Swans: Sacrifice and Transcendence by Nick Soulsby
Review by Graeme J Baty
I don’t get anywhere near enough time to read in my hectic life. When I do, I tend to lean towards biographies. There’s something rather comforting in the escapism from your own life and seeing the world from someone else’s perspective. Naturally, being somewhat musically obsessed, I lean towards music books.
I couldn’t pass the chance to read and review this book. I simply HAD to make time for it. This book landed on my doorstep and it feels somewhat unreal, here we have what might prove to be a rare insight into a world I’d only ever imagined. A world that has been hinted at in other books and magazine features but never explored in any focused study. Who makes this wonderfully unique and incredibly intense music?
The cover depicts Gira with both arms aloft, like he has the weight of the world in his hands, overwhelmed during a performance, he’s clearly in control, he is orchestrating and perhaps even enjoying the power of the music. If you’ve ever seen Swans perform live you will be aware that he acts like a conductor and drives the band and captivates audiences. He’s a remarkable writer and performer. A creator. A visionary. Very driven and believe me when he locks eyes with you, he’s very intimidating. A Swans performance is a memorable thing, certainly one of the best and most intense gig experiences of my life. But you can help think whilst watching them, what makes this man tick? This book will finally answer some questions and prove to be a far more in-depth and enthralling experience than my imagination could ever concoct.
Author Nick Soulsby carried out a huge amount of interviews and pieced them together to tell the story of Swans/Michael Gira from many perspectives and eyewitnesses, notable contributors include Thurston Moore, Bob Bert, Lydia Lunch, brother Daniel Gira, Susan Martin and a lot of previous Swans members. I think it’s very easy to be a little unsure, maybe a little sceptical of the interview based format. It’s way more than just a case of copy and pasting old interviews! However, any doubts I had were are quickly overcome, the book is highly structured and builds a narrative of events in chronological order. To the point where it flows seamlessly, separate interviewees are placed as such that it often feels like they are all in the same room talking about the same points. That’s a difficult task, it’s more than collating, it is documenting and telling a story. That kind of structure must take a vast amount of time, and since it’s taken so long for an author to tackle this tale that approach makes the wait worthwhile. “This book has been built up on the basis of 140 interviews with 125 individuals, representing 250-300 hours of testimony”
Michael Gira is something on a unique presence in the music world and in the real world too. The book allows a glimpse into his childhood and recounts his rather rebellious teen antics, which would make quite a good movie in itself, broken home, alcoholic mother, which include running away to Europe and time spent behind bars in Jerusalem. I don’t want to give too much away, you’ll have to read the book to find out the full story. Intense is a word I seem to use a lot when describing Swans, it’s an appropriate usage as that intensity is Gira lives his life and his art reflects that.
Simply put it’s the best damn music book I’ve read in years and is utterly engrossing. Reinforced and renewed my adoration of the material and encouraged me to look at some of the side project work I knew little about. That’s what I love about music books, they encourage you to look again at a band. Playing Swans records loudly as I read this, it’s been incredibly hard not to imagine his voice and intonation in my mind as you read his interview segments!
Physically it’s a really nice package. Personally, I’ve never understood the ebook fad, a book is something to hold and carry with you. It’s a really nice pressing, fold-out cover, nice paper and exquisitely laid out. Not something I’d normally think or comment about, but it seems to have had care and attention taken when making these publishing choices that echo the subjects perfectionism and I felt it worthy of note.
Swans remain one of my favourite live bands I’ve ever photoed. New appreciation and understanding that can only come from an insight to the artist and the world they were shaped in. I find myself remembering the shows, damn they were great. His vision truly became a reality and the sheer volume, coupled with repetition and deceptively simple song structures that in lesser hands would not have anywhere near the dynamics and power that the will and force of Gira inspires. I can’t explain a Swans show, you really have to witness one to understand.
A few photos from my archive
This photo was taken back in May 2014 (pre-Blank Slate!) at a warehouse gig in Hoults Yard Newcastle.