Michael Gira cuts an imposing figure.
Most often photographed with a wide brimmed cowboy hat shadowing his piercing eyes, his stoic persona morphs on stage with Swans, the experimental rock band he's led since 1982. Hunched over an electric semi-hollow body guitar, Gira rages and bellows, summoning up exalted, terrible noise, as his band swirls together elements of a restless three decades exploring no wave, industrial, post-punk, Americana and gothic folk.
So picture Gira in Tucson in "1973 or '74," painting obstacles on a miniature golf course. "You wanna hear a Tucson story?" Gira says, laughing over the telephone. "I used to be a house painter to put myself through school. I was very good and very fast, and I got this job with a fellow whose specialty was painting the newly constructed obstacles in miniature golf courses. We went out from L.A. and stayed in a cheap motel in Tucson for maybe a month and did this special kind of painting of miniature golf course obstacles."
Gira laughs telling to story of blending colors and using sponges to apply "psychedelic ... really crafted ornamentation" to golf course obstacles. He laughs a lot while talking, which feels surprising given the intense, overwhelming nature of his art and persona. But Gira's never been humorless, and 2014's "To Be Kind," Swans' third album since Gira rebooted the group in 2010 following a 12-year hiatus, offers not only glimpses of gallows humor from Gira, but also moments of softness—both lyrically and musically—far removed from the screeching brutality of 1982's "Filth" or the unrelenting clamor of 1986 single "Time Is Money (Bastard)."
As each of the 2010s incarnation Swans albums has, "To Be Kind" carries with it traces of the work Gira did during the band's hiatus, sharing sonic qualities with the spectral folk he made with Angels of Light and under his own name. Some songs, like the lurching post-punk funk crusher "Oxygen," trace their origins to acoustic demos Gira made on his own before reconvening the band. Initially inspired by an intense asthma attack, Gira twists the terror of being unable to breathe into a sort of ecstatic chant: "Oxygen! Amen!" he roars. "Breathe in! Breathe in!"
Swans' European label, Mute, released a EP titled "Oxygen" in late 2014. In addition to an edit of the song by Mute founder Daniel Miller and a live version of the song, the single contained a demo, which provides a fascinating look at its journey from a skeletal blues number to its eventual swaggering formation as played by Swans. Gira says that listeners will soon be treated to a new batch of songs in similarly nascent stages as he prepares for the next Swans LP, to be released as a fundraiser CD in advance of a proper album.
"Right now I'm writing a lot of these songs for the next album and I have been recording them on this stupid Garageband thing," Gira says. "I think we are going to use a lot of these raw-as-they-are, initial at-the-moment-of-creation recordings ... so people will hear the very beginnings of songs."
Perhaps some of those new songs will make it to the stage when the band performs at Club Congress, a return visit to Tucson following the month Gira spent here, admiring the desert outside of town more so than the city itself.
"I thought it was an even hotter, more brutal version of Los Angeles," Gira says. "Obviously the surrounding areas are incredibly beautiful and wonderful. But the city? A lot of concrete in the sun."