SWANS: THERE’S THE GUY WITH THE PENIS!
Michael Gira grew up in L.A. but left a trail of blood and fake semen behind him when he split for New York City and started the great annihilator known as SWANS. After a slow and beautiful transition from primitive brutality to brutal beauty, SWANS went nova on Soundtracks for the Blind and ended for more than ten years. Now Gira has awakened SWANS again. He speaks from between Texas and Tulsa. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
Can you describe the full-page ad you took out in Slash magazine?
Yes, I can. Have you seen it? I think it was kind of brazen and interesting. My friend Bruce Kalberg who published NO Magazine with me—he had taken an ad out in Slash which was just his face, and he’d shaved a strip down the center of his head and taped a piece of liver to it. So he just had this liver on is head. Sort of a comment on Mohawks, I guess. We’d go around to shows at the Whisky or the Masque and Bruce would be wearing his liver. He was known as ‘Liver Head.’ We were doing little art antics around the time of the punk rock thing, and I took out a full page ad in Slash—and that’s how I met the wonderful Claude Bessy, too, when I went to pay for that ad! But in this ad, I had someone put a straightjacket on me and I was sitting sort of profile to the camera with my legs up—naked—and I made a very large like three-foot long penis out of plaster. I made it look like it came from my crotch and swooped out and then back into my mouth, and I was kind of glaring at the camera. I was really into make-up at that time—like film make-up; I was looking at that as a possible way to make money—and I modeled it after Boris Karloff in The Mummy. So I had this gloppy sort-of mummy face. And I thought I did a really good job! I had this fake semen dripping out of my mouth—basically I was performing oral sex on myself—and I was looking at the camera, and the large caption under the photo was HERE I AM THINKING OF YOU.
Did anyone recognize you later?
It was meant to be anonymous! But the next week, I’m going out to shows and everybody’s like, ‘Hey! There’s the guy with the penis!’ I thought I did a great job on make-up, but … I did the Go-Go’s first interview they ever did for NO Magazine at the Masque that week and they were like, ‘Hey! It’s the guy with the penis!’
How did you transcend your reputation as ‘the guy with the penis’?
I guess the band—people liked it a lot. But then I left. And around that time, I went up to San Francisco to audition for Flipper. It woulda been a bad thing for me to do, but I liked them a lot. I forget why it didn’t work out. Maybe they didn’t like me singing, or maybe I wanted to move to New York. But I stayed in touch with them for years after that.
What was the audition process like?
We just got drunk and I screamed a lot while they jammed. Little Cripples’ first show was at the Deaf Club in San Francisco and I remember Bruce Loose out in the audience while we were opening for the Bags. I was friends with Alice—we had a little romantic relationship at the time. It was nice. She was the prime fox of the whole scene as far as I’m concerned. The alpha—what would you say for women? That mater fox.
What did the police do when they broke in to the Hermann Nitsch performance you were helping with that one wild night in Venice?
I think they shut it down! They were pretty shocked. There were all these carcasses and blood everywhere and everyone was completely drunk. It was on the ground floor and the blood was seeping out the door on to the sidewalk, which is why I think they came.
How does it affect one’s artistic aspirations to spend a night ankle deep in blood?
Oh—Hermann Nitsch was wonderful! The total all-consuming visceral experience was very influential on me. But I wouldn’t wanna do anything like that. I’m an American and with these rock instruments, we used that as one influence. Along with the Stooges and Throbbing Gristle—it was just one aspect. There were all kinds of influences.
When you started SWANS, what were you sure you didn’t want to do? What did you feel no longer needed to be explored?
I can’t really answer that accurately. We really just started playing and I would make comments and guide the process—I’d have a riff on the bass and Norman would play the guitar and … all those things inform it, but you don’t really sit down with an agenda and try and figure out how to make music that way. In a negative way, you could say if it sounded too punk rock, it would go. We wouldn’t do that. Or if it sounded too regular rock ‘n’ roll. Certainly no solos. And often times no chord progressions. If it sounds right or has a certain sexuality and it’s propulsive … and you go with that. At the time, the Stooges were a huge influence, but we didn’t wanna sound like that. There was something in that music that really spoke to us, but we didn’t wanna imitate that. On the first album my favorite was ‘We Will Fall’—the real slow one. And on Funhouse, the one with just the sheets of guitar—so intense. Norman being a Detroit guitarist, he’s sort of got that sound, and we just took it to a different level in a different way. In the early days, we tried to use like preset rhythms and it seemed really artificial and stultifying. Stiff—a lot of people play samples, but to me it sounds stiff. We had two bass players at the time—I being one of em—and two huge like SVT-style rigs, and then another bass amp of similar size and stature, and he’d play cassettes through. Like an old cassette on top of the amp through a volume pedal. There’d be a loop of sound or white noise or whatever going constantly on the cassette, but he could make it utterly silent or loud with the volume pedal. So he’d hit a bass chord on the downbeat—BRUMMM!—and in answer to that would be the sound of the tape loop that he’d bring up by pushing on the volume pedal. So we got these big chunks of sound.
You’ve often said you want music to atomize the listener—why?
More like if you picture a worm on an anvil and you slam that anvil with a sledgehammer—that’s how I wanted it to be. From the worm’s point of view.
Where’s the desire to disintegrate come from? Is that death? Life?
It’s just—wanting to get laid, basically. The analogy I use now is it’s like tantric sex. You’re constantly building and resisting the urge to … expunge. Slowly building and building and then when the final cataclysm occurs, it’s pretty gratifying. It should be like that.
Is an appreciation for tantric sex the one thing you and Sting have in common? He can reportedly fuck for 14 hours.
That sounds really macho—now I withdraw the entire commentary.
Mark Twain deliberately infected himself with measles as a child and said he never enjoyed anything as much as he enjoyed dying. How about you?
I could think of some pretty decrepit answers, but I’ll have to abstain for fear of my family ushering me into a quick death.
You said once that at a SWANS show, the audience’s job is to sit there quietly and docilely—like ‘bipedal cows.’ What do you suggest we do to be more helpfully cow-like?
I much prefer now they behave like mildly narcotized monkeys.
You said when you write, you don’t set out to have an effect on the reader—you set out to have an effect on yourself. Is it the same when you write music?
You don’t think about the listener. You think about the singing itself. It’s funny. A lot of European interviews start from the point of view of what you’re trying to say with the music, which doesn’t make sense to me. I’m more experiential—it’s how I want to the music to be felt. It’s not about trying to convey some message or something exterior to it. There’s a lot of implications from the lyrics, but you don’t start out with an aesthetic. That’s how they’re trained to think, right? A lot of American university students are, too. You start out with a precept or something and then kind of explicate it with your artwork. Which I find to be really … boring, you know? It’s a typical university way to look at things. I like to dive in and make shit happen. The painter Francis Bacon is such an inspiration to me. He was a highly literate incredibly sophisticated individual, but he didn’t start painting … he just had a canvas there and he just started working, and these amazing images grew organically out of who he was.
He said, ‘Art must deepen the mystery.’ What do you think?
It’s kind of pompous for me to describe myself as something like that. But he was great. His day was amazing. He’d wake up about one or something, and I guess he’d read first, and then he’d go to his local club—a private pub they have in England. Doesn’t mean it’s fancy, but just where certain kinds of people hang out. And he’d drink all day and way into the night and converse with his intellectual carousing sexual deviant friends. Like long drawn-out conversations and eating and talking. And then he’d go out and cruise for rough trade. And then he’d get home at three or four in the morning and paint, and he would sleep somehow. And he did this for like forty years.
There are amazing drinkers like that and it never seems to affect their work. There’s another one—Samuel Beckett was the same way. So was Shakespeare, apparently. Myself, if I indulged to that extent, I’d be braindead for a week!
I’m probably kind of a puritan—I’d save cruising for rough trade til after work, so I could reward myself.
And he came home to this hovel of a studio! Trash everywhere, bits of stuff, half-finished works, catalogs—he’s pretty cool. A self-made individual!
Who was the last person you met who made you quake in your boots?
Johnny Cash. Country musicians are very respectful of their audience. They cultivate them in a real personal way. Go shake hands with them and stand up at the merch booth. I do that now, too. I kind of learned it from the way they treat their audience—respectfully. So I was lined up with people waiting to shake his hand. He’d have like a ten word conversation with everybody and shake their hand, and he was wearing this polyester shirt kinda too tight for his overweight body, and he was covered in sweat, and he looked me in the eye and said, ‘How are you doing, young man?’ And I said, ‘He-e-e-y, Mr. C-c-c-cash …’ and he crushed my hand with this huge shovel of a hand. And then he moved on.
What interests you most about music now? What do you still want to explore?
I’d very much like the time to listen to music. Whenever I put on music nowadays, it distracts me. From work. Or it just seems annoying and I have to shut it off. I’m really enjoying reading up on and listening to again the works of the amazing Howlin’ Wolf. I’d actually like time to do some serious ingestion of delta blues and later Chicago blues and understand the whole genesis of that. Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, their stories are just incredible. They’re giants—human giants! They both grew up as sharecroppers. Howlin’ Wolf didn’t have his first pair of shoes til he was ten or something. He was pushing a plow all day in his stepfather’s field. His stepfather beat him constantly and Howlin’ is screaming and hollering—that’s how he taught himself to sing, basically. Just by pushing a plow and hollerin’. He’d hit stones together or tin cans together for drums. And eventually he met Robert Johnson. These people would come and play at the little shack clubs on the farm, and Robert Johnson came through. He got some basic guitar from him and Charley Patton as well, and learned enough to play guitar and sing and he’d go around these juke joints and work the whole circuit. And he was so outrageous in his performance that he quickly became really famous within that circuit. He’d down on his hands and knees and bark and stick his head under women’s skirts and howl—incredible. And eventually he went to Chicago and had this band—well, first he was on Sun and later he was on Chess—and had this amazing career and influenced modern culture and music to a really high degree. The parallel story of jazz is equally impressive—how these really oppressed people could rise up and have such an overarching effect on culture is just incredible to me. James Brown is a similar story. I like that a lot, too.
What from that world is gone forever? What will we never get back?
Curiosity. It’s so easy to access music on the net now and you don’t really experience it in any committed way. It’s like one little piece of candy you eat before you move on to something else. I’m guilty of that as well. It used to be you really had to seek something out—you’d get this LP with great artwork from the ‘60s, when I started buying music, and there was a real commitment to it. It was just a much richer experience, as far as I’m concerned.
You saw Pink Floyd in the ‘60s—what kind of experience was that? What could they do that no one else could?
They were at a particular point in time—no one could replicate that. It was about the zeitgeist going on, about pop music opening up into really experimental avenues that wouldn’t have been possible five years earlier. And the fact of the total utter and surprise of hearing those sounds, and sharing the obviously blatantly psychedelic experience with other grubby 20,000 hippies in the dirt. And also certain chemicals involved may have added to it as well. Now with all the information being available, there are too many possibilities. The element of shock is really absent. But to me, that was a formative experience. I was 15. I don’t recall that Ummagumma had been released yet, but I think it was the series of concerts that made Ummagumma.
Is there any comparable coherent zeitgeist happening now?
I can’t even comment on that. I don’t have any connection with it and I don’t want any connection with the general pop music world right now. I’m not being snobby—I just don’t have any connection to it. I follow Pitchfork and all these things because I have to—I have a record label—but I don’t give a shit. I just don’t give a shit. Every so often something sticks out and it’s great, but I don’t think there’s any kind of unifying thing right now. I kind of wish there was. I wish there would be a similar socio-political upheaval right about now. We need that. I think young people really need to rise up right now because there are just incredibly important things in front of us that are being mishandled by those in power.
Why did it happen then and not now?
I don’t know. It probably has to do with the successful colonization of people’s minds by mass media. It sounds pompous, but it’s true. Advertising, television, media—people’s identities are formed—not completely, of course; it’s an oversimplification—by the products they buy and what they consume and what little stub social groups they align with, and no one has a sense of urgency for the general culture or even the country. And that’s that. I haven’t read him in forty years, but Marshall McLuhan—the medium is the message, and it’s the way you experience this information that makes it ineffectual I think.
How can someone decolonize their mind?
I don’t know. I’m subject to it myself. Self-awareness, I suppose. Maybe meditate! Try not to consume, mainly. Consumer culture is just so pernicious. That and overpopulation are the main culprits that are getting us in the straits we’re in with our environment and our world. I find when I’m depressed, I just surf the same websites in this zombie state of mind. You get all excited because the Republicans got elected, you get all excited because the Iranian president killed a bunch of dissidents … it’s like, God!
Did you ever have any serious offers when you said you’d cut off your pinky for $250,000?
No! And I was really chagrined. I expected I would. That woulda set me up. But I probably would have invested the money and now it’d be gone and I’d be one less pinky/
Do you wanna renew that offer right now?
No, I’m a little more attached to it now.
SWANS WITH DEVENDRA BANHART AND WOODEN WAND ON WED., MAR. 2, AT THE EL REY, 5515 WILSHIRE BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 8:30 PM / $32 / ALL AGES. GOLDENVOICE.COM. SWANS’ MY FATHER WILL GUIDE ME UP A ROPE TO THE SKY IS OUT NOW ON YOUNG GOD. VISIT SWANS AT YOUNGGODRECORDS.COM.