The Birth of Swans: Three Veteran Members Talk Reinventing the Blues and Their Imposing Debut Album 'Filth'
"We used to play at CBGB's and I'd walk down to the bathroom barefoot. I remember getting off the stage and licking the fucking floor and someone's feet."
Swans circa 1983 by Catherine Ceresole
Most unlearned plebeians don't realize that the mightiest live act on the planet arose from fairly inauspicious origins. Swans took shape in 1981, as the harder-edged successor to Circus Mort, a wan post-punk quintet that featured frontman Michael Gira and virtuoso drummer Jonathan Kane. Amid countless personnel shuffles and the recording of an uncharacteristically uptempo EP, the new group spent a year or so finding its footing. But that gradual metamorphosis was inspiring: Two bassists hammered away at blunt chords that traded melody for concussive force. A second percussionist whacked a strap against a metal table while Kane slowed his rhythmic whirlwind to an elemental half-speed trudge. Gira perfected a baritone bellow for his pared-down slogans about sex, power, and servitude. And finally, with the arrival of Norman Westberg, deliberate, grainy sheets of guitar further burdened repetitive sounds that already threatened to collapse the floorboards with their Jurassic weight.
Filth, Swans' full-length debut from 1983, is a flawless snapshot of this single-minded approach. For all the music's cacophonous squalls, junkyard beats, and cheerful, greeting-card sentiments such as "You're gonna murder somebody weak," the lumbering sludge moves. The LP is scabrous yet kinetic—structurally primitive but still groundbreaking—and weirdly cathartic despite its high-concept ugliness.
Freshly remastered, the album kicks off a long-awaited reissue campaign of Swans' vast 80s and 90s catalog. Gira, whose Young God label is handling the release, discussed this historic material during a European tour, from which Westberg corresponded as well. Although he left the band decades ago and now splits his time between the drone-blues project February and a duo with violinist Dave Soldier, Kane was also kind enough to reminisce from his New York City abode.
How did Swans form?
Michael Gira: Circus Mort was really awful. Somehow I met [experimental composer] Rhys Chatham and he gave me a bass guitar. So I started Swans by developing these dissonant bass chords.
Jonathan Kane: Swans began recording and didn't play a gig until a year later. But by then the music had already changed drastically.
A lot of players came and went before Filth. Anyone notable?
JK: [Guitarist] Sue Hanel. Period. She was, with Michael and I, an architect of a sound that lasted after her departure.
MG: Sue got a great sound but often didn't remember what she played the night before. It was kind of random. She was a really sweet person. [Sonic Youth guitarist] Thurston Moore filled in on second bass a couple of times.
How did the blues influence the music?
JK: For me, it always gets back to the blues. Howlin' Wolf's song "Evil" was a big inspiration. I was also listening to a lot of West African drumming and North African trance music. And minimalism and avant-garde. I refused to play standard backbeat rock, so I played in half-time. Michael was bringing in these great, throbbing bass chords. I essentially imposed a slow blues beat on them. I gave Swans its signature crawling rhythm. It was brutal but it had a swing to it. Everything I play does.
MG: Jonathan played me Howlin' Wolf and I thought those grooves were tremendous. Howlin' Wolf remains sort of a psychic companion to this day. And I was influenced by no wave in that it didn't really matter if I knew how to play quote, unquote music. None of Swans was really imagined from an aesthetic or intellectual point of view. It was just about making something happen.
Norman Westberg: I'm from Detroit so the Stooges were one of my favorites. A friend of mine had introduced me to Delta blues. I was way into Robert Johnson and I was listening to Lead Belly and Son House. And the Cramps and Public Image and the Village People—anything that wasn't like what I was playing. But when we were recording Filth, I said to Jonathan, "I can hear that this is the blues." I was more of a non-musician then, and the blues was something you could latch onto.
Where did you find some of the percussion you used?
MG: When SoHo was an industrial area, I'd buy metal shelving there and these straps that were used to construct it. I'd put a couple socks around the end of the strap and wrap it with gaffer tape. [Percussionist] Roli [Mosimann] would smack the table with that when Jonathan was drumming. The strap would always break after one show.
You were using tape loops, too.
MG: I'd record 30 minutes of roaring or clattering sounds on an individual cassette for each song. [Bassist] Harry [Crosby] would play those through a tape deck and bring the volume up and down through a big amp, in rhythm with the music.
JK: There was a recording of a radiator being thrown onto a pile of metal shelving.
MG: Someone gave me a sample of a kitten that was three times slower than its actual source. The two bass players and the tapes, along with the two drummers and, of course, the esteemed Norman, were quite substantial.
How did Norman join?
JK: Sue had reached her limit with the constant bickering, haranguing, and pervasive mean-spiritedness that fueled the early days.
MG: I'm not criticizing Sue, but Norman was more magisterial. He made Swans into something more closely resembling rock music. Of all the people in the group, I rarely have to say anything to him; he always does what's right.
NW: I was in a band called Carnival Crash. It was through Harry that I got my audition. I'd heard about Swans but I had never seen them. I listened to the EP and I thought the guitar playing was free-form. But I got the impression they wanted dependability, someone who could play a part that was rehearsed.
Did living in NYC influence the music?
MG: It was more about what was in my fucking tortured skull and what was going on in the world and in the media--sort of the same influences as now.
NW: It wasn't necessarily pleasant. I worked every day; we rehearsed every night. I lived in a tiny apartment. I couldn't afford to go to shows because I had to buy cigarettes. I always try to play from my heart and so all that came out.
JK: Michael and I lived in the Swans rehearsal studio [in the East Village] on Avenue B and Sixth Street. I think it's a bank or a restaurant now. I don't like to romanticize all that much. It was a scene full of of fresh-faced, college-educated white kids living on the skint in the ghetto. Sure, it was dirty and noisy and somewhat dangerous. But it was fun and filled with interesting, creative people.
MG: I worked in construction during the day. I looked at some photos from the time and I couldn't believe how skinny I was. I recall drinking quarts of Bud and not much eating. Something was giving me energy and I guess you can infer what that might have been. I think abjection was a big preoccupation. We used to play at CBGB's and I'd walk down to the bathroom barefoot. I remember getting off the stage and licking the fucking floor and someone's feet. The thing was to go as low as possible. It was about being as base as you could possibly be, and the music inspired that wonderful endeavor.
NW: The whole band was kinda scary. We were generally hopped-up from drinking and not enough sleep. Young and aggressive, I would suspect.
Michael, why'd you shove someone for dancing when Swans toured the South with Sonic Youth?
MG: We were playing to the typical ten people and there was this guy in his bright yellow Devo jumpsuit. He was pogoing. I just thought, "What a fucking retard." He was destroying the show for these people and myself. So I jumped off the stage, threw him on the ground, and told him to get out. He did. And then it was a better show.
Any other specific gigs stand out?
MG: The SiN Club was at Third Street and Avenue C, which was very much a war zone. That was a good little place until the local police broke in and stole the PA.
JK: Norman's first show with us was fantastic. We opened for the Birthday Party in Philadelphia. We were intense, focused and, of course, loud as hell. I think we intimidated the headliners. At one point, Norman broke a string and seemed anxious. So I got up on the mike and publicly welcomed him to the band, for which I was later severely dressed down by some of the newer members for being corny or hokey. What a bunch of poseurs. I knew I couldn't stay much longer with them. At dawn, when we got back to NYC, we drove past a murder scene a few blocks from our studio. It seemed like an omen.
NW: I remember we sold out CBGB's. I went in through the front door and there was no way I was gonna get to the stage because it was so crowded. I fought my way through. The audience picked me up and I bodysurfed. They unceremoniously dumped me on the stage.
Do you remember the recording sessions for Filth?
MG: It was at this massive, very famous studio that was part of [folk label] Vanguard Records. They used to record orchestras. The only other artist I know of that recorded there was Joan Baez, for God's sake. I recall, as was my tendency in those days, yelling at the engineer and trying to make everything as loud as possible.
NW: Our engineer had a giant Cadillac or a Continental, some amazing car that he parked in a vacant lot. I also couldn't believe Michael remembered where the vocals went because I couldn't pick out a structure.
JK: I had thrown my back out moving gear that morning and was in a lot of pain the first day. The room was beautiful—high ceilings with great acoustics. As always, there was the standard quota of bitching, moaning, and arguing.
Whose teeth are on the cover?
MG: Roli's girlfriend was a dental assistant who had some [X-rays] laying around.
Why did Jonathan leave?
MG: His other interests took precedence and his style of drumming wasn't appropriate for what I wanted to do, which was much simpler and more primordial.
NW: Jonathan and Michael started Swans. They fought some. It was kind of mutual. Maybe Jonathan didn't like the direction it was going in. It was a little more of a nailed-down, clockwork thing. Not as swinging.
JK: Nothing dramatic. Swans was just one of many things that I wanted to do as a musician. And it was always about the sound; I never cared very much for the message. When I left, Roli continued drumming in the style I had instigated, but he did it with a Teutonic rigidness that was probably better for them.
How do you feel about the album nowadays?
NW: I like it for what it is. I guess I should be proud of it. I play the exact same guitar. When I found Swans, they allowed me to play with this idea of controlled tension. And I think it's still there when we're at our best.
JK: I'm still not sure how to describe it to people and that, to me, is powerful. I once put "Weakling" on an iTunes mix for the sheer novelty, but I always skip over it to get to the Johnny Mathis song that comes next.
MG: I can't listen to the whole thing; it's like looking at a piece of toilet paper after you wiped.
Anything else you want to add?
MG: I apologize to everyone.