You really have to hand it to intellectual New York art-rocker Michael Gira — the guy certainly knows how to make a head-turning exit. When he chiseled the epitaph for his sepulchral combo Swans back in '98, it bluntly read "Swans Are Dead" — the title of their final live album, which captured the group at their fiery best. Case closed. End of story.
Or was it?
Gira went on to pen a short-story collection, launch another outfit called Angels of Light, and methodically beef up the roster of his elite imprint Young God Records. Signings included fellow iconoclasts like Wooden Wand, Lisa Germano and Devendra Banhart. Then a mysterious message appeared on his MySpace page a year ago that proclaimed 'Swans are not dead,' thereby signaling a re-emergence almost as dramatic as his exit.
And it wasn't just for jaw-dropping effect. A new Swans, Mach Two is up and running, minus Gira's ex-partner/bandmate Jarboe, but with some new members complementing vets like drummer Phil Puleo and guitarists Norman Westberg and Christoph Hahn. And then there's My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, a gear-grinding new Goth/punk/prog/experimental album with surreal suites like "You Fucking People Make Me Sick," featuring guest vocals from Banhart and Gira's 3-year-old daughter. That track — plus three other cuts, "My Birth," "Eden Prison" and the Floydian "No Words/No Thoughts" — were the only ones expressly written for this surprise Swans comeback.
"The other songs were just kind of accumulated over the last couple of years, and I presumed I would record them as Angels of Light," says Gira, 56, who still growls with his trademark mausoleum-dark menace. "But when it came to actually doing a new Angels of Light record, I was a little ... well, nonplussed with the idea. And I just wanted to make this kind of [Swans] music again, basically. I wanted to experience the cataclysmic waves of sound again, so I reformed Swans." He pauses, considering a mission statement. "I mean, it's my brand, it's my life. So why not do it? And now I'm having the best time I've had in years."
Gira was raised in Los Angeles, became a teenage runaway, and hitchhiked his way across Europe before falling in love with art school. By 1979, he'd heard the call of the East Coast No Wave movement and moved to New York with the express purpose of forming a band. He swears that reconvening Swans "was the best decision I've ever made, I think." And he did it in suitably flowery fashion. To finance My Father, he sold an early acoustic-guitar version of its songs as I Am Not Insane, a limited-edition, hand-colored, website-only release.
"I made 1,000 of those things, and I sold 'em all in two days," the self-starter marvels. "I sort of modeled it on the Kickstarter [album-financing] program — there was a version you could buy for $20, but you got this book of drawings I made with the $40 version."
What is Gira's guiding principle these days? "Love," he replies. "But not in the usual interpretive sense of it. I mean passion. Openness. Curiosity. All that stuff. Because cynicism is death, I think. So despite the kind of music that I've made and the kind of life I've had, I've never, ever been cynical ..."