, not getting any sleep. It’s wintertime and there’s snow on the roads. I got really sick: I came down with a highly advanced case of pneumonia. We loaded out of the last venue and straight into the recording studio that night. We started recording the next morning, and I was sick as a dog. I had a very high fever all the way through the sessions. I barely remember anything except we were working on one of the really long, loud pieces—we’d gotten a really good take after struggling with it for a while—we finished and I went out the door, got into a taxi, and went straight to the emergency room. I tried to see a doctor, waited there forever, so I got really frustrated after an hour or two of waiting. I was so sick and out of my mind I went outside, got back in a cab, and went right back to the studio, and we continued. Kristin Wallace Larry had toured with Iggy Pop—he was a seasoned touring guy—and he started to lose his mind on the road. I’ve seen it many times—I’d call it ‘tour disease’. It would often be the guy you would think would be last person to start laughing into his oatmeal in the morning. At the back of the van with those people and with that much stress and tension —you start to get crazy. Larry would be saying, ‘No-doh-diggie-die,’ and he’d wear this cowboy hat and took on this persona consistently, speaking in an accent and saying complete nonsense. It wasn’t pretty. He was going a bit loopy and was not able to have a conversation for a while. Vudi Pretty early on, Michael and Joe didn’t speak to each other. They just stopped—they didn’t really exist in each other’s worlds, except, like construction workers, they had to rely on each other to do their job. They settled into a non-relationship, like Joey and Johnny Ramone. Larry Mullins A lot of bands go through internal rot or cavities, where things start falling apart—it happens. I think Swans would have probably

dissolved after the US tour, which I seem to remember culminating in Joe throwing his bass away and storming off the stage—I thought that was the end. We kept going, but it was tense from that time on. Joe Goldring I like Michael! He’s just a real dick sometimes. If Michael and I hadn’t rubbed each other up the wrong way so much, I probably would have kept doing it. I got shit because I was told that my performance was too physical. I wasn’t doing knee-jumps or anything, but I get into it, I’m rocking back and forth and playing my shit. I had been getting very friendly with the opening band, Rex, and one night they asked me to sit in on this song that I loved. I said no at first, but Michael and Jarboe were at the hotel, so I got on stage and sat off in the corner, wearing a woolly hat to disguise myself. Then I saw them come in … they stopped and stood there staring at me. Before Swans’ set, I had to go and have a sit-down with ‘Mum and Dad’, and I was literally told, ‘Joe. You’re a Swan now.’ I questioned them: did that mean I wasn’t allowed to be creative in any other context? He had picked this band to open! They didn’t play long; we barely ever let them soundcheck; only by the good graces of Andy would they even get a decent line check. It was literally his own paranoia, that he felt this band was trying to sabotage him. I took my shirt off in the middle of a set and I hadn’t realised I was wearing the opening band’s T-shirt, and their logo happened to be on the back. And there was a sound problem—it was a front of house issue— somebody had plugged something in wrong or unplugged something—but Michael thought I was turning up really loud to sabotage him, which was really not the case. He fired me. ‘Fine, no problem—and fuck off!’ Two days later, I had to sit down with the management, Michael and Jarboe. They tried to tell me all the things I needed to change. I told them I wasn’t changing anything, but that I’d keep doing the tour if they wanted. ••• Andy Reynolds The tour finished in San Francisco. I flew home and they flew in a week later. I was thinking, ‘Nothing could be as tough as that tour.’ I was looking forward to the European leg, as I knew it better; a lot of

the venues I’d been to a lot of times. Instead, it was even worse! I picked Michael and Jarboe up at Schiphol Airport. I was all happy after my week off, but she looked like she’d been dug up: she was already in that ‘three more weeks of this’ mode. She said to me one day, when she’d realised I did this for a living, ‘I just don’t know how you do this day in, day out.’ She was a single female on tour—it wasn’t Mötley Crüe but it was still a maleorientated environment. The shows were exhausting for her—the range of what she sang was really intense, and a lot of it was spotlight stuff. Joe Goldring Larry had an old metronome with a flashing red light on top, and Mike insisted we clung to it for our tempos. The first European show, one of way too many shows in Germany, Larry plugged the metronome into a 210-volt outlet so it ran really fast, and we did what we were supposed to and followed this fucking light! Mike kept looking back at us, angry and exhausted, but Larry would just point to the light—we were on! It finally blew up in the last song. Andy Reynolds Michael apparently got sent a load of candidates for the European support band, and Cornershop seemed to grab his attention. Apparently he put some stipulation that they couldn’t have beats because the whole of the Swans set was this gradual build-up to this annihilation of sound at the end. So, the first night of the European tour, Cornershop played, and Michael binned them off. He said, ‘I don’t want this band— they either play with no drums or they don’t play at all.’ So I’m talking to their tour manager, because there’s this near-unheard-of situation where the support band is being sacked after just one show when they’ve already budgeted for vans, equipment, and accommodation. So Michael came up with the idea that we’d do some ambient thing before the show. This is the yin and yang of my relationship with Michael. He obviously trusted me enough that he decided that he would just set a small loop going on this Akai S950 sampler and I would use whatever found sounds I could find on cassettes and CDs and sit at the front-of-house desk and put echoes and reverbs over it to create this ambient noise. Sometimes it’d last for up to an hour, then it would segue into Swans. It meant he was obviously listening and deciding precisely the right point to

fit into what he was hearing. They would just drift on, one at a time, and the sound sample tied into the first song, so it would morph into being Swans on stage. For an artist to have that trust in someone, live—that shows the side of Michael who values the people around him to do what they need to do. Vudi In Copenhagen we played in Freetown Christiania, the hippie commune free zone where drugs are legal—at least the ‘right kind’ of drugs. It was in this loft club over an old factory. We had to rope the equipment up on pulleys into the loft. You looked out in the street and it looked like a scene from Conan The Barbarian: mud tracks, people from all over the world, stalls out selling pot, marijuana, hashish. I don’t like cannabis, never have, but I did want to check this place out, so I headed out into the street, walked up to someone, ‘I wonder if I could get some heroin or opium?’ They were horrified: ‘You don’t ask for that here. You will be thrown out!’ I just laughed—I didn’t want to take dope, I had a Swans show to do! The show filled up, and there was so much smoke that I started to get a buzz: ‘Oh shit, I’m high!’ It was so intense it looked like a storm blowing across the surface of the ocean: people were reeling. After the show it was like a scene from All Quiet On The Western Front: there were people passed out everywhere. Loading our equipment out, we were stepping over all these bodies. Joe Goldring Musically, Jarboe had massive contributions to what we were doing. I think sometimes people thought she was some marginal figure just because, ‘Oh, she’s Michael’s girlfriend,’ but that’s such a sexist thing. She was an important influence, and the band couldn’t carry on without her at that point. She had very definitive ideas of what she wanted on her songs, then Michael would always try to take over. Me, Vudi, and Larry—a little bit behind Michael’s back—we would talk to her: ‘What do you want out of this?’ Fuck, there were some real fights. Honest fights, not just for the benefit of other people—full on emotional infernos. They loved to fight in front of other people—it was performance art. I heard her really putting him

in his place when she didn’t realise anybody was listening, and I thought, ‘Good for you!’ Vudi Jarboe would cut Michael and he couldn’t come back at her—she’d cut him then look back at me and smile, having said some little thing that would get under his skin. He dishes it out but he can take it too, so it’s fair game—he understands it. Joe Goldring Paris, you’d think that’d be a good show, but people were really having an issue—they were constantly heckling Michael. I wasn’t even on very good terms with him but I went to grab this guy in the crowd because he was being rude. ‘This is the show you just paid to see—it’s not your show! Fuck off!’ I used the few French swearwords I knew. We got it a lot. There was someone in Washington DC who pointed a laser-pointer in Michael’s face. We just stopped playing: ‘We’re not going to play until that guy puts it away or gets kicked out.’ It’s disgusting what people think they can subject a performer to. Swans is a violent thing. It can be intensely beautiful as well, but the music is fundamentally violent. Playing that music live on stage, sometimes the show would be a beautiful experience, and other times it would trigger a certain kind of violence in some people—not a creative kind. But they’d probably do that at a NOFX show—some people are just arseholes. Andy Reynolds We were always late. Nothing malicious, but when you’re doing a gig you have a set time, and stage managers would be asking, ‘How long’s your set?’ and I’d be saying, ‘I don’t know, mate! He could strop off in five minutes or we could still be here in three hours.’ At the Paradiso, a beautiful venue, a lot of wood, the idea was that we’d have tea lights all over the stage, which we’d light as the crowd were coming in. We didn’t think to ask, because we were always late, so we pegged it into the venue, set up, soundchecked. Then Michael was lighting these tea lights, and—of course—the venue managers were somewhat upset. They’re there, as the audience is coming in, having this huge screaming match on stage with Michael!

Joe Goldring We had this German guy selling the T-shirts, and Michael had an obsession with the merch—he’s totally OCD about it. The kid wanted to kill him—literally. Every night, Michael would be over to the table doing his own tally—every penny had to add up. He knows—like everyone on tour knows—that merch is where you make your money. So, I had to room with this kid, and after the show in Stockholm I literally sat up all night telling this kid, ‘Look, you can’t kill him! We all want to get paid. You can’t put him in the hospital. We’ve been doing this for five months— you’ve only been here three weeks—sorry, but you don’t get to be the person who kills him. It’s going to be one of us!’ In some respects we did have Michael’s back, I guess! Vudi Larry’s from Tennessee. I grew up with country music, and Larry had found everything that Jim Reeves ever recorded. We were travelling with them, and Larry would say, ‘I want to go to Jim Reeves Land!’ We’d put it on and it would drive Michael fucking crazy. At one point we flipped in a cassette and Michael tore the whole unit out of the panel of the truck. OK, no more music in the van. He could have just ejected the cassette and thrown it out the window—‘Sorry, we’re not listening to that, it’s in the river’—but no, he destroyed the stereo instead. Andy Reynolds Off stage, in the van, in the hotel, Michael is a regular dude. It was the shows—not being in 100 percent control and not knowing how to create control in those environments. We were late again for a huge show in Prague, a thousand-capacity, and we arrived after doors, so we loaded in, threw all the stuff on stage, plugged in randomly, and just hoped it would all come up on the mixing desk in the right place. I went backstage to say to Michael, ‘Ready whenever you are, mate!’ He was just putting his trousers on, and he just blew up at me, ‘You want me to go out there without my fucking trousers on?! Fuck off!’ A completely inappropriate response, but looking back, yeah, soundchecks were so important, and we were late so we couldn’t have one, and we’d driven from Vienna to Prague and the van had broken down again, so how he must have been feeling—he must have been feeling like he was going on stage naked.

Joe Goldring There’s this weird control issue where he seems to feel that if he can needle people a little bit, give them a little squeeze of the balls, it’s going to help somehow. I definitely think it was deliberate—absolutely— but it made no difference. Maybe it had with some people in the past, but with us, we weren’t apathetic people—we were out there doing it because we felt totally invested in these compositions. He would turn around and shout at Vudi in the middle of a set and it would upset Vudi—then that would upset me. Vudi is one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met, so seeing Michael pulling this shit really got to me. After a show, before the encore, Michael was really raging, being really rude. I said, ‘Look, this is the last person in the world you need to be rude to. I’m not going back on stage.’ Michael looked shocked: ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I’m not going back on until you apologise for talking to him in that manner.’ I stood my ground —and he had to apologise. Vudi I got on fairly well with Michael. I couldn’t really be steamrolled by his force. He would try, and I would just ignore it or tell him to fuck off— and he would. It was weird because I’d expect him to bear down on me more, but he’d leave me be. When he would set out to torture people, I was never the victim. There were a couple of times, during the shows, I remember he would walk over and yell something at me, and one time I just threw my guitar down on the ground and walked up to him, told him never to do it again. Then I picked up my guitar and kept going. I think he saw himself in an avuncular role with me—Uncle Mike, that’s what we called him. Andy Reynolds The brilliant part was, we did some big festivals, including the main stage at Pukkelpop. Festivals are literally smash-and-grab: fifteen minutes to get your stuff on stage, get it line-checked, and then you’re on. When I’ve done it previously with acts I’d have a monitor engineer on stage, I’ll have some backline checks on stage, but it was just me and I was fifty metres away in the front-of-house position, and people were just shambling around. That one festival, it was broad daylight; the band were doing the same set as usual, and it was spell-binding, utterly amazing. I

remember giving Michael a huge hug afterward and saying, ‘That was amazing!’ He just shrugged and said, ‘Of course it was.’ The Astoria 2 show, that was unreal. It was completely full and an older, alternative, crowd buying beer out the slops trays for 50p. A really special show. The capabilities of the band by that stage were awesome—it was the same set but there were so many dynamic changes and ways they could go with it. I don’t think Michael ever embraced the adulation part of it, in terms of people saying how fantastic a show was. I always got the impression he thought it was lip service from dyed-in-the-wool fans. Vudi Then the tour was over. When I got home to San Francisco, I collapsed for months: I had a sort of breakdown. There were other things involved, but the structure I had built up to get myself through that Swans tour, it fell apart when I got home. Matchsticks. I was invited back the next year. Michael or Todd got hold of me and asked if I wanted to do it again and I said, ‘Thanks, it’s an honour, but no.’ I’ve met Michael a few times and it’s always a pleasure, he’s still the same—very polite, very respectful, funny, good raconteur, a pleasure to talk to—then somebody else will be in the circle and Michael will turn and do some withering cut, destroy somebody with a word or a look, then just turn back and be the same urbane gentleman I was conversing with while somebody else is reduced to tears. It’s almost funny … no. It is funny!

11.0 KILL THE CHILD Soundtracks For The Blind 1996–97 Michael Gira Swans was hard from the beginning. It never got easy. Always struggling, momentary elation with the music, then some massive calamity would occur—the same thing over and over—until eventually I just squeaked a last cry and released Soundtracks For The Blind and Swans Are Dead and just quit—I couldn’t do it anymore. Jarboe That was the weird thing about our relationship: when people would say to me, ‘You and Michael broke up romantically, ergo the band ended,’ I put it in reverse, because the band ended for various reasons, which I think he alludes to in the song ‘Feel Happiness’: ‘I forgive you, too, for your indifference … I wish you happiness.’ I kind of feel like, from my perspective, things were looking up: the ’95 and ’97 tours were better experiences, better venues; the audiences were growing; we were finally getting where we needed to go. Onstage, the shows were the best ever. I still feel that 1997 tour was the best one in terms of performance. From my point of view, he and his management ended the band at the worst possible time. The end, for me, had everything to do with outside forces. Nobody consulted me at all—it shocked people that I wasn’t included in the decision. Todd Cote Michael decided he couldn’t call it Swans anymore. It was too hard to keep a band together; too expensive to keep a band together; to keep consistency, given he was changing band members on an album-to-album basis. Swans Are Dead: I mean, it couldn’t be any more emphatic. There was even a German record, Die Tür Ist Zu—‘the door is closed’.

Kevin Wortis We set out a path to move Michael from Swans to a new career, and Michael took three-plus fucking years to do it. The first thing we had to do was to go over the accounting and make sense of it. It took us a couple of years to figure out who was owed what. Once we’d researched as much as we could, we laid out to everyone what we had discovered. We probably got responses like, ‘Tell Michael to go die.’ Then we’d go back to them: we’d show them what we knew and what we still had to figure out, and we’d tell them what we thought they were owed. If Michael signed a contract with a label and was ripped off, then that sucked for Michael. But if the artist had signed a contract with Michael, then he was going to honour that regardless. I remember Michael saying, ‘Some of these guys will hate me regardless of what I do so I don’t want to talk to them—let’s just get it done.’ I think a lot of people would have decided that, as no one was going to sue; as no one was going to come after the money; as they were getting no value from paying them … then why bother? But Michael didn’t see it that way. ‘I, Michael Gira, said I was going to do X—so I can’t sleep until I do it, whether they appreciate it or not.’ No one can say anything about his impeccable sense of right and wrong. Nobody. Ted Parsons For quite a long time, Michael was really pissing people off because there were so many record labels involved that he didn’t seem to know who was paying what, or which people he owed money to. I know Harry Crosby wanted to kill him—he kept talking about taking out some kind of mafia hit on Michael. But Michael tried to make it right. He did his best to appeal to everybody, and I saw him a few years back and told him how much I appreciated it. It had upset him—he said he felt he was letting everybody down. He did what it took to make amends, and he got people in to run the business side and made everything right, so that counts for a lot. I think I even got paid $500 for that drumbeat I did on Holy Money—nice work if you can get it. Chris Griffin [engineer, Soundtracks For The Blind] Michael called me one day and said, ‘Hey, I want to make a record in your digital mastering studio—I want to book a month.’ He stayed with me in my house. He came

in with a shoebox under his arm, and in it were DAT tapes and cassettes. He would pull out his notes: ‘I need this piece from this cassette.’ We’d find it and put it straight into the computer. I would listen to it and decide on how bright it wanted to be or how full it needed to be, and we had a nice digital reverb unit, so we ran each postage stamp-sized piece of audio; processed it to make it sound good; maybe add a little bit of ambience because we didn’t have the ability to do that later on. We’d then take that little piece and loop it, then we’d take all of these pieces and put them together, layer other loops that we’d bring in, fill up all eight channels with sounds. We’d have to dump that back down, much like The Beatles did on analogue, forty years before: we’d take what we’d made, mix it together, make that a stereo file, then start a new session in the computer with that file and start adding to that. Clint Steele Michael was always sampling stuff during sessions in studio, and he had a collection of hundreds of sounds built up, all saved to floppy discs. He would edit, mangle, and reuse them as the core of other songs in the future—that process was always ongoing. Jarboe Pre-production involved me gathering field recordings: I made some at a medical facility where my mother was; Michael recorded his father, so we were bringing our real life into the work. These weren’t personal statements about our family, they were about making interesting narratives, and there wasn’t any philosophical intent—it wasn’t that planned or contrived. Michael Gira I didn’t see my father again until ’86, when he came back to America. That’s when I put water under the bridge and spent a great deal of time with him, interviewed him on cassette quite a bit. Everybody’s human and has shortcomings—God knows, I’m replete with them—but he’s my father. As I grew older, I realised the futility of being angry and just talked to him as an equal. I’m really glad. I used a snip of one of those interviews on ‘How They Suffer’, which also has Jarboe recording her mother, who was descending into dementia. That piece was a tribute to both our parents, with the understanding that they were on their way out.

Chris Griffin We would start at ten in the morning, someone would bring us lunch, then we’d work through until about five, and then we’d send someone over to the liquor store to get us a twelve pack of Coors. Michael would light up a cigar and we’d have a leisurely hour planning while listening to what we’d done. In the beginning it was easy, because we had all this hard-drive space: a CD and a half, $2,000 worth of hard-drive space, which was basically nothing—a little bit more than a gigabyte. We quickly filled that up, and I had to say, ‘Dude, we’re out of space; we’ve got to put stuff back on DAT.’ And once we’d mixed things together, I needed to know if I could throw away all the individual components. Michael’s like, ‘Yeah, we don’t need those now.’ Then, a day later, he would ask for one of them and I’d have to remind him it was gone. Then the both of us would stomp around yelling. Joe Goldring At the end of the ’95 American tour, we went into Coast Recorders in San Francisco to document the live set—the material Mike used for Soundtracks For The Blind and Die Tür Ist Zu, he took it from there. Mike sculpted everything on those records. I think he had outtakes from The Great Annihilator—unused tracks he’d done on his own, stuff for his solo record—he put it altogether so he could see it as a cohesive body of work. Lary 7 That track ‘Volcano’ was meant to go out on something like a ‘women in rock’ compilation. It’s really just me and Jarboe—her voice, keyboards. We didn’t have a sampler but we would roll tape on a disco record or something generic, and we made a tape loop of that then I combined that with other loops. I like to do things in an organic way so, Jarboe said, ‘We need something here.’ She wanted us to treat her voice, so I went out and got a drainpipe, and we put her voice through a drainpipe with a loudspeaker on one end and a microphone at the other, and that’s how we got her voice to sound that way. Chris Griffin There’s a song where I had to borrow a microphone, because I didn’t own one, and we didn’t have a mic stand but we had a fake potted palm plant, so we duct-taped the microphone to this palm plant and set a

folding chair in front of it and Michael sang to the potted plant. We had Jarboe come in; he explained what he wanted; we left her alone with the microphone while we were two rooms away with the speakers turned up; and all of a sudden there was this scream, and I almost jumped out of my skin because it was the loudest sound I had ever heard from a human being —this blood-curdling scream up out of nowhere. Jarboe Among the found sounds and field recordings we used, there were a number of tapes that had belonged to my father. Due to his work, he was receiving calls at all hours—people in the field, agents—so everything had to be recorded. After his death, I found the tapes, the holes drilled through the floor, and the wires going into the basement. He wasn’t recording us deliberately, but at a certain time in my life, in the eyes of my parents, I was becoming quite rebellious—listening to strange music, becoming a nonconformist—so I realised in retrospect that he was listening to some of my conversations. Around that time he had an older boy at the school—the son of one of his friends—show interest in me, because he was concerned that I might be doing drugs. Of course, I wasn’t—even out on the road with Swans I was teetotal and certainly never went near drugs. For me it was about being able to give my all to the performance every night and the next night and the night after that. Chris Griffin Sometime in the last days of the project, we would finish pieces and put them in a list. As we started lining up these pieces, I was very cognisant about making sure one piece did not eclipse another. We would listen back to things we had finished and compare what we were currently working on to make sure everything would live together. The recording of it, in some ways, was a process of mastering and mixing, but in the final assembly it was about making things cross into each other in the proper dramatic fashion; making everything feel like it belonged to one experience. Getting the flow down took a while. •••

Hank Fury [roadie, Swans Are Dead tour] When Todd said, ‘Hey, it’s the final Swans tour, do you want to do it?’ I thought this was going to be so cool. I’d heard so much about this band, and there were people I knew who were like, ‘Yeah! You’ve got to do it!’ But there were other people who warned me, ‘Don’t work for Michael!’ Some people up at Studio Instrumental Rentals told me, ‘Don’t take that gig! You don’t want that one.’ Bill Bronson [bass, Swans, 1996–97] Children Of God, I was really affected by how unusual it was. How do you get a band of rock musicians not to put a note out of place? To operate at such strict control? I became friends with Lary 7, and I got word to Swans that if they ever needed a bass player, I would be willing. About a year after The Great Annihilator tour ended, I got the call. One strange thing: there was a part of my life when I was not in a good place. The one and only fan letter I ever wrote in my life was actually to them, and I got a letter back. It was from Jarboe, on this beautiful stationery, almost calligraphy handwritten, with some little artefacts in the envelope. She basically just told me to hang in there, to be strong. It was very encouraging. I put that letter away, and the correspondence went back and forth another couple of times, but after I joined the band I think she was rather shocked when I met her for the first time and I mentioned this to her. She was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re that Bill?’ Phil Puleo [drums, Swans, 1996–97, 2010–17; also Angels Of Light] I was in Cop Shoot Cop for a while, then we split up and I was in various little projects. One led me to play with Kid Congo, and we did an East Coast tour one summer. When we played New York, Michael opened for us —he read from his book. He saw our band play, and he wanted the whole band except for our vocalist, but he got Bill Bronson and myself in the end. A couple of weeks after he expressed interest in us, we rehearsed, went through a couple of ideas he had for the tour, and that was it. Hank Fury We all got to Atlanta and went to Clint’s recording studio, where the band were rehearsing. Michael had a bunch of smashed up

guitars and he had me gluing together his twelve-string Ovation. I literally walked through the door and he handed me that: ‘Fix it. I want to use this.’ As soon as he walked in, the intensity was felt, and it didn’t let up until the entire tour was over—a whirlwind of Swans. Mike has a vision, and he wants it to be actualised at all costs. It can be a rough ride, it can be bumpy, because there’s no halfway with Mike. Clint Steele We did an entire month of nine-hour days, six days a week, except for Sundays. It was good for the band but it was mentally numbing. It did start to build tension between us, because it seemed when I was in my familiar role as guitarist it was easier to get along well, but when I was working for him as the recording engineer and as the guitarist and hosting the rehearsals at my studio simultaneously, he didn’t acknowledge that contribution. I was able to give him a private lockout for $100 a day, and really he was my most demanding and occasionally insane client. Michael’s personality would change quite a lot—more so when he was drinking. It affected his temper and his abrasiveness. He could be a bully. Jarboe Michael’s father died. We were rehearsing, and everyone but Clint was staying at my house in Atlanta; we’re about to start the tour, and Michael had to suddenly fly to California to attend his father’s funeral. That was a lot to handle. I feel like it had an internal impact: it was so heavy, and he didn’t have time to reflect. He flew out then he flew straight back to resume rehearsals, and then the tour. There was no time to mourn or to acknowledge feeling. It’s the death of his father alongside the death of Swans—I can see how all of that would result in a lot of anger and remorse and pain. He would admit he had a difficulty in expressing feelings— internalising all of this probably contributed to all that tension. Phil Puleo In rehearsal there was a focus on how we end each piece, how we go to the next song, how we end. Jarboe, with her digital sampler, had to load songs or samples—what could she load quicker? Could she come in with a drone to segue between the songs, or might it just be me playing? Delays between songs: some you want to have a breath for the audience and yourself, others you want to snap into the next song. That gets developed as

you play out. Michael was really general about what he wanted: he might just loop a part and I would play along and add or subtract things, then he’d say, ‘Stop! Let’s stick with that.’ Or, ‘Do that part every four measures.’ Bill Bronson Those first shows were in strange places. The first was in northern Florida, then we went across the South. The seventh show was Los Angeles, his hometown. He really wanted to have a good show, but there were some kinks in the composition of the songs that were really hard to navigate. One of those kinks was that there were parts of the songs that weren’t working in terms of rhythm and intensity—and there were also some parts that were undercooked. In those first couple of weeks, it was kinda like trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Everything had to be clicking for us, and when it didn’t it was not only painful to play but also painful to be on stage, playing it, knowing it wasn’t working, and having that oppressive claustrophobic feeling squishing you—it actually felt like that, like the walls were closing in. You start ‘Blood Promise’ and you’re feeling, ‘God, this is terrible,’ but you still have another fifteen minutes to play it, so it’s like a bad trip that spirals down into a black hole, and you can’t stop and say, ‘We’ll try that one again.’ Phil Puleo I was deemed the golden child—he tended to do that. After our first or second gig he was furious with the rest of the band, except Jarboe and myself. He was yelling at Bill and Clinton. He singled me out as the only one who played with the feel he wanted. I was a little embarrassed—it was like being the smart kid in class. It didn’t last, of course. There were numerous occasions when I was most definitely not the golden child. It’s his thing—he sees something in somebody and loves it to death, then it goes away. Clint Steele Michael was really unhappy with some performances. He would rage about it after certain shows. He was taking it out on the band a bit, which was a drag on tour morale. I remember him ragging on Bill in the dressing room about a missed cue, and during the back-and-forth shouting, ‘I will pay you $50 per week more if you will just play it right!’ Still makes me laugh. I wanted him to be satisfied with what was to be the last live

shows of his years leading the band, so it was a bummer when he wasn’t. A lot of the time he wasn’t. Jarboe LA Roxy, sold-out show, the audience is screaming for an encore, and we’re in the dressing room and Michael flies in and yells—while the audience is still stomping its feet—‘You’ve embarrassed me in my home town! This is the single worst line-up of Swans there has ever been! You’re worse than bad! You’re mediocre!’ He then rushes out. Michael’s brother Dan is in the hallway and comes in, having witnessed this. Bill Bronson turns to me and says, ‘Jarboe, what do we do? We’re ready to fly home.’ Everyone had their heads hanging down low, devastated. And I said, as corny as it may sound, it’s true: ‘Bill, it’s not about us. It’s not about me. It’s not about you—it’s about the name SWANS. We have to finish this US tour and we have to go to Europe and finish that tour. We have to do this for the legacy of Swans—not you, not me, Swans.’ David Burton [tour manager, Swans Are Dead] You’re not going to quit. You’re going to do it for the sake of everyone else. I’ve quit tons of jobs since then for a lot less, but it’s because what was being delivered wasn’t anywhere near as important. You’re out there with this visionary taskmaster —to put it politely—and people don’t understand, why would you do that to yourself? You’re a cultural ambassador—you’re bringing this music and this show to people. I had plenty of options to quit, and I even had the green light, but I didn’t. Everyone sat down and said they were finishing, taking it to the hoop. Phil Puleo Michael was going through a lot of stuff—there was a lot going on in his life. He was done. He didn’t want to play loud music anymore. Breaking up with Jarboe, they couldn’t continue in the same band together. That was clear to us while we were touring—some of it was pretty hard to watch, the fighting. It wasn’t very graceful, watching their personalities colliding, not physically violent but mentally violent. It was pretty obvious it was nearly over.

Jarboe Everyone on that tour experienced animosity and fights. Two of the members quit on different occasions. One of them didn’t show up for a show—we started playing and then he got up on stage. The other one had felt humiliated during a show, as Michael had stood in front of him moving his body to mimic playing the instrument. After the show it was ferocious. That person said, ‘That’s it, I quit!’ They slammed the door to the dressing room—so the rest of us were unable to get in to have a glass of water, wipe the sweat off—because they were in there screaming at each other until they worked it out. On stage, the shows were the best ever, in my opinion. I still feel that 1997 tour was the best, in terms of performance. Michael Gira There was a lot of friction between she and I which bled into our relationship and affected the music as well: a lot of fighting on tour, in front of people, which must have been really unpleasant for people. I was the boss—I was telling her what to do—and I was not subtle with her or anybody else. I was very impatient and very dictatorial, but simultaneously uncertain, oftentimes, about what I really wanted. I was just stabbing in the dark looking for something, and it was very frustrating to work with me, I’m sure. David Burton That tour was fifty-four shows in seventy-one days from the time we kicked off in Atlanta to when we finished in London. Michael and Jarboe’s relationship falling to pieces on a daily basis, each day was a nail in the coffin. The US tour, it felt like it snowed every day. Hank Fury Touring the US is horrible: you’re lucky if you have any catering; there’s nothing but fast food; you barely sleep; you don’t get paid much; there’s not much comfort; you drive all day. So, you drive for hours, you go to the club, tune guitars endlessly, three-hour soundcheck, do the gig, pack the van, hang out and party a bit, back in the van, drive for hours, then stop at a hotel and sleep briefly, get up, keep on driving to the next soundcheck—so I was doing shitloads of speed. Crystal meth was cheap and very available—roadie juice! Being gacked out for days meant I could have that focus.

Jen Terry, the merch girl, she died back around 2000, but I really want to vouch for her. She was so funny, positive, bubbly. When everyone was ready to take a knife to each other’s throats, she was this neutral island of happiness—thank God she was there. She, Josh, and I would be in one van, then the band in another van. I remember we were driving to one show in a snowstorm, and our van kept sliding off the road and getting caught in the shoulder, so we had to push the van out of the ravine and get back on the road—we did that more than a few times that night, pushing a van down the interstate in an ice storm. And we still had to do the gig. Jarboe On the performances of ‘I Crawled’, I took it to where I wanted it to go. It became a kind of a theatre piece, with multiple voices and multiple characters. I was insistent on performing it that way, and the joy of that for me was to do an homage at the end of it: I referenced Michael’s vocal on the original recording by going into sub-voice with no harmoniser to lower it, just pure performance. I had so much heart involved in that performance, and going into the psychology of those really extreme lyrics—my God! I felt a tremendous bond with Michael, performing it. I was doing ‘I Crawled’ every night, and it’s a devastating performance to do, requiring extreme emotional and mental purging every single time—I was saving everything to do those vocals. Bill Bronson Jarboe is a very spiritual woman. In that song you can hear her channel parts of her childhood and go into that place which is not fake at all—when she goes to these places, she really goes there. It’s not a show she’s putting on; she’s as close as she can get. Every note she sings. She’s 100 percent there. She doesn’t do anything by half-measures; she’s all there, all the time. To me, that’s the secret of the band’s sound in the years that they were together. Jarboe So, to say, ‘Oh, I know everyone is exhausted, but we’re going to change the music tonight,’ it was always like, ‘After a certain amount of time, we’re going to change like this,’ ‘No, after tonight, we’re going to change like this,’ ‘Then there’s this change’—to the point that you’re overwhelmed and wondering during the show, ‘Is this change from last

night or from today’s soundcheck?’ It got so bad that Phil Puleo even messed up, and when a drummer as precision-orientated as Phil makes a mistake, that’s when you know it’s gone too far—and when he makes a mistake, we’re all lost, because it was all about the changes from the drums. Then Michael was bringing new music into the show. When you’re utterly exhausted, all you want to do is be in this trance-like zone of enjoying playing the set from your heart and doing the set as perfectly as you can do it. It’s not the best time to make changes. Kris Force [violin, Swans Are Dead tour] They invited me to perform with them at the Great American Music Hall for their last performance in San Francisco. I arrived for the soundcheck and we start playing, and we play maybe four bars, then Michael starts yelling at Phil. It turns into a fifteen-minute tirade. No one’s interjecting because no one wants to escalate the situation. Jarboe’s looking at her keyboard, wouldn’t even make eye contact; no one is saying anything. It’s just Michael. And I’m standing there, like, ‘How the hell can he behave this way?!’ I’m wondering why everyone’s just taking it. It was like a histrionic, tyrannical episode—a controlled drama. He was yelling at Phil for fucking up this part over and over again, calling him names. We were just finding a groove, and boom! It was almost like it was time-stretched: I was looking at everyone’s faces and what they were doing. Then he turned to me and said, ‘You’re good right? We’ll see you later.’ I was really shocked. I went home, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do? I don’t know the songs!’ I remember before the show I was in Jarboe’s dressing room. I was trying not to be nervous: it was one of the larger shows I had played, and it was a packed house, too, in a beautiful venue all gilded with balconies, a Victorian-style theatre. I was dependent on the stage crew to just push me on stage at the right time because I didn’t know the songs I was meant to be playing on. It ended up being fine—I watched Jarboe’s hands while we were playing. The whole scene was really bizarre, though. David Ouimet [trombone, Swans Are Dead tour] Michael asked me to play trombone for the final shows. Irving Plaza was sold out—I had a lot of friends there. I was contributing to these long passages within songs. The

most interesting aspect was feeling swallowed by the music—a complete submission to the sound and losing where I was. A lot of that was the volume and the intensity. I don’t know if I’ve ever really had that experience, where I’ve been completely lost in the sound. There was a definite conductor element to what he was doing. That was an element of his control of the band, that everyone was watching Michael for cues, and those cues were dynamic or emotional, as a colour or some sort of layer, as opposed to a specific musical idea. He would convey it in other terms. Michael gave me an impression of what he wanted. It wasn’t notes or lines or anything like that—it was more just a colour he wanted. Phil Puleo There was one song back then where I stood up to play it, ‘Low Life Form’. That was pretty intense. It was really hard—I had to be really precise but also high-energy. We always talk about ‘the one’—hitting the one of the measure. That’s the big thump of Swans—super-important. Everyone has to hit it, and as the song grows you’ve got to hit it even more purposefully to make it grow. If you saw the music written out, it’d look really simple, but you’ve got to play it and be in that moment, follow the leader, sustain it. You get hypnotised. Every show is cathartic, like running a marathon. You’re mentally drained and you’re physically drained. I broke a few kick pedals because I’d stomp too hard. Hank Fury Swans are so hard every night that shit was bound to break. Mike was sawing away at his guitar. Some people play rhythm lightly; Michael strangles that thing. Their amps run so hot, they’re at full-tilt, they’re blowing output tubes, they’re blowing speakers. Phil breaks kickdrum pedals—the only drummer I’ve ever worked with who snaps kickdrum pedals. They abuse gear like no other band. We were constantly running around fixing strings, broken drums, ordering new equipment. You had finite resources: if stuff broke, we couldn’t just go buy another one. It was such a do-it-yourself-type band that they had figured out roughly how much of each thing they thought they might destroy, so Phil, for example, had backup pedals, and we made it through with that exact number. For Michael’s guitars, I had a footlocker full of strings—we had to replace his strings every single day because they were so covered in sweat, and he’d

break a couple every show anyhow. His guitars were a mess, covered in gaffer tape; every instrument was played to shit. It was pretty bare-bones, and they knew how to travel light, even though they knew what they had to have. Bill Bronson Michael has one of the best ears of any musician I’ve ever worked with. He would pick up on things that were impossible for me to hear. You could fight with him for half an hour: ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about! There’s nothing there! That’s not happening!’ It was a good thing we had a couple of endorsements—one of them was for bass strings, so I had an unlimited supply. I had to change the strings every day, and if I didn’t, he could tell: he could hear that subtle difference, the dried sweat and skin tissue in between the coils of a bass string; he could pick that out almost immediately. On the off-chance that I didn’t change strings, two things would happen: Michael would yell at me, and I would break a string that night on stage. The very last note that you hear on Swans Are Dead is me playing the bass with only two strings, because I busted two strings and my amp blew out that night, which was a crazy confluence of events—it was like my equipment telling me it was time to go home. ••• Hank Fury When we first landed in the UK, Mike and Jarboe travelled on the bus with us, but the fan for the radiator broke five miles outside the airport, so that started Mike off, the bus breaking down when they’d only just picked us up. I remember MacGyvering the fan belt somehow to get us rolling, and that pretty much summed up how things were going to be. Our bus driver in Europe got so mad at Mike that the bus company wouldn’t let Mike travel on the bus, so he and Jarboe had to go by rail—the driver couldn’t deal with him. It was maybe a good thing—it gave the band some time to chill out. If Mike was on the bus then all we would be listening to was The Young Person’s Guide To Phill Niblock. That was the only record he would allow—it’s atonal drone music. He could space out and listen to that record forever—it’s where his head was at—but we’d all just done a

show, and we couldn’t take it. So it was good he got off the bus, because that record was killing us. Phil Puleo The bus was horrible—the inside was built out of two-by-fours, plywood—a moving crate. We had brake problems, so the whole bus filled with smoke. We were travelling to Trondheim in Norway in February, and the whole bus filled with smoke at two in the morning: the brakes had locked up, so we had to evacuate. We’re out on the motorway, it’s zero degrees out, we were stranded until the brakes unlocked. The bus smelt like death—that burning metal smell. Another time, the toilet cracked, and all the piss ran through the bus and soaked one of the guys’ bunks. Hank Fury Our bus company in Europe was called Beat The Street, and on the side of the bus we had written Beat The Meat, which had Mike yelling at us: ‘Don’t embarrass me by being stupid Americans writing that shit on the side of the bus! What’s wrong with you?’ He started on me: ‘Why are you getting at me? This is your first time in Europe, I’ve taken you here, I’m paying for this!’ He had a point. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be there. He had to be this driven and this intense to make the music happen at all—it couldn’t have happened without him fighting so hard for it and being so protective of it. When we would fuck up, Mike would say things like, ‘I drywalled to make my first couple of records! I hung drywall by day, went to rehearsal at night, and paid for the first two records!’ He was basically making clear how hard he had worked to get here, and that if we compromised it in any way, he’d have to kill us. Bill Bronson We found ourselves in a Swedish biker bar … that said, they’re nicer than US biker bars—much cleaner. Michael had tied a few on, we all had, and he was wearing his cowboy hat and a biker walked by, knocked his hat off, and put it on his head. Michael lunged at the guy, we all lunged onto Michael—we all knew his days would be numbered if he managed to get into it. It was like a hockey scrum—nobody got hurt, but it was lucky we got him out of there.

Hank Fury One night, somewhere in Germany, Mike had broken a string, so I thought we’d swap guitars before the next song, but Mike kept looking at me. To Mike, something had to be done at that moment—that broken string was interfering with him getting the music across the way he wanted, and that’s when shit goes berserk, when something is wrong and it’s not getting addressed. We were giving each other looks; this song is about seven minutes, the song finishes, and Mike walks over and leans in like he’s going to say something and wham! He punched me right in the face. Knocked me right on my back. I stood up, stunned. I stormed out to the loading dock and realised I had a pocketful of change, it’s February, it’s freezing outside—what was I going to do? I turned around, went back inside, started tuning the next guitar. I was mad at him for a while, but things happen in the heat of battle, and that’s how intense Swans were: you were 100 percent in the moment or you were getting punched. It’s about intensity, not about Mike being a bad guy. Josh Wertheimer [live sound engineer, Swans Are Dead tour] After the first song in Frankfurt, Michael called me up to the stage to fix his monitors. Once I got there, I found the house crew sitting at a table off to the side, drinking a bottle of wine. They were so fed up with Michael that they’d just walked off the job. They raised their glasses to me. I nodded back. It was unprofessional, but I understood. At another show in Heidelberg, the promoter started complaining that he didn’t have enough time to get the larger PA we requested, since the agent just sent the specs to him a few days ago. I asked him what would have happened if he received the specs a few weeks ago. He responded, ‘I would have told the agent no way!’ I turned to Dave and asked, ‘Then what are we doing here?’ and we walked out without saying another word. Five minutes later, they were loading more speakers out of a truck and into the venue. The tour forced us to be assholes now and then. Jarboe This show in Bern, Switzerland, we had the head of an amp blow up, and we had one delivered. Everyone was totally busy, and I carried this thing, walking from the hotel to the venue soundcheck. I had to set it down every few yards it was so heavy. By the time I got there I was physically

exhausted. We do the soundcheck, there are more changes, and behind Michael’s back the various members have this stupefied slack-jaw look and they’re looking at me and they’re looking at each other as if to say, ‘Can’t believe this! Again?’ So, this is why, I—seeing everyone’s faces—said aloud, ‘We’re not gonna do it.’ Michael replied, ‘What?!’ And I told him, ‘We’re tired, we’re exhausted. We want to do the set! That’s it!’ So that wasn’t appreciated. The reason was because I read the band’s facial expressions, and the sheer ‘no, no, no’ being conveyed. We had to put an end to something that was killing us. So at this point a big argument ensued, and basically I walked off. I came back that night to do the show, we take our positions on stage, and on my keyboard is a card that says, ‘You Rule!’ I looked behind my shoulder and Hank was there with this big smile on his face and both thumbs up. Hank Fury He was really getting into it with Bill Bronson, telling him he had a beat too many—really nitpicking how he was playing. Jarboe piped up into her mic: ‘Michael, don’t you understand? Everyone on this stage wants to kill you!’ We were shocked. She had been so quiet the whole tour. The crew or the band might have been unhappy, but she wanted the tour to go well, and she was staying out of this unpleasantness. So when she finally spoke up to Mike, we were so happy with her for standing up for us. Mike was gobsmacked—that was the soundcheck wrapped up. We really needed that rallying point because we were all pretty burnt out, and she gave it to us. It was great she put him in check—made him let up on everyone just a little bit. Jarboe The incident actually was beneficial as it helped to break tension and to express that there had to be a different method preparing for the next concert. I called ’97 the ‘sleep or eat’ tour, because there wasn’t time for both. I chose to sleep, and I lost weight. I understand now, in Michael’s mind, he wanted to keep pushing and rearranging the set every single show, because it was the last tour—he was trying to squeeze out every possible idea, every possible breath. If we hadn’t have all been in a state of collective exhaustion, it would have been a much better opportunity to have that kind of a philosophy.

Michael Gira We once finished a show in Germany, and what I used to do at the time, right when we got off stage, was I’d immediately tell people, ‘No, you should have done this!’ or ‘You shouldn’t have done that!’ I wouldn’t even bask in whatever applause there was—I’d immediately start trying to revise things. Jarboe blew up, threw a bottle at my head, and it flew across the dressing room and shattered across the wall. In the dressing room, waiting to do interviews, were people from the national newspapers and various magazines who promptly walked out—another lost opportunity. I don’t want to paint her as a tempestuous or volatile person, because she’s not. I think I just inspired that in people back then! God bless her for putting up with it. Jarboe People only see the creative tension we had as a unit, they don’t realise what made us so good as a couple. Some beautiful memories I have: the regular roses, notes, and gifts Michael gave to me. We both loved books, and we would frequently read quietly side by side and at times read companion authors—he was reading Paul Bowles while I was simultaneously reading Jane Bowles, for example. We both enjoyed spicy Moroccan food and ate out frequently, but the delight was discovering Michael’s mastery of preparing pots of exotic chili with a Persian accent, as it included fruit with the hot peppers. We also spent a lot of time in art galleries and museums everywhere we travelled. Michael would discuss the art in such a thorough way to me that it was like having a professional guide. We went to the guided meditation in NYC in the park led by the Dalai Lama; we went to concerts by Tibetan Monks … these were shared moments from our deep bond and friendship. David Burton Our normal day was waking up outside the venue—coffees, pastries, showers—load in at eleven, then soundcheck until seven. There were regularly six, seven, eight-hour soundchecks, which led to a lot of tension with the band, because they were up on stage all day. It was a real battle of attrition, but regardless of what anyone wants to say, it’s a music that thrives on tension, and I don’t think anyone has ever done it so well. People fixate on the loudness but there were moments of real quiet in there,

too. Swans needed the tension as motivation, because … well, I can guarantee I was looking to quit every day of the tour. I walked in each morning, and at the first altercation I’d think, ‘I don’t need this shit,’ but we kept going. People were having to be talked down from baling constantly. All you could think of was counting the days to go home—there was nothing coming after that, so it wasn’t like you were just going to get five days off then have to do it again. It was the end. Josh Wertheimer Beyond just the hard work and schedule taking a physical toll, Michael clearly felt the pressure to make this the best farewell possible for the fans, as if his whole career was to be judged in relation to this moment. He passed that pressure on to everyone around him. Clint Steele I was tethered to my volume pedal for most of the set because of my equipment arrangement, and also if you wandered around on stage you might lose your hearing, because there were sonic ‘death zones’ where the speakers would converge. Michael liked to point everything into the middle in a semicircle arrangement with the amplifiers, and if they were stacked high then suddenly there’d be this foghorn sound hitting you on the inside of your skull. We never used ear protection on tour. It was the only way to really hear the music. I believe in ear protection for rehearsal but not for performances, because with really dense music, if you can’t hear the little subtleties or dissonances, especially in Swans, then you’re missing a big part of what’s going on, and it just turns into chords on the guitar—it doesn’t have that same tension. You have to listen for that sort of thing, even when it’s very loud. Phil Puleo I loved that we played in a semi-circle and looked at each other as we played. Most bands face the audience and ignore each other, in a way; for us it was visual as much as it was auditory. In some ways it was disconcerting at first. Michael is difficult to please some of the time, so if he’s singing facing the audience, the rest of the band has to really tune in and play together, or it gets lost—or, even if it doesn’t, he might turn around and see we’re not really focusing on each other, then he would get annoyed. That’s the first thing he’d notice: ‘You guys aren’t focused on each other,

you’re not playing together.’ From that point, if we do start to look at each other and the music starts to congeal then he’s satisfied; if it doesn’t then he’ll go to something else. Maybe it’s the bass sound, or it’s the snare hits aren’t hard enough … he’s finicky. He really has to find what’s wrong. A lot of the time it might just be the stage sound. He’s highly sensitive to that— he really wants it to be the way he envisages it in order to be able to sell it, not only to himself but to the audience. That’s hard! Clint Steele The second-to-last night, we were in Brussels. At the end of ‘Blood Promise’, Michael was doing these moaning vocals while the song was building, then he went into this primal scream which was really intense. I felt like a lot of his feelings about his career, his art, the band, the way it was all culminating—he was letting that all out. It gave me shivers. Total nakedness from him. After working with him for years, I still watched that and felt it was something I’d never heard from him before. He sounded like an animal, or an infant—this gurgling wail like he was going to turn inside out. All that rage that was driving his art—he was letting it go. Jarboe Michael and I had decided, in Belgium, to strip nude and walk out on stage after the show as the response was so strong. The venue was Le Botanique. We had walked down a long hallway with all these glass cases on either side with large posters with a photo of me and Michael, so you’re seeing your face formally displayed on either side of the hallway, like something you’d see at Carnegie Hall, and we each had our own dressing room, and I think as a result that show was the best show of the tour—the energy was right, we were treated properly by the venue, so it had everything going for it. We were standing on the metal catwalk, we were disrobing; we were going to go out naked while the audience was applauding. We’re partially nude … and someone turns on the lights and puts on music: ‘Show’s over! Goodbye!’ It ruined the atmosphere, so we didn’t do it. Michael then did it alone in London, but he didn’t come to me and say, ‘Let’s do it here!’ He didn’t even come back to the dressing room after that show. He just finished the show, took off his clothes, and I didn’t even know that he was doing it. If he’d given me notice, I’d have done it, too!

Clint Steele He was trying to get us all to do it: he wanted the whole band to come out and take a bow naked, but we chickened out. ‘OK, this is what I wanna do, it’s the last show, I want to strip off—naked—and go out and wave. Come on! Guys, come on! Let’s all do it! I order you to do it!’ We still said no, told him to fuck off—but he did it, and the audience was confused, and perhaps traumatised? He was very amused. He thought it was hilarious—he walked out with this big dumb grin, smiling and waving at the crowd, freaking them out. Hank Fury We had this after-show party in London. Everyone was blowing off steam, and people were really drinking—then these drunk people came in who were super-Jarboe fans, and one of them started getting out of hand, being disrespectful of her, so I beat the shit out of the guy. Mike came back in and was like, ‘What the fuck happened?’ I told him, and Mike felt really bad. He really regretted not being there—he was so sincere about it, I was shocked how much he cared. He was so inward, and it made a real impression on me that he expressed that so deeply. David Ouimet There was a really bittersweet feeling to the London show. There was a sadness about it, but it was a beautiful show—exquisite. The day after, Michael and I went to see the Turner show at the Tate. I’ve never seen someone stare at a canvas with such intensity—it was terrifying. He had just closed a big chapter in his life, and you could see that he was relieved. There was a lightness about him but a sadness, too. Hank Fury The loss of Swans was devastating to Jarboe. She’d put so much of herself into that band—it was like her life was being taken from her. She was ridiculously dedicated to that band. She seemed sad and reclusive; it’s not that she wasn’t friendly, but she kept herself to herself, and we only really started to get to know her after she put Mike in his place that one time. And she doesn’t drink, so a lot of what we were into had no interest to her. I don’t think I even knew that her and Michael had broken up: they kept all that to themselves. It was only later, when I roadied for her —that’s when I started to see all these other sides to her. Having dinner at

her house and thinking, ‘Oh, here’s Jarboe!’ She was a much happier person compared to the person I met on the Swans tour. Jarboe People say that Swans music was simple or easy—easy?! Try doing it! This repetitive, mantra-like music required every muscle in the body to be tight; your brain had be to absolutely focused; you were aware of every breath taken on stage; you’re physically and mentally exhausted afterward. It’s about being in this perpetual state of tension, where you’re constantly pushing: ‘That was great! Throw it away. Do it better.’ In the studio, let’s say I was doing a choral vocal. To build up that choir, you didn’t copy and multiply a vocal: you sang the song all the way through over and over, making sure that every individual voice layer was emotional, heartfelt, in tune and intense. And then that would be mixed in behind Michael’s vocal lead. I remember asking him, ‘What’s the point in giving so much to every single track of fifteen vocal tracks when they’re mixed together and mixed so low you can’t tell one from another?’ And he told me, ‘Every single one has to be that much—every single one.’ That’s what I took away: never be satisfied. Every nuance as much and as best as you can give. I’m always brutally critical of every show I perform and everything I record. I can’t pat myself on the back; I can’t be satisfied; it’s never good enough. Michael does what all great teachers do. You see the same attitude in the coaches of winning football teams or the conductors of world-famous orchestras: you break the person down, break down the ego. When someone says, ‘Oh, this is so easy,’ or they tell you, ‘I’m a skilled this-that-and-theother musician,’ what they’re telling you is they don’t have to work hard to play your music. That’s what you have to break through, because none of that matters. That’s what Michael does, and if you can get through it, you’ll come out better, because never being satisfied means you’ll never stop growing, evolving, and exploring. The album I recorded after Swans, I called it Anhedoniac. You can never experience pleasure, you’re always on edge, you’re always trying to create something more, or better. It’s about persistence. That’s the definition of the Swans I was in—persistence in the fucking face of adversity, and the door being slammed in your face. You never stop pushing.

12.0 NEW MIND Angels Of Light 1997–2003 Michael Gira I was penniless. I thought of this art piece that could raise money and fund future endeavours. I decided I have this right hand and I never use the pinkie finger, so I let it be known that I would cut off my right pinkie, put it in aspic, and sell it for $25,000. Why not? It’s not like I needed it. I put the word out and—fortunately for me—there were no takers. Besides, it’s really not that large an amount of money in the long run. It was partially sardonic, of course, but some people don’t have a sense of humour —some people were horrified by it. Kevin Wortis It was crisis management. We would get involved in Michael having rent to pay—that’s how threadbare it was. He’d call us up, tell us he was running out of money, and we’d discuss how we could get money, or an advance on money owed—it was deep. Todd Cote I suggested that he should try to get the rights back to all his records and release them himself. His initial response was, ‘I’m the artist, not the label—and I don’t trust anybody.’ I convinced him that getting 90 percent of the money instead of 12 percent was a lot more income to do what he wanted to do. Kevin Wortis Todd did some hero shit to get the rights back for Michael’s recordings. We clawed all the rights back that we could so we started putting out the reissues.

Larry Mullins Michael was living in Atlanta with Jarboe, and he and I still talked all the time. I knew he was going to drive from Atlanta to San Francisco, so I said to him, ‘Look, why don’t we do this together?’ We took our time—two or three weeks. He had sort of a dream that he wanted to camp out in national parks; he had done all this research of places we could go, and we had a camper van so we had somewhere to sleep in, a big cooler full of beer, and we’d just hang out. We talked a lot and, of course, he had issues parting with Jarboe, shutting the band down, what’s he going to do with his life, how does he start over? It took some time to convince him that we weren’t on a tour—that we were just out having fun. He was like, ‘We need to get here!’ And I’d have to say to him, ‘No, we don’t have to do anything. Let’s take our time—we can go anywhere, who cares?’ It took some time before he could relax a little bit. We were in Utah, looking for a place to camp. We drove down into this bizarre field and found a dried-up riverbed. There was sagebrush that was about ten feet tall on each side—we couldn’t turn around, couldn’t see anything, and we were on a hill, so at an angle. About a mile along we decided this was crazy, so we tried to turn. The dirt was like powder, so we kept burying ourselves. We were stuck. We hiked up to the road and flagged a guy down and asked if he could take us somewhere we could find someone to get us out. He said he knew two loggers, so we went to this café, and the sun had gone down when these two giant four-wheel-drive pickup trucks pulled up. These two big guys got out. We explained what had happened, told them we didn’t have much money but we had a huge cooler full of beer, and if they could get us out we’d share all the beer. They were scratching their heads when they saw what they were going to have to drive into. They started thinking we were setting them up to rob them or steal their trucks—they let it be known that they were seriously armed! They drove us into the riverbed and couldn’t believe it—our truck stuck up there in the dirt. They just started laughing. They pulled us out and we gave them the entire cooler. They had a contract with the national park to bring down areas of the forest that had dead trees. They invited us to go up on the mountain and said they’d teach us how to log. Michael said, ‘Absolutely! We’re coming with you!’ We woke up the next morning and went up to their work site. Next thing you knew, Michael and I were halfway up these giant trees with chainsaws. We spent the whole day doing that.

Daniel Gira When Michael broke up Swans, I remember him having this degree of finality: ‘Well, that’s done. I have to move on.’ He’s very decisive that way. He may have been filled with self-doubt but we didn’t talk about that. He came for a month and helped me rebuild my house. With his expert construction skills, he played a key role in this huge remodel. I’ll say this: Michael was here for me. The remodel was a bridge too far for me; I was moving my mom up to live with me, because she’d been living with my uncle for ten years and he was, frankly, sick of her; I was getting married; there was a lot of pressure. Mike was here and basically did a shitload of work. He had my back. Jarboe Swans was finished. To my mind, what was important was ensuring that it became a legend. I wanted the idea of Swans to carry a power but also that air of mystery, because it was something that people spoke of but would never see. It had been my idea to have a website for Swans—the internet still being very new—and I continued to run the site and to have a business relationship with Michael. Part of what I was doing was building a cult of artefacts, turning early releases and rare items into these precious objects that carried a significance, because of scarcity. I began applying that thinking to what I was doing—rejecting the way abundant supply cheapens things, artistically and culturally, and focusing on the power work could wield if it was only available in limited quantities. I was still trying to make sure Michael could see I had nothing but good will. I did what I’ve always done and tried to help. I was the one to suggest YoungGodRecords.com as a name: it was me who registered it, paid for the space, hired the designers. However, he requested me to cease efforts, so I transferred it over to him. We definitely moved apart, but there was never bad spirit on my part, though I think it’s only recently that he’s truly understood that I’m there to support him no matter what. I never changed. ••• Nicole Boitos [artwork, The Body Lovers] The one fan letter I’ve ever sent in my entire life, I sent one of my woodblock prints and I got a letter back from Jarboe. When they came through Philadelphia for Swans Are

Dead, I met them in person. Soon after, Michael contacted me about The Body Lovers. One of the letters I sent to Jarboe, I had drawn a copy of a Leonardo da Vinci sketch of a horse’s ass. That’s what triggered Michael to think of me. He gave me a whole big list of things to illustrate in that same old-master drawing style. There was a noose, a knife, a bird’s legs, a lamb’s mouth, the horse’s ass, a hand, a foot. The subjects were not typically ones that you would find in an old master’s sketchbook—always that dark adjustment, that little bit of perversion. The hands and the feet were mine because they were the most readily available. The pig’s head, I worked at a farmer’s market and went to one of the butchers: it filled my entire freezer. The pig’s head was the first piece. It was the first time we’d worked together, and I sent him maybe two or three before we got to what would be the final one—just tiny tweaks. Once the pig’s head was nailed down, the other pictures were fairly simple. The penis was from one of my roommates—he had a bunch of nudie magazines, and it was from a gay sex ad in the back. I have a letter Michael sent me with a drawing of the member with very explicit instructions that it shouldn’t be erect, nothing that would scare people off. He didn’t want it to be ‘threatening’. He originally wanted the penis to be the cover, and I joked he should put the horse’s ass on the back—it’d be a perfect pair. Bill Bronson The Body Lovers started within months of the final Swans tour. We went into Martin Bisi’s studio, and Michael started doing that and Angels Of Light simultaneously. It was quickly obvious that, while Body Lovers was sonically interesting, it was kind of a soundtrack without a film, so it didn’t keep him interested. Angels Of Light were so good right from the start that it took his attention. Todd Cote Angels Of Light was intended to be more of a recording concept where he wrote all the songs and he brought in whichever musicians he felt made most sense. Kristof Hahn [Angels Of Light] I flew to Atlanta, and in order to get a working environment he had rented a motel room—we sat there for a week

working out the songs that he had written. Then we went to the studio. On ‘Praise Your Name’ I was listening a lot to Serge Gainsbourg and had the idea that there should be girls singing this rhythm in the background. I had gone home by the time they recorded them, but he stuck with the idea and gave me the credit. Thor Harris [Swans, 2010–17; also Angels Of Light] I wrote Swans a postcard in the mid-90s. We went to Swans’ final tour and met them in Austin, Texas. Later, Michael contacted me and asked me to come play on a record. I was thrilled. I rented a minivan and drove it to Atlanta. I brought my beloved dog, Poquita, with me, and when I first knew there was a real warmth, humanity, and sweetness to Michael was in his response to my dog. I brought a vanload of weird homemade instruments and vintage snare drums, including these wooden, rope-tensioned drums that I had mounted blow tubes to the sides of so I could change the pressure inside, and that would change the pitch profoundly. If you can hear these creepy moaning drums that change pitch a lot, that’s them. I was part of building those songs —they weren’t complete when I first heard them. There wasn’t ever a whole band in one room playing together—it was assembled one instrument at a time. Clint Steele [engineer, New Mother] Michael booked a month at my studio. I like Michael but sometimes he treated people badly, and after several ridiculous shouting matches I refused to participate for my own sanity. Being publicly derided at work was not in the scope of my job requirements. I’m not sure why it happened with me; I worked with him a lot of years and I felt I deserved a little more loyalty. Michael was so upset that he left me out of the album credits. We had tracked the core of the songs already; I engineered them; it was turning out really well. Our collaboration was solid, it was just our personal relationship that wasn’t. It’s a sad note that we ended our relationship like that, and it bothers me to this day. Phil Puleo It was a bad experience for everyone. Clint was not into it. He wouldn’t show up some days, and he was not very cooperative, in part

because of what it had been like on tour. Now Clint was in control—it was his studio. Michael had flown three people in to do this recording—one from Germany, then Bill and I from New York—and it was almost a complete disaster. Kristof Hahn We had to totally throw overboard the concept of how the album recording was going to happen, because at the beginning of the project we were left with Clint’s assistant, Michael Moore. He was a good engineer and was very competent, but still we had problems. Michael felt he couldn’t communicate as he could with Clint. Michael didn’t feel confident, so I suggested we do it like Elvis: sit in one room, play together, record it until we have a take we can work with. It worked really nicely! Hillary Johnson [engineer, New Mother] I had been working at Spa Recording for a few years, and Michael was looking for, I guess you could say ‘donors’. I had been a fan and wanted to help. Michael came and took a look at the studio. He brought Martin Bisi with him—it was a smaller space, and there were going to be a lot of different instruments, so they wanted to make sure they could make it work. Michael scheduled everything, so we would always hear from him—‘So-and-so is coming in to record on this date’—he was very structured with what was going to happen, and it was spread out a couple of days a week for several months. Kurt Ralske [flugelhorn, New Mother] I’d not done any session work on the flugelhorn, and it’s a difficult instrument if you’re not taking it seriously. My tendency was to play a slow, sustained, minimal thing, so maybe it fit with what he liked. Later, I ran into Martin and thanked him for getting me into the session. Martin said, ‘Michael was extremely happy with you!’ I said, ‘Wow, I can barely play the instrument!’ He replied, ‘Yeah, I know. We had all kinds of great sessions musicians through, and he thought you were the best!’ Both Martin and I were mystified and had a good chuckle. Cassis Staudt [Angels Of Light] He has a great way of speaking in nonmusical terms so it’s left up to your own interpretation—that gets a lot out

of you. He gets people to reach their limits, though it’s also really exhausting. He was really interested in the expression and the emotional depth of the song; it was emotional body intelligence that he accessed, not brain intelligence. Hillary Johnson Michael knew what he wanted performed, but often he’d just give a suggestion, so it was 60/40 between Michael telling people what to do versus people responding with ideas. Bill Rieflin The songs were in a somewhat formed state—the bones of the pieces had already been recorded. What I often say about working with Michael is, ‘He gives me my favourite job in the world,’ which, as I see it, is the job of Winston Wolfe from Pulp Fiction—the Harvey Keitel character —the guy who comes in and does what he sees needs to be done to make a situation better. New Mother marks the beginning of the phase where Michael brings me in, plays me music, and asks me what I think it needs. Then we do it. This concept is embodied in my interpretation of the idea of ‘fairy dust’—the last five to ten percent of something that pushes the piece into a new stage, making something come to life. Larry Mullins He had a pretty good budget organised, had things recorded with people all over the place, lots of studio time, but we were nearly finished and he hadn’t recorded any of his own vocals! He was running out of money, and he only had enough money left to record all of the lead vocals in two days. I was about ready to kill him, that he had spent all this time and money meticulously labouring over everything—then you’re going to paint the most important element into a corner and knock it out in two days? I tried to explain: ‘You can’t do that to yourself; you really discredit the importance of your own voice.’ I would try to prop him up and to tell him how great his voice is, and that all he needs to do is to spend half of the time he spends nitpicking over the twenty-seven instruments focusing on his voice. Siobhan Duffy We first met in Atlanta, then I ran into him again in New York—he moved there a few months after that and we became involved. I

was a bit taken aback by Michael. He fell pretty hard for me. I was receiving love letters daily, even though we lived in the same city. He’s as intense in love as with anything else he does. I was quite overwhelmed. Michael is very intelligent, funny, and he can be very sweet. On the other hand, coming from a childhood where he was grossly neglected, it’s created a very anxious person who has never been told, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ That anxiety has perpetuated throughout his life. The sky is falling, the ship is sinking! I tend to think of it as the productive form of depression—you get a lot done. Kevin Wortis Michael had this little room in Martin Bisi’s studio with a bed made out of two-by-fours and plywood, a cooking hotplate; that’s where he lived while all these young bands came in going, ‘Wow, Swans!’ Martin Bisi Even Michael as a roommate was intense. He’s a neat freak. He would clean the place to death. He’s quite a good carpenter: he could build furniture, but even with that he was serious. We were taken aback by the amount of screws he would put into something; he’d build a wall with four layers when two would be fine; if he had to build part of a doorway, he would build it so it could sustain shelling from artillery. If the place became a warzone then Michael’s door would be the last thing standing in the rubble! Todd Cote Initially, with Young God Records, Michael wasn’t comfortable making the kind of personal and financial commitment to complete strangers that was required to properly sign artists. Dan Matz, Larsen, David Coulter: they were all already friends of Michael’s, so he went in and got his feet wet releasing things. Dan Matz [Windsor For The Derby] We were the opening band on Swans’ final tour. Michael was supportive—in a standoffish uncle kind of fashion—but he gave us some tips, and by the end of the tour we were friends. It was on into ’98 before we recorded Difference And Repetition— we sequenced it and produced it, Michael offered to put the record out. The move to the label was good; it created something new for us and the press

was very good, but we proved to be one of the most unreliable touring bands in the industry: the first Angels Of Light tour, we baled at the last minute. Amaury Cambuzat [Ulan Bator] I bought Soundtrack For The Blind and I loved it! The sound, the structure of the various songs, the atmospheres. The funny thing is that, initially, we weren’t looking for Michael Gira—we were looking for Chris Griffin. While trying to reach Chris we found Jarboe, and she forwarded our message to Michael. Michael’s reaction was, if we loved Soundtrack For The Blind then he was the man we needed to work with. Ego: Echo in its entirety was recorded and mixed with Michael in three weeks. We were full of fresh ideas and really excited to live, work and experiment with him. It was a really hard twenty days, no days off. We were living inside the studio and transformed it into a laboratory. We were always tired but we were ever-more satisfied with the turn the album was taking. On the very first day, Michael drew a calendar on a board, wrote down the things we needed to do on each day and, to conclude, he drew a gun pointing at a skull to mark the last day! Again and again during those sessions we would reach a trance-state because of the repetitive structures and singing. The unexpected thing, to us, was that Michael was totally into working on the vocals. There was only one solitary moment where I thought Michael was wrong. We had this epic ‘shoegaze’ finale for the song ‘Let Go Ego!’, and in his hands as producer it became something amazing. We took a short break, and when we returned, Michael spoke to us: ‘I have some bad news.’ A moment of silence. ‘I’ve decided that ending should not, and will not, feature on the album.’ We talked about it, and he convinced us that it didn’t fit the ‘higher’ direction the album was taking. It led me to the thought, ‘Let go ego,’ and he agreed: ‘Yes! For the new ending you’re going to sing that—a cappella!’ So that’s what we did. Very successfully. ••• Thor Harris Around ’99, Michael called me again, and we started doing rehearsals for a tour—me, Cassis, Dana, Larry—in this dank, crappy

basement studio. When it came time to work up the live show, he naturally went back to what he was used to, which was playing loud. I found myself playing these instruments like Autoharp or vibraphone, but hitting them way harder than they’re meant to be hit. The Angels Of Light tours were pretty good interpersonally, though the shows were sometimes poorly attended—Michael was a little bit shocked sometimes. Larry Mullins It was an uphill battle to start over with a new band no one had ever heard of, with music that’s a little bit off the wall sounding, and Michael really didn’t want any mention of Swans anywhere in the promotion, which … I understand why, but it’s kind of like shooting yourself in the foot. People weren’t going to come unless they knew it involved Michael. Cassis Staudt Michael would tell us how much money he had available for the tour, and what he could pay us. It wasn’t so much, but it was enough we could all do it. We didn’t sign a contract. It wasn’t very formal, but Michael decided we were a band, and he put everything in place for us so we were treated fairly. I sometimes wondered what the terms were, but the answer was that the terms were his integrity and truth—his word counted. ••• Tristan Bechet [Flux Information Sciences] I lived in Marseilles and was in TWA where we played what we called ‘spy music’—a reduced, very simple, fake punk-jazz. We would play in fishermen’s bars. The pianist was Sebastian Brault, and he was working as a shepherd—I’m not joking, he was looking after two thousand sheep in the Alps. He and I were experimenting on a cassette recorder with these pedal samplers and tape machines, and I stumbled upon the financial annual report of an IT company called Volt Information Sciences. What we did was, we put together a proposal that we work for Volt as artists: we would create a tour, an infomercial, and use Volt as the script. We were completely serious. We met with the people from Volt, and the truth is they couldn’t make head or tail of what we were trying to do. The

lawyers were very shocked at that machine-sounding music. We still rolled down this fantasy fetishistic corporate route a little bit. We turned from Volt into Flux Information Sciences and aligned ourselves with these ghost companies—international trusts, shell corporations—we wanted to put a body to these organisations. Sebastian and I started out with a drummer called Phil Hernandez. He left, and then we had Derek Ethridge, which is when Michael came to see us in a midtown Irish pub. From the onset I could see people falling from their stools like dominos; there was a scuffle, fights starting; someone fell onto our equipment. That’s the essence of rock’n’roll, when you bend time and space; the sound is propulsive, like a clock going way too fast while everyone goes way too slow, and there’s a lack of continuity in thought and people begin acting funny. I don’t think we played more than four songs. My guitar was bleeding out and Sebastian was improvising with his protoindustrial sound, and it all morphed into the ether. Immediately after, Michael came up and said, ‘Let’s do it!’ We had a couple of sit-downs and he promised he wasn’t going to give us fame and stardom, but we would record something visceral and cathartic. When he gets behind a project, he really puts gasoline in the people. The arrangement was a one-off: at the time, the label only really did one-offs. There wasn’t much support apart from the mythology of Michael, but there was good distribution; Michael gave us a platform, and everywhere we went, people paid attention. Fabrizio Palumbo [Larsen] Michael flew into our home town of Turin, where we had booked a studio. He is very intense in the best possible way: if it was up to us, we probably would have stopped after eight hours but, even though we were all much younger than him, he was the one saying, ‘No, keep going, create more!’ Also, there was a budget, so we couldn’t waste time—we had to make every second worth it, and he’s really good at that because he’s done it his entire life. He kept repeating, ‘Don’t talk, just play!’ We would play non-stop until four in the morning, maybe playing the same riff for an hour then looking at Michael, and he’d say, ‘Play it again.’ He pushed us into a space where we transcended ourselves. Initially, a lot of takes would sound the same to us, but he would say, ‘It’s not the one, do it

again,’ and at the point when we were absolutely exhausted there’d be a take he liked, and we’d listen back and he was right. It was an interesting process: go on until you’ve forgotten yourself and what you are doing, and those are the best takes. His strongest point is managing sounds, atmosphere—making movies rather than writing music. He can say, ‘This sound should be big, this sound should be more intimate, we need this instrument’—he’s good at working it out in his mind. He taught us to have an orchestral approach to arrangement: very layered, very textured. The same goes for the importance of drone: to just let something go on with the melody and rhythm on top of it. It sounds dramatic to say that Michael was our mentor, but he was. He was just going to produce our album, but we developed a friendship, and he said, ‘I really like what we’ve done together—what if I release it?’ He really opened up the market for us: it became a lot easier to get international press once we were a name on an American label. Kerstin Posch [Young God Records] I was living in this loft with two of the members of Flux Information Sciences. One day they said Michael was looking for someone to help him—database entry, keeping the mailing list up to date, getting addresses for editors and writers—and that the person he was looking for needed to know FileMaker Pro. I was like, ‘I can do that.’ I had time to help him out—I wasn’t thinking about it as steady work. Michael was pretty happy, so he asked if I’d want to take on more responsibilities. He had the accounting, royalties, and finances outsourced, and he wanted to bring it in-house and have a better grip on it. He didn’t understand what he was being billed for and what royalties he was receiving, so he wanted that to become more transparent. I have no accounting background but I thought I’d give it a shot. I got the spreadsheets and I sorted through all of them to make the royalty payments to each artist on Young God Records easier to understand. He wanted it very clear that every dime coming in was being shared 50/50 between the label and the artist. Michael was handling website sales to his fans directly. It was a huge job—he was sitting at home with a ton of boxes and packing tape, filling orders, signing everything, taking them to the post office, filling in customs

slips. He liked the personal touch that someone who liked his music received something directly from him. Michael was quite advanced: he had the Young God Records website up and a comments section long before anybody was doing that. Also, through the orders, he was getting people’s email, so they could receive his newsletters if they wanted to. Siobhan Duffy To live with Michael meant I was part of the shipping department. It was worst when a new record came out—there were a lot of pre-sales and hundreds of packages a day to deal with. Someone had to do it, especially when he went on tour. It was a cottage industry. Most of the time it was just Michael, but at times we would get friends over, so I remember once sitting around with Larry Mullins, Thor Harris might have been there, Dana Schechter and Michael—and we were all part of the process of stamping something, having him sign it, packaging everything up. There were always boxes everywhere in the house. ••• Dan Matz For What We Did, it was mostly that Michael and I each had our own songs, and he would come over and sit in the spare bedroom recording for hours at a time. There was a real fraternal camaraderie—very easy. Neither of us is a trained musician, so we’d be playing and I might ask, ‘What chord is that?’ And he’d tell me, ‘Who cares? Just play.’ We spent a couple of years doing that until we finally put the record together. Dana Schechter [Angels Of Light] I’d been recommended to Michael by two people who’d worked with him: Dave Burton and Kevin Wortis. I suppose the double-recommendation was intriguing, because Michael contacted me—actually sent me a handwritten letter—asking me if I was interested. I was. I’d been hoping to find a band to do touring with. I found the Angels’ music to be really compelling, and all the musicians were exceptional, so I agreed. I had something to offer, since I could play bass, sing, keyboards, and so on. We had been working on new material on tour, so when discussions started about recording, I was already in the fold.

Cassis Staudt When we did How I Loved You, we recorded all together, almost live. He would introduce a song then we would come up with parts and layers. Michael worked with limitation; it takes someone thinking, ‘This can’t be all there is! Do more! Build! Build!’ It meant you would do things you would never have thought you could come up with. It turned out to be the most amazing thing. We weren’t just hired guns—Michael formed a band with us. Dana Schechter We utilised everything I could do, and a few things I could barely do but did anyway. What I remember most about the sessions is how it developed naturally, and that when it was complete, we’d somehow built a beautiful shimmering monster. It was a special time. Siobhan Duffy Michael and I moved in together around 2001. I felt, as I got to know him, that a lot of what people thought about him was just their impression. I saw someone who was neglected from a very early age and then found a way to fight on a daily basis to make something of himself. I’m very proud of Michael. Music probably saved his life, and he’s cultivated it to a point that it’s also helped others in their lives. I think you can’t ask for a better result in what you do creatively. Larry Mullins At that time, Michael’s mother was in her last years, and it was having an awful effect on him. She was pretty far in the deep end of alcoholism. I think a lot of the songwriting, a lot of his lyrics, and the stories he was telling, were based around his mom and childhood. Obviously, look at the cover of How I Loved You. Musically, he was trying to help himself work through things. I think it’s a healthy thing for an artist —to write yourself through it. Martin Bisi With his vocal takes, Michael would take a long psychological journey. I can understand if the vibe isn’t right, sometimes it’s worth considering all kinds of stuff: ‘Should the lights be brighter or darker?’ Maybe someone is a night person or a morning person. The thing with Michael would be a little outside of what I’m used to—long hours of exploring this vibe or that vibe, sitting down, not sitting down, looking

down at the mic or looking straight out. In a sense, it was about trying to be spontaneous while not being spontaneous at all. Hillary Johnson It was the first time I’d worked with a singer who was sitting down while singing. He would lean into the microphone hunched over, so he could perform more from his chest and get more air into each note. Normally it’s important to get a singer to stand up. Michael wanted to sit very close and do this intimate thing. There were times I was sat in the control room amazed by what he was accomplishing. Martin Bisi What’s funny is, Gira was fixated on not sounding gothic. There were hilarious moments—I think he was kidding—where he’d blame me for why everyone thought he was gothic. He stopped me working on a mix and said, ‘Martin, whatever you are doing that’s making it sound so goth, stop doing that.’ He was jokingly annoyed, or annoyed but joking— very Michael. He’ll make fun of himself being overbearing when he is being overbearing, but the way he gets away with it is he’ll simultaneously make fun of the fact that he’s doing that. I snapped, ‘With lyrics like sweet rose of the forest, rupture and burst between my teeth—really? I’m the one making it goth?’ A lot of people who are successful, it never happens on their terms, so with most of the famous people I’ve worked with, it’s comical that exactly the things that they’re sceptical of are exactly what makes people embrace them. Kurt Ralske Martin contacted me again. I arrived late because of trouble on the subway. Michael was waiting for me out front of the studio on the stairway. He started shouting down at me: ‘Imbecile! Ingrate! Miscreant!’ The first thing I thought of was Captain Haddock from Tintin, who has a way of spewing overly elaborate insults. My response was, I just started to laugh—I thought it was a bit of theatre. When I got to the top I realised I wasn’t sure if he was annoyed. I was still like, ‘Hi, Michael, how’s it going?’ It seemed like he was theatricalising his minor annoyance as a form of catharsis and emotional honesty, rather than burying it and smiling and pretending that nothing was wrong. I was wondering if he’d consulted a thesaurus while waiting for me in order to come up with the most bizarre

insults he could find. He was justifiably annoyed—I was late, after all—but we got down to business. It was playing one note for ten, twenty minutes. The embarrassing part was that it just wasn’t physically possible, and we had to abort. ••• Cassis Staudt On the next Angels Of Light tour, Michael would be sat in the front seat of the van with a glass of whisky—we would drive with him drinking in the passenger seat. I came from a family with a history of alcoholism, and I was afraid of being around too much drinking. I was a very happy person on the outside—kind of too joyful for Michael. I was the person in the band who was going to bed early and going jogging. I felt a little like the outsider, but I had deep reasons for wanting to belong. Michael was expressing something I hadn’t tapped into yet. I can see today how I ran away from Germany and secrets in the family. As a band, we were all so young—we’d been thrown together, and we wouldn’t really talk about the dark things. I was very drawn to Thor; he’s a lovely guy, and he later wrote a book about depression. That’s where Michael’s music came in —it’s a place to express these things, to let them out—then there’s people like Thor who can show people there is a way through it. Dana Schechter This was the only time that Angels was a proper band. Driving in the Midwest on a snowy road, we hit black ice. The van went spinning wildly in circles, time slowed to a crawl. Thor was driving and he pulled that van around and saved our lives. There were cars crashed all along the roadside. We found the last motel with occupancy and took a lukewarm hot tub and drank vodka out of wilting paper cups: it was Larry’s birthday. Another time, Cassis and I were rooming, and I smashed my forehead open on a window frame. She was brushing her teeth, and when she came out of the bathroom I was covered in blood. The hotel had no ice, so we put frozen pastries into a shower cap on my wound; I got five stitches. Fun times!

Cassis Staudt You could sense Michael’s inner anger. I hadn’t had therapy at the time, so all I could detect was this person having to deal with their feelings. Live, it was intense to watch Michael go through it over and over: ‘My Suicide’—my God! It was someone killing themselves. That was the solo song where we all had to sit quietly on stage. We had to establish jokes around it to distract ourselves. I’d had take-out food so I had a plastic knife, and Michael is singing and I would turn this plastic knife vertical, and Dana and I would fight not to burst out laughing. Larry Mullins Michael proposed that we would finish the tour by recording. We had a meeting and we decided that instead of just splitting the money four ways and going home, we would use it as the album budget: we recorded Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home. Ironically, everything was not good here. Martini Bisi The third one, I thought it was going great. We were listening through all these songs and Michael is acting a bit sceptical, but not saying anything—no one was alarmed. We had a lot tracked, and we were listening to the takes and he was uncomfortable. I said, ‘Well, some things can be muted—we can take some things out: look, I can take the drums out. I can even take the guitar out. I could even just have the hammer dulcimer.’ I was trying to highlight that even though it was played together as an ensemble, there was enough separation that there could be some arranging. He suddenly looked very happy. ‘Martin, I think you’ve saved the record.’ I looked at him: ‘What?’ He said, ‘Just get rid of everything except the dulcimer.’ I sort of panicked. ‘You’ve got to be kidding? No!’ He told me, ‘It’ll be OK, listen to Uncle Mike.’ That’s part of his joking—he’d call himself Uncle Mike when he was trying to push stuff that no one wanted. The affable stubborn beloved uncle. Dana Schechter Until we parted ways, I didn’t know it would end. It was a total contrast to the previous album. It started the same, though. We’d worked out all the parts on tour, and after recording it Michael told us he’d changed his direction. It was disappointing.

Martin Bisi I was distraught. He wanted to strip everything away. It seemed baffling to me. I would be so thrilled to have such a great band capable of all playing together—screw whatever my concept was or whatever journey I thought I was taking. A little nip and tuck, fine—I wasn’t being a total purist, definitely put some shape in there—but he totally tossed it away. I think it’s a bit of control: if he didn’t control the making of it, then maybe he didn’t connect to it. Larry Mullins Michael finished that album on his own. We tracked tons of stuff that he erased, which really crushed us: we had gone in as a fourheaded monster, and he proceeded to turn it into a one-headed monster. He took it out of our hands. That’s when I realised that Michael and I needed a substantial break: ‘I’ll talk to you in a few years.’ I’d seen the destruction Michael would leave in his wake, broken relationships everywhere—his reputation preceded him wherever he went. It was inevitable that at some point we were going to have a problem, and we finally did.

13.0 TO LIVE THROUGH SOMEONE Angels Of Light / Young God Records 2003–10 Todd Cote Michael called me going, ‘Hey, there’s this kid, and I want to put his record out.’ I told him, ‘Well, you have a record label, you can put his record out.’ It took him a while to wrap his head around the fact that he wasn’t just an artist—he was a label, too. Devendra Banhart I was eighteen, just starting off. I was asked to open up for Flux Information Sciences. I was trying to create a dynamic without having any other instruments than my voice and an acoustic guitar, so I’d start off a cappella, then play some guitar and accompany myself. I finished the set, no one was talking to me, but Siobhan came up and was very sweet: ‘Hey, my partner and I, we’re really into a lot of blues stuff—Howlin’ Wolf, Nick Drake.’ I was trying to play it cool, so I gave her my CD-R. I got an email from Michael: ‘Nice music, got any more?’ Siobhan Duffy I heard him at soundcheck. I was outside, so I didn’t see who was singing, but I didn’t know if it was a woman—it sounded like Tiny Tim—then I saw him perform in this big ruffled woman’s blouse and he was just so wonderful. Tristan Bechet Siobhan had the initiative to pick up the CD-R and fall in love with it. Michael adored it, released it almost as is, and that was pretty much the end of my relationship with Michael. Michael is like a shark: he moves forward, not sideways. If you’re not in front of him then he doesn’t see you. Devendra became his next project, and that was it—see you later.

Devendra Banhart He wrote about me on his blog—the first time I was ever mentioned on the internet. At the time it felt like what I imagine it must feel like to have won every Grammy ever! Being mentioned by Michael Gira, I couldn’t believe it. Then he told me he was interested in maybe putting it out. That’s when I moved to New York—I moved there with a couple of bucks and lived on his couch. When it was getting a little too much, I moved into a squat—an abandoned salsa club, truly something I’d never wish on anyone, but it was my only option. Truth is, at the time I moved, I don’t know if Michael had even committed to put it out—maybe he’d just sent a letter saying he was interested. I was working in a record store, didn’t have a lot of money, saved up for a plane ticket, and flew out. I banked a lot on it going well. Kerstin Posch The best thing about Young God Records was this feeling that it was a family. You were a part of every artist’s life—you watched them grow and you grew with them. When Devendra was first going on stage, he wouldn’t finish a set, he would forget his words, he would stop in the middle of songs. Michael had to explain that you couldn’t just turn away from the audience and start crying and leave after one song. I was so nervous at Devendra’s shows. Devendra Banhart ‘Mentor’ would be an appropriate word for my relationship with Michael. He taught me how to cook; he taught me how to take care of myself; he was way beyond just being my boss. That was born from this strange mutual respect that exists in the teacher-student dynamic: it’s a lot of love, continuing to this day. He truly is this intense guy—a rare gem of super-intensity—but I’ve also seen him in sweatpants, dancing to Fela Kuti like a goof, the ecstatic childlike joy of what music can do. I can definitely say that I owe Michael my career. Martin Bisi Everything had to be imbued with that intensity. Michael produced records here at the studio for other people, and there was one record in particular where Michael could have easily gone home after the recording session, but his idea was that he wanted to live at the recording studio for a week. I would need to go out, and he’d ask me for orange juice

and the New York Times. One day I forgot them, and he felt he needed to go get them. It was early in the morning so it didn’t interfere with anything. When he comes back, he’s angry with himself: ‘When will I learn? Never go out! Never leave the studio! I’ve totally broken the vibe; I’ve totally broken my concentration! I’m completely distracted!’ This was 11am when, on a record, people are going out for breakfast, or for a jog—he was upset he’d even been in the light. Devendra Banhart I thought I was going to be best friends with everyone on the label, and that there was some huge megalith with big chrome letters saying ‘YOUNG GOD RECORDS’ … but Young God was Michael and Kerstin. I was greeted with that reality of what it was to run a label, and also the humility and true blood, sweat, and tears that went into putting something out—how much you have to believe in something to make that effort. It took so much concentration and energy to put out just one record, and they built a catalogue and a roster. On top of that, Michael was working on his own music—it was incredible to see what was involved. Siobhan Duffy Michael will tell you that what drives him is the fear of being homeless. When he decided to stop working construction, he knew he had to keep putting out music and touring consistently to get by. It’s survival. Michael doesn’t give up—that’s how he got me to marry him! Devendra Banhart Michael confronted me with something very logical: ‘What are your favourite recordings of some of your favourite artists?’ And I told him, ‘The demos, of course.’ It made sense, and he convinced me very easily with that question. Usually you wait until someone has put out a bunch of records and then you issue the demos, but he thought, ‘Fuck that, let’s go.’ Ironically, the next two records we made were Rejoicing In The Hands and Nino Rojo, and they, to me, felt a lot more like demos because we recorded two records in two weeks—minimal overdubs—and he made me record guitar and voice at the same time. We weren’t trying to do an authentic thing, we were just committed to the way it felt most real. I kept telling him it was too tough, that I couldn’t play these parts and still sing,

and he’d just say, ‘No, of course you can do this.’ I’m incredibly grateful because I learnt to play guitar thanks to him. Kevin Wortis I remember one occasion when Michael and Devendra were in studio together, and Michael was trying to pull out a particular performance from him. He was screaming at Devendra—this very sensitive soul—literally making him cry, making him feel like shit, to pull that emotion into the music. What I’m told is, Michael took all is clothes off and danced around the studio to pull Devendra back out of that emotion and make him laugh again. This is a guy who will do anything—anything at all —to succeed at his vision of music, culture, and art. Todd Cote Michael’s formula was, it was a package he could offer: ‘I can put your record out; I can produce your record; I can take you on the first tour and guarantee it’ll have people at it, because I’ll be with you; Todd will be your booking agent.’ It was very compelling, coming from someone with the respect of Michael Gira, and knowing you would have his ear in the studio. Kerstin Posch Michael decided that he would have an Angels Of Light tour with Devendra opening, instead of sending Devendra out on his own— that way, Devendra could travel with us. He would open up solo, then he played as part of Angels Of Light, too. That’s how we got Devendra known, and it was difficult because his music was so different to Angels Of Light, but we needed audiences to listen. There are a lot of places where we just wouldn’t know if the local stores had our music. Michael asked people through his website to help with promotion of the Angels Of Light tours, and in return they’d get a spot on the guest list: bring a guest, hang out with Michael, take pictures with him. People would put up posters everywhere for us. It was a good way to get the fans involved in the music. Patrick Fondiller [Angels Of Light] I worked in an American craft beer bar a block away from where Michael lived. One night he came in with Larry Mullins: I was playing a CD of a band I was playing with, and he asked what it was, then if he could look at my collection. He could see I

was wearing a Psychic TV T-shirt, so he asked me if I liked that band. I told him, ‘Sure,’ and that’s when he asked if I’d want to go on tour. It was instantaneous. That incarnation was Devendra, Kristof Hahn, Michael, and myself—and there was no drummer. Devendra Banhart It was the most gruelling rehearsals I’d ever done: here was the set list, and we were going to play it a hundred times exactly the way we were going to play it live, and Michael would find things he wanted to adjust, or new ways to transition between songs. It wasn’t like a Swans show, where it feels like one continuous piece of music—these were songs he was presenting, but it was still about the entire night as a whole. You’re playing a whole set to see if one song doesn’t fit, then you’d play the entire set again with that song in front of or behind another one, then you’d do it all again the other way, or with the song at the beginning or end. It was the most thorough investigation of how to play a live set list I’ve ever encountered. Patrick Fondiller It was something like twenty-seven shows in a little over thirty days. There was that SARS epidemic going on, and Michael got very sick. We’d gone from Montreal to Toronto, which was the epicentre, so we were really worried. There was an evening where Kerstin and I had to take care of him—he was really sick. The whole tour was really ‘all hands on deck’. In LA, a bouncer basically assaulted Michael. The bar was closed, and maybe they had a law about drinking after hours, but the bouncer walked up to Michael and ripped his drink out of his hand—you don’t do that. We were up on stage and I heard Michael yell, then we were all off the stage in an instant. It was a real pack mentality, so there was a little bit of a melee. Even Devendra really surprised me by mixing it up—not fisticuffs, but he was yelling at the guy about how disrespectful it was—and the bartender came up behind Devendra and wrapped his arms around him. Devendra twisted his lower body up and kicked the bouncer in the chest. We wound up defusing the situation, but the bouncer took it upon himself to get our tour dates and call all the clubs we were playing to tell them we were trouble. Complete bullshit.

Devendra Banhart During the performances we were all very aware of the energy coming to us from the audience. It was an exchange—we were trying to create a bridge. We weren’t trying to recreate what we had been rehearsing, we weren’t trying to play like nobody was there. We had rehearsed to the point that the songs were inside us, and Michael felt that this was the best set list. Once it was all totally internalised, then it was about ceremony and communion. We never knew how it was going to go except that Michael would lead us through the ceremony. We played a venue where we were laughing because Michael had been banned for locking everyone in while Swans played—mayhem, carnage, end-of-theworld prophets freaking people out—then here we were with this very different presence. Patrick Fondiller Michael had a way that he wanted me to play every note and every beat: ‘This is the kind of emotion I want behind it, this is where I want you to come in.’ Michael elevated me. In the absence of a drummer, Michael was the absolute central focus of everything on stage. I remember we were at the Angel Of Sense in Boston, and Michael was whipping us on like a conductor or a circus ringmaster: ‘Get with me! Come on!’ He was conducting the music as we were going along while singing and playing and commanding the audience all at the same time. Devendra Banhart They made me carry all the gear—it’s the only time in my life I’ve ever felt physically strong! I carried everyone’s shit the entire tour. I’d load in and I’d break it down the entire tour, and I did it with a big smile on my face. Anything that was not comfortable about being on the road meant nothing: it all melted away the minute I was on stage playing. ••• Patrick Fondiller I’d gone on a trip to a wedding out in Ohio, and we stayed at a bed-and-breakfast run by this older couple who were artists. The husband, when we were leaving, gave us each a hand-printed piece of art, signed block prints. Michael took that idea, that seed, to a whole new level. I’d shown him these block prints—at the time I was cutting woodblocks—

so Michael would create a work of art, then I’d cut it, and he’d take them and print them, then he’d take a medium like a magic marker, and he’d create an individual piece of art over each of them. It was incredible to witness: you’d walk in and there was Michael Gira on his hands and knees, printing these CD covers, telling you his back hurt or whatever. Kerstin Posch We were expecting that, with Devendra becoming well known, that it would become easier to get other bands out there, which didn’t really happen. We survived mainly on selling CDs—which was 99 percent of our income. When we signed Akron/Family, people just weren’t buying the CDs anymore. Illegal downloading had a serious effect, of course. Out on tour we noticed fewer people were buying anything. We didn’t know what was going to happen. Seth Olinsky [Akron/Family] I ran into a friend who was in a band called Calla, who put out a record on Young God Records. I asked him what was going on, and he told me, ‘It’s this guy called Devendra Banhart. He’s meant to be really incredible.’ Devendra played solo and I was blown away. Michael and Kerstin were there, selling Devendra’s first CD, and that’s why I ended up sending them a demo recording. Michael got back to us, telling us, ‘I like this, I don’t like that; keep doing this, keep sending me stuff.’ Right from the very beginning, he was giving us perspective, which is great at a time when we were just getting auto-replies. That’s a real strength of Michael as an artist and a label owner—his personal and intense investment in everything. We continued making recordings, and we sent another set which coincided with him having just finished recording the second and third Devendra records, so I think Michael had free headspace for the first time in a while. That’s when the talking got more serious. Miles Seaton [Akron/Family] Later, he told us he had been thinking, ‘Oh, shit, I hope nobody else signed these guys.’ We got a residency offer at Pete’s Candy Store—this tiny little dining car in Brooklyn—and Michael said he had to see us, so we told him we’d be there. We’re all smashed together on this stage that barely fits us, the lights are dark, then we see the cowboy hat at the back … time to do it. After the show we met with

Michael, had a drink. He was really animated; he told us we sounded like Yes, which made us die laughing. He was really excited and respectful. When we sat down and talked to Michael about producing our record, we were telling him how we had all this stuff and how well-rehearsed we were, and how we’d get it ready in studio—and he was like, ‘No. We have to use the stuff you already have.’ We were surprised. It wasn’t just pragmatic—he was a penny-pincher at the time, so he was always in control of the economics—it was that he could see the value in what we had created on our own. Seth Olinsky Our first record with Michael was the self-titled one, which had recordings we’d made in our loft. Michael was getting ready to record Sings Other People and asked us to be a part of it. We just went from the first sessions into the Angels Of Light sessions; that’s when we did the tour as Akron/Family opening up for Angels Of Light. Michael was leveraging his devout following into something that could be offered to other artists—a way of getting them out there. A lot of the material we were playing on that tour, when we got back, we went into Trout Recording, and that became the split release. Michael hooked us up with Todd Cote, who helped put us on the road as much as we wanted to, so we were pretty much on the road from 2005 all the way through Love Is Simple.14 Jason LaFarge [engineer, Seizures Palace] The first time I heard them harmonise together around one of the mics, I got chills. We all recognised that this was going to be a special album. Michael would have them do unconventional things like beat their bare chests around a condenser mic for percussion at the beginning of ‘Running/Returning’, and playing coffee cups, the coffee table, and whatever was around the control room for percussion at the end of ‘Italy’. Miles Seaton We were there in the studio, watching each other—Michael watching each of us—and being amazed by what we were able to do together. Dana, our drummer, is an amazing musician—he can play a million instruments, and if he picks something up he can make it sound like

something. Ryan was a very technically gifted singer and had developed his voice a lot. I had all these ideas about jingling keys in the condenser microphone, or creaking the chair and using that as a sample. Seth can play anything on the guitar and layer himself perfectly. So everyone is doing this stuff, and we’re all pushing, but Dana is maybe a little quieter than the three of us, while we’re this fountain of ideas. So, during an Angels Of Light session, Michael turns to Dana and says, ‘Hey, could you try something like this?’—because he understood how to draw someone into the process and get them enthusiastic, so no one was ever just on the sidelines. Not every producer can do that—bring everyone together and rally them. Jason LaFarge For Sing Other People, the initial songs were put to tape by Michael on acoustic guitar and vocals. Then Akron/Family was cut loose to add whatever they could come up with. Some things Michael directed should be added, but much of the tracking was completely spontaneous. When something was being recorded downstairs, or in the isolation booth upstairs, someone else would be coming up with another part on the other side of the room. They would motion for Michael to come over, and if he liked it (which invariably he did), he would have them immediately record it. Miles Seaton One night, recording the song ‘Italy’, we were all sitting around with Ryan going in to record the vocals. Michael is there with the talkback and he’s drunk. Ryan’s going through the vocal, and Michael’s being really gruff: ‘No, stop, not like that.’ Ryan is trying to work it out— we can’t see him while he’s recording, but we can hear him trying to get in the zone. It was so disturbing to me, listening to Michael pushing him, that I got emotionally anxious and fell asleep—I crashed out. Ten minutes later, I woke up, and Ryan was back. I’d heard what he first laid down and it sounded good, but when I heard what he’d done on the final take, it was amazing: he found what he was looking for, and it was far and away better. It was one of those moments where I had to accept and trust that Michael could see something I couldn’t see. There were so many times where I was thinking, ‘What are you talking about?’ And then later I’d see

exactly what Michael was driving at. Because he couldn’t say it, necessarily. It wasn’t like he had some super-articulate way of explaining what he wanted that someone could just do. He was trying to find magic, and when he found it you could see it was there. But other people would have stopped an hour earlier and not exhausted this person or risked alienating them or making them feel weird: the only thing that mattered to him was that magic. He’s willing to risk everything, to push people beyond their physical and emotional and spiritual boundaries, so long as there’s a chance he can take them to these moments they can’t achieve any other way. ••• Kerstin Posch Michael had home recordings, which he would sell to this limited number of people—an exclusive thing he had going that not many record label owners were doing. Siobhan Duffy I don’t think, when he decided to put his own music out— put together homemade releases—I don’t think he knew he was ahead of the curve. He was just thinking, ‘What do you do when your work is stolen and no one pays anymore?’ You have to make something that people can’t steal. Releasing a 500 edition that you can only get from him, and by paying him—it makes all the sense in the world, making something that can’t be ripped off online, until there’s some money in the bank to put food on the table and sustain the next release. Michael looks at things very blackand-white: either survive doing what he’s going to do, or he’ll shrivel up and die. That’s not an option, so you survive. He’d been in that mode long before I came into his life. Patrick Fondiller Michael had developed this method where he would reach out to the fans who were there and ask them questions about themselves. After the show he would sit in a booth and sign autographs and answer questions they had of him, but during the show he would learn a little bit about them, what they thought about things, why they were there— it was really cool.

Miles Seaton We toured Eastern Europe with Michael, and it was really strange. An awful lot of people came to us and were saying, ‘You have to understand, this guy was here for us when it was illegal to be here—he came and played for us.’ That made a real impact on people’s lives—they never forgot. There’s this audience that allows him to keep doing what he’s doing. He’s really connected to them in a really deep way—they’ll always be there for him. There’s a sincerity about all of the work on Young God Records that I feel is the real binding agent—and that’s true of all Michael’s work. Is it requiring you to cut a piece of flesh out of your side and barbecue it? If it isn’t, then he’s not interested. Seth Olinsky During We Are Him there was slightly more tension, which ultimately resulted in a conversation between us and Michael to explain that we were going to do our final record for Young God Records—Love Is Simple—with a different producer. Miles Seaton The communication with Michael had really broken down. We were a bit more focused, while he was wanting us to be the volcano of ideas we were when he met us, because he’d responded really well. He’d be like, ‘Go! Go! GO!’ Steve Moses [trombone, We Are Him] We were neighbours in a Brooklyn neighbourhood called Gowanus. He wanted to enhance one or two songs, and what we played was long tones, textures—not very technical—ad nauseam. He paid fairly! He just approached me in the street. Michael was there guiding me: ‘Here’s the notes. Play these, for a long time, loud.’ There was nothing written, though he might have played me a chunk of a track. The instructions were fairly vague: just play some long notes and keep playing them; don’t stop. Seth Olinsky On Sings Other People, we were bringing more to the table— the door was really open. Then, by the time of We Are Him, we felt more like a session band for whatever reasons. The tenor of the rehearsals and the recording made it feel more like being the backing band. Maybe that

frustrated Michael, too. I think he wanted more commitment from us, and more of the energy we had been bringing to the early sessions. It was about both sides—we were all contributing to the more frustrating dynamic. Bill Rieflin Part of what I do is to attempt to understand what it is he is actually looking for, while giving him something he doesn’t expect. On We Are Him, there’s that song ‘Sunflower’s Here To Stay’, and I play this little happy organ melody. It seems so atypical of a Michael record, but it worked. The thing people don’t seem to know about him is that he grew up, like many people in the 50s and 60s, listening to pop music on the radio. He is a huge Beach Boys fan, for instance—a lot of these things get referenced when we’re working together. Deryk Thomas [artwork, We Are Him] For the We Are Him album, the relationship was revisited. I didn’t have to do any commissions, it was all just sitting waiting to go. It’s my sense of humour, and I’d done many pictures of puppies with bones—but they’re human bones. The puppy is holding up a femur, and I love the idea of puppies burying things—the churches and so on. My favourite painter throughout my life is John Constable—I couldn’t possibly paint like that as much as I like to try, but he accompanies me, so there are lots of nods to him and jokes I have with myself. I also like drawing policemen, too—and butchers!—clichéd imagery, dogs running out of butchers’ with strings of sausages and things like that. There’s one of a cat pushing a pram full of baby birds, and I love that sort of thing: predators and whatnot. Kerstin Posch Akron/Family toured and worked really hard, the feedback from the audience was tremendous, critics were really behind them—there was more than there had been for Devendra, but the sales didn’t reflect that at all. The CDs were what the band would live off when they were on tour —and you can’t sell an MP3 to someone on tour. We had to switch to things like T-shirts, but the truth is every artist wants to sell you their music rather than all this other stuff. Their music is what really matters to them.

Seth Olinsky Going on to other labels, we were able to look back on working with Michael with some perspective. So, sure, we’d needed some space because Michael has his hands in everything to such a degree—but at other labels no one cares as much as he did. Michael has a really intense way of believing in something, so when you’re in that beam of belief it helps you achieve something during the creative process. Kerstin Posch After Akron/Family I was becoming jaded by the struggle. You put in so much work and energy trying to will people to go to shows. I told Michael I needed to take a break. It’s Michael’s art—it’s what he needs to do, and it’s his calling. I was just the administrative help, while Michael’s whole life was in it. We needed to explore other avenues. The way we had it set up wasn’t working quite as well anymore, so we needed other people who could find new ways to do it—I wasn’t that person. Michael was very understanding. Peter Wright [Virtual Label] We went to Michael about handling his digital distribution for him. Kerstin was still doing all of the business management and then, when she decided to move back to Austria, Michael asked us if we would take that on as well. We started handling all of the royalty statements, the accounting, and we professionalised it a bit—started using accounting software and made the royalty statements more manageable in terms of creating them, so it wasn’t like a week-long process —it could be done in half a day. Mi and L’au We were living in Finland, and the lake was the centre of our world. When we were not playing by the lake, we were swimming in the lake or drinking wine by the lake, or just watching it. We spent two years doing nothing else but music, and the only rule was never to play what we had played the day before, so we ended up with hundreds of songs. Then we sent quite a bunch to Michael, who replied—a gentle letter explaining that he found our music to his taste and would come back to us. Two months later, he wrote saying he organised a gig in Tempere, Finland: would we play as his opening? Michael wanted to judge us not only by the music we sent but also on our ability to grab the stage.

We arrived before Michael: he was hungover and had lost himself in a park in Russia the night before, but he was in a good mood. We ordered whisky and cigars. At soundcheck, Michael was really looking at us: how we climbed the stage, how we sat on our chairs, how we tuned our instruments, how we interacted. He really liked what he saw, and finally asked if we would come to New York and record. We took a plane and Michael was at the airport. That morning I suddenly felt horrible. We had recorded as much at home as we could, and we had a very precise idea of what the project should be—but I had forgotten to bring the key to unlock our Logic 4 software. We called a friend, who sent it; it should have arrived on time but it didn’t. Mira and I agreed we would go to the studio with just our guitars. We told Michael all we needed were the mics plugged in, and we recorded six songs straight— one take each—and none of them were on the demos we had sent, which made Michael curious. At the end, he simply asked us, ‘How many songs have you guys written?’ A very positive reaction, and the best way to put us at ease. When we recorded the song ‘Christmas Soul’ we wanted something unique, so we found a bowed psaltery—but it has a very high pitch. We talked about what we could do to cut the frequency; meanwhile, Michael was playing western-style harmonica on a couch. I turned: ‘This is it! I want that western style on top of the bowed psaltery.’ Michael told us, ‘No way, I’m not playing.’ After five minutes of talking, seeing our faces, Michael finally agreed, and the way it turned out was just what was needed. Michael was very pleased! It is wonderful when you can surprise someone like Michael. James Blackshaw Mi and L’au were on Young God Records and were in contact with Michael. They went to Ireland and someone played them one of my CD-Rs. Laurent really liked it and sent it to Michael. Michael then wrote to me and asked me to send him some more. There was no, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna sign you up kid’—he just asked to hear more. I ended up at a festival in the Netherlands, and Michael was playing solo. We met up and I asked him straight out, ‘Are you still interested?’ He said, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’

Nicole Boitos The series on The Glass Bead Game, they’re engravings on copper with ink rubbed in them as if they’re preparing to be printed. It was a series I did of birds of prey. One of my first shows up in New York, Michael came to the opening, and I believe that was the first time he’d seen them. Obviously they stuck in his mind because he must have shown them to James. They were the only things that I did that were not customised for Young God Records. Siobhan Duffy Michael’s visual art background is clearly revealed in his album covers. He’s always appreciated labels like Blue Note or Impulse, where there’s a definable graphic you can associate with the label. Young God Records, everything is very identifiable—from the font to the spacing of the letters—even when he presents other people’s music. He expressed his visual art through the design of covers and picking out other people’s artwork. James Blackshaw Being on Young God made people who wouldn’t be into a solo guitar player take a chance, because it was on the same label as Akron/Family or Devendra Banhart or Michael. The Glass Bead Game did moderately well. These are niche albums and I know that, but it did pretty well. All Is Falling didn’t do so well, but it didn’t lose money. Michael Gira Young God Records couldn’t continue the way it had been so, over the course of a year, I contacted everyone who was on the label and told them I couldn’t do this anymore. I had things in the pipeline which I had to complete. That was a matter of personal honour, so I did the work to make them happen. Sales were the nail in the coffin, and it was a trend that had been happening since Akron/Family: when I first saw them there were maybe half a dozen people, and within a year they were selling out 700– 1,000-seat places, but the record sales were mediocre. I persisted, and I kept putting out people’s music—all wonderful artists—but the record sales kept getting worse, because people had decided, ‘Why buy it when you can steal it?’ •••

Larry Mullins There was nothing glamorous about it, but we had our funny little songs, and Michael managed to make something that didn’t necessarily make ticket and record sales, but that was still a viable artistic entity and a positive creative period. Angels Of Light deserves to be appreciated both in terms of the music and how it showed Michael’s ability to move on. Michael Gira Angels Of Light was just another fucking failure. In retrospect, it obviously wasn’t ever going to reach any kind of commercial success, and it was sad to me because I hoped it would be a more fruitful and fertile moniker under which to work for a long time, but it just fizzled. Also, I was feeling aesthetically nonplussed with how things were going with it. I liked the album We Are Him but I couldn’t see what the logical next step would be musically. Gathering all the contributors for another Angels Of Light record didn’t feel attractive. These were really trying times —I was scrambling trying to figure out how to proceed. Around the time of the financial crash I was even thinking about whether I was capable of going back to being a housepainter. I had one child and a mortgage, and I was in a state of ongoing devastation. The collapse of the music industry made the continuation of what I was doing untenable. Thankfully, I saw the writing on the wall, and something good came together: Swans.

14.0 THE SEER RETURNS My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky / The Seer 2010–13 Michael Gira The decision to restart Swans was aesthetic, but it was also financial—it’s the real world. The crucial thing, though, was that I really wanted to do it—I’ve always needed that determination and that passion. I couldn’t have lived with it as an ‘oldies act’, so once I started to think about restarting Swans, it was quite a hefty psychic readjustment. I had to think of ways to do it, artistically, that were compelling for me. I needed it to be able to do it with genuine integrity, and also to find ways to challenge myself and find new opportunities in the art. I had to reckon with who I am as a person and as an artist—what I was put on Earth to do is to make that kind of experience, and the way that it makes me sing and perform is what I was put here to do. So I had to come to terms with the failures of the past—all its attendant troubles and psychic damage—then integrate that into who I was at the time. Thirteen years earlier, I said I’d never go back, but I realised it was who I was, so I had to accept it and move forward. There was a seed that had been planted when I was playing live with Akron/Family, this one song called ‘The Provider’. It was a performance in Paris where the spark went off, and I thought, ‘Oh, I could actually live in this sonic environment again.’ It was an extraordinarily hot day and the venue didn’t have any air-conditioning, and sweat was pooling on the floor as we were playing. Then that song took off. It had these open trajectories of sound and these slave-ship rhythms, so I found myself being pulled by this luminescent thread into the slipstream again. It’s this moment where the music becomes something much greater than the sum of its parts and takes you to an essential place. That’s always what I’m looking for.

Chris Pravdica [bass, Swans, 2010–17] I knew a lot of people who knew Michael and would tell me stories about what he was like. Then, when I met him, I thought the complete opposite, because he’s the biggest sweetheart—I always called him Uncle Mike. I figured out it was all about the music—outside of that, he’s the sweetest guy. He doesn’t suffer the concept of a compromise, and that’s difficult when you’re dealing with people and you’re asking them to be part of your thing. It’s obviously the key to his success, but it’s a challenging trait. Norman Westberg I did office work for a while up until the big crash, and if that hadn’t have happened I often wonder if I’d still be there—I’d have had a very straight job and I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’m doing now. It all works out for the best. Chris Pravdica I actually didn’t think it’d ever happen. He’d seemed to permanently push that side of his life away. The first I heard of it was when Siobhan mentioned it. She said he was thinking of bringing it back, and that I was first in line on bass. He’d asked her to ask me if I would do it. Not too long after that, I went upstate to go play a little with him, just to see how it felt, see if it was a good fit. I knew right away that I could add something to it. He played acoustic guitar, I played bass through a little amp, and it was clear—immediate. Michael Gira I made a lengthy list of potential contributors to this new venture and came up with this solid list of five gentlemen. I just pictured people and I didn’t think overly much of how they played or what they played. I thought about how I wanted them to be in a room rehearsing and pictured them there. Phil Puleo I had settled down: I played in a few little bands, jammed with some friends for five-six years; I became a web and graphic designer. I fell in with these three guys who were awesome musicians, and we’d get together twice a week. We were so tuned-in together that the jamming sounded like songs—really organic but structured. I kept my chops by

doing that. My work started to decline, and right around that time is when Michael called. It was perfect timing. Norman Westberg Michael was doing a solo show just up the street from me at the Stone, so me and my wife went. It was fun, and I had been out of work for an awful long time. I called him up one day and said, ‘If you’re looking to do something, let me know, because I’m pretty open.’ That was the start for me, putting me on his radar. Kristof Hahn Michael called me and told me that he wanted to make music again. Then he told me he wanted to call it Swans. I said, ‘Cool, have you asked Norman?’ I suggested he go and ask him. I totally liked the idea, from an artistic point of view. I thought we could do something unique. Brandon Eggleston [tour manager/live sound engineer] When Michael was putting the idea out, a couple of the guys met up with Norman, and Norman said, ‘Oh, you don’t have to put me on the guest list,’ like he’d already decided he wasn’t going to do it, or maybe Michael wouldn’t ask him. Norman Westberg It took almost a year from when I spoke to him before he asked me if I’d be interested. He pitched it to me that it would be a commitment, a job—not just a one-off. Michael’s a serious person, so if you get on board you know it’s going to pull out of the station. Kristof Hahn I was sceptical about things being a nostalgia act, but that went away very fast. I know Michael: he has an amazing artistic integrity and he never picks the easy way to do things. He’s not the guy who, at the end of his career, puts the music he has made into three stacks—‘bad’, ‘OK’, ‘amazing’—and, if he’s lucky, he has three equal stacks. He wants every record to be in the ‘amazing’ stack, even if it means he’s not going to be successful in terms of sales.

Phil Puleo Michael said he wanted to make loud music again and … how did he put it? ‘I want to tour the fuck out of the world! Every fucking place!’ Michael Gira The initial vision was that the band would start where Soundtracks For The Blind left off, but I didn’t want to be leashed to repeating those songs. The orchestral epiphanies and extended pieces were the starting point, measured against delicate moments. Jason LaFarge There were no rehearsals. It was too cost-prohibitive. Putting everybody up in New York hotels for a two-week period was incredibly expensive. Michael flew Kristof and Thor to NYC maybe a day or two before the sessions. The first time this line-up of Swans actually got together in the same room was in the tracking room of Seizures Palace on the day we began recording—January 21 2010. The first song we did was ‘Jim’, about J.G. Thirlwell, Michael’s long-time friend. In the final mix, Michael left in, ‘Are we rolling, Jason?’ That was really cool of him. He knew I would appreciate it. ‘Jim’ starts out quietly and grows into this beast. Thor’s vibes, Phil’s hammered dulcimer, and Kristof’s slide guitar work put this one over the top. It came together organically, and at the end of the night we were all happy with the results. We left the studio in good spirits and proud of what we had accomplished on day one. Kristof Hahn We had eleven days and ten songs. Michael had sent out some files with him on acoustic guitar but we didn’t really have an idea what he wanted to do. We sat downstairs in Martin Bisi’s studio and we played over and over, developed the parts, and after about four hours we would record a backing track for either the whole song or a particular section. Jason LaFarge The second day we worked on ‘Eden Prison’. Smooth sailing. Everyone was in a good mood. The nervous energy that Michael had brought the day before was now replaced with confidence. It’s a heavy hitter—lyrically and musically. More smiles and slaps on the back.

Thor Harris I rented a ridiculous arsenal of orchestral percussion instruments, and we all piled into that studio. It was a really cool way of working: we would start each morning improvising on one song, then we would work on it until we felt it was time to record it. Every song was started in the morning and just worked on until early afternoon, when we would start recording. Jason LaFarge Third day: ‘No Words/No Thoughts’. A stormy, cold, rainy January morning. I was just sitting down with a cup of coffee when I hear what sounds like Niagara Falls in the tracking room, with Michael yelling, ‘JASON!’ I ran downstairs to see one of the hundred-plus-year-old cast-iron drainage pipes gushing water at the rate of multiple gallons per second. Thor grabbed a roll of duct tape and a ladder and scaled to the top of the ceiling, wrapping duct tape around the joint until the water stopped—thanks to Thor, the day was saved. Michael Gira The first album was kind of a transitional thing, from Angels to Swans. The process was interesting: slowly hearing something develop, hearing someone do something and asking them to push that more, then that would engender a new section or approach. Things would gradually change away from just a literal reciting of the way I play guitar. I knew it had to become an expression of these six people—myself included—not just decorating my songs. Jason LaFarge Day four we did ‘My Birth’. Thor overdubbed a staccato snare throughout, and Phil added hammered dulcimer. Chris Pravdica Some of the ideas were like Angels throwaways. As we started to play, all the key changes disappeared, and as soon as we hit something good, that was now ‘the thing’. There were these songs that had almost choruses, and there were all these key changes, and all of that disappeared. When Michael plays alone on an acoustic guitar, he does these funny chords and they have these overtones that he really likes. When the band plays, with three electric guitars and a bass, those things just don’t

exist, so he’s always searching for that smoosh that his acoustic guitar made, and how we can make that happen. Jason LaFarge January 28: ‘Reeling The Liars In’. This one was done differently from all of the others. First, Michael laid down vocals and guitar for the entire song, with Thor keeping time on a kick drum. Then we added the humming at the beginning and end with all of the guys—except Michael —in a circle. Then we added the whole band instrumentation for the middle part. Kristof Hahn There was no personal stress, but the time factor was a serious element in that context. We tried to work very hard, very efficiently. At some point on the fifth day I went to get a sandwich, and when I came back everyone was sitting in the room listening to this music. I said, ‘Wow, this sounds amazing. What is this?’ And they told me it was the song we had recorded two days ago. I didn’t even realise it was us! I had been in the moment so much that I was totally focused on what was happening right now, and everything else evaporated. Jason LaFarge ‘Inside Madeline’ required the most work to help it build properly. Certain sections needed to be longer. It also required more instrumentation to help the escalation of intensity until it breaks and the vocals come in. I also play violin on it. Michael asked if I could come up with something for the chorus. I did six takes of four parts and then layered them to sound like an orchestra. Norman Westberg Michael’s awareness of what we could do changed as well: he was listening for strengths. Michael knows what he wants to hear, but sometimes he needs to hear it first. Jason LaFarge ‘You Fucking People Make Me Sick’ is radically different than the one we laid down at Seizures Palace. The only parts that remain are the mouth harp that starts the song and the guitar that plays throughout. Devendra recorded vocals in LA; Michael and Siobhan recorded their

daughter, Saoirse, singing the same lines. I had to make them line up so there was a call-and-response between the two. Thor Harris The way we did My Father was kind of magical. There wasn’t as much pressure on us; we were all still getting to know each other. It was the first time I’d played with Norman, and I realised how much an important part of that sound he is—there’s something about the enormity and ferocity of his guitar playing that really defines Swans. Jason LaFarge ‘Little Mouth’ was the appropriate song to end both the album and the session. The intro was a combination of a bowed cymbal and some odd distant vocal take; the whistles and background vocals were doubled and tripled. Chris Pravdica The hardest thing for me was how deconstructive he is: when he started throwing away all these parts and I was like, ‘Oh, those little changes were what made it all sound so cool.’ He would just pull everything apart. Then I realised that there was always something more; he’d always find the better thing even after we got rid of everything. He gets bored of it and starts pulling all the wires out and yanking the guts out of it, and then—lo and behold—there’s something else in there. Brian Carpenter [horns, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky] It was Martin Bisi who introduced me to Michael over email. I sent Michael a bunch of songs I had written about my son, who had been diagnosed with autism, and my wife and I were kind of struggling through trying to get him services. When I met Michael in person, years later, he asked me about my son and how he was doing. I was really touched that he would ask about this boy he didn’t even know. I had completely forgotten I had mentioned it. On ‘No Words/No Thoughts’, he asked me to play the slide trumpet. It’s not an instrument many people play well, and I think he liked the mystery and the irreverence and the vocal quality of it. I played a few long tones and he wanted something darker or lower pitched. He had the idea of recording at a faster speed, so when they played back at normal

speed, all of these slide trumpets suddenly sounded like a bunch of lowflying bomber jets soaring over. Kenny Siegal [engineer, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky] Mostly the Old Soul sessions for My Father were inspiring, but there were a few exceptions when I’d scratch my head and wonder what the fuck we were doing. There was a moment when we were recording guitars and Michael asked me to keep pushing the gain on a mic pre-amp, but I knew that if we pushed any further then the track would be unusable. It’s one thing to want a lot of saturation or for a sound to be overdriven, but it’s another thing for there to be digital distortion rendering a track unusable— the science of psychoacoustics isn’t very forgiving. I resisted, but in the end the guy was paying me for studio time and I had to comply. Two weeks later, I got a phone call from Michael: ‘Kenny, that guitar track, why the hell does it sound like that?’ I raised my voice: ‘You told me to do that, man!’ ‘Oh.’ These kinds of things weren’t as funny as they sound now. Frustrating moments aside, when I look back on the three records I worked on with Michael at Old Soul I feel that, deep down, he was a good guy, and for a guy who isn’t a schooled musician he has a great musical imagination and isn’t afraid to make music however the fuck he wants to. The most profound exchange we had was we discussed creative censorship and Michael spoke, in a very matter of fact manner, about how you should never censor your art or your writing. I still wholeheartedly agree with him. You create therefore you are free—and art is the place to be the freest of all. That’s what we were getting at—the good stuff. That conversation is my most important memory of working with Michael. Michael Gira ‘You Fucking People Make Me Sick’ is obviously entirely a studio invention. I had this first part on acoustic guitar and asked Devendra to sing it, then my little daughter is always singing in the house, so I had her sing the words, too, which added a completely different interpretation of the words. I wasn’t satisfied with it as it was, so I conceived this end part with the discordant piano and the drums. I sent Bill Rieflin a series of numbers corresponding to how he could bash the piano—this many beats for a count

of however many and so on. It was a wonderful moment—an entirely different way of making a piece of music. Brian Carpenter I think it was ‘You Fucking People Make Me Sick’ where he said he wanted to hear something ugly, something primitive. He asked if I had heard of Hermann Nitsch. Just hearing him describe it conjured up, for me, that image toward the end of Apocalypse Now where Kurtz and the cow are being destroyed simultaneously and ceremoniously. And that led to a particular sound, and then a bunch of layers of that sound. Kenny Siegal Bill Rieflin had a really impressive, upside-down way of looking at the recording process that I felt at home with. We did stuff like slowing the song down to half-speed to track the guitar, and then we’d speed the song back up, which would make the guitars sound like broken glass. Bill would construct a four-part guitar idea, and each would occupy a completely different aspect of the rhythm in a measure, but when they were all put together they would sound like an intricate living, breathing, puzzle. Grasshopper from Mercury Rev played some awesome-sounding mandolins and flutes through amps and delays. Michael was kind of the puppet master, but he knew to let the musicians do their stuff on their own, and then once they were cooking in their own right he would guide them from there. Beatrice Pediconi [artwork, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky] Michael saw my work in Harper’s magazine then contacted me. He was very open—he gave me freedom to decide what I wanted to prepare for him. He told me, ‘I don’t want to influence you. I’ll send you the music and you tell me what you think.’ The first time he emailed me, the way he wrote was so amazing. I immediately thought, ‘Who is this guy?’ There was no rock-star style. He was so down-to-earth—it was like he was already a friend. They had finished recording but didn’t have the entire album together, so he sent me Swans’ previous albums and one or two of the new songs they had finished. I spent a month with earphones on, loving the music, embracing the idea of it. I felt the body of work he had seen in Harper’s— which referred to space, to the infinite, the universe, through these abstract

paint on water compositions—it shared something with the music of Swans. I felt it was something enormous. I asked him if he was happy for me to continue with that series. I explained my reasons to him, the idea of a giant star exploding, throwing music everywhere. The scale of the idea seemed important. The technique I used for that series was to work with white tempera. It doesn’t dissolve in water; it fragments. The fact that it fragments creates these stars, dots in the water, so I can create the effect of a nebula. With oil paint, I couldn’t do that. As I was already working on that when I did the image for Swans, I was already convinced that the idea of the explosion was right. Water related to my action so, sure, you can’t absolutely control the result. I use water because I care about issues regarding nature, and I like its fluidity. I prefer shapes you cannot define, curves. For Swans it had to be a nebula—it couldn’t be something else. When I was ready, I sent him a print to check the image with him—I wanted him to be able to physically look at it, not just look at an electronic image. He loved it—immediately. He appreciated the idea of space, but also—conceptually—he liked it as a visual celebration of Swans. ••• Norman Westberg Part of doing the record was that you were committing to doing the tour, because he wanted the same people. It felt like a natural unit very quickly, even during the recording. I had just had a little baby, so there was a lot of stuff going on—an exciting time. Chris Pravdica We did about three weeks of rehearsals. I quickly blew up everything I owned, every piece of gear, trying to get the Swans sound. I didn’t really understand the level of equipment that it was going to take. The last days before the first show, Michael was making pretty fundamental changes. I felt we were hanging by a thread. Norman Westberg The old songs didn’t feel right to me, to us, and especially not to Michael. I don’t know what it is—maybe because Swans never really did songs, so maybe that explains what wasn’t working. We

had all been there and done that—did we want to re-live that? There was an attitude when those songs were originally played which was all about experiences up to that point. Now, there’s been a lot more experience, and we didn’t want to go back. Phil Puleo There was definitely that feeling of, ‘It’s not like it used to be when we were young.’ Michael and Norman, going over the old stuff, their memory of how it used to be and what was happening now, it was very hard for them to make sense of it. I understood, but in my mind I was thinking, ‘Yeah, but you remember it different than it probably was.’ Chris Pravdica Another thing that was hard for me in the beginning was, Michael always wanted me and Phil to look at each other as we were playing: full eye contact. It actually felt creepy to have eye contact, especially for so long—it didn’t feel natural. He would yell at me: ‘Look at him! Look at him!’ He felt it would mean we had a tighter rhythm, and—as it turns out—he’s actually quite right too, because, for one, it’s so loud on stage it’s really hard to hear the subtleties and differences. If I’m speeding up and Phil isn’t following me, I can’t even really tell unless I’m watching him. The pull and the push of the rhythm between us is very difficult because he can’t really hear me and I can’t really hear him. But when he sees my hand and I see his sticks and I see his knee going up and down for the kick and I watch the drumhead on the kick flap out, I can tell where the beat is; without the watching it’s very difficult in this band. Siobhan Duffy The year we got married, I became a nurse and got pregnant. Michael was very supportive of me going to nursing school, though he was sad I stopped making music. I felt one of us had to do it— had to get a stable situation. It was the first time either of us had health insurance for a very long time, so just that was a very big help. Having a home and having someone there to be a support is essential to Michael—he always talked about how he can’t talk about personal things with other men because ‘guys don’t do that’. Michael’s obsessed with what he does, and being a musician I understood that—I’ve no idea why I thought it would be a good idea to

create a family around it. Most moms wind up doing the bulk of the childrearing, and we are no different. It was the sum of moving one hundred miles north of New York, which was a bad idea, because I couldn’t acclimate at all; Michael had his work and touring; I had motherhood and no connections to anyone there, except the coyotes, wild turkeys, and owls; it fell apart naturally. We divorced in 2011, having created two very beautiful and creative beings. Thor Harris September 2010: I was used to the rehearsals, but then we started doing it on stage every night, and it really took a physical toll. The first few nights I went to the hotel gym the next day but quickly realised that if we were going to play that two-and-a-half-hour show every night then I had to preserve my energy. Evan LeSure [live sound engineer, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky tour] There were nine powerful amps turned all the way up, something like twenty or thirty live microphones. My job was to get Michael’s vocals and all the percussion over the top of all that—but also to try and make it actually appealing, sonically. You had really loud guitars, but then we had two hammered dulcimers, orchestral bells, a homemade violin, which Thor had made himself, and it all has to be there in the mix! Chris Pravdica It took four, five shows before I understood how it was all working. The one nightmare moment was the first night in Philadelphia; we had this big explosive end, the grand finale at the end of ‘Eden Prison’. Phil was meant to count us in on these big crashes that repeat, so we’re all looking at him and waiting. He just looked at all of us, like, ‘What?’ Michael was furious and just started playing noise, then we gradually started getting into the chords. Michael still chides Phil about that ‘deer in the headlights moment’, as he calls it. By the time we played Brooklyn Masonic Temple, things were chugging along really sweetly. It had probably taken about a week of playing, after our first show, to get really solid. One of the first times it really hit me was at Lee’s Palace in Toronto. It all happened very fast— even the first show went really well. It was hard to objectively know that.

We were just playing, getting through it. There was a point within the first week where it became a machine. Evan LeSure Toronto, October 2nd, the fifth show—that was the first time where everything was together. Then the Koko show in London, again, the sound of everything: ‘This is where we need to be.’ If Michael heard a problem, I’d hear about it—once or twice I heard about it live from the stage, as it happened. He’s not the kind of guy to bite his tongue, but that was great—if there was something wrong he told you, and you fixed it! Kristof Hahn If I was a piece of machinery, I wouldn’t be allowed to operate in Europe. As a guitar player in Swans I emit well over one hundred decibels for two hours. If you touch a string at that volume you hear things that you wouldn’t hear if you touched it in the same way and it wasn’t that loud. You hear tones in a note that you wouldn’t hear, then you start taking these tones and work with them. Chris Pravdica I knew a lot already about what Michael didn’t like. He complained about bass players he didn’t like that ‘they play from the neck up’. He wants the pelvic thrust, to come from below. This is way more globular: feeling, no thinking. Phil Puleo A lot of times, the stage sound dictates how we play. Sometimes Michael enjoys that, and we’ll play the stage—we’ll play the sound. If he tries to fight that then he gets angry and frustrated, because it doesn’t sound the way it should or the way it did when everything gelled the previous night. It’s our playing plus the sound of the stage, plus the audience’s energy—all that stuff—and if one little bit is out of whack, Michael feels it —he really does. Evan LeSure There were days when I had to walk into venues and ask them, ‘Hey, where are the batteries for your sound-level monitor?’ They’d show me; I’d tell them, ‘Take the batteries out—we’re not doing this today.’ It became a negotiation point that it was literally impossible for this show to

be mixed at this level. Even the drums alone—the way Phil played sometimes, just from that we’d be over. I got good at calculating where I was and where I could push it later, based on how long the song was, how long the loud part was, what we went into after that song. Phil Puleo It’s based around vocals. We have these long passages that slink along in a groove, then, when Michael gets excited, the general rule is to back him up and don’t leave him hanging while he’s screaming, whispering, changing his vocals up. If he gets quiet, we have to drop down. If it’s a crappy stage we might have to play quieter, or on another stage he might want to hear more of a different instrument and exploit that. We have to keep it alive. ••• Nicole Boitos For the fund-raising version of We Rose From Your Bed With The Sun In Our Head, Michael had already created the artwork, so I just faithfully reproduced his design onto the linoleum block and executed it. The drawing was 100 percent his. I just carved it. That form of printmaking —basically making a stamp—is ancient. We used this soft linoleum thick rubber with gouges from knives I carve away the negatives. If it’s going to be a black-and-white object then I carve away everything that’s white, and what’s left—that surface—is the image. You then roll ink directly onto that surface in a thin layer and flip it over. Then you either stamp it or put a piece of paper on top of it and rub the back of the paper to transfer the image. We were always dealing in such high quantities we needed to keep it simple. So the circles on the back, those are painted direct onto the craft paper—my poor husband got stuck doing all of them. You would draw the circle or paint the circle on first, then let it dry overnight, then I would get the printing block and stamp it on to each one. I would say, between all the processes—the painting, stamping, drawing, hand numbering, signing of each one—I’d say each of those covers spent a total of about five minutes in our hands combined. It’s very labour-intensive—almost stupidly labourintensive. We try to keep it as practical as possible, but the fact that it’s

always handmade and each of us has spent so much time with each one, I think that gives it value. Each one is truly a little piece of artwork, it’s been handled a lot, there’s no automation whatsoever. Michael Gira Preparing for The Seer, the band had become this living beast over the course of touring. It opened up all possibilities, and I felt this immense power and potential. From a production point of view, I remember thinking, ‘This is it—it has to be everything.’ I wrote in a press release or some bullshit at the time that the album encompassed Swans’ entire body of work, Angels Of Light, everything. It pretty much is: long sonic passages that use loops, found sounds, band performances; there are delicate more pastoral moments; everything. It was a process of diving in and fighting with the circumstances that arose through working and trying to wrangle them all into some cohesive final shape. I stopped caring about length. I just let the material develop by its own volition, and the only reason to edit anything was by its own demands—by how long it felt like it should go on. I stopping thinking, ‘Oh, I can’t make a double or a triple album.’ I didn’t even worry about it. I figured, let the material speak for itself, and we’d deal with the consequences in terms of financing and formatting later. Phil Puleo The Seer was written, in part, on the road, while we were touring. We would branch out some pieces from My Father, and they would develop into new songs. As that set grew, we would drop some of the older songs. Then we did a pretty long tour where we did barely anything from My Father—we just did the material that we were going to go on to record as The Seer. That set up the whole cycle of writing the next record on the previous tour. Chris Pravdica In the studio, it’s very difficult to accomplish some of the effects we make on stage—at least for me, on bass. On stage, the sound flies and reverberates all over the place, and I hold a note down and get all this sound. You need to be really loud to accomplish some of the effects. The studio is treated very differently: a lot of stuff gets layered on top. I’m more of a bass player in the studio. On stage, I’m there for sound effects, tones, soundscapes.

Kevin McMahon [mixing, The Seer] With Michael, what really worked was recording things with lots of ambience, and using spaces as part of the sound, as well as the ensemble format of capturing performances, not just parts. Some of that is the equipment—even the stuff involving just the spaces requires you to set the technical infrastructure up—so a big focus was capturing sounds with ambience and looking for acoustic spaces. Michael Gira ‘The Seer’, ‘The Seer Returns’, ‘Avatar,’ ‘The Apostate’, we had played live. ‘Piece Of The Sky’ was a huge construction in the studio. That’s partly my desire to juxtapose one sensibility with another and keep the dynamics and the visual picture shifting. The record reached a point where I thought it was nearing completion, and I thought I could edit and master it, but then I thought, ‘No, I’ve got to go back and do more.’ That happened a couple of times. Norman Westberg When it comes to my parts, by now I have a fair idea what Michael wants, and—as it’s always been—he’ll describe something, maybe just an idea, and we’ll work at it. In the studio, I can sit there and do a bunch of stuff until we find something where he says, ‘I like just this part of all of that,’ then we’ll expand on it and get everything worked out. Live, he’ll tell me to try stuff, then he’ll say what he likes and we’ll expand on that and fine-tune it. Now, we make sections and parts, then combine them or see how they work together. New parts come in, they get expanded, and maybe they shorten the old parts because we’ve been playing those for a long time. A lot of it you can’t play the same way every night. It’s based on improv, but there are very strict rules about where you go with it, even though it isn’t a set of pop songs. Kevin McMahon This record represents a thing I believe in very strongly: dynamics. A band needs to overdramatise the dynamics they intend to be the final result. In terms of the idea of music sounding ‘loud’—which I like to think is very different to just ‘being loud’—you really miss loudness if you don’t have the contrast. It’s like colour in a photo or something: if you don’t have the right blend then it doesn’t look right. I think that applies to dynamics. If something is supposed to be the loudest fucking thing on the

planet, it can’t be the same volume that everything’s been at for the previous twenty minutes. So many records immediately get as loud as they’re going to get within the first millisecond, and there’s no breath, no quiet. This record was recorded and mixed and mastered absolutely with this in mind. In the structure of the mixes we were really trying to identify the key points on the record and stay aware of where the peaks were supposed to be, and to facilitate that. It was a part of the flow of thought for that record: peaks and dynamics. It can be really quiet, but when it gets loud it should kick you in the teeth, a lot of hijinks to facilitate that. Phil Puleo I didn’t expect Swans to grow too much bigger after the first record. It feels like it doubled or even tripled after The Seer. Things grew exponentially. We would come to clubs we’d played the previous year and 70 percent attendance was now sold out. We were a new band—completely new music, and a new direction. Michael Gira I don’t want to be on stage with a bunch of side-people playing their parts. I want it to be an experience for everyone, for the band and the audience. And that takes a lot of commitment and work. You see so many bands that just play their stupid songs, have their moves they do, then a light show: a spectacle of mediocrity. I want to find something that has blood in it. Thor Harris I’m fifty-two years old, and I’ve been playing music since I was nine. Never did I have so many people come up to me and say, ‘That was the most amazing show I’ve ever seen in my entire life.’ In that band, several times a week, people would say that to me. I was really honoured to be a Swan. We thought, ‘Yeah, people are enthusiastic now because it’s the return of Swans,’ but we thought it’d decline after that first tour—each tour would get a little more meagre. Then, instead, we started getting all this mad-good press. It became this cathartic beating that we’d all take part in every night. It really appealed and struck people. The records are good, but the live show propelled us to become a force. It was like a theatre piece, exhausting to execute every night but really rewarding. Our crowd got

younger and bigger really fast. It feels like the world caught up and realised that Swans was a truly unique phenomenon.

15.0 FINALLY, PEACE? To Be Kind / The Glowing Man 2014–18 Michael Gira I have this nagging set of teeth chewing on the back of my head, constantly telling me, ‘You could end up poor,’ because I’ve gone hungry and I’ve been poor—I don’t want that again. I don’t want to end up covered in dust, carrying sacks of cement up stairs. I can’t at my age—I’d collapse and have a heart attack. So there’s constantly this force behind me, pushing me out of a basic fear of poverty. Having been poor for a very long time and worked difficult jobs—physically difficult, filthy, disgusting—I have this thing where I just can’t go back. Also, I have this memory of seeing my father die in poverty, and I have a terrible fear of ending that way. Chris Pravdica What it really became after The Seer was these big giant globs of sound with islands of music in between. Since The Seer it’s felt more like experimental composition. Kristof Hahn Swans are an orchestra with mostly electric instruments, that’s how we function—the Wagner of noisy experimental music. Brandon Eggleston SIR, an American backline rental company, they were really gracious with Swans. One woman in particular, she knew every time she saw gear go out that it would come back heavily damaged. We used to rent this giant gong that came back cracked one time; we’d bring back stuff with blown speakers, blown tubes, blown transformers; things would have melted. A couple of the guys would call me and ask, ‘What is going on? You can’t keep doing this!’ I’d just say, ‘I don’t know what to tell you. It’s

the nature of the beast. These guys are not going to turn down, they’re not going to go easy on the equipment. There’s a thing they have to do, and if you don’t want to rent to us anymore you can just say so. Until that time comes, this is what’s going to happen, and there’s nothing we can do about it.’ Daniel Gira Swans now is a well-oiled machine. We saw Michael at the El Rey Theatre in LA: a sold-out show and adoring fans, people touching me because I’m his brother. Who would have thought that, as opposed to the young, hard-charging rocker who makes all his money when he’s twentyfive then blows it all, Michael would toil in the trenches working harder than anybody for thirty-plus years, and finally he becomes financially successful in his sixties? Phil Puleo In Moscow, we went backstage to get a drink, then we came back out to start taking our gear down—and there were still fifty people with their stuff they wanted to have signed. Stage right to stage left, six people deep, people holding it up, calling your name out. Chris Pravdica The Russian audiences are extremely loving. They’re super-excited to be around us. We signed people’s cell-phones, their bus tickets—it’s an hour of signing for everybody in the band. Normally, the reaction is like gaping jaws and standing still and just getting lost in the sound, but in Russia they react like it’s party time. Phil Puleo Shanghai and China, I was impressed: super-pro! They had all the gear we wanted, and they set up our stage almost to the centimetre. They’d watched YouTube videos so they knew how to set my cymbals up just the way I like them—it was amazing. We walked in expecting the worst, and we got the polar opposite. It was the same in Japan. Jehnny Beth [singer, Savages] One day in Holland, we watched them from the side at a daytime gig. At the end, people were clapping so long and so loud while they came to the front and they bowed to the audience. Michael

raised his hands and started shouting, ‘Love! Love! LOVE!’ With the claps and the chants of the crowd, too, that moment struck me like lightning—it was so powerful it moved me to tears. This is the kind of love I want to talk about: the kind that transcends the pettiness of feelings and goes straight from here to the universe. Only Michael could invoke that. I wanted to talk about love, but not through the prism of pop music feelings. How do we take back the flag of love? How do we talk without feeling we are performing? That’s what I got from watching Michael scream ‘Love!’ Phil Puleo The first time we played the Off! Festival in Poland, we went a little long and they turned the power off. Michael, Kristof, and I kept playing—acoustic drums, and they were playing out of their amps. The crowd was going nuts. They wanted more, more, more! It whittled down until it was just me pounding on my drums. They took the equipment off and tried to set up for the next band with the crowd still chanting, ‘Swans! Swans! Swans!’ Half an hour of cheering. Little Annie In Macedonia we got locked out of the bus after the club had closed. Someone joked, ‘Annie’s small, she could crawl through the hatch.’ Instead, I have this vision—it’s quite heroic—of Michael stood on top of the bus, light in back of him from the moon, with his hat on and a crowbar. Christopher got in through the hatch, thankfully, because I would have gone through head first. It wouldn’t have been fun sitting on the sidewalk in Macedonia all night. There was no one around—no locksmiths. We had a travel day through the mountains in Romania, which was just sort of blissful, sitting in the front of the touring bus chatting and seeing this incredible country, or Christopher explaining the black holes in outer space to me somewhere in the Czech Republic. The things we all remember aren’t necessarily exciting, but they’re lovely. Kristof Hahn The last show of a tour, and we had to drive from Bilbao to Sevilla in one day—there are no two cities in Spain that are further apart. We were all super-tired and we just needed to get through the tour and go on vacation. Two minutes into the set it sounded so amazing that it became the best show of the tour. I thought we were the greatest jazz band in the

world—the slowest and the loudest jazz. Maybe I was so exhausted I was in a trance, but I thought it sounded like a loud version of the Miles Davis Quartet. Being so tired and then playing can create totally unexpected results. I like to be surprised in a positive way! Michael Gira When I feel a gig has worked is when it’s peaked—when, even just for an instant, you forget who you are and where you are and you’re just inside this sound. To get there is no easy thing, but it’s the entire goal, even with quieter songs, to be entirely subsumed in the music and unified with the sound. That’s something I hope the audience experiences as well. Larry Mullins I saw them play outside in Poland—about 30,000 people standing there—and I said to the soundman that Poland doesn’t have any dB limits: ‘Here’s your chance to really explore this band!’ I stood in front of the sound desk—I must have been forty yards from the stage—and this nearly breached the level where I felt if he goes one dB more, I didn’t think I could take it. Michael had been designing these pieces of music where they’re slowly developing a harmonically constructed chord that will just resonate. If you hold these chords long enough, something starts to happen to your body, to your ears, your mind. It becomes a psychedelic experience. The volume can overwhelm you and allow you to drift off into something else—and I know that’s exactly what he’s trying to do to people, using harmonics and volume to allow people to escape. He’s trying to do that for himself as well. I don’t know how he arrived at that desire, but that’s what’s going on—there’s nobody else going out on the road trying to do this. This goes back thousands of years—ritualistic, communal ceremonies that use music to instil hallucination or healing. He’s working somewhere in there. Brandon Eggleston Michael was clear: ‘At any festival or any show, I want us to sound the best. I want people to leave thinking nothing will ever come close to this experience.’ We had these euphoric performances where I would just stand in awe at what was happening. When everybody is in the moment and the mood is right and the crowd is giving them what they need, there is no better band that I’ve ever seen on this planet. We would do all

these festivals and play with so many bands: nine times out of ten, Swans blew everybody out of the water. Thor Harris I think that around 2013–14, we were the best touring band in the world at that time—there was nothing like Swans. I would come off stage right at the brink of passing out from exhaustion. It felt like we were able to put in so much brute force and emotion. Jennifer Gira My roommate asked me to come see a show, and it was one of the most compelling performances I’ve ever seen. Michael as an energy —as a force—was one of the greatest things I’d ever seen. This was the last two gigs of that tour, so they were at the top of their game: the New York shows were the utter peak. It was the end of summer, and Michael is not a fan of air-conditioning at all, so it’s literally about 110 degrees. You could cut the air with a knife—it was like a sweat lodge. I see this man, by no means a young man, and he’s furiously playing—I seriously thought, ‘This is insane, he’s going to drop dead!’ I like very dynamic and intense performance, so it was amazing to see that in a rock context. Somehow, he saw me—I was out in the crowd and I was egging him on to keep playing, and we were interacting—we didn’t even know each other. He kept saying into the microphone, ‘I’ll keep playing if she wants me to.’ The crowd was roaring, and the encore was forty-five minutes or so—he played until he collapsed, basically. Maybe a year later, he admitted to me that he hadn’t been in a good place, emotionally—that he was going through a divorce, and that he’d been trying to die that night. I certainly saw it. They all looked like they were going to die. It was a bit unhinged. Not to be macabre, but the show was exhilarating. And, after the show, Michael introduced himself to me. Brandon Eggleston Everything was going to go wrong. Michael blew his amps up so, in the middle of the show, we had to take an intermission. It was unseasonably warm: 95–96 degrees and humid. Michael had this thing, ‘We don’t turn the air conditioner on for anything.’ He said the air conditioner messed with his voice. There were rumours though that Michael used to do this in the early days, that he’d say, ‘No air conditioning. I want

people suffering. I want them to feel the heat, the sweat—it’s part of the experience.’ Well, this was a sold-out show on a super-hot day in New York, the lights on stage were really hot, and everyone on stage was dying. Chris, Thor, and Phil all told me separately that multiple times during that show, they felt as if they were going to pass out. It was brutal. In one song, Michael would vocalise these sounds into the mic—he’d done that every night for the past three weeks, and during it Thor had been playing melodica. Michael and Thor are playing, and Michael just turns around and yells, ‘Stop that!’ It’s meant to be this emotive part of the song, everyone is drenched in reverb, and the drama in the room is really high— and Thor just says, ‘OK,’ and throws his melodica down on the vibraphone, then they start yelling at each other. The show is so physically demanding on them all. They all lose so much sweat, they’re drenched. It’s an important show, and it’s sold out; their gear is failing; Chris’s bass amps fail; Michael and Thor are arguing; and the crowd is loving every second of it! We were doing two nights there, and the promoter found me and said, ‘This is unsafe, we can’t do the show tomorrow without air-conditioning. It’s a miracle people didn’t start falling down from heat stroke.’ I go to the stage and Thor grabs me: ‘You have to have the air-conditioning on!’ I take another few steps and Chris Pravdica runs up: ‘We have to turn the airconditioning on!’ One moment stuck out for me, where Michael had put his guitar down and was doing a song where he was dancing and vocalising, but he leaned over to Chris—in the middle of a song—and put his hand on Chris’s shoulder. To me it was so touching. They were both suffering in this horrible state, and Michael put his hand on Chris, put his head down. It was like, ‘I’m with you, I know this is horrible, but we have to keep going. I will do whatever it takes to make this happen.’ Solidarity and brotherhood to the max. Sure enough, Michael stopped me later that night and asked me, ‘Did you tell them not to turn the air-conditioner on?’ I confirmed I’d done as he asked. He said, ‘Good. Keep it up.’ It’s a classic Gira moment for me: wanting to have what no one else wants and being willing to suffer for the art. He could have died: he was at least sixty and he was putting in that much exercise, in those conditions, for that long, and he just said, ‘Keep it

up.’ It’s what Swans does: it makes people uncomfortable, it makes them experience things they’ll never experience again … and nobody will forget the show. ••• Little Annie When I came in on that first tour I had been running up and down the coast from New York to Miami—looking for a place to rent, furnishing it, getting the family down here, getting rid of the place in New York—so I looked like I came in on a raft I was so worn out. I’m an insomniac, but I fell asleep on the way to Philadelphia. I had a berth on the bus—I wish I could sleep like that all the time. Riding into the night is my favourite thing; if I ever had an aim in life, that would have been it. I come back really well rested. There’s something about the rocking of the coach, and also there’s no light in the berths, nothing to keep you awake. Thor Harris I can really sleep in those little coffins because they’re cold and just the right size. I enjoyed it. I get more sleep than I would get at home. Chris Pravdica There are two types of people: people who like the motion of the bus and people like me who don’t. I sleep when we get to where we’re going, otherwise I’m restless. I’m the last one off the bus usually. The rumbling and the movement wakes me up every time. Michael Gira As I get older, my bones ache a lot. I have some arthritis as a result of damage I did in the construction days. The key is to keep moving. I don’t really have any choice, either, so I just dive in. It’s not like I’m digging a ditch in the desert, which is something I’ve done. It’s not that hard. It’s not like doing Sheetrocking—there are millions of working people who endure much harder physical tasks daily. What’s most difficult is the sleeplessness, but once you’re on stage, it’s fine, even if before and after is a very different matter.

Paul Wallfisch I still have a bit of tendonitis in my right arm, because there are things you repeat on an unforgiving plastic keyboard for forty-five minutes, or you hold a chord for three minutes, and it doesn’t sound like much but you need to keep your neck relaxed and so on. Chris Koltay [tour manager] Often he wants what you can’t do. We had four wedges surrounding him—each one has a thousand watts. I’d go up there and be checking the wedges, but I’d have to put in earplugs because it was hurting my ears just talking at a normal volume. I’d get the wedges so loud that it would be moving my wallet in my back pocket. I’d think, ‘Surely he’ll be content? Maybe today he’ll just say, That sounds good.’ But no. Every day he would say something like, ‘One, two, three hundred percent louder!’ Are you fucking kidding me? I physically couldn’t listen to myself talk into the microphone at a normal volume. Chris Pravdica It takes so much of a toll on everyone’s ears, lives, bodies. I had back surgery because I’d been lifting a lot of amps. I had a nasty pinched nerve; my right leg went dead. That was day six of a month-long tour, got home hoping it was going to get better and it didn’t, had to do another short tour, got home and did surgery. Twelve days after that surgery, I was on stage again. I had a herniated disc and it had exploded out and crushed my nerve—excruciating. Michael was really concerned, seeing the pain in my face: ‘Are you going to make it?’ Norman Westberg When you’re touring, there’s so much time when you’re not doing anything that it’s a relief to get on stage and push the air around, get bones and muscles moving. I might get tired, but as soon as I walk out on stage I wake up and I’m totally involved for the full duration. It’s also what we want to be doing—we want to be performing this music together. Chris Pravdica I’d be doing something difficult, having a hard time holding it together, and Michael just jumps in your face, making gestures and wiggling his hands. Now I know all his things when he wants me to do something different. You can tell by his body language—that took a bit of

learning. When he starts waggling his tongue, that means ‘more frenetic’— do freak-out stuff. He’ll do body-jerks when he wants you to add another beat, or he’ll do a body-stomp when he wants you to stomp on the beat instead of playing the beat. He has all these cues—he cues with his eyebrows! He raises his eyebrows and I know, ‘Oops, better go into the part.’ Phil Puleo Sometimes a little grimace on your face is all it takes for Michael to feel that you’ve given more. Michael always wants something to look different or sound different, to bring it to a point where we’re all in the moment and giving it everything we’ve got. If he was just sitting there smoking a cigarette and saying, ‘I want more!’ we’d say fuck it, but he’s giving it everything. He’s in it with us, in the trenches. He’s in his sixties, and except for Chris, we’re all in our fifties, so we feel it—it keeps us in shape. I feel worse when I’m not on tour, to be honest. Michael Gira I realised that the group was my instrument, so I started guiding these swells of sound with my arms, with my body. The band likes it, I like it, it makes the whole thing this organic heaving mass of sound which undulates and catapults in various directions according to the waving of my arms or how I move my body. It’s very functional because, at times, there is no rhythm to latch onto—there’s no time—so what I’m doing is providing the cues for the sound to swell, die down, become staccato, whatever. We have chords we’re playing, and I conduct—a highfalutin word for someone like me. Usually it ends with me wanting things to go higher and higher, and people get pretty frustrated because where else do they go? But I keep pushing it, and often it ends up as something quite ecstatic. I’m a bandleader, and that’s what they do, though maybe not in rock guitar-based bands—there’s James Brown—I don’t think it’s extraordinary except it’s these balls of sound that are being flung out into the audience, rather than a horn section or a drum breakdown. Thor Harris When you’re playing an instrument as loud as you can, bludgeoning it, then Michael wants you to do something louder, it’s not always clear what it is you’re supposed to do to get more. The conducting

he did certainly added to the intensity, and if someone got complacent with a part and the music became too rote, then Michael would wake us up. That wasn’t a band where you could phone in your parts. Chris Pravdica Norman, it’s hard for me to hear him—I’m in the wind tunnel of my amps—and I certainly can’t hear Kristof or Paul. I can’t hear anything on the other side of the stage. There are two sides to the stage: stage right and stage left. Me and Norman are the grounded side, Thor and Kristof are the airy, ethereal part. Michael will go to that side and work with them, or he’ll come over work with us. It’s always two separate things. Kristof Hahn For us, the experience is so intense that it’s really hard to remember anything. I might do the same arpeggio on the steel guitar, and once you start thinking, you’ll get lost. That’s how it is with Swans: if you keep up this thing that seems simple for a long time, you can get lost. If you start thinking, you lose it. Michael notices immediately. He wants to get lost himself. It’s something inside that changes if there are some cracks in the lacquer. He realises that and he doesn’t feel comfortable. It’s all so loud it’s not that he hears everything, but he hears that things aren’t there. You have to be on your toes to supply that lacquer he’s surfing on. Phil Puleo It’s sometimes hard to tell what he’s upset about. Things like tempo shifting: sometimes he’ll turn around and say I’m slowing down, but he’s right in deep with me, so I have to think he’s not criticising me. I brush it off—‘He can’t hear me’—or it’s because he’s hearing the front-of-house sound, so there’s a slight delay throwing him off. I’ll look at Chris and he’s right in with me, so I don’t worry. Other times, Michael will ride me about it, and then it’ll piss me off. I’ll act out like a teenager and speed a song up so it skyrockets. Sometimes it makes him laugh: ‘You fucker, look what you’re doing now!’ He’ll start laughing and go with it. It just comes with being on the road for so long—we all lose it sometimes. If we didn’t care, the whole thing would fall apart. Even if we’re caring in an angry way, it still works. It still means we care. I’ve never checked out on a Swans performance. I’ve either gotten angry, or tried harder, or laughed—I can’t check out or say ‘fuck it’, because then what would I be sitting up there for?

Evan LeSure At venues, people would be wondering why Michael was yelling at everybody, and I’d have to explain, ‘No, he’s not yelling, that’s just how loud he needs to speak to hear his own voice, because his hearing is so bad.’ He had obvious hearing damage. Brandon Eggleston When I first started working with Michael, he called me, and his exact words were, ‘I can’t hear a fucking thing. Can you mix with earplugs in, because I don’t want you to suffer the hearing loss I have.’ The sound guy before me, Evan, got tinnitus after just two tours. The volume Swans operates at does permanent hearing damage after just a few minutes. At 126 decibels—whatever they were at their peak—we had a hearing specialist tell us, ‘Three minutes, that’s all you get before the damage is permanent.’ Michael would confide in me: ‘I want to protect what’s left. I want to be able to talk to my children, I want to hear forever.’ But he decided he couldn’t do what he needed to do with ear protection. ••• Chris Koltay It’s 3:30 in the morning and we’re all super-tired and he’s just grilling the guy at reception: ‘You don’t have any rooms where someone can smoke?’ I tell him I’ve already asked the guy, I tap him on the arm and give him his room key and he’s still yelling, and he turns to me and says, ‘Don’t ever hit me again.’ I tell him I didn’t, and he just looks at me: ‘Fuck you.’ I lost it. ‘Fuck me? Really?’ He stormed away, so I followed him. He can’t see me behind him; Kristof and Phil were right behind me because I think they thought I was going to beat his ass. I walk in the elevator and Michael turns around and he jumps—he’s really startled. ‘Whatcha gonna do? Hit me?’ I said, ‘No, dude, I’m not going to hit you—we’re going upstairs and you can say fuck you to me without all your boys around. We figure this out or I’m going to leave.’ He asked me where I thought I was going to go, and I told him I was done. I went to get my bags out of the car and he came out to me. He said, ‘OK, we were both wrong,’ and I looked at him: ‘I’m going to punch you in your mouth!’ He backs down, says, ‘OK! I was wrong! I’m sorry.’ We talk about it, I tell him he can’t do it anymore, that I was at the end of my rope having

to deal with this in the middle of the night. So he left me alone the rest of the tour. I respect Michael completely, but those dudes are incredible. Norm, Thor, Chris, Phil, Kristof—a joy to work with. Chris Pravdica I don’t suffer from pride much, but I’ve got a little bit! The idea of someone touching my bass amp while I was playing, I had a lot of trouble with that one. And it’s so loud on stage, he’d be screaming, and I’d not be able to hear what he wanted because it’s so loud. Sometimes I just wanted to throw my bass or tackle him. Chris Koltay Michael was concerned about the lighting, and the dude didn’t speak English very well, so Michael was grilling me while we walked off stage. Thor was laying down on the deck, sleeping, and Michael stamps his boot down three inches from Thor’s head. I thought Thor was going to kill him. For about two hours I was sitting next to Michael with Thor looking across the table at him. Michael eventually says, ‘You’re quiet, Thor?’ Thor tells him, ‘I get it, you’re a sadist, but don’t ever interrupt me when I’m sleeping.’ Michael backed down and apologised. Kristof Hahn Michael had gotten carried away a little—maybe not just a little. The atmosphere got unpleasant, and it made everyone wonder if we could go on doing what we were doing. There were screaming nose-to-nose moments, but we never had any fistfights. He just needed to be reminded he was dealing with humans. He responded, not consistently, but he did. The vibe in the band had reached a low point in 2015, and that’s when we wrote the letter. Brandon Eggleston They told him they’d quit unless he stopped yelling at them on stage. I remember the letter being drafted in the lobby of a Sydney Hotel: the letter was really complimentary, it told him how amazing he was, that he’s extraordinary at what he does, but that he couldn’t treat them so badly. It was kind of beautiful: ‘We will follow you to the deepest darkest pits of the Earth as long as you treat us with respect.’ Michael took that to heart, and he really did try to communicate better, to be more patient, to be more forbearing.

Michael Gira I was yelling at people in front of the audience, and I learned that was really horrible. It wasn’t meant in any kind of negative way—I just get so embroiled in the music, and I really want it to happen, so I’d just scream. I’ve had to learn to temper that. The band learnt to read my cues, in terms of how I waved my arms, the expressions on my face, I even—if I wanted a staccato thing from someone I’d waggle my tongue in a certain way. Kristof Hahn Michael gradually worked himself out of that, and it turned into a pretty enjoyable work situation. If a person doesn’t realise that it’s not your style then you have to tell them, and if you’re lucky he changes—and, if not, he’ll have people leaving. Michael decided to change. Thor Harris Running the shows and paying for everything was a lot of stress for Michael, and he would talk about it—but not that much. We were aware of it but it was his band and his responsibility, so he would shoulder the burdens. He’s a generous boss: he wanted us to be comfortable. He’s not always Prince Charming, but he looked out for us and he appreciated us. Little Annie They treated the audience with respect. I mean, without an audience you may as well sing in the shower, so treating the audience with respect was a non-negotiable for me. And the audience doesn’t have to walk in respecting you—you’ve got to earn that. Peter Wright The one thing that has always struck me—and obviously Michael has changed over the years—is the fact that whatever we do for him, Michael says thank you. That’s huge. Most artists don’t do that. They don’t appreciate what gets done for them—it’s huge that he realises that and thinks to thank people. It goes a long way—the guys who work for me will go out of their way for Michael because of the way he treats them. Jennifer Gira There’s a guy from Norway who came to one of the shows and had brought his entire Swans collection with him, on vinyl, and he wanted Michael to sign everything—this must have been forty records. If it

was someone other than Michael, maybe a manager would have stepped in and said he can sign a few, or the artist would have said it was too much when there was a line of people. Do you think that happened? No, Michael signed all of them—he was taken aback and flattered that this guy had hauled so much stuff with him. I had just met him and I realised, ‘Wow, this guy has an effect on people.’ James Blackshaw Michael gets off on bringing support acts that are an obvious contrast with Swans. It would be too obvious to bring out some loud electronic or industrial act, but I think part of him likes to fuck with people by bringing out these quiet support acts. I tried to get my acoustic guitar to be as physically loud as it would go. I like the physical response from sound, which is why I get Swans. There’s a shared appreciation, with Michael and I, for minimalism, repetition, and that hypnotic vibe. A lot of people wouldn’t get the shared aesthetic—there’s the dark loud band then this little hippie dude as the support. Paul Wallfisch Michael treats the support acts spectacularly, and he treated me and Annie particularly well. As hard as he can be on his own troops, he’s conversely gentle and elegant with his openers—much to the consternation of his band! The remarks were really entertaining when I was just the opener. It was so aggravating to them, and it really amused me. In front of his whole band one day, he pointed me out, ‘Oh, look how he’s following the singer! He’s so sensitive to what she’s doing—I wish you motherfuckers could do that!’ I played with Swans eighteen months, so I was exempt from a lot of the drama, but those guys have PTSD! Chris Pravdica It’s a mixed bag as far as Michael’s drinking is concerned. I don’t think it made it easier when he quit drinking—maybe a little healthier, and quite a bit more functional, but drinking served a function in his life that nothing can replace. He changed a lot after he stopped— drinking was connected to his socialising, and without it he has almost no interest in socialising. On stage it’s a little easier because he’s less volatile, but he’s also not as ecstatic and joyful as he was. He was able to get to a place on stage with alcohol involved which was a little more carefree.

Sometimes it wasn’t really happening but he was still exploding with joy. It hasn’t made the music any more or less good or entertaining but, for Michael, it’s taken something away. Also, I think drinking helped him decompress—the drinks would numb the pain of having your ears blasted in every night. I think he suffers more from the volume. He communicates a lot better without it; he’s more thoughtful with what he says and he’s clearer in articulating. It used to be that we’d be playing and he was dissatisfied, and then there’d be some confusion and the show would finish and the same thing would happen the next night, because there was never a sober moment to discuss it so we’d have to figure it out on stage again. Now, if anything happened on stage, he pulls you aside after the show and we fix it. Phil Puleo Michael has been great the last couple of years. Off stage, he’s been really chilled. He doesn’t come out with us, though—he likes to be by himself, so we rarely see him on days off. He disappears off into his room while we pair off or go sightseeing or swimming or go to dinner. He likes to be alone to decompress. Seventy percent of the time we’ll invite him out to dinner and he says, ‘I’ll pass.’ He’s very gracious about it, though. He’ll join us at breakfast usually. I don’t think he does it because he feels he’s the boss; I just think he wants to be alone. We all respect that—we do with anyone when they need some peace. Norman Westberg Michael still feels like a mentor in some respects, and I’ve always been very happy with that relationship. Jennifer Gira It’s somewhat of a paradox that he’s so focused but nothing makes him happier than when there’s that wonderful surprise that comes through performing with other people. It comes a lot when he’s on stage— he’ll say things to me afterward like, ‘Oh, we were in the middle of “Cloud Of Forgetting” and Kristof did this “thing”, these tones!’ And he’ll go on for fifteen minutes about how great it was. It’s got to be a wild ride for any musician—but nothing makes Michael happier than a band. He loves the idea of a band, that you’re comrades—that’s why they hold hands and bow at the end of a show.

••• Michael Gira ‘Toussaint L’Ouverture’ from To Be Kind was based on reading about the historical figure in Haiti, through some books by Madison Smartt Bell. Whatever information I’m encountering in my life—books, movies, memories, people—it all bleeds into the songs. Jennifer Gira There’s an understanding that if he gets very focused on writing, then it’s absolutely fine for him to go do that for eight and a half hours straight. It’s the same for me: I do restoration on very rare gowns, so I might be doing it for however many hours, and that’s fine. If you come over to our house it’s an interesting scene because there’ll be art supplies, guitars, incredibly rare chiffon gowns—it looks like something blew up and we’re just working in the middle of it all. We’re both intense people—we have our professional passions and we work at them very hard—so we have a mutual respect for that. Michael Gira I was talking to Jennifer on the phone soon after we met: I was sleeping on the couch in the barn studio space where we were recording, and I was in despair because I had a certain amount of money in my bank account, and it magically matched what I would have to spend to finish this record, but then I’d be broke. Through her gentle and wise advice I just went broke and did it. It was a huge gamble. I can’t count how many times I’ve been at that point in my life. The work is everything. Thor Harris For To Be Kind we recorded at this place called Sonic Ranch. It’s like five world-class recording rooms in one facility. The owner of it is a pecan tycoon so the studio is in the middle of a pecan orchard right on the Mexico border out in the desert, irrigated from the Rio Grande. We would have five days of rehearsal, then the band would track together but, more and more, I was doing my parts as overdubs—which was fine, but I don’t think it was as organic.

Charles Godfrey [engineer, Sonic Ranch] Michael wanted a small setup in a house that the band could rehearse in and do pre-production. We got all their gear in to the Ranch House living room, and I set up a small laptop recording rig with eight channels of everybody’s amps, Michael’s vocals, basic drum mics, and Thor’s space. We worked for a week in that living room and then moved for recording. Thor and I were obviously glad to see each other again—that man has such a big heart—while Phil had a very calm energy and always wanted to make things work. I started to watch him play and he had such precision for his power. Chris, another powerful player, was very kind and made everybody around him feel like they’re having a great time, even when he’s looking to replace the second amp that he’s blown. Kristof is a fine gentleman, and his approach to steel blows my mind. I’ve done my share of country records but Kristof digs into his instrument so hard and makes his steel sound like I’ve never heard one before. Norman is the quiet type with badass tattoos and a killer beard, which dominate his presence. Michael was down to business as soon as he got there, diligent and sure of what he needed to make the songs work. Evan Weiss [trumpet, To Be Kind] If I hadn’t looked up pictures of Michael before I went into studio then I wouldn’t have even known that he was Swans—that he was the guy. He was just someone sitting in the control room as we were setting up the instruments, but he gave his final stamp of approval on everything that we did. There was some stuff they put effects on and mixed weirdly afterward. Michael loved the way something sounded, even though we thought, ‘Oh, we’re cracking notes.’ Sometimes people have a less flexible idea of what studio music should be, and it was helpful to work with people who were open. Where you’re not just trying to create an outcome, you’re trying to achieve a concept; having people willing to try what the concept required and entailed was probably more important than having people who were all about their skill on the instrument. We were playing long notes, holding notes for some freak-out psychedelic section of a really long song—me on trumpet, with David Pierce on trombone—and we were having to hold it for three minutes or something like that, by which point neither of us had any face left—superraw and nasty sounding. We thought maybe we could cut it in half, make it

sound clean, but Michael was like, ‘No, that was it.’ He was all about the nastiness of it. David Pierce [trombone, To Be Kind] Michael had the concept in his head, and he was good at articulating it using descriptive and colourful—not necessarily musical—terms. He was there offering guidance, and when we did something he would step in and say, ‘Make this bigger,’ ‘Make this really dynamic,’ ‘Really go for it here!’ There was a lot of that: ‘No, give me more!’ There was one song we had done thirty-to-forty-five seconds where I had a note and Evan had a note, and we had to just barrel right ahead and just hammer these notes. We had one note we had to play—a note you could play 120 times on any day of the week if you weren’t playing it as loud as you possibly could over and over. That was what was funny: it wasn’t that we had to play some crazy screaming high register, it was a very elementary young twelve or thirteen-year-old just picking up the instrument—a note that they could play—but the repetition was extreme. That was another funny thing for Evan and me, thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re having problems maintaining this note, and it’s such an easy register.’ ••• Phil Puleo In Germany, we did this heavy-metal festival out in the woods. That was really odd. Super-heavy, head-banging, hair-twirling, guitar solos on top of guitar solos. Every guy there was huge with beards down to their bellies, black T-shirts, leather. No one really understood what we were doing there. That night, Michael said, ‘I want to stop—next record, then that’s it.’ Kristof Hahn There were some signs of exhaustion by the time we played the Roundhouse in London in 2015. Michael asked me, while we were taking a cigarette break, ‘Do you think the guys will go for a final round?’ I told him I would, and that I thought the others would, too—but I mentioned we should get a rise in pay to increase motivation! We were all exhausted, and it did make sense that he said that—he used the term to the other guys,

too, so the idea was out there. That meant we had another one and a half years to go. Michael Gira Being physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted and deciding that there was just enough left in me and the group to finish The Glowing Man and do another tour. I wanted to keep Swans as it was: a vital, going enterprise right until the very end, squeezing the last bit of blood from the stone. Because of our ethos, we had to have new material, so that required a further commitment, and that material kept changing throughout the tour. Chris Pravdica In a regular band, you come out of rehearsal and the pieces are playing in your head—you get earworms. That never happens in Swans. The moment I get off stage, it’s gone. I’ve never once had a Swans song stuck in my head—we repeat so much on stage that it just goes away. When we finish tours, we do that last show, everybody agrees—including Michael —that when we hit that last note and step off stage, the music just disappears from our minds. Kristof Hahn As a guitar player, I practise for an hour, then I let it be. Whereas, playing in Swans, I play for two hours—or, during rehearsals, for eight. It’s like a meditation. You can try to meditate for ten minutes; it’s not going to take you far. Some things you have to do for an hour or two, then all of a sudden it gets a new quality. You take yourself to a different level. Michael Gira There’s this book of meditations—a religious book written by an anonymous English monk in the fourteenth century called The Cloud Of Unknowing, and it’s a series of spiritual instructions, very beautiful meditations, for a student on the proper way to pray to reach union with God. I found that book to be very pertinent to my life at the time and beautiful in general. It naturally bled into the songs ‘The Cloud Of Unknowing’ and ‘The Cloud Of Forgetting’.

Chris Pravdica The piece that encapsulates all of the tours we’ve done is ‘The Glowing Man’. It’s like a three-act play: it has a long beginning, then a crazy middle, then a refrain and a big explosive ending. ‘The Seer’ was originally the intro to ‘I Crawled’—an old Swans song—and we gave it a new intro. For the next record, we got rid of ‘I Crawled’, and that piece that was left became ‘The Seer’. Then it turned into ‘Toussaint L’Ouverture’, and finally ‘The Glowing Man’. Bill Rieflin On The Glowing Man, Michael was extremely relaxed and easy-going—a lot of the edginess in his behaviour and attitude just wasn’t there. I enjoy working in a lighter environment—it doesn’t mean the music is going to be any less intense, it just means the studio will be chill. Pointed sticks are good, but I don’t really need them. I still need guidance, I still need to be produced, I want him to tell me what he wants, to guide me— that still happened. Charles Godfrey Michael wanted to realise a dream of a line of warhorses grunting and neighing in anger, ready to charge into battle. He asked if we could get our horses into the studio, but that request was hesitantly denied because the only way to get a horse to make those sounds is to actually piss it off, which isn’t a good idea to do in a studio. Our solution was to go to the stable with a mobile rig and a few mics to get some irritated sounds, some gallops, and grunts. One of the foreman’s sons helping walk the horses got too close behind the one he was following—it kicked back and missed the kid’s head by only a few inches. Joakim Toftgård [trombone, The Glowing Man] I came in, Michael was there reclining on the couch wearing cowboy boots, and I wondered if it was a country music session—it cracked me up a little. He went straight into it: ‘Hi, how are you? Right, we’re doing this.’ The first ten minutes were trying to figure out the dynamic and figure out the chemistry. He gave us really free range. He was using a lot of emotional terminology—he talked about that organic human element being really important in terms of how he wanted this music to sound. One of them, he had this drone going and he wanted the horn players to stack notes, so we would run the whole

thing then go back to the beginning and do the next note on top, building these stacks. It was about a two-minute thing, so we’d hold the note as long as we could, take a quick breath, then play it again. I remember hyperventilating and having to sit down, nearly passing out—some of those things are super-hard to do on a wind instrument. We had short breaks— John made sure of it—just five minutes to get the blood back in your lips. We went more or less non-stop for four hours. We would try something, then he would say, ‘Do it more aggressively,’ or he’d nix that idea. We had a few false starts where I’d wonder what he meant, but quickly I got the idea. He was a very active participant in shaping the music. For parts of them he would sing along with the track to give us a sense of the vibe—to try to showcase some of the emotional qualities. Thor Harris I knew I was going to quit—but nobody else knew. I didn’t want to take any of the spirit out of that record. When they started to talk about the next year’s touring, that’s when me and Michael got on the phone. I think he announced that it would be the final Swans tour of this line-up before I told him I was going to stop. I felt good about that because I did feel a little guilty about abandoning my brothers—but it did get easier once I knew it was nearing the end. I left because these things have a natural wave. The whole time we were together, we were riding this wave—this idea of a giant, violent, meditation. The creative process can’t get complacent, so we all needed to move. That’s why the band is finishing— the wave of energy ebbs and flows. Paul Wallfisch I knew all the guys in the band, so I think that was a consideration for Michael when he asked me to join them for the tours after Thor left. I thought about it for about a week. I called Phil, I spoke to Norman, I spoke to Todd. Michael had one point of direction for me. He sent me music by Charlemagne Palestine—he’s an iconic figure for Michael —one of those endless pieces for two pianos, and he told me, ‘Think of music like this.’ We rehearsed for three weeks in a forest in a hippie recording studio in upstate New York. We played every day for five-to-nine hours at full concert volume in a place the size of your bedroom. You’re supposed to listen to the songs then forget everything. You have to play

exactly what’s there but completely different—that’s really the one instruction—it’s got to be exactly the same and totally different every night. That’s almost a direct quote of what Michael said to me. Kristof Hahn When Paul Wallfisch joined the band, he had to do the introduction to the show—the same four notes in an arpeggiated way for twenty minutes. At rehearsal, after three minutes, I saw him and his face was contorted because it hurt. I had to smile: ‘You think this is going to end soon? You’ve seen nothing yet.’ It’s what makes our shows so intense. Anyone can turn an amp to eleven, but it’s not about that—it’s about playing intensely. Paul Wallfisch The first three shows were kind of horrible. It was so relentless, and there is some psychological abuse, but as the shortestrunning member I didn’t get too much of it. I hated it and he wasn’t happy, so he was yelling at everybody. I remember thinking, ‘This was worse than I thought. I’ve made a mistake.’ Phil told me, ‘No, it’s always the fourth show before things are OK.’ It was nothing new—and he was right. If it had been difficult, or weird, or odd, then I don’t think I would have lasted three shows. Michael made an educated guess that I could take it. After about six months we hit a peak, and in 2017 even the less good shows were still really good! Kristof Hahn We played in St. Petersburg, and Michael had left the building while the rest of us were hanging out. We had a bottle of vodka, and though we don’t normally drink spirits we poured a glass for everyone, and I said, ‘To the beginning of the end!’ All of a sudden, the mood dropped considerably. Paul, being the new guy, asked, ‘How do you feel about it?’ I asked if he wanted an honest answer: ‘Sad. These are the people I’ve spent the most time with in the past seven years—I’ve seen them more often than my wife, my kids.’ We were travelling on a bus 24/7, together when we went to bed, together when we woke up, touring 200 days of the year. Every time we were playing somewhere it was going to be the last time—it encouraged us because we didn’t want to leave on a sour note, to be mediocre. Not that we were ever mediocre—we have a pretty high work

ethic, and it’s not like we play for an audience—we play for Michael. That’s why we rarely look at audiences while playing. Everyone is focused on him. Phil Puleo Creatively, it’s done—we did everything we could in this format, with these players, and how Michael sees these players and their abilities and how they play. It does seem like the right time to finish. In Swans, you know there are like ten things you do in the band, and they get shifted, shuffled; ideas gets stretched out or truncated, but there’s the same feel throughout. Michael Gira It was a long time coming, and it felt great to see larger audiences and people who weren’t there scratching their chin, heckling, or leaving—young people, people who really cared about the music, both genders were present. I have to keep things in check because I’m no stranger to failure, and I’m aware it can arrive at any minute, as it often has. You have to keep things close to your chest and be aware of what the really important thing is, which is the work. If you have faith in the work then the people will come. It gave me a little faith that there are people who really want a truthful and powerful experience that comes from the heart. It’s not about being holier than thou, but people decided to endure these marathon concerts and records and seem to get something genuine from it, which is very gratifying to me. Jennifer Gira Michael still does everything. Three Christmases ago, a vanload of CDs showed up—it might have been 5,000—and he was there, on Christmas Day, signing CD after CD. I’ve never seen an independent musician who really does sign everything he sells—even though the volume has increased exponentially, he still insists on doing it. Sometimes I worry about the pace but I know he’s not going to change—I think he feels it would be inauthentic, and you’ve got to respect someone who appreciated a fan so much that he’s going to do that. Sometimes it might take two full days, so he’ll drive home from New York then drive back again and carry on. Same thing at shows. I’ve always thought it’s cool that he goes to the

merch table and meets people and signs things. This is a guy who remembers where he’s come from. Kristof Hahn The best thing of all was meeting my wife on a Swans tour. We played in Moscow, I met a girl—now I’m married to her and I’m very happy about this. If that was the only outcome of Swans it would already have been totally worth it. I think Phil met his girlfriend on a Swans tour in Chicago, and Michael met his wife after a show in New York. That’s a pretty fundamental change in life caused by being in Swans. The amount of acknowledgement, encouragement, love that I received from people all over the world throughout these years was overwhelming. Kurt Kellison I don’t think that I have ever worked closely with an artist who has been able to drastically modify the scale of his work, without compromising its integrity, in the ways that Michael has. So many people have a successful career, then they dabble or they genre-skiffle. I can’t think of anyone else who has created a body of work with the depth and breadth that Michael has while keeping their artistic integrity fully intact. How does one move through that creative arc without a misstep, or without changing the fundamental essence and intention of what’s at the core? I don’t know anyone else who has accomplished that. Vudi You could never have a Swans cover band. Fifty years from now, you couldn’t do it—it’s impossible. There’s nobody like Michael and there’s nobody like a real Swans fan. That’s part of it. You love the Swans, what they do, the message is like a revealed religion, and you want to get in that orbit, see the group, and they destroy you—and that’s satisfactory for a lot of people. Bill Bronson Part of Michael’s success is that he can do this very difficult music built on dynamics of volume and texture and colour, and it’s never boring because it’s such a wide spectrum of sound that can happen within the parameters that he sets—it truly is infinite. He can listen down to a tiny little molecule speck of sound, or he can listen up to this overall universe of sound. I’ve often thought, ‘What if another Lower East Side New York

death-rock schmuck had the same concept?’ Bands have tried, and none of them last because they’re virtually unlistenable—he’s the only one who can make it work. Daniel Gira I was talking to my uncle, and we were agreeing that Mike has had to work the hardest out of any of us. Everybody in the family has had a successful career—the work ethic was always part of our family. Do we all have it? I would say yes. But Mike is a bit of a fanatic, so he throws himself into these things, and they have to be absolutely perfect or he’ll do them again and again until it is. Lydia Lunch A lot of people stop because they don’t have the discipline. It’s not a hobby, it’s not a career; it’s your life calling, and you have to be incredibly dedicated because you’re promoting something that is not a popular commodity and never will be. The only way you continue without being a self-flagellator is because you have no choice—you have to do it. Jarboe The question I always loved was when interviewers would ask Michael about the motivation behind what he does—why this, why that. Michael would say, ‘Nobody asks a butcher why he cuts meat.’ The attitude is, all you’re saying is it’s what you do. Jennifer Gira The bond that we have, our life, comes from a place of complete respect and an understanding that we’re not exactly normal people who are going to live our lives in a nine-to-five environment, and that it’s OK to be how we are. I think the happiest relationships are between people who are really doing what they want to do with their lives. His work is his life force, and I don’t take it personally that it’s more important than me because it’s more important than anything. He gets up at five in the morning and he’s working all day long. Nothing gives me greater enjoyment than watching him. If he stopped doing it—and he won’t—he’d die.

CONTRIBUTORS Michael Alago rose from humble Puerto Rican roots to the netherworld of New York’s music scene. He went from rubbing elbows at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB to running the Dead Boys fan club, to being a talent booker at Ritz nightclub, before—at age 24—beginning a storied career as an A&R executive, including signing Metallica, the biggest metal band in a generation. Alago succeeded professionally as a gay man in a heavy metal subculture known for perceived homophobia. Michael survived the AIDS crisis, alcohol and drug addiction, and reinvented himself as a visual artist, poet, and art photographer. Sonda Andersson was co-founder and bassist for Rat At Rat R (1980–88) and bass player for Live Skull (1988–90). She has been an art director and designer for over thirty years, working for magazines (Rolling Stone, GQ, SPY) and alternative newspapers where, as design director for New Times/Village Voice Media, she headed the design and re-design of their publications. In 1983, she designed the cover art for Swans’ first album, as well as covers for Live Skull and Rat At Rat R. She now lives in New Mexico, where she is working on her first novel and a series of erotic short stories. Jason Asnes was born and raised in Austin, Texas, but has spent most of his life in New York City. Starting on drums at age five, he later played bass or guitar in bands such as Nice Strong Arm, Swans, Alkaline, and Crown Heights. At thirty he became a disc jockey, and held residencies at many NYC hotspots, as well as performing around the world. As DJ Angola, he’s also produced many records and remixes. He and his wife moved back to

Austin in 2015, where he has continued to record music as well as becoming a screenwriter. Martin Atkins is the definition of cultural entrepreneurship with thirtyfive-plus years in the business spanning genres, borders, and industries. He was a member of Public Image Ltd and Killing Joke, and founded Pigface, The Damage Manual, and Murder Inc., as well as contributing to Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. He is the owner of Invisible Records and Mattress Factory Recording Studios, as well as the author of Tour: Smart, Welcome To The Music Business: You’re F*cked!, and Band: Smart. He is the music business department chair at SAE Chicago and the new music industries coordinator at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. Josh Baer was director of the White Columns non-profit art space, 1979 to 1983. During this period he also co-owned Neutral Records. He ran the Josh Baer Gallery for a decade and is now a private art advisor. He was managing editor of ZG Magazine and continues to issue the Baer Faxt arts newsletter to the present day. Josh was a professor of graduate studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology; a director of the Franklin Furnace Archive and the Andrew Glover Youth Program; and on the I Love NY art benefit executive committee, supporting victims of the World Trade Center attack. Jack Balchin is known for mindless decibels, drunkenness, and an ability to find misfits with whom to extend these pursuits. Did some good things here and there but I can’t remember what. Lewisham Academy of Music was probably the best (1980 to 1984) but even then it was a bloody mess. Sobered up 1990 and got a real job and retired from the Electricians’ Union after twenty years with a nice pension. Living on a hill in deeper Oregon as far away from fucking musicians as possible! Hahahahahahaa of course. I love you all … and that’s a very long list. Devendra Banhart was born in Houston then raised in Venezuela before moving to California, where he studied at the San Francisco Art Institute before dropping out to focus on music. Discovered by Siobhan Duffy, Devendra’s music was first released on Young God Records, since which

time he has released albums with XL Recordings and Warner/Reprise before his ninth album, Ape In Pink Marble (Nonesuch, 2016). Devendra’s art has featured in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Centre For Fine Arts in Brussels. In 2015 he released an art volume, I Left My Noodle On Ramen Street. Tristan Bechet is a musician currently based in New York and Paris. Shortly after Art School he founded the seminal noise art-rock band Flux Information Sciences, after which he founded the duo electronic-rock band SERVICES—all this peppered with separate collaborations, releases, and experimentations. He is currently represented by Cadence Films and brands such as Chanel, Dior, and Nike have commissioned his music. Films and conceptual projects such as Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are and an installation of David Bowie’s Life On Mars—A Video Remix with The Creators Project are a few examples of his diverse universe. Mark Berry began his music career at sixteen years of age, attending the Institute of Audio Research by night. Graduating from IAR and high school the same year, Mark landed at Sir George Martin’s AIR Studios in London —working with major artists including Paul McCartney—before returning to NYC as an engineer at Vanguard Studios for a lengthy list of pioneering hip-hop, pop, and dance records. In 1996, Mark started Attack Media Group, an independent media organisation combining artist promotion, marketing, publishing, licensing, and film production. Mark was a judge at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Bob Bert has drummed in Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore, Chrome Cranks, Knoxville Girls, and more, then fronted his own band, Bewitched, laying down swampy, tribal grooves on over thirty albums. He also put out the critically acclaimed magazine BB Gun. As an artist, he has been in gallery shows since 1979, and as a fine art silkscreen printer printed Andy Warhol’s Editions and paintings until his death. Currently, Bob is drumming for Lydia Lunch’s Retrovirus and Wolfmanhattan Project; 2018 will see the release of his book of photos, text, and BB Gun interviews entitled I’m Just The Drummer.

France-born Jehnny Beth is mainly known as the front person in London band Savages. She co-runs her label Pop-Noire with her life partner/producer Johnny Hostile. She has appeared on releases with Gorillaz, Julian Casablancas, and Anders Trentmoeller; toured the world with Savages; and has performed with The XX, LCD Soundsystem, Gorillaz, and Primal Scream. In addition to hosting and producing her Beats1 radio show, Start Making Sense, Jehnny is working on her solo record. Beth B. has produced over thirty films within the narrative, documentary, and experimental genres. Graduating from the School of Visual Arts in 1977, she became an active part of the thriving NYC scene. Her work has been the subject of retrospectives at London’s National Film Theatre, the Montreal Film Festival, Lisbon’s Nucleo Dos Cineastas Independentes, and the Danish Film Institute. In addition, Beth B. teaches fine arts at NYC’s School of Visual Arts and film at Montclair State University. She is currently producing a film about Lydia Lunch entitled Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never. Martin Bisi started a recording studio in Brooklyn in 1981 with help from Brian Eno. BC studio is still operating. Throughout the 80s it was home base for many recordings by Bisi and Bill Laswell, including work on The Burning World. The studio has remained part of the varied music scenes in New York through the present—recorded there by Bisi are albums by Sonic Youth, Africa Bambaataa, John Zorn, Herbie Hancock, Dresden Dolls, Pop 1280, White Hills, Boredoms, Foetus, Unsane, Serena Maneesh, and Ex Models. Bisi has also released many solo albums, his latest being Ex Nihilo in 2014. James Blackshaw was born in London and across his career has released ten solo studio albums, one EP, two live recordings, and a number of compilation appearances. He has collaborated with Lubomyr Melnyk, and performed and recorded as a member of Current 93 and Nurse With Wound, as well as with Jozef Van Wissem as Brethren Of The Free Spirit. In 2010, Matt Groening—creator of The Simpsons—invited Blackshaw to perform at

All Tomorrow’s Parties. Around extensive touring, he has regularly appeared on radio and in numerous publications, while his music has been used in TV and film. Chris Bohn works for The Wire magazine. He has been writing about music and film from around the world since 1977. In 1993 he wrote Laibach: A Film From Slovenia. Nicole M. Boitos grew up in the Midwest then moved to Philadelphia, earning several degrees in fine art and establishing her own studio. Her primary mediums include large-format oil on canvas, copper etching and engraving, wood engraving, mixed mediums on paper, watercolour, and public mixed-media murals. She has created album art for numerous artists, exhibited throughout the United States and Europe, and performed live painting performances with Fabrizio Modonese Palumbo and Marco Il Bue Schiavo of the Italian experimental band Larsen. Nicole also works as a professional tattoo artist. She now lives and creates in coastal Suffolk, England. Dan Braun is a musician, film producer, comic-book writer, and hoarder who lives in New York City. Bands he played in include Deep Six, Live Skull, The Del Byzanteens, Circus Mort, Swans, Spinal Root Gang, the Glenn Branca Ensemble, Radio Firefight, and T Venus. He writes and edits the horror comic books Creepy and Eerie. His most recent projects are documentaries about Joan Jett and Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Josh Braun was in the bands Circus Mort, Deep 6, and The DelByzanteens. In 2001, he and his brother formed Submarine to represent and produce films and documentaries. Submarine is one of the industry’s leaders in the documentary world. Josh produced The House Of The Devil and Page One and executive produced David Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence and the Errol Morris film The Unknown Known; The Braun brothers’ New Comic Co. bought Creepy/Eerie horror comics, achieving the no. 2 position on the New York Times graphic novel best-seller list and an Eisner Award for ‘Best Archival Comic Book Collection’.

Bill Bronson has been immersed in the NYC underground music world since the late 80s. In addition to playing in bands such as The Spitters, Congo Norvell, Swans, The Gunga Din, and The Dream Lovers, he has also worked for record labels (PCP Entertainment), music television (Breaking The Barrier), booked and managed nightclubs (Sin-é, Pianos), and composed film soundtracks (Richard Kern, Kelly Lamb). With Lary 7 and Joe Frivaldi, Bill helped curate the ‘legendary failure’ of film and music performance series The Backroom in the early 2000s. He currently teaches third grade in Brooklyn. David Burton is a freelance pallbearer for many bands that you have never heard of and more that you have. He is a resident of Brooklyn, New York. He spends his free time rolling pennies and drinking tea. Amaury Cambuzat is a French artist and musician. He officially started his career in 1995 with his always-active band, Ulan Bator. One of their albums, Ego:Echo, was produced by Michael Gira for Young God Records. He’s continued working ever since, whether with Ulan Bator or solo, or even joining as a guitarist and keyboard performer with the Art’Errorists’ faUSt for almost twenty years. Brian Carpenter is an American singer-songwriter, composer, arranger, and producer based in Boston. He is lead singer of Brian Carpenter & The Confessions and the American Gothic band Beat Circus. He is also the founder and lead arranger of Ghost Train Orchestra in Brooklyn. He hosts a radio show, Free Association, broadcast from WZBC at Boston College. He has collaborated with a number of artists across mediums, including Martin Bisi, Brian Dewan, Michael Gira, Bryce Goggin, Marc Ribot, and Colin Stetson. Richard Carr holds a doctorate in music education from Columbia University. He has recorded numerous albums under his own name and with artists such as Bill Laswell, Fred Frith, Bootsy Collins, Sly & Robbie, Swans, Milt Hinton, Bucky Pizzarelli, Alan Dawson, Howard Alden, and Karl Berger. He has regularly toured the US, Europe, Japan, and Mexico

over the past twenty years. In the 80s, he lived in Boston and played sectional violin with the Boston Philharmonic. In 2014, he climbed to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Catherine Ceresole was born in 1956 and her husband Nicolas in 1954, both in Switzerland. They live in Rolle—and part of the year in Mallorca— amid her thousands of photo negatives and Nicolas’s record collection. In 1979 they moved to New York and became a part of the downtown scene, getting to know (and photograph) many artists and musicians. Catherine’s work has been show in numerous expositions; she has participated in many records, sleeve photos, and books, and has one of her own, too: Beauty Lies In The Eye (Patrick Frey Edition), a fantastic testimony to the no wave era. Loren Chodosh is an entertainment law attorney and native New Yorker. Over the years, she has represented a varied clientele, including Shawn Colvin, EMF, Moby, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Swans, Live, and Tricky, and currently represents The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, TV On The Radio, Liars, Buddy Guy, Steve Jordan, Mercury Rev, and many, many others. Lacking any discernible musical talent, she went to law school in the hope of figuring out how to work with bands. Decades later, she is still standing. Rob Collins began his life in music as a talent scout for Virgin Records before encountering Stevo and helping establish Some Bizarre record label —and the sub-label K.422—as an outlet for some of the most original artists of the 80s, including Foetus, Psychic TV, and Test Dept. Rob moved on to initiate the Product, Inc. label under Mute before focusing on artist management until the mid-90s, when he became the managing director of Radar Records. Since 1999, Rob has devoted himself to managing the label Cooking Vinyl and its artists over the years, including Prodigy, Ryan Adams, Billy Bragg, and Richard Ashcroft. Rico Conning began his music career in the late 70s with his band The Lines. Their first single, ‘White Night’, was released in 1978, followed by an EP, two albums, and various singles. Their unreleased third album, Hull Down, saw the light of day in 2016. In 1982 he began work as an engineer

at William Orbit’s Guerrilla Studio, soon graduating to mixing and producing for the likes of Coil, Erasure, and Wire. He engineered for Dusty Springfield and co-wrote a song with Françoise Hardy. In 1991 he moved to Los Angeles and expanded into sound design and post-production. Todd Cote is a San Francisco-based talent agent and artist manager who has represented Michael Gira and Swans since 1994. While still in her teens, Siobhan Duffy joined the NYC avant-group God Is My Co-Pilot as a drummer, while simultaneously completing her studies at the School of Visual Arts. Later, she co-founded The Gunga Din, in which she both drummed and sang. They released two albums and toured relentlessly until disbanding. She then joined groups including Flux Information Sciences and Kid Congo & The Pink Monkey Birds, as well as providing vocals for other recording artists. In 2005 she became a full-time critical care registered nurse and is the mother of two young children with her ex-husband, Michael Gira. Brandon Eggleston is a producer, recording engineer, and mixer based in Portland, Oregon. He was Swans’ primary tour manager and front-of-house engineer from 2010 to 2015. He is the longest standing/lasting crewmember in Swans history, and the first to take on both tour manager and front-ofhouse positions at the same time. John K. Erskine (b. 1952 Toledo, Ohio) is an artist/technician working in sound. He was raised in Detroit before living in NYC 1982–92. Affiliated as front-of-house live mix/technician, recordist, or producer with artists including Glenn Branca, Charlemagne Palestine, LaMonte Young, Swans, and others. John developed theatrical sound designs for The Wooster Group and Operaworks, then succumbed to the lure of full-time employment at Hope College (Holland, Michigan), where he served as managing director of the Recording Arts Centre in the Department of Music. He is currently co-creator at Glistening Black Hammer Projects with his wife and fellow vidiot, Sherry Erskine.

Jorge Esteban—born in Valparaiso, Chile in 1961—has been fascinated by music since his youth. The 1973 military coup in Chile led to a ban on public gatherings, limiting the opportunities for live music, which simply increased Jorge’s interest in records and led to his move to NYC to study multitrack recording. Starting work at Intergalactic Studios, Jorge’s first break was assisting Joe Blaney during sessions with Ron Wood before acting as engineer for legendary guitarist Link Wray, and then for the Ramones’ Animal Boy album, ‘Best Rock Album Of The Year’ at the New York Music Awards, 1986. Michael Evans is an improvising drummer/composer whose work investigates and embraces the collision of sound and theatrics, combining ordered systems with intuitive choices of sound making using found objects, homemade instruments, the Theremin, and various digital and analogue electronics. He has worked with a wide variety of artists nationally and internationally, including EasSide Percussion, Fast Forward, Fulminate Trio, God Is My Co-Pilot, Alexander Hacke (Einstürzende Neubauten), Susan Hefner, Gordon Monahan, Evan Parker, William Parker, Psychotic Quartet, LaDonna Smith, and Peter Zummo. Dele Fadele wrote for the NME from June 13 1985 until October 28 2014. The initial idea was to use surrealism and post-modernism to combat racism. This mutated into reflecting changes in music from various hotpoints across the globe and massing against sexism and homophobia, too. Dele was born in London in 1962; grew up in Ibadan, Nigeria; came back to Canterbury to study; and is a Class of 1984 alumnus of Syracuse University, New York State. He has experienced ageism, and is currently working in underground resistance against the encroachment of alternative rightwingers. He recently contributed to The Quietus. Pat Fondiller is a New Jersey native who, one day in the early 90s, quit his job, sold all his stuff, dropped out, and hitchhiked his way all around and about the US. Eventually, he landed in San Francisco, spent several years there, then the next twenty or so in Brooklyn. He now resides in Peekskill, New York. Pat went to art school and business school, played many

instruments on many records, and once won a Bessie Award in New York City for composition. He loves craft beer, whisky, and his nine-year-old daughter, Ruby. Kris Force is a composer, performer, and emerging media artist living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area and exhibiting and performing throughout the United States and Europe. Kris works as a solo artist and as a collaborator with select individuals and groups. She is the founding member of the group Amber Asylum. Kris collaborated as a guest performer with Swans on Swans Are Dead and Soundtracks For The Blind. She performed live with Swans in San Francisco for the Swans Are Dead tour. Kris is a recording artist on Prophecy Productions in Germany and Silent Records in the USA. Simon Fraser’s career commenced in the 60s, and by 1965 he was playing guitar with The Clan, opening for Bob Dylan and Joan Baez on the TV show My Kind Of Folk. From 1968 he was a songwriter for EMI and bassist for the bands Aardvark and Roger Bunn’s Enjin, before joining Foots Barn Theatre in Cornwall and playing lead guitar in Charlie & The Wideboys. Initially working at Sawmills Studio as an engineer, Simon became its owner in 1979. In the 90s he took up sculpture and wood turning, then, in 2005, started La Calera Studio in Andalusia, Spain. Co-founder of the legendary groups Henry Cow and Art Bears, pioneering electric guitarist, composer, improviser and sound manipulator, Fred Frith’s career at the enlightened fringes of one music scene after another now spans more than fifty years. His compositions have been performed by Arditti Quartet and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, his film music and dance music credits are wide-ranging, and he continues to record and perform all over the place with all kinds of people. During his New York years, Fred recorded with Swans, Half Japanese, Violent Femmes, Negativland, Curlew, Naked City, Material, Laurie Anderson, and many others. Oz Fritz works as a sound engineer, music producer, and experimental philosopher. Projects he has engineered include albums by Tom Waits,

Primus, and The Master Musicians Of Jajouka—the latter with long-time co-conspirator Bill Laswell, with whom he has worked with since 1988. His researches into music, magick, and philosophy are documented in his blog, the Oz Mix. Fritz lives in Grass Valley, California. Hank Fury is an audio tech for Clair Global and the owner of the Rock And Roll Supplies music store in Brooklyn, New York. Hank has toured the world with acts such as Madonna, Kiss, The Rolling Stones, and Roger Waters. His work in music began in the 90s, stage-managing at CBGB and on the road with noise legends Unsane, Neurosis, and Swans. Daniel Galli-Duani was born in Tunis, Tunisia, in 1941, and started painting and showing his work at sixteen. He soon moved to Paris, then to NYC in 1965, where he shifted from painting to sculpture. Daniel began experimenting with atonal music in 1967, and he founded Transmission with Jonathan Kane in 1981. In 1984 he became part of the Xavier Fourcade Gallery. He has recently been working on a synergistic installation of twelve sculptures with music composed for each of them and augmented by rear projection clips from nTH, a movie he wrote, shot, and edited. Daniel Gira is brother to Michael and has enjoyed a successful career in business. Jennifer Gira is wife to Michael and is a specialist in rare and historical fashion working primarily with the fashion/film industry. Michael Gira is primarily known for his work with his musical group Swans. Charles Godfrey is a young, ambitious audio engineer, drummer, and mixer. He has worked at Sonic Ranch Studios for twelve years, which has given him a platform to launch his career with many international artists and managers. His work with the likes of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Swans, and

Explosions In The Sky, along with helping operate Sonic Ranch over the years, subsequently allowed him to open his own studio, Scary American, in Austin, Texas. Bryce Goggin is a producer, mixer, and engineer known for his work with artists such as Swans, Pavement, Spacehog, the Ramones, Phish, The Lemonheads, The Amps, Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr., Chavez, Come, Thalia Zedek, Angels Of Light, Larkin Grimm, Joseph Arthur, Herbie Hancock, Toots & The Maytals, Akron/Family, Antony & The Johnsons, Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians, Clem Snide, D Generation, Nada Surf, and Kim Deal, to name a few. He is currently working on musical projects in his own Trout Recording Studios in Brooklyn, New York. Joe Goldring was born in London: it was a bit grim. He moved to sunny San Francisco in the mid-80s before realising it wasn’t sunny. He was eventually introduced to folks from Toiling Midgets and American Music Club and started playing and recording a lot of music with them and others. He met Kevin Thomson in the 90s and started a lot of bands that ‘should of but didn’t’ until Enablers (no ‘the’), who are still recording and touring. He now lives in Marseilles (where it is sunny 300 days a year) and performs solo, with his son Sean Goldring, and with Nicolas Dick. A Wisconsin farm boy raised on the slopes of a Costa Rican volcano, Chris Griffin managed to graduate with a degree in guitar and audio engineering from Berklee College of Music. He was lead audio engineer at Digital Music Express during the infancy of digital cable radio, leading to the birth of Griffin Mastering in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1993. Since then he has mastered and produced thousands of recordings, including season five of Archer. His improvisational group Bongo Wrench is beginning its second decade. Additionally, he collects vintage guitars and Chryslers. He is not dead yet. Alexander Hacke was born and raised in the American sector of West Berlin during the Cold War. At an early age he began to employ his deep distrust in moderation and his firm belief in the survival of the most twisted

by joining a band of hoodlums with an unpronounceable name, even by Prussian standards: Einstürzende Neubauten. Today, he mainly occupies himself writing complex compositions for moving pictures. He is married to the artist Danielle de Picciotto, and the couple divide their time between continents while sharing a continuous quest for the ultimate creative friction and genuine spiritual tooth. Kristof Hahn grew up within spitting distance of the French-German border, hence both his European mindset and, paradoxically, his fondness for Anglo-American sub/pop-culture. Moving to Berlin in 1980 at age twenty-one, he scored a job at Germany’s first punk record store, Zensor, while studying political science. Becoming involved in the music scene, he founded and collaborated in several bands until becoming a member of Swans (1989–92), Angels Of Light from 1998, then Swans again (2010– 17). Kristof is now a member of Pere Ubu and works as a solo artist (and book translator), as well as leading his band Sultans Of Gedankenbrain. An influential and long-serving figure on the UK underground scene and a gig photographer, Mark ‘Harry’ Harris started work at Rough Trade in 1986 through contacts at Red Rhino Records in York and went on to be head of sales. Harry then moved to SRD, the UK distribution arm of Southern Studios, where he still works as senior label manager. He currently works with labels such as Dischord, Neurot, Light In The Attic, Kranky, and Southern Lord. He also runs his own record label. Harry has seen Swans live around forty times. He lives in Southall with his wife, Melpomeni. Thor Harris is a musician, painter, and carpenter best known for his six years as percussionist for Swans and his nine years with Shearwater. He has worked with countless other artists, including Angels Of Light, Lisa Germano, Gretchen Phillips, Devendra Banhart, Flock Of Dimes, and Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra. His current band, Thor & Friends, has released two albums, and he continues to tour and perform when the desire to share his music takes over. Thor speaks publically

regarding depression and published a graphic novel on the topic, An Ocean Of Despair. He is currently running for governor of Texas. Miami-born, bred, and based John Hood played second drums for Swans during the Cop era, sang with Radiant Boys and Blowtorch Boys, played guitar with Balls, co-produced Ruby Desire (Interior), co-starred in Jack & Stella (Dancyclopedia), and racked numerous tracks as The Hood (Sire/Warner, PVC/JEM, Crespescule, Factory). Hood also worked the door at CBGB and Limbo Lounge, promoted at Pyramid, spun at Limelight and Jet Lounge (New York), and did likewise at Rebar, Les Bains, Glam Slam, Liquid, and Crobar (South Beach). Hood now fronts Pistoleros Para Irvine Welsh and writes for the likes BlackBook, Spin and Miami New Times. E.K. Huckaby (born in 1957 in Thomaston, Georgia) lives and works in Brooks, Georgia. He attended the Atlanta College of Art, graduating with a BFA in 1991. Huckaby has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants, including the Working Artist Project of MOCA GA. His work has been featured in many group and solo exhibitions, including shows at the High Museum of Art, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, and MOCA GA. Huckaby is admired for his unusual techniques and use of media. His work is collected nationwide. Kate Hyman is a music industry veteran currently working as VP Creative at BMG Music. Kate started her career with the legendary NYC label ZE Records, where she worked with Suicide and John Cale, among others. She moved on to A&R positions at MCA Records, Chrysalis Records, Imago, and V2 Music. From 2006 to the present day, Kate has run Little Monsters Records, creating music for children. In her role at BMG, Kate has signed various artists to publishing deals while working on the BMG book catalogue. In 2015 she was a creative character consultant to HBO on Martin Scorsese’s Vinyl. Jarboe’s prolific creativity has seen her release over thirty albums in addition to her work with Swans and numerous collaborative projects across a lifetime in music. As a multidisciplinary artist, Jarboe’s oeuvre

encompasses performance art, visual art, an award-winning video game soundtrack for The Path, theatre, and television voice work, as well as contributing audio elements to a range of art projects, her own and others. Jarboe’s expansiveness has been inspired by experiences, including her childhood in the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans, her university studies in literature and theatre, and the life she has led since discovering the East Village scene in 1984. ‘Hi-Fi’ Hillary Johnson is an independent recording engineer, producer, and technician who has been making records and ranting about high-quality audio for the past twenty-five years. A conversation with Hillary about audio and the music industry will be sure to include the word ‘lossless’ and a lot of eye-rolling. She has been a long-standing senior contributor to Tape Op magazine, randomly DJs at various underground parties in NYC, has played keyboards and percussion for Bell Hollow and Crowns On 45, has taught recording workshops and spoken on panels and workshops internationally (including TapeOpCon), and is a proud vegan. Jonathan Kane began his career as the fifteen-year-old co-leader of Kane Bros. Blues Band, touring the northeast with a fake ID, opening for blues legends Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Willie Dixon, and others. After studying at Berklee College of Music, he joined the NYC downtown music scene. He co-founded Swans with Michael Gira, and has toured and recorded with La Monte Young’s Forever Bad Bad Blues Band, Rhys Chatham’s 100 Electric Guitar Orchestra, Transmission, Circus Mort, Dave Soldier, Elliott Sharp, Gary Lucas, Jean-François Pauvros, and as leader of his own maximalist blues/drone band Jonathan Kane’s February. Kurt Kellison is owner of Atavistic, originally founded in 1985 and still open for business. He is also the co-founder of the Unheard Music Series and Truckstop Records labels. Kellison resides in Chicago’s Logan Square with his son and daughter, and also owns ProvenanceVMX, a vintage restoration company focused on 60s and 70s off-road European motorcycles.

Paul Kendall was involved in early 70s improv before embarking on a thirty-year career as a sound engineer, working on the experimental side of a left-field pop environment. During this time he engineered, mixed, and produced many notable artists largely connected with Mute Records and the in-house studio he helped to establish in 1985. After a five-year sojourn in Paris, he returned to the UK in 2007, touring with Alan Wilder’s Recoil project (A Strange Hour). He is currently engaged as an electro-acoustic improviser, working with dub, as well as making graphic texts and video. He lives in Worthing. Algis Kizys is a sound designer, artist, composer, musician, and director residing in Brooklyn, New York. He has performed and worked with Swans, Foetus, Glenn Branca, Of Cabbages & Kings, Eve Sussman, Simon Lee, and Jonathan Bepler, among others. His film credits include work with Gus Van Sant and Matthew Barney. He is currently involved in several improvisational music projects, The Triangles (an ambient comedy/broadcast-installation trio), The Hallicrafters (a shortwave radio duet, with Eric Hubel, using real-time shortwave signals and test equipment), and is constructing a version of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape as a film installation. Chris Koltay (born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1971) developed an affinity for rock’n’roll and sonics at an early age. A rogue pilot in the sea of sound, he ended up as house engineer at the venerable Ultrasuede Studios after a brief stint at the University Of Cincinnati. Koltay founded High Bias Recordings in Cincinnati before moving the studio to Detroit. In the late 90s, Koltay added live sound to his resume, and he still tours to this day. In addition, he DJs, writes reviews for Tape Op, and is a part-time employee at EarthQuaker Devices, doing trade shows and mild product development. Jason LaFarge has operated Seizures Palace Recording in Brooklyn since 2002. In addition to the Young God Records releases, LaFarge has recorded over 300 albums, including titles by Khanate, OvO, Child Abuse, and Chicha Libre. LaFarge also edits audiobooks and was part of the team that edited A Full Life: Reflections At Ninety by Jimmy Carter, a Grammy

Award winner for ‘Best Spoken Word Album’ in 2015. A multiinstrumentalist, LaFarge is currently the bassist for Pants Exploder. Lary 7 has lived some three and a half decades in the same building in the East Village where he pursues his varied endeavours in film, photography, and music. Recently the subject of Danielle de Picciotto’s documentary Not Junk Yet: The Art of Lary 7, he has also performed at the NYC Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and has released music projects with a diverse range of musical cohorts in the past year. Plastikville Studios continues to exist as the vehicle for his production work and musical energies, and his taste for old (and obsolete) instruments continues to yield fresh and original results. Bill Laswell has, over more than three decades, proven himself a prolific and restlessly creative force in music. As bassist and producer, he has put his stamp on 3,000 projects ranging from Mick Jagger to Brian Eno, from Pharaoh Sanders to Fela Kuti. He collaborated with Herbie Hancock on the 1983 smash-hit single ‘Rockit’, which introduced scratching to the mainstream and inspired a generation of turntablists. As a sound conceptualist, his radical reconstructions of music by Miles Davis, Carlos Santana, and Bob Marley—among others—as well as his own breadth of dub-related ambient projects testify to his revolutionary iconoclasm. Evan LeSure is a live sound engineer and tour manager from Seattle, Washington. He has toured extensively worldwide with numerous bands of different genres. He has been active in the music industry since 2004 and currently resides in Los Angeles. Little Annie (born Annie Bandez) grew up in Yonkers, New York. Diving into the downtown scene at age sixteen, she lived at the Chelsea Hotel, attended the opening of Studio 54, and had her mind blown by Suicide at CBGB. Across thirteen years in England, then after her return to the USA, Annie has released numerous albums, her most recent being Genderful (2010, with Paul Wallfisch), State Of Grace (2013, with Baby Dee), and Trace (2016). In 2012 she published You Can’t Sing The Blues While

Drinking Milk: The Autobiography Of Little Annie, aka Annie ‘Anxiety’ Bandez. Lydia Lunch is passionate, confrontational, and bold. Whether attacking the patriarchy and their pornographic war-mongering, turning the sexual into the political, or whispering a love song to the broken hearted, her fierce energy and rapid fire delivery lend testament to her warrior nature. She has released too many musical projects to tally, has been on tour for decades, has published dozens of articles and half a dozen books, and simply refuses to just shut up. Brooklyn’s Akashic Books published her recent anthology Will Work For Drugs as well as her outrageous memoir of sexual insanity, Paradoxia, A Predator’s Diary. Tony Maimone is an engineer and producer who founded Studio G Brooklyn in 1995. He has played and/or recorded with Pere Ubu, Mike Watt, Frank Black, Bob Mould, The Mekons, They Might Be Giants, and Book Of Knots. His recent releases include Estelle with No Grave Like The Sea and MRT, an electronic ambient improvisation. Susan Martin is the founding director of Some Serious Business (SSB), an innovative non-profit organisation, and creative consultant for Howl! Happening, a groundbreaking gallery and performance space in New York City, where she recently co-curated the critically acclaimed exhibition Love Among The Ruins. Throughout her career, she has worked with prestigious arts institutions, thought-leaders, and cutting-edge artists to curate, produce, and promote performances, exhibitions, books, and special events. She is known for her innovative collaborations with groundbreaking cultural creators like Penny Arcade, Laurie Anderson, Lynda Benglis, Karen Finley, Diamanda Galas, Philip Glass, Lydia Lunch, Meredith Monk, and Herman Nitsch, among others. Dan Matz grew up Tampa, Florida. Escaping the cultural vacuum of Florida, he landed in Austin, Texas, where he founded Windsor For The Derby. WFTD have released albums on Trance Syndicate, Young God Records, and Secretly Canadian (among others), and have toured the globe.

Along with a number of solo releases, he has collaborated with Michael Gira, Piano Magic, Adam Wiltzie, The War On Drugs, and a host of others. Presently he lives in Philadelphia, where he is an historian, father, musician, educator, and keeper of hens. Steve McAllister (aka mclstr) has been a musician since the age of ten and has played bass, guitar, keyboards, and computers/electronics in various projects. During the 80s he worked as a live sound and recording engineer at CBGB before becoming the house recording engineer at Baby Monster Studios in NYC. Steve continued working as a freelance producer/designer and a touring live sound engineer through the 80s and 90s before expanding into dance remix production work. Steve retired from the music business in the mid-90s to become a computer system engineer. He returned to electronic music composition as a hobby in 2016. Kevin S. McMahon is a proud father, husband, record producer, musician, audio tech, and happenstance/unwitting owner of Marcata Recording living in Upstate New York. He is attracted to dynamic visionary artists who believe, as he does, that making music as though your life depends on it is the one appropriate response to having been given a life sentence as musician in a time such as now. He is known/thankful for his work with Titus Andronicus, Swans, Walkmen, Widowspeak, Mr Gnome, Blessed Feathers, Liquor Store, Real Estate, and many others. And less known for his ‘fictitious super-group’, Pelican Movement. Mi and L’Au is a never-ending discussion between a man and a woman. Thurston Moore has existed in a state of continuous creative tumult since first plugging into the wild charge of mid-70s New York City. Best known for his work in Sonic Youth, his musical endeavours have spanned several hundred releases with scant regard for the artificial divide of genre and a constant appetite for innovation. In 2017 he released Rock N Roll Consciousness to significant acclaim and continued extensive touring with The Thurston Moore Group. Moore continues to work extensively as a poet

and spoken-word performer, as well as running the publisher and label Ecstatic Peace Library. Virgil Moorefield is a composer and intermedia artist. His group, the eponymous Bicontinental Pocket Orchestra & Intermedia Works, consists of accomplished instrumentalists as well as a core group of technicians and programmers from both Europe and the USA. A CD/DVD, Five Ideas About The Relation Of Sight And Sound/No Business As Usual, was released to critical acclaim in 2013. His forthcoming CD/DVD, A Wish For The Displaced, will feature new ensemble compositions as well as intermedia works created and performed 2013–18. Moorefield was drummer with Swans (1988–89) and Glenn Branca (1992–2008). He lives near Zurich, Switzerland, with his family. Stephen Moses believes, to this day, that some of the coolest music he ever played was as part of The Peter Borno Quintet, which no one has ever heard of. Between 1974 and 1987, Stephen was a regular performer at CBGB, with gigs including the first Contortions show. With Rasputina he toured support for Marilyn Manson and Bob Mould, while his band Alice Donut achieved underground notoriety and influence, with their biggest show being the Reading Festival main stage in 1993. To this day, Stephen plays music with Percy Jones, and their album MJ-12 came out on Gonzo Multimedia in 2016. Larry Mullins was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, leaving at age twenty. His website, tobydammit.com, documents his appearances on 233 published recordings and 1,892 live concerts (to 2017). His work on numerous television and film soundtracks—notably including School Of Rock—was highlighted by a premier at the Cannes Film Festival with Johnny Depp for his film The Brave in 1997. He’s been a member of Iggy Pop’s band, Swans, The Residents, Iggy & The Stooges, and currently Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. He plays the character Willy Schuricke in the 2017 German series Babylon Berlin. He resides in Oslo, Norway.

Geoff Muncey was tour manager for Swans’ Children Of God European Tour in 1987, then went on to become partner with Rob Collins at Muncey Collins Management, representing Swans, Loop, Prong, The God Machine, Last Few Days, World Domination Enterprises, Cactus Rain/Annie Hogan, Float, and Pussy Galore. Bob Musso, currently chief engineer at Orange Music Studios, has enjoyed a music production career encompassing 2,000 albums and 20,000 songs. As well as being CEO for an independent record company and music publishing company (MussoMusic.com and MuWorks Publishing), Bob served as engineer at Atlantic Records and the Hit Factory; was a 9/11 first responder (WTC Registry Centre); adjunct professor at the Institute of Audio Research; a game-day coordinator for the NFL at Met Life Stadium; a volunteer at the Beth Israel Hospital; as well as a technical consultant for Bill Laswell, John Zorn, Trilok Gurtu, and Sonny Sharrock, among others. Ivan Nahem: 1978, drummer, San Francisco, The Situations. In 1979 he formed Crop with Andrew Nahem, Mark C., and Tom Paine. Moved to NYC, formed Carnival Crash with Norman Westberg, John Griffin, 1981. Numerous gigs, two recording sessions; tracks will be released as the album It Is A Happy Man. Moved to vocals; formed Ritual Tension with Andrew and others including Marc Sloan and Michael Shockley, releasing three studio albums and a live album. Recorded drums with Swans, 1985. Released The Kiss with G.W. Bielski and Ritual Tension members, 2017, under the name ex->tension, with plans for live performances. Currently editor of Yoga Teacher Magazine. Fredrik Nilsen is a photographer specialising in photography of artworks and portraiture. He is also an experimental musician who co-founded the Los Angeles Free Music Society (LAFMS) in the 70s. He played bass for Little Cripples with Mike Gira. He is a member of several LAFMS ensembles, including Doo-Dooettes and Airway. In 1995 he formed Extended Organ with Joe Potts, Tom Recchion, and Paul McCarthy. Mike Kelley joined Extended Organ from 2000 until his death in 2012. The group

is currently active, performing and recording as a five-piece featuring Fredrik, Joe, Tom, Paul, and Alex Stevens. Seth Olinsky is an American guitarist, singer, and composer, and cofounder of the rock band Akron/Family. He is also known for his multiband orchestras Band Dialogue, and forty drum performances, alongside his rock’n’roll musical moniker, Cy Dune, as well as co-founding Lightning Records and Lightning Magazine. Rick Oller is chief technology officer at a media company in NYC. He also teaches design at graduate school level. Rick looks back on his years in music with fondness and no regrets. His band affiliations included Circus Mort (with Michael Gira), Deep Six (with Josh & Dan Braun, also of Circus Mort), Destructo (with Josh Braun, with whom he played at the Speed Trials festival), Midriff Bulge (with Josh Braun), Random Garbage, and Trash Generator. David Ouimet is a New York-based artist and musician. Prior to leading his gypsy-punk ensemble Motherhead Bug, he was a founding member of Cop Shoot Cop (with Phil Puleo and Tod A.). He also toured with Foetus along with Swans members Norman Westberg, Algis Kizys, and Vinnie Signorelli. He is currently working on his sixth book for children and producing street art around the world. Larry Packer has played with Cat Mother & The All-Night Newsboys, Sha-Na-Na, David Bromberg, Steve Goodman, Harry Belafonte, The Band, David Amram Quintet, Lou Reed, Bill Keith, Happy and Artie Traum, Billy Vera, Space Hog, and countless others. He appeared in the Martin Scorsese film The Last Waltz with The Band and with Sha-Na-Na in The Festival Express, as well as appearing in a skit on the third ever Saturday Night Live. His solo record Eye Of The Sun is out on Woodstock Records. Larry plays violin, viola, bass guitar, and mandolin, as well as composing and arranging music.

Fabrizio Modonese Palumbo is a founding member of Larsen as well as Blind Cave Salamander, Coypu, and Almagest! He also performs solo under the moniker (r). Fabrizio has played extensively in Europe and the USA, including sold-out theatres, sordid bars, big festivals, art galleries, and empty spaces. He’s also a producer, music curator, and occasional DJ, and writes music for movies, theatre, and dance. He has collaborated with artists such as Xiu Xiu, Ben Chasny, Jochen Arbeit, Little Annie, and Z’EV, among many others. He lives in his home town, Torino, with his husband. Pink is his colour, Klaus Nomi his saviour. Ted Parsons started out in a number of punk bands playing at all-out high speed before being inducted into the cult of slow ’n’ heavy that was Swans. Parsons always sought out new experiences to perform: he was already playing in the earliest line-up of Prong in 1986 and left Swans to focus on that band, though he subsequently played with friends from Swans in both the Foetus band and Of Cabbages & Kings. Parsons enjoyed great success with Prong before moving on to become a member of Godflesh, then Jesu, as well as drummer with bands including Killing Joke. Beatrice Pediconi is an Italian artist currently based in NYC. Her research focuses on recording the movement of fluids and their transient effects on water through artworks that incorporate painting, chemistry, installation, video, and photography. Her work has been exhibited throughout Europe, Asia, and America, and has been acquired by numerous public and private Museums such as La Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, the Macro Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome, and the Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia, among others. Her work has been published and reviewed in numerous magazines, including Il Giornale dell’Arte, Artforum, Harper’s, and Art In America. David Pierce graduated from the University of North Texas in 1997 and was hired at Southlake Carroll Independent School District, teaching all levels of music. During his tenure he developed an award-winning jazz programme with nine jazz groups, and his music grew in high demand. Among numerous commissions, in 2009 David created an original

Halloween musical, Cirque Du Horror, and in 2011 he was invited as musical director for the City of Denton’s Holiday Lighting Festival. On Baptist General’s album Jackleg Devotional To The Heart (Sub Pop), David collaborated with Tim Delaughter of the Polyphonic Spree to compose four orchestral pieces. Marco Porsia is an experienced filmmaker and life-long Swans fan. His current work is the Swans documentary Where Does A Body End? which tells the thirty-five-year story of Swans through the recollections of numerous interviewees and hundreds of hours of archive material stretching from 1983 to 1997, as well as the live concerts Marco has documented across the 2010–17 iteration of Swans. Marco also filmed the live concerts that accompanied the albums The Seer and The Glowing Man. He has worked as editor on numerous TV documentaries and has made music videos for Pankow, Stearica, and The Wedding Present. Kerstin Posch studied English and Spanish before living and working in London, New York, and Philadelphia as a babysitter. In Vienna she worked for a major theatre company and a publisher of science books before moving to the USA and staying for ten years while she worked at a music publishing company, Young God Records, and various departments of the United Nations. Now residing in Vienna, Kerstin works in production management for a daily newspaper. She also holds a bartending degree from the School of Mixology at Columbia University and knows how to operate a forklift. Edwin Pouncey has been writing about rock since the early 80s, and his work has been published in various music related publications. He enjoys listening to metallic noise, reading underground comics, watching bad TV, and throwing paint around in his South London studio space. He is currently compiling an illustrated scrapbook of his work that will eventually be published by Strange Attractor Press. Christopher Pravdica is a musician, primarily a bass player, based out of and from the NYC area. Most notably, he has played bass in Swans (2010–

17). He also has played in The Gunga Din (late 90s) Flux Information Sciences (early 2000s), and Services (2005–09). Philip Puleo was born and raised in New Jersey, and was a founding member of the band Cop Shoot Cop. He went on to play drums and hammered dulcimer for Swans. His collaborations incorporate various percussion, string, and wind instruments. He has a particular interest scoring for film. He has published a book of photography, capturing intimate moments on tour with Swans. Phil earned a BFA in illustration from RISD and has been a watercolour pet portraitist for many years (commissions welcome!) Other interests include ornithology, entomology, botany, and enology. Phil dedicates his musical career to his African grey, Walter. Kurt Ralske, artist, musician, educator, was born in New York. In the early 90s he released three records under the name Ultra Vivid Scene on the label 4AD/Sony Music. As a fine artist, his video, print, and installation work is represented by Axel Vervoordt Gallery. Kurt is currently a professor of the practice in digital media at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Tufts University. Tom Recchion is internationally recognised as a sound and visual artist, composer, musician, art director, and graphic designer. He is a founding member of the legendary Los Angeles Free Music Society (LAFMS) and played drums in AIRWAY, Little Cripples, Cripples, Curtain, Bpeople, Sonic Youth, Sleepers, and more. Andy Reynolds is a concert tour-manager and live audio engineer who has toured the world with some of his favourite bands for over twenty-five years. Andy also teaches live sound and the concert business to students at UK universities, and has tried to help musicians learn about the ways of the road by writing and publishing several books.

Bill Rieflin is a gifted amateur who has gotten away with murder over the last forty-one years of record making and performing. Quite an achievement. Audrey Riley is best known for her work as an arranger and session cellist. Beginning in the 80s with Virginia Astley, Test Dept, and The Smiths, her work has been heard on numerous recordings; as a long-time member of the Gil Norton production team; and for 4AD. She has consistently refused to be bound by stylistic or genre types. As a cellist, focusing on contemporary and experimental performance, she has commissioned new music for cello, championed un-known composers, collaborated in composition, and generally headed quite deliberately toward a music world away from the mainstream, toward experimentation and improvisation. Dana Schechter is a bassist, lap-steel guitarist, composer, and touring performer based in Brooklyn. A San Francisco native, she began on upright bass at age twelve and moved to bass guitar at sixteen. Over the course of her career, she has travelled and recorded internationally with her own musical projects, Insect Ark and Bee And Flower, as well as a wide variety of artists, such as Zeal & Ardor, Angels Of Light, Wrekmeister Harmonies, Arabrot, Gnaw, American Music Club, Bertrand Burgalat, Botanica, and more. Schechter is also an animator and video artist, working in the film business by trade. Miles Cooper Seaton is a nomadic artist, performer, composer, poet, and educator. Mixing the transcendental and intuitive qualities of spiritual music traditions with the visceral, confrontational and humanist values of punk and counterculture art movements, Seaton’s work aims to transform each context it encounters into a temporary home inside the crisis of life. Kenny Siegal is a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, music producer, and engineer originally from Island Park, New York. Kenny is a two-time Independent Music Award Winner: his first came when the Johnny Society album Clairvoyance won ‘Album of the Year’ in 2002, while a further award, for ‘Best Producer’, followed in 2012 for the album Free Society.

Since 2001, approximately a hundred records have been recorded at Kenny’s Old Soul Studios in Catskill, New York. Kenny discovered the music of Prince at a young age, which opened him up to the limitless possibilities of the studio and of song form. Vinnie Signorelli was inspired to play drums by his father as a way to get rid of tenants living in the Brooklyn apartments where the family lived. They left. Vinnie ventured into the city and became a daily resident at CBGB, where he started playing with The Dots in ’76, supporting bands ranging from XTC to Gang Of Four. Moving to Berlin in ’88, Vinnie opened for Swans and met the band before being invited to drum with them from 1989 through 1992. Since then he has drummed with Foetus and then The Unsane, with whom he still performs. Nicky Skopelitis began his career in music at age nineteen amid the febrile atmosphere of New York City’s downtown music scene. He came to perform and record with outfits including punk jazz ensemble Curlew, The Toy Killers, The Golden Palominos, and Material. Across the next few decades he participated in numerous productions with talented creative such as Bill Laswell and Anton Fier. While mostly known for his work in the context of session playing for others’ recordings, he has made a number of his releases under his own name, including Ekstasis, Next To Nothing, and a duet recording with Sonny Sharrock, Faith Moves. German-born Cassis B. Staudt studied music at the Hamburg State University and Juilliard. Her New York City band b-blush released several albums. Producing for Jim Jarmusch brought her to New York. Today, Cassis mainly writes film music. She had the idea for the Oscar-nominated film Ferry Tales and wrote the theme song. For the feature Die Boxerin, Cassis founded a band with the legendary bass player Herbie Flowers. One of her sound sculptures was installed at the Denver International Airport. Cassis’s first film music symphony was recently performed live by an orchestra in Berlin.

Clint Steele (born in 1968 in Louisville, Kentucky) is an American guitarist and recordist best known for his work with Atlanta band Mary My Hope (1988–93), and as guitarist with New York’s Swans (1990–97), as well as Jarboe, World Of Skin, and The Body Lovers. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. Jonathan Tessler is a creative director, art director, and designer who has worked for numerous clients including UNICEF, The Walt Disney Company, the actor Laurence Fishburne, and music producer Michael Beinhorn, among many others, and he has been recognized with awards and accolades from a variety of respected industry bodies. As a teenager in NYC, Jonathan attended the famous High School of Music & Art before earning a degree in music from Lehman College and studying at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. During the 80s, Jonathan played bass and toured with Swans, The Silos, Dr. Nerve, and Adversary Bubba. Since 2004, Deryk Thomas has worked as an art psychotherapist at Broadmoor High Secure Hospital in Berkshire, England. He continues to paint (puppies, kittens, police, bunnies, and graves), and these works continue to furnish the homes of discerning collectors around the globe. Between 2001 and 2014, Deryk recorded and performed with Michael Begg as part of Human Greed. Richard Thomas promoted live shows by indie bands such as New Order, Sonic Youth, Primal Scream, and The Fall in the 80s. He now promotes live literary events including The Laugharne Weekend in Wales. Joakim Toftgaard is a trombonist and, having been a freelance musician since 2005, he has performed, recorded, and arranged music for (and with) numerous musicians across a multitude of genres, as well as being a founding member of the group Dallas Horns. In 2016–17, Joakim was the youngest member of the University of Texas at Arlington’s jazz faculty, and he possesses a degree from the Royal College Of Music in Stockholm and a master’s in jazz performance from the University of North Texas In Denton.

Carlos Van Hijfte: I was born in 1954 on a farm in Zeeland, the Netherlands. In the early 60s we moved to a house with electricity, where I soon bought my first record player. In the late 70s I started a record store in Eindhoven, where I met Lee Ranaldo in winter ’81. That summer I had started promoting shows, and in June ’83 I presented my first Sonic Youth show, after which they asked me to book more, and I was their European agent until the end. I also booked European shows for numerous bands, including Cat Power, Mike Watt, Shellac, Dinosaur Jr. Vudi was born in 1952 and grew up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where he began playing in bands at age eleven. Since then he’s played in numerous ensembles, ranging from Farmers (unheralded but ever-innovative San Francisco act of the early 80s) to the American Music Club (with whom he played guitar from 1983 onward), Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, and Swans. Currently residing in Los Angeles, Vudi continues to write and perform original material under the nom-de-plume Clovis De La Foret. Jenny Wade played in Rude Buddha, Vodka, Envelope, God Is My CoPilot, Timber, and Swans. She’s a computer programmer at Microsystems and a Russian scholar specialising in poetry of the Silver Age. Her book Mayakovsky: From My Gullet To The Stars will be released fall 2017 through Sensitive Skin. Kristin Wallace has worked in the music business, advocating for musicians and music, since she stole her sister’s college ID to work at a radio station when she was seventeen. She lived in a van/bus as tour manager for nine years, booked and tour managed many tours, and worked as agent/assistant for numerous bands. Presently she lives in Staten Island, New York, has four children, and is married to a harbour pilot named Tom. Kristin also makes (waves) electronic music and DJs. She and her husband own and run a streaming radio station called MakerParkRadio.nyc, where they both host shows. Paul Wallfisch has spent several decades staring out the windows of planes, trains, and tour buses, occasionally cracking open a book. In

between, he produced eight albums with his band Botanica and worked with Swans, Firewater, Love & Rockets, Congo Norvell, Angela McCluskey, Stiv Bators, and Johnny Hallyday, among others. Paul’s music can be heard on countless American TV shows and several films, including Amorous, which won ‘Best British Feature’ at the 2014 Edinburgh International Film Festival. He is the long-standing writing, production, and performance partner of Little Annie. From 2010 to 2015, Paul was music director at Theater Dortmund, Germany. Evan Weiss was born and raised near Seattle, Washington. After exploring composition he studied jazz at the University of North Texas, where he wrote, performed, and travelled with the Grammy-nominated One O’Clock Lab Band. Evan’s most recent chamber music release, Math Or Magic, includes lushly orchestrated soundscapes and cinematic themes for strings and woodwinds exploring the relationship between the intricate and the simple; between complex compositional elements and vibrant melodies. Evan tours with The Funky Knuckles, The Polyphonic Spree, and Grammy winners Snarky Puppy, in addition to performing, recording, and producing for bands both local and worldwide. Josh Wertheimer has been involved with performing, recording, and live sound in New York City since the late 80s, including live sound for Swans in 1997 and Angels Of Light in 1999. His interests include art, industrial design, hoarding, and retiring. Best known for his work with Swans, Norman Westberg’s output beyond that group is sprawling and restless. His name recurs and ripples through many interconnected micro-histories surrounding New York City’s music and art scenes. From appearances in film works associated with the cinema of transgression through to his participation in bands such as The Heroine Sheiks and Five Dollar Priest, Westberg’s name is woven deeply into the fabric of New York over the past three decades. Paul White creates groundbreaking graphic work that is thoughtprovoking, detailed, and entertaining. He established Me Company in 1985

with the purpose to produce strong and original imagery—a manifesto of metamedia and a gospel of untruth. For thirty-three years he has worked with artists and individuals who share his enthusiasm for new and innovative techniques and who are excited by his ways of thinking. Boris Wilsdorf was born in 1966 in West Berlin, inside the wall, with the ruins of the neighbourhood as our playground, every holiday a longdistance journey—and so many of us felt it was completely normal. Having studied music engineering in Miami and survived in a VW van on Haight Street, San Francisco, I returned to Germany as an assistant engineer in in Conny Plank’s Studio and at Hansa Studio. Since then I’ve done thousands of gigs and studio productions and run andereBaustelle.com, my own studio. Kevin Wortis thrives at the intersection of entertainment, media, music and innovation. A twenty-five-year music industry veteran, known as a sharp and uncompromising advocate of artists, he is a member of the executive leadership team at Girlie Action Media, a New York City-based full-service music marketing and management agency. Wortis has worked as an agent, manager, and label head, proudly serving such equally uncompromising artists as Sigur Rós, Devendra Banhart, Neurosis, David Lynch, John Malkovich, J. Dilla, Amanda Palmer, Aphex Twin, Sharon Jones, Grace Jones, The Cure, Dead Can Dance, and, of course, Michael Gira and Swans. Peter Wright first met Michael Gira in 1982 when he moved to NYC to work for Neutral Records, the label that released Swans’ first full-length album, Filth. Currently, Peter’s label and artist services company Virtual Label LLC distributes Michael’s Young God Records, and he manages Swans. Peter’s music business career started in the late 70s at New Hormones in Manchester and has included stints at Mute, Rykodisc, Caroline, and Instinct Records.

ENDNOTES 1 The General Educational Development test, which provides a qualification equivalent to a high-school diploma. 2 Bruce Kalberg (June 22 1949–Sept 17 2011), artist, photographer, writer, and publisher, ran No Magazine until 1984 and later wrote the novel SubHollywood (2005) under the name Bruce Caen. 3 Kim Gordon, co-founder of Sonic Youth, ex-wife of Thurston Moore, and friend of Gira’s during his time at Otis Art Institute. 4 Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca are major avant-garde composers most famed as proponents of the merging of punk rock and minimalism/modern classical composition. 5 Lee Ranaldo: guitarist and vocalist with Sonic Youth, as well as a producer, writer, photographer, bandleader, and visual artist. Sonic Youth also rehearsed in Gira’s space on 6th Street and Avenue B during this period. 6 As a crucial influence in Swans for several years, attempts were made to contact Roli Mosimann during the creation of this book, but he declined to participate. 7 A sorely overlooked noise-rock band originating in Philadelphia before moving to New York and becoming associated—sonically—with bands like

Sonic Youth, Swans, and Live Skull. 8 Glenn Branca’s label, founded in 1981–82, released Sonic Youth’s first EP and album as well as Rat At Rat R’s debut LP. 9 Sheetrock is a brand of drywall used regularly in the construction industry. 10 White Columns Gallery is an alternative non-profit art space founded in 1970. A compilation LP was released to commemorate the Speed Trials Festival of May 4–8 1983 and includes a track with Westberg, Mosimann, and Gira accompanying Lydia Lunch. 11 BC Studios in Brooklyn was founded in 1978 and, under Martin Bisi, became a significant hub of the New York underground across the next three decades. 12 A volume of Gira’s short stories and prose pieces published on Henry Rollins’s 2.13.61 press in 1995. 13 Drummer and percussionist Anton Fier was briefly a member of Swans for the recording of White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity. Fier interviewed for this work but ultimately declined use of his contributions. 14 The final Akron/Family album on Young God Records, released in 2007.

PHOTO CREDITS The photographs in this book came from the following sources, and we are grateful for their help. If you feel there has been a mistaken attribution, please contact the publisher. Jacket front Nuno Martins. Little Cripples Melanie Nissen; Sue, Jonathan, Michael, Ichi, courtesy of Jonathan Kane; Savage Blunder tour, Bob Bert; Danceteria, Catherine Ceresole; 1985 lineup, Lee Ranaldo; Mahubay Gardens, Michael Conen; Children Of God, Rob Collins; 1989 line-up, Beth B copyright 1989; Michael and Jarboe, Fred Burkhart; London 1997, photographer unknown, courtesy of Jarboe; Angels Of Light, Josh Wertheimer; Siobahn and Michael, Ada Bligaard Søby; 2010 backstage, Kristof Hahn; 2010 portrait set, Michael Gira, except Kristof Hahn, Enriko Boettcher; 2014 live, Catherine Ceresole; 2015 live, Jens Wassmuth; 2017 portrait set, Enriko Boettcher; Michael and Jennifer, Nicola Kuperus, courtesy of Jennifer Gira. With the exception of The Burning World, all album cover artwork is reproduced courtesy of Young God Records.