When Swans last played Tokyo in 2013, the venue itself seemed to be groaning under the weight of the onslaught. Two hours into a set of tempestuous rock catharsis, the power cut out; once restored, the group kept playing for another 30 minutes.
Such marathon gigs are the norm for Swans, the avant-rock ensemble founded by Michael Gira over three decades ago. How on Earth do they keep it up?
“It’s like a construction worker going to the job site, you know?” says Gira, speaking over Skype from his home in New York state. “You just dive in and do the work. We push ourselves, and the music, as far as we can each night. I’m not implying that it’s a heroic undertaking, by any means, but it’s sort of our job, to try and really let the music inhabit us.”
That job comes with certain occupational hazards. Years of playing at high volumes without earplugs have left Gira, 60, with tinnitus, the sound of which he likens to “the constant shuffling of waves in the ocean.”
“I don’t listen to music — at least, certainly for the last four or five years — because my ears are so taxed,” he says. “It’s like someone that’s eaten too much meat. You know, you just feel weighted down — the last thing you want to do is eat it again.”
Swans are now five years into one of the most gratifying band reunions in recent memory (the group originally split in 1997). While many such comebacks seem motivated by nostalgia and the desire to make a quick buck, Gira and co. have shown little interest in either — even if last year’s “To Be Kind” saw them crack the Billboard Top 40 album chart for the first time.
“I think it probably means you sell 10 records these days,” he jokes. “Swans has never been a top-selling band, of course. It would be an entirely different universe if it were.”
All the same, this latter-day incarnation seems to have found a wider following than the group ever managed first time around. When Swans emerged on the New York no wave scene in the early 1980s, its abrasive racket regularly sent audiences scurrying for the exits. A popular cover version of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” later in the decade merely begat an abortive major label deal and the band’s lousiest album, “The Burning World” (1989).
So Gira says that it’s “invigorating” to be so well received these days.
“It’s tremendous to have sizable audiences,” he says. “Certainly not huge — I guess we can draw 2,000 people in some places, and in some places 300 or even 200 . . . I think we’re probably maxed out, in terms of the people on Earth that would care about Swans.”
Swans play at Tsutaya O-East in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo on Jan. 27 and Club Quattro in Kita-ku, Osaka on Jan. 28 (7 p.m. starts; ¥6,000 in advance). For more information, visit www.smash-jpn.com or www.younggodrecords.com.