Swans: Sacrifice and Transcendence - an Oral History (excerpt)
Breaking the U.K.: Swans Tour 1986
MARK ‘HARRY’ HARRIS (ROADIE): Swans came over in ’86. I was still up in York, but if you collected wrappers from Mars Bars, you could get half-price coach tickets, so I got a ticket to go to Brighton—a six-hundred-mile round trip to see Swans at the Zap Club. The show, how to describe it? It was really dynamic, menacing, primal. They had a slightly sleazy edge to them. I got chatting to the band afterward. They seemed genuinely touched that I’d travelled all that way. They’re gentle giants—but if you took them on face value, you might cross the road to avoid them.
NORMAN WESTBERG (SWANS): At the time the music made me feel, ‘I can’t wear a shirt to this, you have to be close to naked, you have to be hard.’ We’d never been a band where you wore some other band’s T-shirt—that just seemed obvious. When I was in Detroit, there was a thing that you moved to New York if you were artier, or you’d move to LA if you wanted to be more pop. I chose New York because it felt dirtier.
MICHAEL GIRA: Jarboe was playing this sampling keyboard. The set would start with her triggering these samples super-loud, then the drummers would come in, and then we’d go into a song. The music would inspire these things I would do. I would pace back and forth; I’d flip my body and land on my back and move across the stage that way; I’d slam my torso, my head, down toward my feet and lift, down and lift, over and over; I’d put myself through these torturous physical routines. Gradually the set would become this one long performance piece that grew organically from what the music inspired in me.
TED PARSONS (SWANS): Ronnie Gonzalez, and myself we were a double drum line-up. Having both of us doing it gave it that force. And Swans was all about force. We brought a sound system from Germany that would tear your face off. This wasn’t regular rock music where maybe you’d want to do a solo here, or change the tempo, a drum fill here — that’s the beauty of the Swans, it’s the music, the tempo, how solid everything is, no fills, no solos. We were getting reviews saying people were passing out or being sick because it was so loud and so heavy. At a venue in Birmingham the roof started to cave in on us while we played.
EDWIN POUNCEY (JOURNALIST, SOUNDS): I first saw Swans live at the University of London in ’86. Swans were so insanely loud; that’s when I felt that feeling, this ‘transcendence through noise’ feeling where you were being lifted up. There was something like G-force coming at you. I could feel all the membrane in my nostrils quivering and my clothes and my coat shifting and shaking in the air. ‘My God, this is so good!’
ALGIS KIZYS (SWANS): I found that you could get distortion out of strings, rather than speakers or heads, by the veracity of how you attack a string—depending on how hard you hit it. If you whack a bass string very hard, it’ll oscillate a lot, and as it’s wobbling you’re going off the note but you’re creating a rounder sound because you’re not hitting a perfect note but going around it in conjunction with other strings of various tunings. You can orchestrate those and make a whole new chord. Instead of playing fifteen notes for a passage of a song, I took those fifteen notes and condensed them into one block of chords, then I used all the energy that it would have taken to play those fifteen notes and condensed it into one blast of sound.
JARBOE: The keyboard sounds were like slabs of sound: they were percussive and abrasive. There was no soloing, no one instrument was standing out, you were part of the texture of the refrain and the orchestration. You could get lost playing it on stage, you’d be transformed and uplifted. This was something I loved the most, when you were just playing and you would get lost in that meditative state of mantra and you’d look at the audience and they’d be lost in it too.
DELE FADELE (JOURNALIST, NME): I saw them play at the ICA: this seriously rhythmic music, noisy but with pauses between the beats that went on so long you heard it almost like silence. I had a toothache, and it went away altogether while they were playing—it was so punishing I couldn’t feel it! The music had a physical effect—you’d feel it right in your chest, your rib cage.
MICHAEL GIRA: It got slower and slower which was nice because then you had these hanging sheets of sound between the beats. You could smoke a cigarette between beats.
AL KIZYS: To play music slowly is the hardest thing you can do. To play music fast is way simpler, because your mistakes aren’t exposed. If you want to get four, five people to hit something simultaneously, if you do it faster, you can blur those together, but if you expose each hit with a lot of space around it then you view those mistakes much more closely, so they seem bigger than they are. That’s why we rehearsed so much. We became this human metronome as a band—that’s why you had these big sucking, pinpoint rhythms.
PAUL KENDALL (ENGINEER): I remember vividly the first time I saw Swans perform. I’d seen Led Zeppelin at the Royal Albert Hall in ’68 and put my head in front of the speakers—I liked loud noise. Swans was totally all encompassing— the most physical experience of a band I’d ever come across. It was slow so it just poured into you. The Swans approach— that sound was brand new. I hadn’t heard anything that original in a while.
JARBOE: People are amazed when I describe how much rehearsing went into it before we would go on tour: and it wasn’t just learning parts, this was a breaking down of components before things would come together. And we had to come together as a whole, as a unit, so there was a lot of ego breaking down, emotion breaking down, the tremendous amount of hours involved was very important to the transcendence: a lot of people think you can get a tour together in just a few rehearsals — maybe — but you’re not going to reach the point we had reached until the end of your tour.
THURSTON MOORE: There was a tour manager talking about how she’d had to fight off having a nervous breakdown because spending every night watching a guy with his shirt off killing himself on stage with this noose hanging over his head—it became a nightmare for her. I can see how that would be so affecting to deal with: the band pummelling these chords, this singer yowling into the microphone with a noose behind him. I thought, ‘That sounds wonderful!’
(thanks to Nick Soulsby and Jawbone Press. Excellent Main Photo features Dana Schechter, Thor and Cassis B Staudt by Josh Wertheimer)