Who's Afraid of the New York Swans?
Michael Gira of Swans at the Bluebird Theater
At the end of the Swans' hypnotic set last night at the Bluebird Theater, frontman Michael Gira told the crowd he'd be at the merch table in ten minutes if anyone wanted to talk or have him sign anything. He seems to do that every show. On stage, the guy is mysterious and menacing, but in person, he's friendly and engaging even as he exudes an undeniable intensity.
Is that aura something we impose on him based on what we all know of the music and the honesty of his performance? Perhaps, but Gira clearly respects the people who come out to see his band.
As with Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl, in town earlier this year with their band The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, Gira pretty much stuck around until he interacted with anyone with the guts to approach him. He could have lived up to the myth of the mysterious, detached, forbidding musician that his music might suggest, and that would be easier, but it's clear that Gira gets something out of the real human connections he makes on tour, even if only for a moment. That's one reason he seems to have garnered long-term loyalty and respect from critics and fans.
Part of the ethos of hardcore and punk generally -- the world out of which Swans came -- is an anti-rock-star stance. It can be easy to maintain that when you're not selling out stadiums, and yet when some artists hit the status of Swans, they put a distance between themselves and their fans.
Paradoxically, the kind of organic, atmospheric and harrowing music produced by Swans and opener Carla Bozulich, while dark and emotionally raw, even unsettling, actually invites the listener in; the experience offers better potential for catharsis. Bozulich and Gira are also funny and unpretentious, even though both clearly employ theatrics as part of their art. Bozulich has even been known to go into the audience and individually invite people closer to the stage, putting her hands on their shoulders and looking into their eyes while doing so. Artists who want to keep people at a distance do not do this. She and Gira invite you in and only keep that distance in order for the musical end of the shared experience to be executed properly.
Carla Bozulich at The Bluebird Theater
After he'd met every fan who stayed, and before the load-out, Gira was waiting in front of the venue holding a plastic bag full of takeout food. When the bus and trailer showed up, he helped his bandmates pack up their gear.
Intentions, methodology and ethos aside, seeing Gira and Bozulich, post-show, post-open meet and greet and signing, outside on the sidewalk of the Bluebird loading out and pitching in to get the equipment into the trailer rather than leave it up other crew members, truly humanized the band. They may lack the financial wherewithal to get the crew to do all the heavy lifting, but one got the feeling that the unglamorous stuff was an important part of the whole way of thinking that informs Swans.
There isn't much mystery in any of that, but Swans and Bozulich are fortunate enough to be regular people doing extraordinary things. They don't try to avoid the realities of what it means to be working musicians.
Bias: Norman Westberg's use of swells and melody and texture on guitar is a major influence on my own musical endeavors. And Swans is one of the most consistently interesting and inspiring live bands. Also, Swans is one of the few bands to have a long musical career with records that are all worth listening to repeatedly. Carla Bozulich has done more interesting music with each of her projects than many people do across an entire career. She's also had several cool one-off collaborations.
Random Detail: Carla Bozulich's old band Ethyl Meatplow played a show with Warlock Pinchers back in the day.
By the Way: Ran into Anna Smith of Ancient Elk/The Circus House/Suspender Defenders, former music promoter Josiah Albertsen, Bleak Environment CEO Aaron Miller and performance artist/filmmaker Ian Anderson at the show.
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If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.
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