Norman Westberg (Swans guitar god referring to ’85-’87 era): “playing Swans music made me feel ‘I can’t wear a shirt to this, you have to be close to naked, you have to be hard.'”

Nick Soulsby (2018): “Reading about Swans made me feel ‘I can’t wear a shirt for this, you have to be close to naked, you have to be…Errr…”

Inappropriate

This is my fifth book and it’s been really intriguing to me to discover what a difference format makes. Reading it on a screen, in Word, on A4 print-outs, as part of the editorial review process – it’s not like ‘real reading’. It’s a colder process where you’re looking to trim weakness and slice out anything that clunks or doesn’t fit. Reading it in book form, it flows differently – maybe because there’s no longer a pressure to fix it, maybe because it’s no longer work. The clarity of the text when printed in normal book-sized pages also makes it feel less weighty, easier somehow. Add on that there’s normally an eight to ten month gap between handing in a manuscript and seeing the final book. That means it’s like a stranger’s words when I finally get hold of it.

I’m usually hypercritical of my own writing: I had to re-read the introduction twice this week to realise I quite liked it and that I stood by the words. I still spotted things about Swans I would have liked to have said more about – but I remember wanting to keep the introduction down to the bone. What I really wanted to avoid was some horrible gushing PR-puff-piece. I hate books TELLING me that a band is or was important or that a band’s music is oh so good: the reader can decide themselves by listening to the band’s music – it’s up to them. Similarly, I think importance is overrated. I wanted to say why Swans was unique: why it could only arise with these people, in a particular place and circumstance, why it’s a unique phenomenon in so many ways and what makes it so.

I also wanted to avoid writing an ‘English Literature A Level’ analysis of the lyrics: yes, the lyrics are fascinating, but I was really worried about creating some grim analysis of imagery and blah blah blah. So I avoided that too! I kept the introduction down to: Gira, the People in the band, NYC late seventies-early eighties, the business behind the band. It felt like those were the factors governing how Swans existed and functioned – a fair context for reading people’s stories of their life and times in the outfit.

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There was much made in the late eighties and early nineties of the influence of Jarboe over the turn in Swans music, then much comment on her absence from the return of Swans in 2010. My belief is two-fold: firstly, that Swans couldn’t continue without her by 1996-1997 and, secondly, that the present iteration of Swans would be impossible without the influence she had Michael Gira and the nature of Swans between 1984 and 1997.

The former seems inarguable. During interviews for SWANS: Sacrifice And Transcendence (http://smarturl.it/swansbook), both Gira and Jarboe made clear something curious: that the traditional understanding is that their relationship bled over into and affected the band while, in their view, it was the other way around. It makes sense: the ethos of Swans was so absolutist – so focused on making every show, every recording and every performance the zenith of what could exist in that moment – that each would leave their mutual love and affection at the door and show barely a hint of mercy to one another’s feelings. Swans had to be everything. Each would argue, critique, dissect and demand whatever it was felt a song might require to reach the heights. Jarboe had become increasingly prominent as a vocalist – by the time of The Great Annihilator in 1995 she sang fully five of the songs on the record – but also was contributing lyrics, working up music with Lary 7 and others then introducing it to the context of Swans (‘Volcano’, from Soundtracks For The Blind for instance was apparently intended as a Jarboe solo work with Lary 7 to appear on a compilation or a release outside of Swans), adding her instrumental textures to near every song performed. Swans would have been sorely lacking in contrast and surprise in her absence. More so, in terms of the functioning of the band, Jarboe and Gira were the ‘officer class’ and, to some degree, seem to have occupied good cop/bad cop roles with Gira kicking people’s ass while Jarboe rallied, mollified, persuaded and encouraged. Having the two poles can be extremely beneficial in any working environment (I’ve seen it fairly regularly in offices) because each pulls different positive responses from those they work with – it certainly has an effect when it comes to a music like Swans with its reliance on tension. At times, during the later tours, it seems the band would have quit if not for Jarboe’s persuasion and ability to raise spirits. Gira couldn’t envisage, in 1996, Swans continuing without Jarboe and he clearly couldn’t imagine making it work in the aftermath of their romantic relationship: their symbiosis had become the core of Swans.

The latter is a more nuanced point. Swans, in 1984, was at a turning point: when Roli Mosimann and Harry Crosby left, Swans consisted solely of Gira and Westberg – Gira considered abandoning music. Jarboe persuaded him to continue and was subsequently recruited to the line-up – Swans continued, in part, because of her. With Cop, Swans early template reached its fullest expression: the sound itself needed to change if the band was not to tread over old ground. Greed and Holy Money, for all their claustrophobic bludgeoning vibe, contained significant space – loud quiets so to speak – as well as Jarboe’s vocal contributions, even a piano. Gira would speak of his increasing disquiet at the component of the band’s audience who saw the music as nothing more intelligent than some kind of arcane heavy metal, loudness and heaviness just for the sake of it – that kind of predictability was unsatisfying. Jarboe possessed the musical education and knowledge that would offer Gira the new possibilities he craved – as well as the confidence and encouragement to learn and to try. Gira’s evolution into a genuine singer was the open door to Swans’ future and began with Jarboe teaching him rudimentary vocal techniques to build on and practice and develop. The Skin project, meanwhile, was an opportunity – paid for by Product Inc (Mute) – to gain experience and comfort working with acoustic instrumentation in combination with the possibilities of the studio. Again, everything learnt in Skin would bleed back into Swans making possible the flourishes present on Children Of God and the full-blown Americana of The Burning World – by the time of White Light and Love Of Life Swans’ sonic expansiveness was the new norm with guest performers, session musicians and other specialist musicians making regular appearances. Jarboe was no passenger, any more than Gira was a puppet: increasingly they were equals allowing one another the room and comfort to experiment and go further.

A significant side-bar would be Jarboe’s tireless work as Swans main correspondent with the fan community. Today it’s simply accepted that underground artists need to develop a bond with their audience in order to allow creative art to continue. In the case of Swans I’ve been amazed with the dedication and fanatical faith of the fans I’ve encountered: that relationship built over decades to become what it is today. In the eighties it wasn’t unusual for bands to write back personally, Swans simply took it a lot more seriously than some. Through fan mail, Jarboe made connections to artists like Deryk Thomas and corresponded with future band member Bill Bronson among others. She would also create Swans first website and messageboard offering an entirely new level of contact – very much one of the frontrunners in the independent music scene in that regard. The website was central to the continuation of Swans legend, legacy and reputation as the band itself exited. Via the site substantial quantities of interviews, CD-R live shows and other information were archived for discovery. Jarboe also made a point of using rare records and other Swans-related materials accumulated over the years as talismanic art objects, one of a kind objects of desire, meaning further weight accreted to Swans as an entity of ongoing significance. I specifically recall printing out and reading interviews at age 17-18 – few bands had an online site of such scale or depth pre-millennium (many still don’t today.) I remember considering whether I could afford a $100 dollar test pressing or to buy multiple shows from the 1996-1997 tour to observe the evolution of the music – I was sucked in and enthralled. This was one of the springboards that kept Swans present and enticing to new generations – they were relatively easy to learn of compared to many acts of the eighties and nineties who required substantial digging.

The connection between what Swans had become by 1996-97 – an omnivorous sonic palette encompassing whatever instrumentation, approach and delivery would yield the intensity of emotion and experience desired – and what it has been between 2010 and 2017 is very clear. The dynamism of the modern band, and recognising that its studio and live incarnations are quite different in many respects, has been what allows it to evolve and develop and continue to connect with an audience. That expansiveness arose out of the dead-end reached by the mid-eighties; out of the opportunities offered by Jarboe’s presence and the trust Gira had in her; out of the experiments she brought to the table. To this day Swans contains significant space for the contrast afforded by a female vocal or for found sounds and other interventions while the lavish instrumentation of the most recent albums has grown from the seeds planted in the mid-to-late eighties. At the time, some fans disparaged Swans turn to the esoteric – accusations of Gothicism were made – but it meant open-eared elements of the old audience, those who understood that true intensity didn’t just mean ‘loud’, stuck with the band while a new audience evolved who appreciated what it had become. Spanning generations and allowing for growth is vital if a band isn’t to become typecast, categorised, static and stale. Present-day Swans is very much the child of what Swans became after Jarboe’s influence and involvement.

I’m always awed by Adam Casto’s ability to gather together collaborators of deep pedigree from the alternative rock seen and merge their efforts into a seamless whole. The ever amusing, sometimes comedic, sometimes serious, always rocking Nerd Table project is an absorbing combination of underground party, guest curation and decent punk song-smithing.

This time around, the guest list includes Kurt Danielson (Tad), Dave Abbruzzese (Pearl Jam), Elmo Kirkwood, Dale Crover and Buzz Osborne (Melvins), Kevin Rutmanis (Melvins/Cows), Billy Anderson, Geoff Robinson (Blood Circus), Jeff Pinkus (Butthole Surfers)…Sheesh. It’s quite the crew!

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/15332370/art-rock-and-revolution-and-the-punk-grace-of-mia

One of those great lost hopes of the music scene, The Gits were on the cusp of breaking through to wider awareness and onward hope at the time the band came to an unceremonious and unfortunate end. A few years ago I had the good fortune to be in touch with Steve Moriarty of the band and I was delighted when I heard he was going to be creating a deep dive volume about the band and Mia Zapata – their iconic (and bloody awesome) lead singer.

One of Nirvana’s precious few shows in the first half of 1993 came about after the death of Zapata. Courtney Love persuaded Cobain to call the organisers of a benefit concert to raise money to investigate her death and to suggest Nirvana take part. The condition was there’d be no official mention of Nirvana’s involvement until the day itself – word of mouth only. The Gits were part of the new generation of bands emerging in the north-west (though the band originated elsewhere in the country) in the aftermath of Sub Pop’s initial success and the relative popularity and fame of the first wave of bands associated with grunge. This was the post-grunge phase rubbing alongside Riot Grrrl and such scenes.

SW

https://play.soundsgood.co/playlist/swans-sacrifice-and-transcendence?utm_source=url&utm_medium=sharemodal&utm_campaign=shareplaylist&utm_content=playlist_5b3251a17951947320ffb9d3

Having spent the past year-and-a-half immersed in the music and stories of SWANS, it was an honour to be invited to put together a playlist focused on the band. What I did, in each case, was tried to identify a quote from a member of SWANS that spoke about the context or content or performance or meaning of a song – then try to say, in my own infinitely fallible words, what the song means to me or why it stands out in my mind.

What I love is that there’s no way to speak of a single ‘SWANS sound’: this is a band that has evolved significantly album-to-album, grown exponentially year-by-year, in which the first EP sounds nothing little like the first album, where 1988’s Children Of God is a vast distance from Greed or Holy Money, where White Light From The Mouth of Infinity and Love Of Life are very different beats to 1984’s Cop or 1994’s The Great Annihilator. I was delighted to learn the other month that the Soundtracks For The Blind album is being re-released: I think it’s one of my favourite three albums of all time – a truly singular object and, until Swans return and the awesome 2012-2014 run of The Seer-To Be Kind-The Glowing Man, the only album I’d heard that I felt needed and deserved to be over two hours long. It still stands as one of the only album-length works in the pop-rock-metal-whatever domain to sustain a journey across that full span of playing time.

Wednesday night in London I’m at Moth Club where we’re showing a number of in-progress clips from Marco Porsia’s upcoming epic film on SWANS. There’s a DJ set from the Blackest Ever Black label opening the night then the film clips will be interspersed with my conversation with the host for the night, Q&A about (and readings from) SWANS: Sacrifice And Transcendence – The Oral History, as well as audience discussion. I’m intrigued to hear what people in the room think.

Moth Club_July 4

RM481_front

Quiet men are always misinterpreted. Norman Westberg has always been a gentleman but, sheer truth, the stern aesthetic of Swans in the eighties – his whip-taunt frame, tattoos, sharp look, the fury he unleashed on guitar – made for an unnerving impression. At some point age weathered that into an air of calm and patience – again, as a relatively private and peaceful soul people read into appearance and the work produced. Since 2012, while the odyssey that was Swans drove him round and round the world battering audiences into blissed-out submission, Westberg commenced a new series of solo releases (most available directly from him: https://www.etsy.com/shop/normanwestberg) and others via the Room 40 label.

https://room40.bandcamp.com/album/after-vacation

Listening to his solo releases has helped me listen to Westberg’s back catalogue with fresh ears. Where I used to see only the overwhelming nature of Swans, I increasingly see the wide range of textures he brought to the music and how varied is work was – that he was plucking out aspects of his abilities to serve the needs of each composition on which he played which allowed him to span so many years and so many different Swans releases. I’ve reviewed three of the solo releases in the last couple of years:

http://www.wordsandguitars.co.uk/2015/11/norman-westberg-13/
http://www.wordsandguitars.co.uk/2016/08/norman-westberg-mri-the-all-most-quiet/

And have built up quite the little collection (The Chance To, Somewhere Else, Idling Live, Jasper Sits Out, 13, The All Most Quiet, MRI…) After Vacation is billed as a move away from the on-the-spot immediacy of the existing releases with a degree of overdubbing and after-work conducted. Aesthetically it’s very visibly tied to the previous works 2012-2017, there’s a consistency of feel and territory.

The pieces here are mostly relatively brief: between three and seven minutes with even the outlier, ‘Levitation’, only just over the ten minute mark. Each one seems to explore an image or a particular approach. Opener ‘Soothe The String’ mirrors its title in that there’s a sense of tactility, that one can hear a physical guitar string being touched, stroked, drummed even though the resulting piece contains a glowering and ominous undercurrent. ‘Drops in a Bucket’, similarly, feels like the expansion of ripples in broken water with a heavy wave sweeping outward over and over again while other currents and collisions play beneath the surface.

‘Sliding Sledding’ plants heavy guitar strum (circa Bad Moon Rising Sonic Youth) against a descending chord pattern that sounds like an anesthetized I Wanna Be Your Dog, all layered over a waterfall backdrop of glittering notes. In it’s final moments there’s a sudden change into something like the triumphal hum of strings that might mark the peak of an orchestral composition. There’s that same merging of the small and the gigantic on ‘Norman Seen As An Infant’ which exists somewhere between the large canvas works of Glenn Branca or Rhys Chatham and the detailed up-close electronic treatments of someone like Christian Fennesz. A Warm flickering bass tremor with a hollow dancing tone weaving back and forth over the top reminded me of a more danceable and carefully controlled result of Steve Reich’s pendulum music.

‘After Vacation’ is the real sucker punch – over a background shimmer, Westberg plays a beautiful melody, all slides, reverberating close mic’ed strings, plucked notes – it’s perhaps the prettiest thing I’ve ever heard him do. His solo records have always belied the roaring temperament of the music he’s best known for and it’s genuinely fun hearing an artist surprise with something so mellow. The combination of ambient backing and heat-stroked improvisation suggests there’s so much more in the tank.

BUY: https://itunes.apple.com/…/al…/superficial-single/1391889748
https://tanyahazell.bandcamp.com/edit_track?id=2050538906
LISTEN: https://open.spotify.com/track/6chfNl7pzl0y8EizzQHMmd