EASY WAY OUT: “When you’re young,” says Gira (upper left), “you’re both immortal and there is no future.”
Let's (sadly) dispel a myth: in Swans' salad days, the New Yorkers might have been a repulsively loud band, but their predilection for brain-thumping volume did not cause audience members to vomit.
"That's a bunch of shit," claims Michael Gira, Swans' guitarist/vocalist/mastermind. It was likely around 1983 — the year the noise/post-punk act shot out their debut LP, Filth — that rumors of audience retching began drifting around. Gira attributes the "preposterous" detail to an overzealous member of the British press. He does, however, vouch for another story: audience members would exit Swans concerts in droves, leaving two, maybe three persons in the audience by show's end. "It was a real antagonistic relationship. It's not like we were attacking the audience, but the level of commitment we applied to what we were doing was met with indifference or derision." A dry chuckle. "You either have to give up or redouble your determination."
It's surprising that Swans — who play the Middle East September 30 — survived as long as they did. From the outset, they seemed to be headed toward early combustion. Their plodding, lurching clatter sounded as if it came from repurposed construction equipment, and the way Gira explored cheerless topics — suicide, social conflict, trauma, destitution — made it seem likely the world would eat itself before this soothsayer/pariah was through with his doomsday prophecies. He meant for those uncomfortable decibel levels to "destroy my body," but the contemptuous crowds had him pushing limits. "When you're young, you're both immortal and there is no future."
Although Swans' adolescence was thrilling, their æsthetic would grow to encompass more than noise. They began testing acoustics on 1986's Holy Money; they recorded a wealth of live albums, and by 1996's Soundtracks for the Blind, they were downright artsy. When the members parted ways in 1997, a live album bore the bombastic title Swans Are Dead. The obit has since been nullified, since Gira recently resurrected the band. This month's release of My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky (Young God) marks the first Swans release in more than 10 years.
My Father attests how much the project has changed since Filth. Although they still examine moral blight, the band dissect rather than steamroll, using distortion only when necessary. Gira's voice once raged; now, it's a stoic thing concerned with precision. In the tumbling, empty-sky ballad "Reeling the Liars In," Gira vivisects "the liars" by "removing their face, collecting their skin" and "burning them in a pile." It's a slow, cruel nightmare, but he finds humor in the concept. And he tells me how bandmate Thor Harris interpreted the song: "It's like we're all a bunch of cowboys, sitting around the campfire late at night, drinking a beer, smoking a cigar. Thor says, 'Mike, grab one of them liars and throw another on the pile.' " "Reeling" is hardly My Father's only vicious missive — check out "You Fucking People Make Me Sick."
Still, there are moments when it seems Gira might be softening with age. He notes that he's become more positive over the years (though he's not certain why). And in explaining why he remained committed to Swans when listeners turned away, he avers, "It's important to keep in mind how short this existence is, and how crucial it is to act as if every day was your last."
SWANS + BABY DEE | Middle East downstairs, 480 Mass Ave, Cambridge | September 30 at 8 pm | 18+ | $30 | 617.864.EAST or mideastclub.com