Swans - Biography
By Scott Feemster
Swans were a band that came out of the post-punk experimentalism of the No Wave scene of New York in the late 1970's and early 80's and gradually grew into a force unto themselves. Where early recordings by the band were harsh and confrontational, the latter versions of the band where just as likely to use (loudly) ambient soundscapes and long, open arrangements to get across the intended emotion of a song. Their influence on music, and independent music in particular, is enormous, especially in the context of a band that never sold great numbers of records.
Swans was always a band centered around singer/guitarist/bassist Michael Gira, the only constant member through all of the band's many line-up changes. After growing up in Southern California and spending a youth traveling around the world, Gira found himself attracted to the music that was coming out of the New York art-rock scene, especially the music that was being called No Wave. No Wave was an attitude towards music, rather than a particular sound. Most of the bands associated with the term used the high energy and basic rawness of punk and turned that spirit towards other types of music, such as jazz and funk, thus deconstructing the original sound and mixing it with randomness and noise. Swans would use No Wave as a launching pad for their own musical deconstruction. After fronting a short-lived post-punk band, Circus Mort, Michael Gira started Swans in 1982 with himself on bass and vocals, drummer Jonathan Kane, and Sue Hanel on guitar. This version of the band stayed together only a short time, and by the time of their debut 1982 EP, Swans (Labor), guitarist Bob Pezzola had replaced Hanel and the band had added saxophonist Daniel Galli-Duani. Swans wasn't so much different than a lot of gothic-tinged post-punk releases that were coming out of Britain and the U.S. in the early 80's, but the seeds were sown of a much darker and experimental sound the band was about to embark on.
Swans had changed line-ups again by the time of their next release, their debut 1983 album Filth (Labor), losing Pezzola and Galli-Duani and adding Norman Westberg on guitar, Harry Crosby on bass and second drummer Roli Mosimann. The sound now was much heavier, noisier and more oppressive, and Gira's lyrics dealt with weighty concepts of power and control. The dual drummers also put a more bottom-heavy drive underpinning the band's sound. By 1984, the band refined their newer sound even more, losing Kane on drums, but continuing on stripping the sound down to what could almost be called heavy metal played at very slow, plodding tempos, with Gira's deep-voiced vocals coiling over the top. The band released another EP, Young God (K.422) and then their second album Cop (K.422). Swans were gaining a reputation for live shows featuring head-melting volume and Gira rolling around the stage shirtless, exclaiming lyrics in an almost Pentacostal fury.
By the time of Swans third album in 1986, Greed (K.422), Kane and Mosimann were gone and were replaced by three drummers, Ted Parsons, Ronaldo Gonzales and Ivan Nahem. Also added was second bassist Algis Kizys and a member that would go on to help shape the direction of the band greatly in the coming years, keyboardist and vocalist Jarboe. The sound was still slow and brutal, but new instruments were introduced, such as piano and synthesizer, and the sound of the band was beginning to open up to other influences. Swans released another album in 1986, Holy Money (K.422), often called the twin album to Greed, due to it's similar sound. Gira's lyrical focus was slowly turning away from a preoccupation with man's power towards other men and turning towards man's relationship with a higher power.
Children Of God (Caroline) was released in 1987 and carried forward many of the ideas started on 1986's dual releases, but the album also contained songs of fragile beauty that Swans wouldn't have attempted before in their career. Some songs were now sung by Jarboe, her sometimes beautiful, sometimes scary vocals acting as a strong counterpoint to Gira's almost deadpan deep vocals. Children Of God was enough of a departure both musically and lyrically that many of the bands fans believed that the members had become born-again Christians, but it seems the truth was that Gira was simply questioning his beliefs and preconceptions as well as his audience. During the same year, Gira and Jarboe, (who were a couple during most of Jarboe's tenure in the Swans), recorded another project called the World Of Skin away from Swans, using mostly keyboards and acoustic instruments. Two albums were recorded, Blood, Women, Roses (Caroline), released in 1987 and featuring Jarboe on vocals, and Shame, Humility, Revenge (Caroline) , released in 1988 with Gira singing. The World Of Skin project seemed to pump new life into Swans core of Gira and Jarboe and was influential on the direction the band would take for the rest of its career.
Gira, by now, was ready to distance himself from the reputation the band had made for itself as fearsome noise-mongers and was ready to see if the band could transition to a more “traditional” rock band sound. The first indication of this was the band releasing a cover of the Joy Division classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart” as a single in 1988, the second was the band (surprisingly) signing to a major label, MCA, and releasing The Burning World in 1989. Swans was now stripped down to a trio of Gira, Westberg and Jarboe, augmented by various studio and world musicians brought in by producer Bill Laswell. The results should have been better than what they were, and Gira has stated that he enjoyed working with Laswell, but the outcome was more watered-down than anything Swans had done before and the album did not sell well. Swans left MCA and Gira and Jarboe spent the next year working on their third and final album as World Of Skin, Ten Songs From Another World (Caroline).
Frustrated from his dealings with MCA, Gira set up his own label, Young God, and started to release live documents of the different set-ups of Swans, including Anonymous Bodies In An Empty Room (1990) and Body To Body, Job To Job (1991). A new Swans album, White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity (Young God) followed in 1991. The new album was a clearer distillation of some of the influences and ideas Swans had worked with over the years, combining the aggression and drive of the earlier version of the band with later acoustic flavorings and bigger arrangements. With Gira and Swans having their own label and more control over their career, the next few years saw the band touring regularly and producing some of their best material. 1992 saw the release of the album Love Of Life (Young God) and the more experimental EP Love Of Life/Amnesia (Young God). The band was now primarily Jarboe and Gira, with former members of the band and new players such as guitarist Clinton Steele contributing where Gira and Jarboe deemed necessary. Love Of Life also used more soundscapes and spoken word interludes than had previously been deployed, giving Swans a still wider palette on which to work.
After a nearly three year break, Swans returned in 1995 with The Great Annihilator (Young God), an album slightly more stripped down than it's predecessor, but one more focused musically and lyrically. The albums lead-off single, “Celebrity Lifestyle” was a prime Gira star-chasing kiss-off lyric matched with one of the bands catchiest songs. It seemed by this point that the band was making the best music of it's career and starting to capitalize on all the notoriety it had amassed over the years, but Gira especially was feeling straight-jacketed by the expectations fans had of the band and was feeling the band couldn't go any farther commercially. In 1996 it was decided that the band would release one more album and tour one last time and call it quits. There is speculation that the demise of the band had to do with the demise of the romantic relationship between Gira and Jarboe at around the same time, but neither party has pointed to that as a cause. 1996's Soundtracks For The Blind (Young God) was a sprawling double album and truly brought together all the best elements of the Swans different periods and influences into focus. There were acoustic numbers, hard-hitting full band blast-outs, spoken-word interludes, lush yet disturbing soundscapes, it was, in short, a perfect picture of what Swans were. The last tour was undertaken, and one last document of the last two Swans tours was released in 1998 as Swans Are Dead (Young God).
Michael Gira has continued on in the years since the dissolution of Swans with work with the loose collective centered around himself called Angels Of Light and with running the Young God label. His label has put out notable releases by the likes of Devandra Banhart and Akron/Family. Jarboe has continued on with solo works of her own and with notable collaborations with the likes of Neurosis, Byla and Jesu to name just a few. She also maintains the official website devoted to Swans.