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Swans: Forever Changes

(Not your father's) Swans
PHOTO BY OWEN SWENSON

The Swans album Cop (1984) was one of the most crushing and intense albums not only of the '80s but of all time. Musically and lyrically, it is a dark and punishing ride. I don't know how many times I have played it. Live, their concerts still register as some of the most forceful and sonically devastating experiences I have ever witnessed. A few years later, Swans morphed into something totally different — no less intense, just different. That's the story of the band's prolific leader, Michael Gira. He's always working on something, and it's always different. That he's come back around to another Swans project is very interesting. It's obviously time. Fascinating man, really good records. —Henry Rollins

L.A. WEEKLY: What's the farthest you ever hitchhiked from home?

MICHAEL GIRA: I hitchhiked across the United States twice. Each time, I left with $20. This was different then! Mostly hippies would pick you up — it was the tail end of the hippie era. It wasn't that hard, though I had a couple scary experiences. I slept on the side of the road and got jobs — worked surveying in Utah. I lived in a tent for six weeks in the desert for $3 an hour! And I got second-degree burns on my shoulders from taking my shirt off like an idiot California boy. I'd paint people's houses in exchange for food. I was in Europe with my father when I was young and ran away — when I was 14 — from Germany down to Austria, Yugoslavia and Greece and Turkey, and then took a plane to Israel and bummed around Israel for a year. I was kind of a vagabond kid!

Did people think you were a spy?

I had older hippie friends that took care of me. And when I was 10 or 11, I ran away from the South Bay, where I grew up — all the way to Santa Barbara, and this girl and I got caught there. I can't imagine I was any older than that, because after that I started taking drugs.

You're very precocious.

It was a different age!

What childhood from fiction did you most relate to? Who was your fictional role model? Who were your imaginary friends?

Jean Genet in Miracle of the Rose. And Walt Disney. My earliest memory of music as describing a cinematic space in your mind were the Burl Ives–narrated Disney records. I remember Brer Rabbit the most, and the kind of sense of wonder — people didn't waste time in front of the computer or TV then. You'd put on a record, and it opens up this whole vista in your mind. That's remained a constant reference point, that sense of escapism. Of opening up a magic box — that's how a record should be.

What would a Michael Gira children's record be like? What would you like to communicate to a tiny child's mind?

I have written some songs for children. For friends' children. I just let my imagination run wild and don't put anything too icky in there. Well, a little bit. But I wouldn't know how to impart wisdom on them because I don't have any.

What kind of wisdom did you get from Dylan's Chronicles?

It didn't illuminate much! I was disappointed. It was more anecdotal than I would have preferred.

What do you wish someone had asked?

There's nothing to ask him. It's like talking to Jesus, man. To me [Dylan] is such an awesome human creature. He made a lot of really crummy work, but he made some of the best work ever in popular music. What do you say to someone like that?

I appreciated how fearlessly he admitted that he didn't know how to write Bob Dylan songs anymore — how he couldn't live up to what people wanted. I wouldn't say I wrote a corollary to "Gates of Eden," but the only way for me to write songs now is to get rid of expectations in my mind of trying to match anything I've done or trying to live up to anybody. You have to be completely humble and open and kind of take what you can get. I realized in the first 20 years of making music, it was just erupting out of me. And then I don't know if you run out of steam, but if you have any sense of self-editing, you realize when you're repeating yourself and you strive not to do that. I've had really intense writer's block for the last two or three years as a result.

You joked — or maybe not — that your inspiration comes from without. From what you've called your demon brother Joseph. Do you still feel that way?

I don't know. I'm trying to find him as we speak. I have a certain atmosphere in my mind for a piece of music and the words are completely not happening.

What do you do in that situation?

Scream. Put my fist in the wall.

Where's the best place to scream?

With 1,000 people in front of me and a very large P.A. and a very loud band. You get your own mini Hitler-at-Nuremberg moment.

You called Werner Herzog the last of the great hero artists. What is a hero artist?

It's probably an overstatement—

He did take that bullet.

He charges right in — physically, emotionally, psychically — and does anything necessary to accomplish a goal. He looks at art as an existential necessity. Something that's urgent — not a diversionary thing that one does. That's what I find admirable. I've met and read about other people like that, but he's one of the characters that's most in the media.

Do you think art is a necessity?

It certainly is for me. I'd wither and die without making my own and experiencing literature, film and music. It certainly makes me alive in a very real way.

In Chronicles, Dylan is talking to MacLeish about the difference between the effects of art and propaganda, but he never reveals the difference. What do you think is the difference?

I'm not good about pontificating about large issues, but the thing that comes to mind is art requires active participation.

And what does propaganda demand?

You just receive it. Subliminally or otherwise. And you can choose to believe it or not. But you can squeeze the blood out of a piece of art if you actively participate in it.

That's a fantastic distinction. Did you make that up just now?

No, I have my book of quotes for interviews right here. There's a Google search you can do — pithyquotes.com.

What is the difference when someone absorbs more propaganda than art?

It's the difference between North Korea and ... what can I say? Venice Beach? I grew up in Palos Verdes — well, I lived there till I was 13 — and I'd hitchhike down to Venice, with Hell's Angels and the hippies hanging around taking acid. Did you ever see that horrible movie The Doors? They filmed Venice Beach — kind of accurate. It was really a great place at one time. I used to see Sky Saxon babbling on the Sunset Strip.

What's the most you were ever wined and dined in your life?

I never have been. I went to Madison Square Garden and saw Depeche Mode and got backstage because I was on the same label. But big fuckin' deal! I wasn't wined or dined.

Did they have a decadent deli tray?

I remember Diamanda Galas was backstage — that was the most important thing.

You said once you needed a religious experience to wipe your slate clean — what kind would you prefer?

One that didn't infringe on my nefarious behavior.

Swans (with Devendra Banhart and Wooden Wand) perform Wed., March 2, at El Rey, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

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El Rey Theatre

5515 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036

323-936-6400

www.theelrey.com