No Jarboe = No Swans

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 (, 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.


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