It seems remarkable, given Swans legendary reputation, that it should be 2018 before the first book emerges examining the band in more detail. Nick Soulsby, the creator of the oral history, SWANS: Sacrifice And Transcendence, has written a special essay for Gigwise explaining why the story of Michael Gira’s band is heavier than mere music and inspirational even for those who have never heard a note of the band’s work.
Soulsby interviewed over 125 individuals — including more than 30 former members of the band — alongside underground luminaries such as Thurston Moore, Lydia Lunch, JG Thirlwell, Devendra Banhart and Bill Laswell. This deep access to the personal experiences of so many individuals permitted the creation of what is a dark, startling, often funny, exploration of how it felt to be a part of this most unique of musical projects.
Nick Soulsby: For me, the title of a book must strive to say everything about its subject in the minimum of words. ‘Sacrifice’ felt like an inevitability: the only way I could sum up the history of Swans since its founding in 1981. It’s a story of utter determination, in the face of indifference and poverty, to make something unsullied by compromise or weakness. It’s an angry young man in his twenties, near naked, pummelling himself against stage equipment in a frenzy of utter abandon. It’s a man hanging drywall all day long on construction sites then coming home to whip the band through rehearsal at ear-splitting volume until long after midnight. Its debt, penury, every dollar devoted to realizing that perfect moment of sound whether on stage or on record. It’s a guy in his sixties killing himself on stage for two-three hours seeking moments of utter ecstasy when the music flows through him and he can vanish into the sound.
‘Sacrifice’ couldn’t stand alone, however, because it was only ever the means — what had to be endured to reach the vital end. That end has always been ‘Transcendence’. I heard grown men describe spiritual epiphanies where Swans’ music hit them with the force of a drug-induced trip. Band members would tell me how, on stage, moments would lock in when suddenly they lost the ability to perceive the passage of time or where the sound reached such intensity it removed them from their bodies and created a space where they had no sense of the physical reality of their flesh. Audience members described music that left them dazed, disorientated, yet thoroughly elated as if life itself had been amplified to a previously unobtainable peak. Swans does something to those playing and those who bear witness: it’s the nearest most of us will ever come to a shared hallucination or a communal moment of meditation and delirium.
There could be no compromise with Swans. Discovering how Gira’s two previous bands crashed and burned made Swans feel inevitable: a band where his authority was undisputed. Band members described tour rehearsals as the equivalent of marine boot camp, they were drilled and honed to become a metronomically precise unit capable of hitting every beat or pulse as one. For Gira, it was all about the work — nothing else mattered. Laziness would be punished. Venue staff would pay for slack organization. The band would be pushed, on and off stage, to immaculate peaks of performance. While other bands might use speed to cover mistakes, or treat audiences to sloppy or jaded performances, Gira never let Swans check out. This is the brutal glory of Swans: giving everything every single time — no excuses. To be a part of Swans meant smashing shock and awe down on the heads of an audience, ensuring every single person in the room would go home awestruck by what they had just witnessed.
Beset by the pauses and interruptions caused by regular line-up changes, Swans still managed to claw their way out of the New York underground and to reach a wider audience. A cult following developed, one that recognized the stark honest humanity at the center of this extraordinary sound. Gradually the sonic palette expanded until, eventually, a major label took a chance on Swans: this was it! Maybe a chance to stop living hand-to-mouth, to be able to make music without the compromises forced by straightened circumstance. 1989-1990 was the fulcrum on which Swans fortunes turned. Cast from the label, indebted, with no band, without the resources needed for touring and without industry support…Most people would give up.
Instead, Gira and his artistic partner Jarboe, took the full weight on their backs: Swans would survive and they would do it all themselves — run their own label, pay for the studios, the tours, the musicians, everything. These were true artists: people with no choice but to make this music in spite of consequences and pressures. Sheer force of will sustained Swans across the better part of a decade and a startling run of compelling albums before it all became too much. Swans ended in 1997 with Gira declaring it all a vast folly, a failure, a sacrifice. Across the years to come he would find new paths, new ways to thrive…
…Until the day in 2010 when Swans returned to the stage. Across four new albums and well over 600 shows in seven years, audiences and critics alike would finally recognize what had been true all along: that Swans was a singular vision, a unique sound, one of a kind. Swamped by the mass-produced, the pedestrian, the corporate, there was an audience that wanted to see sweat and strain in every gesture, to see a band walk the tightrope between triumph and disaster night-by-night, to feel there was blood in the music. Swans became the soundtrack to our age and the only band deserving of the word ‘God’ on its lips. With the final shows in New York City in late 2017, Swans ended…And will rise again in 2019. A new era.