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Swans: Sacrifice and Transcendence. Jason Lewis reads the runes

Nick Soulsby Week continues as our music editor Jason Lewis reviews Swans: Sacrifice and Transcendence - an Oral History

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by Jason Lewis, UK Music Editor for outsideleft.com
Nick Soulsby doesn't steer the interviewees to help him satisfy a specific agenda. Instead, each voice speaks openly and honestly, the result is an unvarnished and balanced insight into the chaotic genius of Swans
by Jason Lewis, UK Music Editor for outsideleft.com
Nick Soulsby doesn't steer the interviewees to help him satisfy a specific agenda. Instead, each voice speaks openly and honestly, the result is an unvarnished and balanced insight into the chaotic genius of Swans

There is a received wisdom that the best film scores are the ones you don't notice. It's not strictly true, we can all name our favourite film music, it's true however, that the best film scores are the ones that don't distract from the film, the one's that are intrinsically part of it, the one's that complement and understand the story that is being told. 

The same is also true of music writing. I've encountered too many authors who failed realize that it's not their voice that needs to heard above all else,  but that it's the band or the artist they are writing about that is the primary concern. Writing about music needs a quiet voice, someone who can piece together a fascinating narrative based on  research, of interviewing all the relevant key players, to reveal something fascinating about the music. Someone whose work will lead the reader back to the music.

Nick Soulsby has already written three books on Nirvana and one on Thurston Moore. These are artists Soulsby is passionate about, and it's shown in the meticulous amount of work that he puts into each project. His last book on Nirvana 'Cobain on Cobain' involved four years of research, trawling through many obscure and unheard interviews to piece together a realistic picture of the man. It is an honest portrait of the artist. 

And so to 'Swans:  Sacrifice and Transcendence - an Oral History' 
The clue, if any were needed, is in the title.  To be in involved in band that has created some of the most mesmerizing, challenging and influential music of the last three and a half decades would involve a huge degree of sacrifice. 

As singer, songwriter, bandleader Michael Gira observes, his fellow musicians need to have:
'.... total commitment to making this sound, and to making it utterly incisive and uncompromising. The work is everything and it has to... be stellar'

The picture of Gira on the front cover of Soulsby's book shows him with hands aloft, his head back, like someone succumbing to an almighty power. It is a moment of Transcendence.  That transcendence would be something that  longstanding member of Swans, Bill Reiflin would encounter when he first saw them play live in 1989, one moment he was watching them 'banging and droning away' , the next, the music has given him a 'spiritual' experience, a sensation that he would feel each time he saw them.    

Moving to New York at the end of the 1970's,  Gira and his  colleagues loved music by Suicide, Lydia Lunch and Joy Division, they hated the city's punk scene ('The Ramones, Blondie and all that shit' - Susan Martin), they form Circus Mort, meet Thurston Moore (after an initial fight with his band...and fights do become a regular occurrence in the Swans story), they listen to the band's emerging from the No Wave scene.  Fairly soon, Circus Mort collapses and Gira gathers together the first incarnation of Swans. 

Swans initial EP and debut album 'Filth' are savage, thunderous, angry creations. Album engineer Mark Berry is the first to recall  Gira's 'clear vision of how  he wanted everything to sound'.  He will not be the last.  

The word 'perfectionist' seems to have been created specifically to describe people like Gira.  Such perfectionism does not come without its casualties, and although the popular portrayal of Gira is of a domineering bully,  Soulsby ensures that everyone in the band's story gets a fair say  (there are over 140 interviews with 125 individuals in this book).  He doesn't steer the interviewees to help him satisfy a specific agenda. Instead, each voice speaks openly and honestly, the result is an unvarnished and balanced insight into the chaotic genius of Swans. 

Not surprisingly, there are so many line up changes that even Mark E Smith would have raised an eyebrow (and, yes, I would love Soulsby to write a definitive  biography of The Fall).  By the time of 'The Burning World' album and tour in 1988-89 Gira admits:  '(Swans) was never going to be a band of brothers together fighting the world. It was going to be my thing, and I would bring people in or out...'

Although Gira would call time on Swans in the late nineties, he would eventually restart the band at the start of this decade. They would be feted by fans and critics alike. The subsequent run of albums would include the exceptional 'To Be Kind' (which, for me, was the perfect entry point for understanding Swans).  The modern version of Michael Gira is now a lot mellower, percussionist Thor Harris admitting that '...he's not always Prince Charming, but he looked out for us and appreciated us.'  It is also heartwarming to see that, after so many years of being misunderstood, Swans finally getting the recognition that they deserve. 

It's probably not surprisingly then that, having finally been recognised, that Gira, never wanting to become predictable, would bring the current iteration of Swans to a close at the end of 2017. 

Whatever the future may hold, whatever sounds Gira will make, whatever musicians he chooses to create it with, I hope that Nick Soulsby will be there to chronicle the rest of Swans remarkable story.


Nick Soulsby Week Essentials:
Nick Soulsby Week - an Intro
A Big Interview with Nick Soulsby
Michael & Jarboe & Ted & Thurston
Nick Soulsby's Teethgraters

External (these links will take you away)
Nick's Music Blog
Nick Soulsby author page at Amazon
Nick Soulsby on Goodreads

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Jason Lewis
UK Music Editor

Jason Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jason's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.

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