SWANS (Michael Gira) Sacrifice and Transcendence by Nick Soulsby – BOOK REVIEW

SWANS (Michael Gira) Sacrifice and Transcendence by Nick Soulsby – BOOK REVIEW

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?

SWANS (Michael Gira) Sacrifice and Transcendence by Nick Soulsby - BOOK REVIEW

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.

Swans - Newcastle May 2014
Swans – Newcastle May 2014
Swans - Newcastle May 2014
Swans – Newcastle May 2014
Swans - Newcastle May 2014
Swans – Newcastle May 2014
Swans - October 2016 - Northumbria Students Union
Swans – October 2016 – Northumbria Students Union
Swans - October 2016 - Northumbria Students Union - PHOTOS
Swans – October 2016 – Northumbria Students Union
Michael Gira - Boiler Shop Newcastle - Feb 2018
Michael Gira – Boiler Shop Newcastle – Feb 2018
SWANS: SACRIFICE AND TRANSCENDENCE book release

SWANS: SACRIFICE AND TRANSCENDENCE book release

Swans: Sacrifice and Transcendence by Nick Soulsby book release announced

SWANS: SACRIFICE AND TRANSCENDENCE”, the first book to focus on Michael Gira’s legendary troupe of sonic terrorists is out now. 125 interviewees tell the story of how a cluster of frustrated artists and poverty-struck musicians in the fertile chaos of post-bankruptcy New York City morphed into one of the most fearsome live acts ever to grace a stage: the reputed “loudest band in the world.”

MICHAEL GIRAI’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’s really important: the work, not everything around it. If you have faith in the work then the people will come… It’s an artistic imperative, it has nothing to do with public perception or career or any of that crap.”

Working construction by day, rehearsing by night; near penniless and living on cheap beer; SWANS immediately won a reputation for creating the most vicious intensity to grace a stage anywhere in NYC – as well as for shell-shocked crowds, police intervention, fights with venues, complete alienation. Clawing their way forward, the band self-funded recording sessions and emerged with material that still sounds original at 35 year distance: ‘Filth’, ‘Cop’, ‘Greed’, ‘Holy Money’. The book, including the remembrances of more than 30 former band members, follows them as notoriety became reputation, as audiences embrace a sound like no other.

At the centre of the book stands Michael Gira, a man determined to realize his artistic vision, an approach to the building blocks of music struck through with startling originality and honesty. Surveying the band’s collapse in 1997 in the light of its triumphant return in 2010 with acclaimed albums including ‘The Seer’ and ‘To Be Kind’, the book asks whether there is something unique in Gira’s approach that has allowed SWANS to weather the years, never compromising, never repeating, always making work of singular impact. It also tallies the cost in lost friendships, fractured relationships, public displays of frustration and crackling tension on stage.

The first and only book to tackle SWANS – and with a wealth of first-hand accounts from individuals ranging from Thurston Moore to Jim Thirlwell, Bill Laswell to Lydia Lunch – ‘SWANS: Sacrifice And Transcendence- shows how far a band can be willing to go, how much a human might endure, to unleash their music on the world.

JENNIFER GIRAMichael as an energy – as a force – was one of the greatest things I’d ever seen… the New York shows were the utter peak. It was the end of summer, literally 110 degrees, you could cut the air with a knife. I see this man furiously playing – I seriously thought, ‘This is insane, he’s going to drop dead!’ The crowd was roaring, and 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’d been trying to die that night. I certainly saw it. They all looked like they were going to die.”

“SWANS: Sacrifice And Transcendence – The Oral History” (Jawbone Press/Quarto, 2018) http://smarturl.it/swansbook

Hear author Nick Soulsby read a chapter from the book.

MICHAEL GIRA (SWANS) | 20.02.18 – Newcastle Boiler Shop

MICHAEL GIRA (SWANS) | 20.02.18 – Newcastle Boiler Shop

Michael Gira – Boiler Shop Newcastle – 20th February 2018 – Review and photos

Swans are one of the finest bands I’ve ever seen and I was ecstatic at the prospect of hearing the material as a solo act, over the moon that such an act should even contemplate playing Newcastle. Gira is playing only two shows in the UK, London and surprisingly Newcastle. We rarely get treats such as this. I feel honoured to be able to witness this show.

Okkyung Lee is the guest opening act on both shows. I was unsure what to expect from her solo cello performance but was confident it would be something challenging to fit the Swans universe.  Her performance was overwhelming and confusing in equal portions.

Okkyung Lee - Boiler Shop Newcastle - Feb 2018
Okkyung Lee – Boiler Shop Newcastle – Feb 2018

Her super fast hummingbird finger technique is mesmerising to watch. The tones extracted from the instrument are remarkable. I’m not sure I like it, but equally, I can’t help but be impressed. Those hummingbirds change from a pleasant flight into an anxiety-filled stabbing swarm in the blink of an eye. All a bit too much for me.

But at what point does making a beautiful sound become too much? 15 mins seemed to be the point where I lost interest. That said Okkyung left the stage to thunderous applause, the audience captivated by the drone or politely enduring? I’m not too sure. I remain impressed and yet stubbornly baffled. Gira later comments that she “Strangled those sounds out of that instrument”. Perfect summation and I finally get it.

Michael Gira - Boiler Shop Newcastle - Feb 2018
Michael Gira – Boiler Shop Newcastle – Feb 2018

More applause greets Michael Gira as he enters the stage. The audience is seated tonight and it feels strangely subdued. Gira providing the ultimate control and attention of the audience. Seeming like a calm but venomous blues man preacher, he is captivating.

Tonight Gira is performing acoustically, albeit highly amplified acoustics. The volume is essential and ensures they stark bare performance is heard above all, even a few streets away!

The songs are magnificent in their stripped back form. Launching into Jim, the slow paced and dramatic phrasing sucks you in, whilst still allowing you to imagine the other sounds that are not present. ‘Ride your mechanical beast to heaven’ is a line I truly adore. That is one thing I notice tonight, the lyrics have more space to tell their tale.

Gira used the opportunity to test out some new material. Gira promises “Several new songs, only begun to be performed on this tour. Leading to a Swans record sometime next year. I thought I’d play it. Why the fuck not!”

Oxygen works surprisingly well as a solo performance. Proving that he is one of the all-time greats. That voice is remarkable. Tar-like strength cuts through the venue like a knife. The evening was an amazing experience.

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SWANS – October 2016 – Northumbria Institute – PHOTO FEATURE

SWANS – October 2016 – Northumbria Institute – PHOTO FEATURE

Swans – 12th October 2016 – Northumbria Institute

Swans return! No photopit at this show so I had to make the best of it 🙂 Turned out quite good fun roaming around the venue.

Swans - October 2016 - Northumbria Students Union
Swans – October 2016 – Northumbria Students Union

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SWANS – Newcastle May 2014 – PHOTOS and REVIEW

SWANS – Newcastle May 2014 – PHOTOS and REVIEW

Swans – Newcastle – Warehouse 34 – May 2014

Amazing show and a band that have been on my bucket list for some time.

Swans - Newcastle 14
Swans – Newcastle 2014

Here’s what I had to say at the time…

“There is a buzz tonight in Warehouse 34, my first time here and it’s a very basic but nicely executed setup, good lighting and great sound. Oh and a good selection of beers which is always welcome! The venue is a little out of the way, but it has an atmosphere, which seemed to fit Swans perfectly. I wasn’t sure what to expect crowd wise, turned out to be very busy, clearly we have a lot of people in Newcastle with good taste. Looking around I saw a lot of familiar faces, pretty much the who is who of the Newcastle alt scene.

Watching Michael Gira work the band was mesmerising, I’ve never seen a band controlled like this before, all eyes on him waiting instructions as if he is conducting an orchestra. The set has been pretty much the same for the whole tour, a nice mix of old and new, personally I’d have loved to hear some from My Father Will Guide Me… as it is my personal favourite, but hey you can’t complain at this little selection. 7 songs clocking in at around 1 hour and 45 minutes. We didn’t get many songs, which is not surprising when most of their songs are 20 minutes plus.

I’d not heard the new material yet, but talking to audience members before hand they were raving about the new material. Oxygen really blew me away, it has a Grinderman style swagger unlike anything else they’ve done. Very fresh and creative with a powerful groove. Swans are certainly a band at the peak of their game.

Swans - Newcastle 14

Setlist;

  • Frankie M
  • A Little God In My Hands
  • Oxygen
  • Don’t Go
  • Just a Little Boy
  • The Apostate
  • Bring the Sun / Black Hole Man

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