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The experience: Swans return to Tokyo

Michael Gira of Swans
Michael Gira of Swans
TOKYO (TR) – The last time Michael Gira, frontman of legendary experimental band Swans, played live in Tokyo it was two years ago.

About the show at Unit in Daikanyama in support of the album “The Seer,” Gira recalls only vague aspects.

“When you wake up in the morning, your eyes are fogged, and the first thing you see is indistinct and incoherent — that’s sort of how I remember it,” says Gira, 60, by phone from New York state.

When the band returns later this month to play selections from “To Be Kind,” a sprawling, droning two-hour-plus epic released by Mute and Young God Records in May of last year, the audience may experience a similarly hallucinatory awakening.

“We are always looking for a new path; that’s sort of what we are about these days as a live group,” says Gira, who plays guitar and sings. “I guess people seem to say it is an all-consuming experience — it is definitely not pop music.”

That is hardly an understatement. Though “To Be Kind” cracked the Billboard 200 chart last year, the album, like most by Swans over its three-decade career, is not an easy listen; it is a majestic collection of dissonance, throbbing beats, chants and hymns spread out over existential lyrics (“No pain, no death, no fear, no hate”). “The Seer” is similarly grandiose, but, to Gira, the band’s current sound is in no way related.

“It’s an entirely different universe,” Gira says flatly.

Swans shows are pummeling experiences. The six-piece creates immense, continually building sonic waves as Gira provides vocals, often like a man possessed. The current two-and-a-half hour set includes two songs from “To Be Kind” and four yet-to-be-released tracks.

“It is sort of music in development,” he says of the other four songs. “We don’t typically play old songs. Mostly, we focus on new material. (They) are evolving during performance, and sometimes I’m not even sure where they’re going. But I just follow the path of where the music leads.”

Swans started in New York City in early 1980s as a part of the “no wave” noise sound. Albums from that era, including the band’s debut “Filth,” feature pounding beats, heavily layered guitars and assorted cacophony. That changed in 1989 with “The Burning World,” a release on a subsidiary of MCA that offered a more accessible sound.

“Our music at the time was not my favorite era of Swans. It is our worst record, actually,” Gira says of the band’s only major-label release. “It was sort of when we were trying to find a new way to make music, and it wasn’t really working yet.”

'To Be Kind'
‘To Be Kind’
Swans broke up in 1997 after releasing 10 albums. Gira brought the band back together 13 years later. Three albums have since followed.

“I don’t really set out to explain or teach or answer or illustrate an idea,” Gira says of his approach. “The music is the idea. The experience of it is what it’s about. The experience. It’s not a protest song, or a song about cars or something. The important thing to me is being inside of it, and experiencing it in the moment.”

For Swans, that experience is continually evolving — and Gira has no plans of slowing down.

“It seems to be that my primary task on earth is to make this music. So that’s what keeps me going — because it is who I am; it is what I am. It’s not like an off-handed career move or something. It’s central to who I am as a person. Because I don’t really have a choice in the matter.”

Note: Swans play at Tsutaya O-East in Tokyo on January 27 and the following day at Umeda Club Quattro in Osaka.