This is an apocalyptic story. A story of life, death, missing people, destiny and resurrection.
“Swans are Dead”.
This is the title of Swans’ 1998 double live album. It documents fifteen years of the band’s history recorded in what was (supposed to be) their last world tour.
At the turn of the millennium Michael Gira’s band passed away.
Michael Gira, instead, passed from the brutal soniscapes of his creature to the melodic, gentle approaches of a new band: Angel of Lights.
He will play and record seven albums with them in the following ten years.
Since the early eighties Swans have been one of the most influential bands of the underground American scene. From post-punk to post-rock, Swans experimented any genre where loudness is the essential element. They target ears with the honest, candid aim of making them bleed to death.
More intellectual than Killing Joke, less mainstream than Sonic Youth (Thurston Moore used to play bass at their beginning) Swans are a reference to any group who sets the volume to 11 before plugging the instrument.
Wikipedia summarise, the history reads: 11 studio albums, 9 live albums, 7 compilation albums, 11 EPs, 3 singles and 4 videos.
Swans albums cover art are statements in their own. They contain a set of recurring images, graphic and symbols it would require a criminology or semiotic expert to interpret. Dollar-like, bunnies, crosses and more enigmatic signs to introduce to the music inside. How? I have no idea.
Put the record on and the music between the vinyls’ grooves takes possession of your mind. Turn up the volume and you are abducted.
The millennium started on 9/11 when the apocalyptic Hollywood visions became a reality. Technology made the world smaller. Medicine made life longer.
Wars never ended and life indeed still ends. Resurrection is neither achievable nor buyable. Not for human.
On the contrary, one of the breakthroughs of the millennium is the discovery that bands don’t die. Resurrection exists. It’s not perfect science. It’s perfect marketing.
Have a band? Tired of playing? Hybernate it, you’ll get it back when you feel the time has come to wake it up.
“Swans are dead”.
This is their myspace address. Truth is, Myspace is dying and Swans resurrected.
“Swans are not Dead”.
This was the MySpace status displayed by Michael Gira at the beginning of 2010.
The first hint of the return. The evidence that in rock music you can die, bury yourself, reincarnate, live an afterlife and then comeback in full shape. Handy, isn’t it?
Michael Gira is the responsible. He gave birth and he has resurrected Swans.
After 3 lustres a Swans album saw the light. My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky, was released in September 2010.
A monster tour followed and, about a year later these days, it still has to stop.
The album is a step forward from the past. It has Swans classic sound but also gentler songs that unveil the influence of the ten years spent with Angel of Lights.
You Fucking People Make Me Sick opens as a sweet melody, Michael Gira sings a “lullaby” with his little daughter:
“I love you. I need you. Oh, show me how to shine.
I love you. Your flower. Now give me what is mine.”
before the band irrupts with frightening noise. Norman Wetsberg guitars increase the tension to a point anxiety is unbearable.
Swans are back.
There’s a missing person in this story. Marketing, artistic choice, busy schedule… whatever the reason Swans came back without Jarboe.
Jarboe is the only person to have taken part to all Swans album but this. Her dark crepuscular contributions, her backing vocals has been essential to define the band. The more tense moments bear her presence.
It is as saying Dead Can Dance comeback without Lisa Gerrard, but Jarboe has never been mentioned since the come back. Michael Gira nowadays is the one and only Mr Swans.
I was on the photopass guestlist for what was Swans first gig in London in ages. It was at Koko, it was last October, I can still remember the day: Thursday the 28th.
I got a cold. I was in bed, 38.5° my temperature, I couldn’t go.
The same temperature reached inside Koko. Michael Gira wants the air-con switched off during concerts. Sweat, heat is part of the performance.
Since that day my mission has been to see and shoot Swans live.
I got another occasion at Primavera Sound in Barcellona. Swans set began with the sonic earthquake of No Words/No Thoughts. Distracted people walking by, stopped to understand what was happening.
The nine minutes recorded in the album opener expanded to over 20.
I “had to” leave after that.
The presence of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, one of my never-miss-this-for-no-reasons acts on an adjacent stage captured me and I skipped the Swans set just after Michael Gira preach. Supporting the “Indignados” that were occupying Plaja De Catalunja and other Spanish places, he went like:
“Thank you very much. Spanish people rise up!! Overthrow your government! now!! Rise up! Overthrow the capitalists! Long live socialism now!!! Thank you, thank you, thank you Spanish people”.
Radical politic, the Michael Gira way, underlies all his art and couldn’t miss this occasion.
I knew I played it safe. It was public knowledge Swans were on the ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror line-up in London a couple of months later. I gambled I was going to shoot them there. Bet won, images from that gig on this post, including one of Michael Gira with a big hat wandering next to Alexandra Palace red doors. Was he thinking about bringing socialism to UK?
Surely he managed to bring volume to Alexandra palace. Gig was played at unbearable loudness. It’s their statement. It’s not a show-off there’s no other way to listen to them.
Swans don’t use volume as Boris to name another loud one. The Japanese band uses loudness to expose their audience to sound waves that become a physical experience. You feel it with your body, your organs.
Swans volume targets the ears. They want you to listen, then to not listen anything else.
It is a conceptual passage. “I am the Apocalypse, after me there’s nothing” it’s a quote I heard somewhere in Italian, don’t know who said but it fits the philosophy
Michael Gira is possessed during the performance. He falls on his knee with his BB King landmark Gibson Lucille. He spits, screams, eyes closed. He’s the first fan of his band. He loves it as a child and believes in what he does. More, he is what he does. The empathy with the band comes natural. Muscular musicians, two huge drummers, keyboards, guitars all at his service.
Swans continued touring the album during the summer and arrived, last week, in their New York. Actually Asbury Park in New Jersey. They played the American leg of the Portishead curated I’ll Be Your Mirror. The twin festival of this in London.
Same songs, different “indignados”. The movement is now occupying Wall Street. Uprising is blossoming even in USA cities. If anything, Swans comeback have pulled revolution from social networks and threw it back into the streets. Including USA. That is quite an achievement.
Gira addressed the American lazy crowd his way: “Stand up, you lard-ass Americans. Stand the fuck up and get some exercise. I am not your polite act.”
Musically there is another achievement. Swans have been recording new songs during the tour. New material is being played at recent gigs.
My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, surely is one of my favourite albums of the last year. An amazing band back to life with a bunch of songs that seemed to resurrect the apocalyptic, missing spirit of the early Bad Seeds mixed with streams of radical noise.
What is in the next album is unknown. What is known is that it will be called The Seer and it has just been described on Facebook by Michael Gira as: “Half of the new album is severe and pummeling, but kinda groovy too. The other half is intentionally quite pretty. Pink is the new brown. Like putting lipstick on an anus”.
As The Quietus put it clear in a couple of reviews “Swans are the greatest rock band on this planet”, if it sounds a bit stretched, move your lard-ass and go judge yourself.
Every music photographer hates microphones. There’s no question about it. About 50% of music pictures are binned because a mic covering artists’ face and instruments.
If you happen to be in a pit of a large big stage, there’s another hurdle there to bother you. Stage Monitors.
Monitors are an essential part of a stage setting. Essential to musicians because, differently from the audience, they can’t properly listen to the other instruments from the main speakers. They need them in order to avoid disastrous out of tempo situations.
(how many time have you seen an artist indicating the soundboard up or down? He was asking to set the proper monitor’s volume)
If the stage is low is easy to avoid them, but when the stage is high, as in big concerts and festival, they are a problem.
As I often suggest in unavoidable situations you got to try to take advantage of them. It is not always possible, but sometime it is.
There is often a space between two monitors, a space that takes the shape of an arrow pointing a the musicians on the back. If you are lucky and ready for the right moment you can frame the image using the monitor as a indicator to the subject of the photo.
This way what was the obstacle become a key part of the photo, driving the viewer eyes straight to the point.
To do this you need to get close and use a wideangle that exaggerates the perspective giving the image both the right shape and that sense of presence that make the viewer feel part of the moment.
Remember, a good photo must have a main point. Roland Barthes called it fulcrum. A key element that keep viewers stuck to it.
All other factors must be complementary and help pushing the eyes to this fulcrum. When this is in place, you have a killer shot. Guaranteed.