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Unfolding Sound

Swans' veteran frontman Michael Gira explains the distinction between giving in to music and improvisation.



After more than three decades of making music, Swans’ leader Michael Gira is at ease discussing the inspiration that birthed the two hours of music comprising the band’s most recent album and puts him in front of audiences.

What makes him uncomfortable, at least over the phone, is talking about how eager Richmond is for what may or may not be the first Swans show here. Tickets to the band’s March 26 concert at the Broadberry sold out months in advance.

“That’s sweet to hear,” Gira says. “We’ll do our best. We always do our best.”

Gira’s definition of best is more sophisticated than it used to be, but still thrilling.

While building a reputation for punishingly loud shows — a 1986 live album is titled “Public Castration is a Good Idea” — he now sees himself as a director forging for new material for all to see. He talked with Style about the band’s acclaimed 2014 album, “To Be Kind,” including its 35-minute meditation on a slave turned Haitian liberator, Toussaint L’Ouverture.

Style: When was the last time you played in Richmond?

Gira: To be honest I have no idea when, or if, I’ve played anywhere. We’ve played so much now it really all blends together — I’m not being facetious when I say that.

Well, we’re really excited for you to be here. I was listening to “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” — it’s such an impressive piece. I’d be curious to see your reaction to Monument Avenue, where we memorialize the Confederate generals fighting to preserve slavery.

My interest in that character and that general period of history — it’s a watershed period, but there’s also a human, bacchian drama that drew me to it. I’ve read a couple books by Madison Smartt Bell, who wrote a couple of historical novels about the period and also the biography of Toussaint, [which] the song not references but engenders. The kind of heroism and the cruelty of it simultaneously is what interested me. The slavery is, of course, a huge deal, but if you read the biography, [also] the level of cruelty that both parties were capable of.

With that song, the music had grown out of its own volition, it seems, from the ending of another song, “The Seer.” We started vamping on these chords, not even really with a specific rhythm. They were growing and they grew at first into this 15- to 20-minute piece, and I was singing whatever came to mind when we were doing that. I was reading that book at the time and just started inserting things about Toussaint. It kind of grew organically.

And that was happening in front of an audience?

Yes. We’re not doing it as much anymore, but during the time of making songs for that record we were doing that live, just letting things unfold. I don’t use the word “improvisation,” because I don’t think it’s correct. It’s more like, sounds kind of lead us, and we follow. And they just gradually over a course of a year’s performances morphed into that piece in particular. There’s another piece, “She Loves Us,” that just kind of grew in front of an audience. We were forcing ourselves to give ourselves up to the power of the sound, and let things take their shape.

When you go on a tour and there are all these different cities, how do your experiences affect what you’re bringing to the stage?

That would be a valid phenomenon if we were really in the cities. Unfortunately, what happens is we’re in a tour bus. We pull up to the venue, load the gear, do a sound check and take an hour off before we play. We don’t really see the city. Anybody who’s toured extensively can tell you that’s sort of how it is. And often, unfortunately, we leave the next morning, so we don’t really see much.

So it all seems the same after a while.

The sound on stage varies, of course. It can be abysmal or good. When the sound is great, all bets are off. S

Swans play the Broadberry on Thursday, March 26, at 8:30 p.m., with guest Little Annie.


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