SWANS (/swɒnz/ ) are an American experimental rock band formed in
1982 by singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist
Michael Gira .
One of few acts to emerge from the
New York City
New York City -based no wave scene
and stay intact into the next decade, Swans have become recognized for
an incomparable sound which has transformed throughout their career
and contributed to the development of such genres as noise rock ,
post-punk , industrial and post-rock . Initially, their music was
extremely harsh, incorporating more melody and intricacy following the
1986 addition of singer, songwriter and keyboardist
Jarboe , who
remained the band's only constant member except Gira and semi-constant
Norman Westberg until their dissolution in 1997. Since 1990,
all Swans records have been released through Gira's own label, Young
God Records . In 2010, Gira re-formed the band without Jarboe,
establishing a stable lineup of musicians which has released several
albums to critical acclaim, touring worldwide. However, from 2017
following the tour in support of
The Glowing Man , Gira will continue
to record music under the Swans moniker "with a revolving cast of
* 1 History
* 1.1 Early years (1982–1985)
* 1.1.1 Initial influences
* 1.1.2 Early press comparisons
* 1.1.3 Live shows
* 1.2 Mid-period (1986–1988)
* 1.3 Later years (1988–1997)
* 1.3.1 Demise
* 1.4 Post-breakup and re-formation (1997–present)
* 2 Musical style
* 3 Discography
* 4 Members
* 4.1 Current
* 4.2 Former
* 4.3 Timeline
* 5 Notes
* 6 References
* 7 External links
The band was formed and has been led by singer, songwriter and
multi-instrumentalist Michael Gira, here shown performing in Kansas
City, Missouri in September 2012.
EARLY YEARS (1982–1985)
Michael Gira has repeatedly stated he took the moniker Swans as it
described the sound he wanted best. Gira's summation of the name
follows along the lines of: "Swans are majestic, beautiful looking
creatures. With really ugly temperaments."
The earliest known lineup of Swans comprised Gira on bass guitar and
Jonathan Kane on drums, Sue Hanel on guitar, Mojo on
percussion and tape loops and either
Thurston Moore ,
Dan Braun or Jon
Tessler on the second bass guitar. Jon Tessler also played percussion
and tape loops. Hanel's only recordings with the group are on the
Body to Body, Job to Job , but the ambiguous personnel
credits do not make it clear on which songs she performed. Kane stated
that "Sue was the most fearsome guitarist we'd ever heard in New York.
She was unbelievable."
Hanel did not stay long in the group, and by the time of their
recording debut she had been replaced by Bob Pezzola. This lineup of
the group also featured saxophonist Daniel Galli-Duani, who had
previously played with Kane as the avant-garde duo Transmission. The
debut EP, Swans , released on Labor, is markedly different from
anything they would do later. The plodding tempos and distorted,
detuned guitar work is reminiscent of such post-punk outfits as Joy
Division . However, the minimal chord structures owe more to blues ,
while the jazz instrumentation and awkward time signatures are
evidence of Swans' roots in the no wave scene of the late 1970s,
which had more or less collapsed by the release of 1984's Cop .
Early Press Comparisons
Kane compares Swans to blues icon Chester Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin\'
Wolf . Some similarities worth noting—the music of early Swans was
often based on a single riff , played repeatedly to hypnotic effect.
Some of Burnett's songs—especially the songs penned by Burnett
himself—have a similar structure and quality. Their early music was
typified by slow and grinding guitar noise, and pounding drums,
punctuated by Gira's morbid and violent lyrics (inspired by Jean Genet
Marquis de Sade
Marquis de Sade ), usually barked or shouted. Critics have
described Swans' early recordings as "aggressive beyond words".
Their first full-length release, Filth (1983), featured driving,
choppy rhythms and abrasive drums. The whole is reminiscent of earlier
no wave bands, such as Mars , and the work of Swans' contemporaries,
Sonic Youth 's
Confusion Is Sex and
Kill Yr Idols ; but critic
Ned Raggett contends that "early Swans really is like little else on
the planet before or since". Filth was the first album to feature
Norman Westberg , who would play a vital role in much of
Swans' music and would feature on every subsequent studio album apart
from Love of Life .
Cop (1984) and the originally untitled Young God EP were both
released in 1984 and re-released together on CD in 1992. Young God has
been known by several names, usually by one of its two A-sides, such
as "I Crawled" or, notoriously, as "Raping a Slave". This release is
often confused with their self-titled debut. The music continues in
the same vein as Filth, and is again vaguely reminiscent of heavy
metal music played in extreme slow motion. Swans were, in this era,
Gira on vocals, Westberg on guitar, Harry Crosby on bass guitar and
Roli Mosimann on drums. Gira's vocals had changed slightly, becoming
slowly more melodic, although the snarl still remained. Some of the
songs on the EP, particularly "Young God" and "I Crawled", have an
actual vocal melody, if rudimentary, hinting at the sounds of future
releases. Young God is considered by many to be the best of their
early releases for this reason.
Justin Broadrick shared this impression of the group:
The first Swans record I owned was Slave EP , and it absolutely
blew me away... it was a sound that I always wanted to hear, just the
bleakest and blackest. The minimalist approach of the music, that was
what really influenced me. It was non-genre-specific, with a total
lack of baggage... purely abstract, surreal, and violent. It
communicated to me in a very special way, and taught me that heavy
metal could be stripped of everything and reduced to its most primal
form. None of the traditional genre bullshit, you know? Really changed
my perspective on music at the time.
Joy Division , Killing Joke
—Swans took the blueprint from these bands and just pushed it way,
way further, more outside of the whole rock thing generally, and paved
the way for me.
One of the trademarks of Swans' early period was playing at painfully
loud volumes during concerts, often leading to police stopping shows.
Gira was also notably confrontational with the audience, such as
stepping on people's fingers resting on the stage, pulling people's
hair and, notably, physically assaulting anyone caught in the crowd
headbanging ; something Gira detested. This lent a reputation to the
name Swans which was one of the contributing factors in Gira's
retirement of the band in 1997.
Since Swans' re-formation, Gira has made a point of maintaining the
intensity of their live show, stating that it is at once
"soul-uplifting and body-destroying". He has also sometimes turned off
the air conditioning before Swans performed and compared the
experience to a Native American sweat lodge .
1986's Greed saw a new addition to the group with
Jarboe joining the band. Her presence began a
slow thawing in the overt brutality and energy of Swans' early work.
Greed also marked the introduction of bassist
Algis Kizys as a
long-time, near-constant member. The album is not as brutal or noisy
as their previous releases but is still an extremely ominous and dark
record. This was followed by its "twin" album,
Holy Money , the first
Jarboe on lead vocals.
Holy Money was also the first album
by Swans to incorporate acoustic elements, in particular, the
eight-minute dirge "Another You", which starts with a bluesy harmonica
introduction. It also marks the introduction of religious themes in
Swans records with the sacrificial ode "A Hanging", complete with
gospel-like backing vocals from Jarboe.
Children of God (1987) further expanded Jarboe's role, acting as a
foil to Michael Gira's tales of suffering, torture and humiliation.
The stories portrayed here, however, are ever the more unusual, given
their juxtaposition—and admixture—with religious imagery. The
intention was neither to mock nor embrace religion, but experiment
with the power inherent in its messages and the hypocrisy of many of
Some songs, such as "Beautiful Child", retain the vocal style of
earlier days, but many are quite tame. The almost baroque "In My
Garden", for example, added an extra dimension with piano (used before
on "Fool" and "Sealed in Skin" to far grimmer effect) and acoustic
guitar . In between the two poles, there are pieces like "Sex, God,
Sex" (heavy metal-like bass riffs with blues and gospel-inspired
singing), "Blood and Honey" (a murder ballad with early post-rock
tendencies) and "Blind Love" (a lengthy song, alternating between
intoned vocals and violent instrumental passages). Gira considers this
to be the band's major turning point.
LATER YEARS (1988–1997)
After the Children of God album, Gira professed himself tired with
the band's fearsome reputation for noise, feeling that their audience
now had expectations that he had no intention of fulfilling. He made a
conscious decision to tone down the band's sound, introducing more
acoustic elements and increasingly emphasizing
Jarboe as a singer. The
first results of this shift in direction were the two records recorded
by Gira and
Jarboe under the names Skin (in Europe) and World of Skin
(in the US). The first,
Blood, Women, Roses , featured
Jarboe on lead
vocals, and the second,
Shame, Humility, Revenge , featured Gira on
lead vocals. Both were recorded together in 1987, although Shame,
Humility, Revenge was not released until 1988. These albums are full
of slow, ethereal, melancholy, dirge-like songs, sounding like
stripped down acoustic versions of the Children of God songs.
The band continued this transformation with an unexpected cover of
Joy Division 's "
Love Will Tear Us Apart ", which was released as a
single in 1988 on Product Inc. in a confusing array of 7" and 12" inch
formats. Both Gira and
Jarboe sang lead vocals on different versions
of the song. In later years Gira dismissed this release as a mistake,
and for a long time refused to reissue his own vocal version, although
Jarboe's version was re-released much sooner. However their version of
the song was a hit on US college radio in 1988, which led to the group
being offered a major label deal at Uni/MCA. "I'd worked so hard all
my life", said Gira. "At 15, I was digging ditches in the desert in
Israel , and I put myself through college painting houses. I never saw
any money from any of our records. So by the time I finally got that
carrot dangled in front of me, it was like, 'at last, I can make a
living at what I love to do.'"
This single was followed by The Burning World (1989), Swans' first
and only major label album. Released on Uni /
MCA Records , the record
was produced by
Bill Laswell and expanded the acoustic palette
introduced on Greed and Children of God. For this album, the core
line-up of Michael Gira,
Jarboe and Westberg was augmented by session
musicians, and the distinctive heavy guitar element of their earlier
work was toned down significantly in favor of folk and world music
elements. Though Swans would later explore more acoustic music with
similar moods, Gira has stated that, while he admires much of
Laswell's work, his efforts with Swans were simply a mismatch. The
album reportedly sold 5000 copies in the UK, one of the lowest numbers
in the history of MCA Records, and was soon deleted from MCA's
The Burning World was the first Swans album to feature more
conventional pop melodies. Gira's lyrics still favored themes of
depression , death, greed and despair, but were actually sung, rather
than the chanting or shouting typical of earlier material. They even
Steve Winwood 's popular
Blind Faith hit "Can\'t Find My Way
Home ", one of two singles from the LP.
In 1990, Gira and
Jarboe released the third and final World of Skin
Ten Songs for Another World . It was less successful than the
previous two Skin albums.
Gira's disillusionment with their Uni/MCA exploits led to White Light
from the Mouth of Infinity (1991), a successful blending of earlier
hard rock and later pop styles. Produced by Gira, the album blended
acoustic rock, blues and hypnotic guitar noise successfully, resulting
in an album more complex than anything they had released in the past.
This album was followed by Love of Life (recorded by
Martin Bisi in
1992), the EP single
Love of Life/Amnesia , taking the group even
farther into experimentation, and then
The Great Annihilator
The Great Annihilator (1995),
considered to be one of the band's most accessible releases, possibly
through being their most straightforward. The songwriting style and
musical approach, however, would take a more unusual turn the
following year. The re-formed Swans performing in
Tallinn in May
2011. From left to right: Thor Harris, Christoph Hahn, Phil Puleo
(behind drum set), Gira, Chris Pravdica and Norman Westberg.
With other projects occupying his time, Gira decided to end the group
with one last album and a world tour.
Soundtracks for the Blind (1996)
was the result: a mammoth two-disc album comprising Jarboe-supplied
field recordings, experimental music , dark ambient soundscapes,
post-industrial epics, post rock suites and acoustic guitar. It is one
of the most highly regarded albums of their career. Swans Are Dead
(1998) brings together live recordings from their 1995 and 1997 tours,
documenting the energy and stage presence of
Michael Gira and Jarboe.
In an interview, Gira revealed that there is more live material that
may be released in the future. He described these unreleased
recordings as "fairly spectacular".
POST-BREAKUP AND RE-FORMATION (1997–PRESENT)
After dissolving Swans, Gira formed
Angels of Light , continued his
Young God Records and
Jarboe continued her solo work.
In January 2010, Swans' re-formation was heralded with a new song
posted on the Young God Records' MySpace, and officially confirmed by
a post on the
Young God Records
MySpace accounts. Gira
decided to bring back Swans during an
Angels of Light show five years
prior. In the middle of performing the song The Provider onstage
utilizing "large chords that were very sustained and swaying, in this
sort of slave-ship rhythm," he felt "a nascent urge right then to
re-form or reinvigorate Swans because I remembered how elevating and
intense that experience was". To help raise money for the upcoming
new Swans album, Gira released a new solo album,
I Am Not Insane , via
Young God Records website.
LAS Magazine posted an article
entitled "Kickstart My Art" on alternative financing in "a
cash-strapped music industry, unable to rely on record label
financing, is positioning its own quid pro quo: fan dollars to fund
projects in exchange for exclusive material and a sense of
involvement" that cites Swans selling out of the 1,000 signed and
numbered copies of
I Am Not Insane as an example of reverse financing
where proceeds from one project are rolled over to finance the next.
Gira performing with Swans at
OFF Festival 2012
Swans then went on a series of U.S. and European tour dates, and
headlined the Supersonic Festival in Birmingham, England in October
2010. The first post-reformation Swans album, My Father Will Guide Me
Up a Rope to the Sky , was released on September 23, 2010, and the
band simultaneously embarked on an eighteen-month world tour. The
band were chosen by Portishead to perform at the All Tomorrow\'s
Parties I\'ll Be Your Mirror festivals that Portishead curated in July
2011 at London's Alexandra Palace, and, in September 2011, in Asbury
Park, New Jersey.
In 2012 Swans released the live album We Rose from Your Bed with the
Sun in Our Head , featuring material culled from their 2010–2011
tour, in support of production and recording costs for their
forthcoming record, The Seer . Initially released as a limited
handmade edition of 1000 copies, We Rose... was re-released in May
2012 as a deluxe digipak . On July 15, 2013, Gira announced a new,
handmade live album in the vein of
I Am Not Insane and We Rose... ,
Not Here / Not Now . The album was announced for sale on
October 14, with the proceeds helping to fund the recording of the new
Swans studio album with
John Congleton , announced in 2014 as To Be
In 2014 the band announced that it signed with
Mute Records for the
world outside North America and that the band would be touring. That
same year, in November, the band curated a three-day program at Le
Guess Who? in Utrecht, The Netherlands, including Wire , Silver Apples
, Ben Frost ,
Prurient and Words To The Blind, a project by Savages
together with Japanese band
Bo Ningen .
In 2014 both The Seer and
To Be Kind were ranked on Pitchfork Media
's "Top 100 Albums of the Decade So Far 2010-2014." The Seer was
ranked 17 and
To Be Kind was ranked 85.
The band announced on July 22, 2015 that they would be recording
their fourteenth studio album in September 2015, following a
fundraiser album entitled The Gate , as with the three previous
post-reunion studio albums. On April 5, 2016, the band announced The
Glowing Man and shared a two-minute excerpt of the twenty-nine minute
title track. The album was released on June 17, 2016 on Young God
Mute Records , and is to be the final Swans album
released under a mostly homogeneous lineup, although Gira will
continue to release music with "a revolving cast" of musicians.
This final incarnation of the band announced for immediate release a
live album, Deliquescence , on May 17. The album, limited to 3,000
CD-only copies, contains three tracks that have previously only been
Gira performing with Swans at Stylus,
University of Leeds
University of Leeds in
Swans' music has transformed greatly over the decades, but is
typically dark and "apocalyptic ", often focusing on themes of
power , religion , sex and death , and has been most generally
associated with experimental rock . According to Spin , the band
demonstrates "unparalleled ability to translate the absurd violence of
the human condition into music that’s as intoxicating as it is
intense." Swans' early work, rooted in the
New York City
New York City -based no
wave movement which was fading out by the time their formation in
1982, is extremely aggressive, characterized by
Michael Gira as
"stripping down the essential elements of what we consider to be rock
The Guardian described it as "a cacophonous rhythmic throb
which drew on post punk , industrial , doom metal , NYC avant
minimalism and the blues ; a sound which was matched by Gira's often
nihilistic , anti-natalist and existential lyrical concerns ...
delivered in a stentorian and messianic manner." It was an important
contribution to both industrial music and noise rock and influenced
the emergence of grindcore and sludge metal . Later in the 1980s,
Swans' music began to incorporate more melodic and intricate elements,
especially since Jarboe's debut as a songwriter on 1987's Children of
God . While generally maintaining much dissonance , the band's
subsequent work further ventured into genres such as post-punk,
gothic rock , neofolk , psychedelic rock and art rock . Their
final album before breaking up, 1996's
Soundtracks for the Blind , is
a double album which emphasizes atmosphere, a contribution to the
post-rock , drone and dark ambient genres. Since re-forming in
2010, Swans have continued to be associated with post-rock and drone
music as well as noise rock. Their last three double albums, which
have brought them widespread critical acclaim, often feature long
songs that develop complex soundscapes.
* Filth (1983)
* Cop (1984)
* Greed (1986)
Holy Money (1986)
* Children of God (1987)
* The Burning World (1989)
White Light from the Mouth of Infinity (1991)
* Love of Life (1992)
The Great Annihilator
The Great Annihilator (1995)
Soundtracks for the Blind (1996)
My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky (2010)
* The Seer (2012)
To Be Kind (2014)
The Glowing Man (2016)
Christopher Pravdica Thor
Harris (behind Gira)
Michael Gira – guitar , vocals (1982–1997, 2010–present)
Norman Westberg – guitar (1983–1995, 2010–present)
* Christoph Hahn – guitar, lap steel guitar (1988–1991,
Phil Puleo – drums , percussion , dulcimer (1995–1997,
Christopher Pravdica – bass guitar (2010–present)
* Paul Wallfisch – keyboards (2016–present)
Dan Braun – bass guitar (1982)
* Bill Bronson – bass guitar (1995–1997)
* Harry Crosby – bass guitar (1983–1984)
* Daniel Galli-Duani – saxophone (1982)
* Joe Goldring – bass guitar (1995–1997)
* Ronaldo Gonzalez – drums (1986–1987)
* Sue Hanel – guitar (1982)
Thor Harris – drums, percussion, vibraphone , hammered dulcimer
, keyboards (2010–2016)
Jarboe – keyboards, vocals, piano (1984–1997, 2012)
Jonathan Kane – drums (1982–1983)
Algis Kizys – bass guitar (1986–1995)
* Sami Kumpulainen – bass guitar (1988)
* Mojo – percussion, tape loops (1982)
Thurston Moore – bass guitar (1982)
Virgil Moorefield – drums (1989)
Roli Mosimann – drums (1983–1984)
* Ivan Nahem – drums (1982, 1986)
Ted Parsons – drums (1985–1987)
* Bob Pezzola – drums (1982–1983)
Bill Rieflin – drums, additional instruments (1995–1996; guest
Vinnie Signorelli – drums (1991–1992)
* Clint Steele – guitar (1990–1997)
* Jon Tessler – bass guitar, percussion, tape loops (1982)
* Jenny Wade – bass guitar (1991)
* ^ Jarboe's first official recording with the band was on the Time
is Money (Bastard) 12-inch, credited simply with "scream"
(specifically at the start of the title track). By the time the track
was recorded in the summer of 1985, she had already been in the band
for about a month. Her first released tracks as lead vocalist and
keyboardist for the band were on "You Need Me" on
Holy Money and
"Blackmail", a B-side from the
A Screw 12". They both appear on the
original CD version of
Holy Money and the Greed/Holy Money
compilation, while a minimal version of the latter appears on Children
of God .
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* Official site from Jarboe
* Official site from
Michael Gira and Young God Records
* MICHAEL GIRA
* CHRISTOPH HAHN