Interview by Matt Bacon
From September 2016 Vandala Magazine
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How do you feel about doing press days?
Michael: It’s the low point of my day but there is no offense intended, it’s not my favorite thing to do to talk about myself or the music. I realize it’s necessary.
Have you ever liked to talk about yourself?
Michael: No. I kind of loathe people who talk about themselves and when you are in the music business you meet a lot of people like that.
So what do you like to talk about?
Michael: Usually it has to do with the proximity of death and the possibility of god.
I was going to ask you about that – I noticed you said you’re not a deist…
Michael: I think that’s a misuse of the word. I think deism was a popular theological argument in the 18th century. What I meant by that is I don’t subscribe to a particular religious belief but I have a suspicion that some creative force of love or intention is buried behind our consciousness.
What makes you think that?
Michael: Observation and meditation and being completely dumbfounded by my own existence.
You actually do say in another interview that the infiniteness of the music makes you wonder if there is something greater…
Michael: It could just be a neurological and physiological artifact. There is a positive force that occurs when the sound takes over. We are like marionettes and the music is playing us.
So do you view yourself as more of a conduit?
Michael: Well we rehearse like hell, but we look for spontaneity. Of course we don’t get there without thoroughly digesting the nature of the material first.
That’s something I’ve always loved about Swans live is that it is a very organic and almost spiritual experience…
Michael: The word spiritual is fraught with all sorts of hokey new age meanings these days but I see what you are trying to say. I can imagine seeing the Stooges back in the day must have been something similar. It is what it is. The guitars and the volume and the overtones and the sheer carnal abandon of it leads to something greater than the sum of its parts.
Something that struck me over the years is how many of them were inspired by your live show… where does your live inspiration come from?
Michael: First of all it’s great to hear you say that after so many years of doing this. Right now my live inspiration doesn’t come from anywhere since I don’t go to see a lot of live music. That’s mostly to do with my exhaustion. My ears can’t do it! There have been a few standout points along the way. Seeing Teen Suicide back the day both in LA and New York City was hugely inspirational. Many of the nameless punk bands I saw were inspirational. The experience I mean, not sonically. Seeing Pink Floyd in 1969 at a free jazz psychedelic festival in Belgium was awesome. It was like reaching for something that was impossible to reach. There were other things I can’t remember right now. I’ve seen some impressive Nina Simone and James Brown videos though.
What about those performances inspired you?
Michael: The wild abandon. With band like The Germs it doesn’t lead anywhere but when you are there at the time it’s fantastic.
So you said you also like to talk about the proximity of death…
Michael: That’s not a morbid occupation by the way. I don’t think it’s negative. I think it’s the most important thing that you can live with. It’s the most pressing question. It takes everything and focuses it on the correct perspective which is urgency. I just watched this fantastic movie by Andrei Tarkovsky recently called The Sacrifice. It’s very long and very slow but once you give up it’s utterly beautiful and thoroughly preoccupied with the question of mortality and the urgency of acting in life in light of the end. I wouldn’t say he was religious but it has religious themes. That’s a great movie I would highly recommend.
How does this urgency impact you day to day?
Michael: Like anyone. I get caught up in banal daily tasks and neurotic behaviors, but I’m talking as a general goal for my life, I’m talking way to personally, I don’t normally do this! I try to keep a general awareness of that.
How do you get that, meditation?
Michael: I meditate. Once you step back and look at experience beyond judgment and analyzing things become truly psychedelic in a way. It’s something I’m not privy to constantly but when the music gets there I experience something like that.
I’ve had similar questions personally, and I feel like there is a turning point where it goes from a grim specter to just something where it’s like “Oh, that’s going to happen” Michael: Yeah! I read Zen books – it’s obviously not meant to be translated into books but we are that kind of society. There is a book called Zen Flesh, Zen Bones it’s beautiful in that way. It rearranges your mind and scrambles it and leaves you with sense of positive helplessness and confusion. There’s another great book by St John of the Cross, Dark Night Of The Soul which is about people trying to get to the core of consciousness and existence and I find it to be helpful to read books that ask the important questions.
How long have you been.. seriously thinking about your own mortality?
Michael: I suppose when I was younger I didn’t think about it much or if I did it was a sort of vague fear off in the corner. In the 80s I started to get very preoccupied with these issues. That was just from existence and being the kind of person who questions things. That impacted the music too. Look at the words. I was just looking at some words I wrote years ago, from ’92 I think. You see it on a lot of records I’ve done. I’m particularly interested in how language through different juxtapositions loses meaning. It doesn’t become nonsensical, but it points the uselessness of language. In modern philosophy, I’ve never read much, but it was the lingua franca when I was in art school but there was philosopher, Wittgenstein, who points out the absurdity of language. Then there are artists like Bruce Nauman who really influence me in that regard. I see similarity in his thinking to Zen Buddhism for instance.
Do you ever try to escape the confines of language?
Michael: Well as a writer that’s kind of suicide! I don’t know that I can even answer that question. The forces of nature take care of that. I have fewer words to put into the music these days. I don’t think I will ever go instrumental though. I think that would be sort of cheating in a way, not living up to my full potential. I’ve obviously done a lot of instrumental music, and even the last two records have long instrumental passages. I did a record called The Body Lovers which was almost entirely instrumental. When it comes down to it I feel like it is my job to sit down with my acoustic guitar and write some kind of great song.
There’s a lot to unpack there, you said you feel it’s your job to sit down and write songs…
Michael: Well it’s like – what my circumstances create. I started off as a visual artist and somehow ended up in music and adding words to the music. I’m a songwriter by occupation and that’s so intertwined with my potential and being that to have a bad attitude would be doing a disservice to myself.
Is that something you grew into or is it from a God?
Michael: I’m not a believer in a puppeteer God looking at our daily activities. I think that’s anthropomorphizing God. I’m just talking about my own circumstances. For example when I restarted Swans it felt like I had been denying myself of my own potential. I wanted to see what I could make of it.
What do you think God is like?
Michael: (Laughter) That’s a preposterous question. I can’t answer that. I’m sorry. I would recommend you ask someone much wiser than myself. Most of the time I am completely flummoxed as to why I exist or even if I exist. I have no knowledge whatsoever.
So you question your own existence?
Michael: Well yeah. Don’t you?
Yeah, but I’m not a visionary!
Michael: I just do my work. I question my own existence, that’s important. I try to live decently too I suppose.
Why is it important to question your own existence?
Michael: I just don’t want to waste my life.
At this point, at 62 years old, do you feel like a success?
Michael: No. I just look at the music and my career as one long process of discovery and probably I’ll never discover what it was leading to. It’s a long process. People ask about how I view the new record but I don’t view it in any particular way I just view it as one piece of work in the whole cycle. Maybe this is taking on way too deep and philosophical a bent for a rock interview, I don’t know!
Do you ever find yourself reminding yourself that it’s only rock and roll?
Michael: Of course – but this is my life and as such it’s what I make and what I leave is the most important question. I can’t be frivolous about it, that’s for sure.
So what do you love so much about music?
Michael: When music is great I think it’s utterly transporting and it’s a truly spiritual experience. Whether you are listening to Howlin’ Wolf, or The Stooges or Ligeti or whoever. At certain points music reaches beyond itself and it’s great.
In an interview that has been filled with me picking your brain, do you have any final words of wisdom for me?
Michael: I have no wisdom, I probably should by this point, but sadly I don’t.