It’s been a long time since I wrote anything on this blog. It was always going to take something special to bring me back to writing. That something special happened this week amidst one of the most challenging weeks of my life. Without going in to details, my wife and I have had to deal with legal proceedings against her, that attempt to portray the pair of us as unstable, controlling and unfit parents. It’s been hugely upsetting for us and for my 11 year old step daughter who it also impacts upon. However, in the mist and darkness of all of it something has shone through. Michelle Obama said it best when she said “When they go low, we go high”. And so we have. After the tears stopped and calm returned, one thing was clear. We would not be the losers in this whole ordeal. No, we’d be closer than ever and grow stronger than before.
In the case of my step daughter and I, this strengthening of bond has been through music and an unlikely source if ever there was one: Swans. This time last week, she told me their music was creepy. That it scared her. She even asked me to turn it off. She knew that on Tuesday I was heading to Glasgow and Oran Mor to see them perform live and she said that she could think of nothing worse. However, since the show, she has sat and watched youtube clips of them with me as I tried to explain what made them so special. She has marvelled at their lap steel player Christopher Hahn playing his instrument with his comb – which he also uses between songs to slick back his hair. She was amazed by the intensity and stamina of bass player Christopher Pravdica’s playing. And she was mesmerised by Michael Gira. A master conductor if ever there was one. You see, my step daughter is a violinist and knows mostly about classical music, orchestras and therefore conductors. To watch Gira live is much like watching a conductor, or indeed a director; shaping the performance, controlling the players and ensuring that the show is something unique and special. And I loved this. And I love that watching, understanding and learning about the musicians has altered her mind set with regards to the band and their music. Sure, she still finds it a bit creepy but she started to understand their significance and in learning more about their music she saw the possibilities open to you as a musician in this day and age. The ways to create and perform that a young mind may not normally think about made her explode with excitement. She sat at our piano most of yesterday afternoon and then, in the evening, I taught her some stuff on music software too. Her attitude changed from “the way he sings lunacy is so creepy” to “how do they make that sound or that sound” or “wow, he’s playing with a comb?!”. The bond growing through music and all thanks to Swans and a very poorly thought out piece of legal bullying.
And so to the gig itself.
Swans have been a band since the early/mid 1980s. I was born at the tail end of the 1970s. Based on these two facts, I in no way claim to have been a fan of Swans since the beginning. I am not an uber fan. This was my first Swans show. I’m not like the man beside me at the merch stand who spent a lot of money on rarities, on the unique and beautiful show poster and even asked if Michael Gira would be at the merch stand later on. That’s odd I thought. Why would he do that. I did of course realise that the man asking the questions appeared to be a few generations older than me. I imagine that he was there at the beginning in the 1980s as I played with my toy cars and snuck in to my brothers room when he was at school. I imagine he’s been to countless shows to see the band over the years both in their first incarnation and since they reformed back in 2010. I imagine he’s probably spoken to Michael Gira before and no doubt will again and that he knew something I did not at the time. He clearly was one of the uber fans and from the audience on Tuesday night it was clear that Swans have plenty of them. Indeed, the diversity of the audience was something I loved. Mostly male, sure, but the age demographic showed that this was a band that had not only endured but grown an appeal to old and young alike sustaining a vibrancy and significance that most bands only dream of. The fact that the past 3 records have been so widely celebrated is a testimony to the vision of Michael Gira for what he calls “this incarnation” of Swans. If this is indeed the last tour that this selection of musicians will perform, then I am very glad to have been able to be a small part of that journey. And sure enough, at the end of the show, all 2 and a half hours of it, Michael Gira announced that he’d be at the merch stand in 15 minutes to talk to people. Where most musicians would have collapsed into a sofa, had a few beers, had a shower etc, he took the time to meet and greet. Not something I’ve experience before and not something I expected but then they set up the stage themselves before the show so I should have guessed. I’m just sorry I had to run for a train as I’d have loved to have met him and told him just how important the show had been to me this week. It was a release and a relief in amongst the bull shit and it intensified my relationship with my step daughter and my love of Swans.
Of course, I’d heard tales of Swans live shows. Stories of a man prowling the stage, stamping on people’s hands, kicking people in the face, lashing out at head bangers, turning up the heat and the air conditioning off and playing at a volume that was uncomfortable to bare. A man who hated venues that put up signs about wearing ear plugs. I had also heard tales of the live show being more intense than the records and an experience that would never be forgotten. I assumed that this would be the case obviously as very rarely has music of this ilk been as good on record as in the live arena. Mogwai being a case and point. The live experience far out weighs the recorded one. I’d heard of an incredible band made up of incredible musicians and a show that must not be missed. I read that when Michael Gira started the band, he named them Swans because the birds themselves are such beautiful, graceful creatures yet harbour real volatility and he wanted the music and everything else to encapsulate this. As the gig approached I was filled with a mix of excitement, trepidation and intrigue. Would it be everything that I’d heard it would be? Would there be an aggressive lunatic prowling the stage? Would I go against the advice of Michael Gira and put those foam earplugs in my ears? As it turns out, it was everything I’d hoped for and more.
It’s actually very hard to describe a Swans performance. The way they set up the stage is so all eyes are on Gira. Everyone faces inwards. Everyone paying full attention to the conductor of the show. As he sings he uses hand gestures to build or reduce the tension. When his hands are occupied with guitar he leans in and out to increase and decrease the noise and intensity. All the while the bands focus is him. He encourages each member of the band throughout with simple gestures and prodding. At times it feels like their set is, whilst obviously something rehearsed prior to tour, an organic ever shifting organism. Something that moves night to night, develops as a tour progresses and is never really the finished article. The set is made up of no more than 8 tracks (I think) with many lasting more than 20 minutes. It’s a mix of older and newer music with the stand out tracks being Screen Shot from ‘To Be Kind’ and the the closer and title track from the new album ‘The Glowing Man’. The music is primal, hypnotic and engaging. It’s loud. It’s very loud. But it’s not painful loud. It’s just perfect loud. The kind of loud that you feel first in your feet and then through your entire body as the bass and drums surge through the room and everyone in it immersing us all in wave after wave of wondrous noise. It ebbs and flows, rises and falls, grows louder then quieter. In the quiet comes the voice. That voice that so creeped out my step daughter but that so perfectly fits the mood and tone of the music. There is a focus in the eyes of Gira. This is important to him. It really fucking matters to him that the show is good. That the band do things right. That people leave happy and engaged. You can tell that he is truly disappointed when the fuse blows not once but twice and then one last time for good measure at the end of the gig closer. He could be angry but if he is then he hides it well, thanks the audience then disappears before his meet and greet. I think that he wants Swans shows to either create something positive for people or be the catalyst for something good. For me, the gig itself was a massive release. Inspirational music from inspirational musicians at the top of their game. It consumed me for those 2 and a half hours and sent me away in to the night facing a long journey home but feeling inspired and alive despite all that had been and would be. It was something I needed at the end of a very difficult two days for me and my family. And beyond those days, it turned out to be the catalyst for bonding with my step daughter through music and with lots of laughter. Despite the stories and rumours surrounding Gira, I truly believe that this knowledge would mean a lot to him. More than knowing I enjoyed their show I think knowing the fact that it brought two people closer together through a shared love of music would matter to him. How his music and his band turned a doubter into a believer. Very fitting for a man who’s bands shows are as much a religious experience as anything I’ve ever experienced. I hope I get to experience it again. Whatever incarnation that might involve.