This Tour Marks the End of an Era for Avant-Rock Band Swans

When its series of tours ends in December 2017, the current iteration of the veteran avant-rock band Swans, which began with a 2010 reunion, will come to an end as well.

“In the future I'll be working with a revolving cast of characters on a project-by-project basis,” says bandleader Michael Gira. “Some of those characters may be these guys. I basically don't want the responsibility or stress of having a set band anymore. We've all been together in the same room, that travels around the world, over 200 days a year for the last seven years. It's like looking at your own face in the mirror after a while. I just want to change things up a bit, that's all.”

In June 2016, Swans released its latest album, The Glowing Man, on its own Young God imprint. It was recorded at Sonic Ranch by John Congleton, with Gira doing further recording and production at Congleton's own studio in Dallas, in Seattle with contributing musician Bill Rieflin, and in Berlin with Swans lap-steel player Christoph Hahn. In typical fashion, going back to Gira's Angels of Light project in 2000, the album and its recording were aided by the investment of fans through pre-sales and other efforts in what was once an uncommon DIY effort but is currently the way that many artists, even those as influential and as storied as Swans, must operate in order to survive and produce its art without compromise.

“With record sales the way they are, with the music industry [the way it is], there's no choice,” says Gira. “We're fortunate — I don't know if fortunate is the word, because we've worked incredibly hard to build it up — that we have a moderate-sized fan base and people really care about the music. We do special packages and drawings to reward them for their support. This last go-round, I did portraits of people, so that's another thing that occupies my time. That took forever. In the past, I've done videos for people, singing songs for them, and I do whatever it takes to make music and make it a living.”

The Glowing Man will not garner Swans mainstream radio play or exposure, because it's challenging, if quite cathartic and rewarding, work. In these songs, emotions are given the space and time to be fully expressed. Rather than feeling drawn out, the music is transporting and something of a departure from the band's earlier material.

“[Touring for] My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky, we were playing some material from that record and older material, and we started to feel a little ersatz doing that because it was constricting, so we started just exploding things, opening things up,” says Gira. “Mostly during performances, I [or someone else] would just start doing something different, and people would follow. Gradually we realized that was a right way to work. Some of these things we improvised with live became new pieces and morphed over the course of a tour into the material that was on The Seer. I began to really focus, as the bandleader, on the vitality of that way of working, as opposed to me writing something out on acoustic guitar and having it finished and having the band play it and interpret it. The length of the songs is just kind of the artifact of that. It's not really intentional to make a long song, per se. It's just deciding, why should we stop if it sounds great? Just keep going. It's just a really fertile way to work for me.”

That songwriting method of the current era of the band, while producing some of the group's most intensely brutal material, has also produced among its most ethereally transcendant music. As a songwriter, Gira has seemed less interested in tearing meaning from within his own tortured psyche as he did during the period of 1983's Filth.

“There's less anger,” says longtime guitarist Norman Westberg. “I don't feel that it's desperate. It's like we know how to play now and we know what we're playing. There's not a search, really, anymore. We've been trying to get to this point, [to] being good enough players to know how to reach that point.”

During its current tour, the band is trying out new material that may or may not see release down the line, in a future phase of Swans or whatever vehicle Gira chooses next.  

“We want to give this record and this version of Swans its due and go out on a really positive note,” says Gira. “Then I guess we'll all figure out what the hell we're doing with our lives. There has been no break whatsoever during these past seven years. I've either been on tour or in the studio or doing the artwork or other things involved with the band. I need to step back and read and listen to music and try to find out who the hell I am. It's just too much after seven years, and at my age I want to take things a little slower. The shows are going tremendously; I love playing with these guys. It has nothing to do with that at all. It's just more I wanted to find a different avenue.”

Swans with Baby Dee, Saturday, September 10, 7 p.m., Gothic Theatre, 303-623-0106, 16-plus.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.