Swans. Fucking Hell.

by sequinnedmannequin

Just a brief note to say SWANS FUCK SWANS OH MY FUCKING GOD SWANS JESUS SWANS WOW.

On balance, I’d have to say I was even more excited about the prospect of seeing Swans again even than Godspeed. I knew Godspeed would never measure up to the magical ATPIBYM experience of 2011; Swans, on the other hand, whilst being part of that same magical experience, were a band I didn’t actually have any prior knowledge of at that time. I was completely blown away by that gig, by Michael Gira’s incredible power as a performer, by the way he, for want of a better expression, conducted the music through his body, by the visceral experience. Since then I’ve become mildly obsessed with both Gira and the band – generally speaking I’ve kind of moved beyond that teenage idol worship thing, trying to avoid knowing too much about people whose art I admire because it’s inevitably disappointing. One of the things I like most about Godspeed is that I don’t know or want to know anything about any of them, and they are actively in the business of not disclosing more than necessary. It’s just about the music and my relationship to it and the experience of it; the people playing it are largely incidental. But Gira slipped through the net.

After seeing Swans at ATPIBYM I just had enormous respect for this man. He strikes me as so secure, somehow, like a person in full possession of himself (and it’s not really until you see someone with that trait that you realise how much of a basketcase most performers are) and being fully possessed by the music and being able to both contain and channel the full spectrum of emotions that both engender and are produced by it. I watched him flagellating himself, dancing, howling, spitting, jumping, possessing and being possessed and I just thought wow. I have never seen anything like this before. I have seen expert performers who give themselves entirely to the performance (i.e. Nick Cave) but I don’t think I have ever witnessed a performer for whom the performance seems to be almost purely an organic by-product of the music. Obviously you’re getting up on a stage and doing a thing in front of people and the people expect a show and you can’t not be aware of that so of course I’m not suggesting that there is nothing contrived about the set-up but nonetheless there is a kind of authenticity, again for want of a better word, about the live Gira that I find completely inspiring. It feels like I am in the presence of someone entirely unapologetic, but not in a defensive or antagonistic way, just in a kind of ‘hey this is what I do and I do it for me and for the people that like it and if you don’t I’m fine with that’ way.

Earlier this year I saw Gira perform solo at Cafe Oto – about as polar from last night’s extravaganza at Koko as you can get – and it managed to be just as visceral in a completely different way. More cosy vibe, more relaxed, more time for banter and chats, and I kind of fell in love with him a bit. Cantankerous, funny, articulate, honest, entertaining… maybe I’m just a sap but I can’t help admiring a man who has experienced all the difficult shit he’s been through, who fronts arguably the loudest rock band currently active, and who has no trouble telling anecdotes about how he drove across America sobbing into his steering wheel because his wife had left him, no shame about being emotional. The man’s biography is hardly the easiest of narratives and I think it’s rare to find someone who has weathered storms but come through with equanimity, who does not seem bitter or cynical, who appears to have found an opportunity to learn about pain and darkness and living and who somehow manages to translate that into music which taps into it, stares it down, and reveals inside it pure ecstasy.

(For an interview that both contains excellent music recommendations and offers a much better insight into what I am trying to describe see this article from The Quietus.)

Okay so it’s not like I know the man and I’m sure there are plenty of things about him not to admire, as there are about us all, but at least in these respects I think he’s awesome. In the proper sense of the word. Whether his persona as ‘real’ as I think it is or whether it’s contrived and I’m a dope, I still find him massively inspiring and I suppose in that respect it doesn’t really matter how ‘authentic’ it is (as much as identity can ever be authentic, ever-shifting and multifarious as it is). I hope that one day I will be weathered in such a manner as to knock my corners off rather than making them all the more spiky. I hope to be open rather than closed. I hope to be as okay with my contradictions. I hope to focus my energies on people who appreciate who I am and what I do rather than waste them trying to impress or please people who will never understand.

Anyway, enough about Gira and my navel-gazing. The event. The live show. Holy fucking mother of all things. I said that ATPIBYM was incredible, and loud, and immense. Having acquainted myself with Swans’ back catalogue the show at Koko was high up on my most-looked-forward-to list (especially coming at the end of a two-week period containing Max Richter, Godspeed twice, and Death Grips – talk about an incredible November!) and it did not disappoint. I was worried it wouldn’t be loud enough, but although it didn’t quite have the same belt as ATPIBYM I had no cause to concern myself about that. It was suitably rib-shaking, ear-breaking, soul-shattering. It was everything I could hope for. I don’t think I have a single criticism (I KNOW!). Even the crowd can’t be faulted, although admittedly that’s probably because there is no way anyone would be able to hear themselves talking – and probably not for a couple of days afterwards – let alone anyone else. The company was excellent. We had a good spot. They played for TWO AND A HALF HOURS. Even though they didn’t finish until 23:50 and transport had all but stopped nothing could dampen my elation.

Transcendent. Absolutely fucking incredible. Spiritual. There is no way of describing it. I feel how I felt after seeing Godspeed the second time at ATPIBYM, in the sense that I feel I have stared into the face of what God would be if such a thing existed, but in an entirely different way. Godspeed is music that makes emotion a physical experience. Swans is music that makes music a physical experience. With Godspeed there is some inexplicable sense that all the things that have ever happened in the world, all the terrible and beautiful things, have been translated into music, which in turn takes up residence somewhere in the soul, in the deepest innermost part, which is so uncontainable it manifests as a physical response to the body’s (and soul’s, for want of a better expression) inability to house such a sensation. With Swans there is the sense that all the emotions ever felt in the world, all the terrible and beautiful emotions, have been translated into noise that uses the body as a conduit, that needs the body to convey itself. My experience of Godspeed is primarily emotional, to a degree that is so intense and inexpressible that it becomes physical. My experience of Swans is primarily physical. It is being consumed and wanting to be. It is being transported and yet never having been more in the moment. Godspeed is the ecstasy of agony. Swans is pure ecstasy.

I compare Godspeed and Swans only because they are the two most intense live music experiences I have had and not because they need to be seen in relation to one another. Other than being noisy they’re not all that similar other than in terms of the effect they have on me personally. In any case, leaving Godspeed out of it for a minute, I cannot recommend seeing Swans highly enough. If you like loud music of course. I can see how the whole thing would be completely lost on you if you weren’t into that kind of thing; it’s not really something you can have a passive experience of.

Just. Wow. ATPIBYM 2011 was the best day of my life. Yesterday was the best night of my life. I care not that my hearing is a little dodgy today or that I have given myself whiplash (again – curse of hypermobility) or that I potentially sound like a raving loony. I spent two and a half hours staring into the face of god (for that surely must be what we mean when we speak of such things), my entire body vibrating, grinning and grinning and grinning.

Also, by virtue of being one of about 20 women in the entire audience, I at no point had to queue for the toilet. BONUS. I did have to queue up for my wondrous t-shirt, however, although I rather wish I had bought it on the way in as Mr Gira came out to sign stuff and I felt the need to prattle on at him in an uncharacteristically twattish and fangirly manner about how amazing the experience was and how he ‘makes music physical in a manner I approve of’. Oh dear. (Can I just say, though – what a guy. Two and a half hours of channeling god and he comes out at midnight to shake hands with his fans and sign their crap? Amazing.)

Some helpful chap filmed the whole thing, so if you want to see what you missed you can start with the below (which is the end) and find the rest from there. For maximum effect you need to play it so loudly you can barely breathe. Good luck with that.

And here is the aforementioned wondrous t-shirt (sadly even in my notoriously questionable interpretation of SFW clothing I think I’m going to have to put this in the very small pile of NSFW apparel I own):

And here is my understatedly excited pre-Swans face:

And here are a few crappy Instagrams of Gira. I prefer to enjoy the experience, safe in the knowledge a professional photographer will have taken far better snaps than my shoddy iPhone captures, but it’s nice to have a couple of images taken with my very hands: