As the first incarnation of his mighty (and mightily misunderstood) Swans was winding down in the late '90s, the band's founder and driving force, Michael Gira, expressed his frustration. "Loud, ugly, brutal — the idea follows us around that the most horrible experience of your life would be to see a Swans show," he said in a Tribune interview after announcing the band's farewell. "There is just too much atmosphere around the name. It has codified what I do and I can't break out of it."
Gira and Swans were contemporaries of New York City avant-rock bands and no-wave artists such as Sonic Youth and Glenn Branca, but didn't really fit with any of them. Gira carved out an iconoclastic legacy as a sonic adventurer with a symphonic approach to noise. When he decided to dissolve Swans, he moved in a new direction with his subsequent projects, including Angels of Light, which placed his music in a more atmospheric, acoustic framework.
Now Swans has been configured, with Gira joined by former members Norman Westberg, Christoph Hahn and Phil Puleo – plus new additions Thor Harris, Christopher Pravdica and Bill Rieflin. They've done the nearly impossible: staged a reunion that is at least as strong if not even more breathtaking than the band in its original incarnation. Since roaring back to life a few years ago, Swans has released three albums, including the sprawling "The Seer" in 2012 and the recent "To Be Kind" (Young God Records), that approximate sonic avalanches, the type of overwhelming sensory experiences that serve as excellent companions for the band's transcendent live performances.
Reminded about his comments when Swans initially broke up, Gira explains, "I was physically, spiritually and mentally exhausted. I was just done. I grappled up from the muck, grabbed an acoustic guitar and tried to make something happen that way. Now I want to be subsumed in sound again, and the answer was to reconfigure Swans. It's my (expletive) brand. Why not? We dove in, and the first record ("My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky" in 2010) was a transition between Angels of Light and Swans. But we found out performing live that there were more possibilities."
Gira has always used concerts as more of a laboratory for new experiments rather than a forum "for a bunch of jingles to generate album sales." His band is rigorously rehearsed – four to five hours a day for a month before the current tour – and that creates an anything-is-possible vibe on stage. The centerpiece of "To Be Kind," the 34-minute "Bring the Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture," took shape in concert before it was recorded.
"In the studio, it's impossible to translate the sensation of volume and overtones and the way your body interprets all of that in a live setting," Gira says. "But that piece is the closest to how we sound live."
Gira says as much time can be spent mixing an album as recording it, because the arrangements are so dense. On "Bring the Sun," for example, backing vocalist Annie Clark – a k a St. Vincent – sings the same note in different octaves on 16 separate tracks.
"We end up with all these layers of music, and it sounds glorious when you play it through the big studio speakers," Gira says. "Then in the mixing stage, you don't hear the drums at all, or something else is lost because it's just a big mess. I have no musical training, no training as an arranger, and I have to work by intuition. The mixing process is torture. I have to get rid of or subordinate things I love for the greater whole."
After immersing himself in the music for months at a time, Gira says he can barely go back and listen to it. "I've just been overexposed to that music," he says with a laugh. "By the time the record is done, I've listened to it a thousand times, from writing it on guitar and then letting it build and build. The one moment when it's finished, you lie back and listen to it and it's wonderful. But it's like eating too much ice cream. You get sick. I read an interview with (Bob) Dylan where he said he realized that it's about the process of being inside the thing, and then you move on. To me, that's the gratification. I'm so completely lit up and invigorated when I'm making records. I'm also tormented and tortured. I never feel so alive as when I'm in the studio and on the stage making something. Once it's done, it's over for me."
Gira says that don't-look-back artistic sensibility was forged when he was attending Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles during the late '70s. "I learned about the discipline necessary to make something individual and that reaches something bigger than yourself," he says. "I applied that rigor to Swans."
Now that Swans has been rebuilt and is sailing again, the band is getting the kind of acclaim and audiences that eluded it during its first incarnation. Gira laughs when asked if he feels vindicated. "Yes, but there's also a sense of impending doom. I expect a backlash at any moment. So I try to focus on the work itself, and not worry about the reaction. But it's good to see larger audiences. I do not treasure hostility or indifference. It's a great feeling to be able to give people something that they can use in their lives. For me, that feeling comes from listening to things like Nico's 'Desertshore' or (Dylan's) 'Blood on the Tracks.' When I listen, it elevates me as a person, and I'm very happy that people get something like that out of my music."
Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m. Saturdays on WBEZ (FM-91.5).
Other recommended shows
Green Music Fest: In the city of street festivals – virtually every summer weekend has one, or more likely, several – this Wicker Park tradition consistently nails down a top-notch lineup. Guided By Voices and Bobby Bare Jr. are among the must-sees. 12:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday on Damen between North and Schiller, $5 suggested donation; greenmusicfestchicago.com
Bob Mould: The veteran indie rocker has a towering legacy with Husker Du and Sugar, as well as a series of acclaimed solo albums. His latest work, "Beauty & Ruin" (Merge), affirms he's determined not to have his new material overshadowed by his past, with a road-tested band and a stellar collection of new songs. 6:30 p.m. Monday at Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, free; cityofchicago.org
When: 8 p.m. Sunday and Monday
Where: Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Ave.
Tickets: $25; lincolnhallchicago.com