On Swans and Expressing the Inexpressible

Since 1987, Swans has been the soundtrack to Jon Mueller's existence.

In 1987, a friend gave me a cassette dub of the record Holy Money by the band Swans. I had recently come out of years of listening to metal, then punk, and had begun exploring music that went beyond the confines of those genres. Through this same friend, I was introduced to groups like Psychic TV and Throbbing Gristle, The Residents, Coil, Laibach, and more, and was interested not only in the music, but the fact that in a variety of ways, these groups represented a more real sense of non-conformity than the uniform of rebellion the other genres wore.

“I think you’ll like this,” I remember him saying as he handed me the Swans tape. No hype, no explanation why, just a brief assumption. Little did either of us know, but that was potentially one of the most important musical transactions of my life.

I remember buying the LP shortly after listening to the tape (he was right, I liked it). I listened to the record a lot. I’d sit in my parents’ basement rec room, curiously analyzing the gold and black cover and the band photos on the inner sleeve, which were printed over metallic gold, the gold seeping into the black print when you tilted the sleeve from side to side, while slow pounding rhythm, howling repetitive bleak statements, and wounded guitar blared as loudly as possible.

I was nearing the end of high school and had few ideas about what I would do after. That looming mystery, combined with a series of other predicaments, some typical of my age and some related to family events, compelled me to both seek some sense of movement forward, while also feeling an ongoing sense of defeat. I listened to Swans’ Holy Money, Greed, and Children of God on a regular basis, to the point where they began to seem like a soundtrack for my existence. Everything about them resonated with me. Swans and my state of mind intertwined to create a new, somewhat permanent outlook for me.

What initially appealed to me about Swans was that the music, artwork, lyrics, the whole style of it was unlike anything else I had seen or heard. Even today when I listen to those records, they seem new and totally outside of everything. The music exudes a primal understanding of human shame and humility, while equally expressing a domineering power and authority. The balance of these factors makes the helplessness seem hopeful and the stark bleakness a thing of glory. Ironically, I’ve always listened to Swans because there is so much about it that makes me feel good, even though I understand that it’s complicated. With Swans, even the name is complex. Everything is presented very simply and minimally – the cover art, the logo, the titles, the lyrics. Yet nothing about it is obvious. The complexity is revealed once you invest a bit of yourself in the work, and from there, instead of concrete ideas being understood, a series of feelings emerge, wrapped in a kind of ecstatic release.

Like most people who have a favorite group, I wondered what core members Michael Gira and Jarboe were like as people. Eventually, I began writing short stories and mailing them to the band’s PO Box in New York. No personal note, just a story written for them. After sending a few of these, I came home one day to find a postcard from Jarboe in the mailbox. “Michael and I are enjoying the stories. Keep sending them.” I couldn’t believe it. I wrote another and this time included a short personal note acknowledging her card, and included a copy of a CD I had recently made. Jarboe responded with another note, complimenting the CD and saying that she would be interested in possibly doing something with that group sometime. This, of course, was nearly beyond comprehension, and it was an incredible honor to eventually work with her.

My only connection with Michael was through his music and writing. I read his book The Consumer multiple times, understanding it as an alternate route to the place that the music led to. Seeing him perform with Swans was intense, not just because of the music, but the very palpable vibe of his presence in each situation, both on stage and off. I once awkwardly tried to let him go ahead of me in a single-use bathroom in New York. After two attempts of me saying, “No, seriously, you can go ahead,” he swung his arm down in an abrupt and strict pointing motion toward the door without saying another word. I quickly went in, but then couldn’t pee.

Even in the slowest and quietest songs, Swans is charged with energy. While the repetitive pummeling of much of their work can raise the hair on your neck, the ballad-type songs, or even the collage interludes such as those that fill much of the recent reissue of Soundtracks for the Blind 4xLP, build tension for what’s coming next; a dynamic which can be profoundly heavy in its own way. Whatever energy it does contain is transmitted to those present, for better or worse.

For instance, while seeing the band with my girlfriend during The Great Annihilator tour, there was no air conditioning in the venue and it was a humid midwestern summer night. Midway through their set, they blew the power and the whole place went completely pitch dark for a long, suffocating time. Shortly after the power came back on, my girlfriend said she had to get out. We just about made it through the dense, sweaty crowd to the door as she began fainting, soon after collapsing and skinning both her legs on the pavement right outside the door of the club. After she recovered, we chalked it up to the elements – the intense heat and the confusion from the darkness.

Many years later, after Swans ended and then reformed, they returned to Chicago. The same woman (now my wife) wanted another chance to see them. The band came out on stage with a radiating intensity, Gira walked the stage with his guitar and just looked sternly at the audience while members Thor Harris and Kristof Hahn created a swelling din on symphonic bells and lap steel guitar. It was quite powerful. The spell on me was suddenly broken by my wife saying that she felt like she was going to faint. I thought she was kidding, making a joke about the last time she saw them, but I saw on her face she wasn’t kidding. She said she was completely fine until they came out on stage. I felt bad for her as I walked her to the car, but utterly fascinated by the scenario. Even without playing a song, Swans has a very real energy.

After reading Nick Soulsby’s recent book, Swans: Sacrifice and Transcendence: The Oral History, which provides some insight into behind-the-scenes stuff I’ve wondered about over the years, a theme was apparent: It’s not about the individuals, it’s about the work. Gira states, “You have to keep things close to your chest and be aware of what the really important thing is, which is the work. If you have faith in the work, then the people will come. It gave me a little faith that there are people who really want a truthful and powerful experience that comes from the heart.”

Who are those people, and why do they gravitate toward this work? I can clearly answer the first question as I am one of them, but the second one is harder to answer. Looking back on being introduced to Swans, absorbing the music over time until it blended with my general outlook on life, I can see now that much of what I liked about Swans addressed things that were already in me. They didn’t introduce me to certain feelings as much as they expressed the inexpressible, wrapped in a very unique artistic approach. When I’d look around the room at their concerts, I’d sometimes wonder how everyone else came to be there. Why did they gravitate toward this?

In recent years, Swans’ concerts were multiple-hour, high-volume affairs that left little room for pondering such questions. In fact, during peak moments, totally consumed by the sound and energy in the room, thoughts of individuals, band and audience alike, seemed irrelevant. In the end, the work is why we were present. And for a moment, we were all fortunate to be in it together.

(Photo Credit: left, Raphaël Sandler; right, Catherine Ceresole)

Jon Mueller makes long-form, repetitive, percussion-based structures that inspire meditative listening. He’s performed throughout North America, Europe, Japan, and United Kingdom, and can be heard on over 100 recordings, both solo and with groups such as Mind Over Mirrors, Mamiffer, Volcano Choir, Collections of Colonies of Bees, and Pele. He is also co-owner of Within Things — a shop of uncommon goods in Door County, WI. More info at rhythmplex.com.