By Dimitri Nasrallah1979 to 1981 "I moved to New York with a guitarist friend of mine, and we started the band there. That was the genesis, working out some songs with a friend of mine in L.A., and then moving to New York, where we got it together." The band is first called Metal Envelope and then Circus Mort, and they play no-wave punk rock similar to other New York bands like Teenage Jesus & The Jerks and the Contortions, whose drummer plays bass in Circus Mort. Circus Mort is, by Gira's own admission, "not a very consequential enterprise. We played the clubs like Danceteria and all those places, but it never really took off. We made an EP. It was kinda new wave or something. In any case, it wasn't very good." The group disband in 1981.
1982 to 1983 "I decided I had to do something after Circus Mort," Gira recalls. "I borrowed a bass and learned how to make sounds from it. I wouldn't say I learned how to play or make grooves, but I did learn how to make rhythm and sound with the bass. I had a drummer who also in Circus Mort; we got a guitarist and then another bass player. So we had two bass players and two drummers, as well as tape loops going at the same time. We created quite a racket. It was a pretty excellent time." That band is Swans, an undertaking that would last the next 15 years with Michael Gira as its only constant member, orchestrating a revolving door of musicians. From the beginning, Swans pursue a different breed of music that separates them from the no-wave and post-punk that is the defining sound of New York. "I'd been influenced by groups like Throbbing Gristle and the Stooges simultaneously, so somewhere in between those two points I managed to pull something together," Gira says of the blend of industrial-music aesthetics and no-wave art-school brutalism that drives Swans. "It all came about rather instinctively. The idea of making chunks of sounds and rhythm as the way to make music, instead of using melody or a groove. I guess we had a groove, but at the same time it was static music, more just about onslaughts of sounds. And then of course I had to scream my guts out for some reason or other, and I guess it made something unique." The band record their first EP, a four-song set entitled Swans that bears strong no-wave roots. By the time they go back in the studio later that year to record their debut album, only Gira and Jonathan Kane (of Circus Mort) remain. "The first album was recorded in a week most likely. We didn't have any money. It was a problem putting it out, even back then. Everything turned into conflict, but that was just who I was at the time." The resulting album – 1983's Filth – proves to be a completely different prospect than what Gira has created before it. With ferociously heavy and static rock buoyed by industrial drumming, Filth presupposes post-hardcore bands like Big Black, Killdozer and the early Touch & Go family of bands. It isn't a direction that sticks for long, as Gira's lyrics grow more tortured and embedded with religiosity, and as the band's membership evolves.
1984 to 1987 With Swans garnering critical attention and a growing cult audience for the unpredictable theatricality and spontaneous violence of the live shows, the mid-'80s are a deeply creative and prolific period for Gira. Sophomore album Cop is released in 1984; it's a highlight from the early catalogue that features the band slowing down the punk tempos of Filth to a slow and doomy sludge. The twin 1986 albums Greed and Holy Money, as well as the single "Screw," are all recorded in the same sessions and showcase Swans as a constantly evolving entity, eager to grow and never make the same album twice. "I saw it as a natural progression," Gira says of that period. "One thing led to the other, constantly. We'd find something we did on a record, and then decide to pursue that for the next one. Something would occur on one record, and I would think, 'That's a very good thread to move forward with.' And that's what happened." A significant part of the band's evolution has to do with the arrival of singer Jarboe in 1986. "She was a fan we met in New York. We began corresponding and naturally she became part of the group. Early on, she didn't sing very much at all. She just played this early sampling device that basically looped chunks of sound, producing this roar from beginning to end. When she slammed down the keyboard, this wall of sound would erupt. She began to step out and sing live, on tours for albums like Greed. We didn't start using her melodic abilities until Children of God." As the relationship between Gira and Jarboe moves into romance, Swans gravitate to more melodic territory and Jarboe begins to assume a role as co-leader, leading to a more gothic texture to the group's output. Beginning in 1987, the pair would record three albums together outside Swans, first as Skin and then as World of Skin. Those outings drop the wall-of-noise brutality of Swans in exchange for a Jarboe-led ethereal moodiness akin to bands like Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil. All this productivity leads to a fundamental shift in how Swans should sound. "We had recorded as World of Skin together, and we wanted to incorporate some of the elements from that into songs," says Gira."I just wanted some more dynamics, and we began thinking of music as more of a soundtrack than just a band in a room." The resulting creative breakthrough is the 1987 album Children of God, which tempers the resolute anger of Swans' sound with brooding melody and a more prevalent emphasis on tape loops. The record is received as the band's pinnacle at the time, confirming them at the forefront of avant-garde alternative music in Europe and finally and delivering the band to larger audiences in North America, where even a marginal commercial breakthrough had always been elusive. The single "New Mind" reaches #47 on the U.S. college radio charts.