NICK SOULSBY On His Book Swans: Sacrifice and Transcendence: The Oral History


John Wisniewski:  What got you interested in the Swans, Nick?

Nick Soulsby: I believe music is generational: each generation finds its own sound, the music that lets them standalone regardless of what big brothers and sisters (let alone parents) are listening to. I also think there’s nothing more powerful than teenhood when a person is still choosing who they intend to be and what they might invest meaning in. For me, I found a lot of meaning in music. The name SWANS…It had a mystery to it. Sonic Youth’s Screaming Fields Of Sonic Love compilation had an inlay card covered in old gig posters with the name SWANS prominently displayed; other bands (Metallica, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails…) would mention SWANS in interview; books describing the history of music in the aftermath of punk would reference how important SWANS had been. How could I not want to dive head first into a band with that strong a legend and mystique? I found the Amnesia/Love Of Life 12” in a second hand record store in Sheffield – it wasn’t what I expected but it had hooks, it had energy, it had words that carried a rare power. A little while later I snagged the Feel Good Now semi-official bootleg and it was like a completely different band: the polish of the 12” was replaced by this murky, booming, static-drenched vastness – I was hooked. Once I got the Swans Are Dead live record it was all over: everything I loved about punk, post-rock, shoegaze, industrial – all the sub-divides of eighties/nineties underground music – it was all in there bound up in a music that sounded like nothing else on Earth. To this day, I think you hear echoes of SWANS in other musics, and a myriad musics echoed in Swans, while SWANS stands utterly alone in a genre of one.
Why has that teenage interest endured until I’m in my thirties? There’s a lot of music I enjoy, but the music I consider divine reflects thoughts and values I hold dear. In the case of SWANS, it’s so rare in life to encounter anything or anyone where you can tell there’s nothing held back, where everything has been thrown into the ring in order to make something happen. I don’t want to pay hundreds to watch the Rolling Stones recycle the same set they’ve been playing since 1972 when they last put an ounce of energy into a record. I don’t want to see musicians going through the motions. Listening to a record by SWANS I’m constantly aware that Michael Gira has essentially gone bankrupt over and over again in order to make every sound precisely what he hears in his head. When I see SWANS live I can see the players putting blood into the music – this is a band that treats every show as a matter of life and death. In a life where so much is about social etiquette, diminished expectations, obligation, comfort – here’s something truly uncomfortable where, across four decades, there’s never been an ‘average’ SWANS record. Most bands would lop off limbs to have songs as good as SWANS offcuts let alone their peaks. How many artists make it to four decades in music without repeating themselves or without dousing whatever fire they originally had? Most artists become professionals, they husband their resources and hold back, they keep something in the tank to sell another day…Not SWANS. It’s that drive to excel, at the price of friendships, physical health, finances, sanity…I’m awed at someone deciding that every day is going to be the best they’ve ever been: no excuses, no remorse.

John Wisniewski:  What research went into writing the new book – did you speak with the band?

Nick Soulsby:The crucial reality of Swans is that the band was a revolving door from its founding in 1981 through the final tour of 1997: there were literally several dozen band members. By contrast, the remarkable thing about the line-up from 2010-2017 was how stable it was: the first time a line-up had lasted longer than two records – the only change was the departure of percussionist Thor Harris in 2016 to focus on solo projects and the arrival of pianist/keyboardist Paul Wallfisch that same year. I interviewed Michael Gira, Jarboe, and over 30 former members of the band. I even got two emails in just the past week, one from Lee Ranaldo mentioning he’d been in Swans for a single performance around 1982, the other from a friend of NYC scene figure DJ Mojo mentioning that Mojo had been a part of the band in that early spell. The entire point of an oral history is that the people who lived the life tell the tale. Meanwhile the music Swans have created relies on that endless artistic churn and tumult, it isn’t just a case of dictating notes to players, the character and content of the music changes depending on what new players bring to the band.

In total I interviewed 125 individuals across just over a year to build a rounded portrayal of what it was like to be part of the band, on the road with the band, to record with the band – a 360 perspective on SWANS as a lived experience. I hate books, magazines, films that consist of just a parade of talking heads spouting praise. My view is that a book like this needs to ‘show’, not ‘tell’, why SWANS is worthy of respect. What I focused on is the tales of eight hour rehearsals drilling in every moment of the sound until the band had ingested it into their very souls, of drummers’ hands swollen or battered by the demands of the music, guitarists bleeding over their strings, band members brawling in public as the tension and power of the music overwhelmed them, audience members having – essentially – out of body psychedelic hallucinations brought on purely by the music. It’s a grim tale at times: at one point a ceiling collapses on Michael Gira’s head showering him with rat shit from the alcove above and he describes it as a challenge from God “how much can you take?” Physical objects fall apart because of the force of the music: amplifiers blow, kick pedals break, studios flood, everything – including the people – winds up shattered.

During my research, I see myself as a conduit to allow every single person the opportunity to share some part of their life however they wish to phrase it. It’s an honor, frankly, to have people share so many memories with me. The questions I provide in advance of an interview are there to stoke peoples’ fires, to let memory turn and bring things to the surface before we get on the phone. During a call I’ve learnt to use silence – human beings hate silence and will seek to fill it so, often, I say nothing and someone continues to turn over the topic of discussion, or they take the chance to deepen or broaden their thought. Where I use questions, it’s to ensure ground is broached that might not be raised spontaneously, or to prod at a memory that needs more flesh on its bones, or to encourage someone to follow through and chase down a fascinating alley they may not have realized was so interesting to someone who wasn’t there. It’s about give and take: I take my duty to the interviewees and to the readers very seriously. I’m not there to embarrass anyone, I want everyone to shine! That respectfulness wins me the opportunity to ask the harder questions, to be permitted to hear of the times that might otherwise stay buried. I’ve been amazing how open people were about the downsides of their experiences as well as the good.

John Wisniewski: You wrote books about Nirvana. Did you hear from Courtney love Or the Cobain family.

Nick Soulsby:The Nirvana books were entirely self-started – my doorway into having a foot in the world of music journalism and publishing. The first book was a detailed dissection of Nirvana’s Incesticide compilation and – truth be told – is just a vast outpouring of every battered, obsessive, fixational vision or belief I had built up over some two decades of loving Nirvana. That led to a blog – because who would take a chance on a book if they had no idea whether I had anything worth saying? – which turned into this lunatic night-after-night purging: a normal book is roughly 100,000 words while the blog wound up becoming 500-odd posts and roughly half a million words of greater or lesser worth and depth. What I was bringing that was different was a desire to use data to portray aspects of the band rather than just bland opinion. I wound up fascinated by all the little, unknown and forgotten bands Nirvana played with over the years and began tracking them down to gain their stories of performing alongside this band that has long since departed the realm of mortal humans like you or I, they’ve become one of those untouchable legends. This turned into my first book for a professional publishing house: I Found My Friends – an oral history. I interviewed a couple hundred people from over 170 bands, including four of Nirvana’s ex-drummers, their first manager, people like that. I was then asked to contribute a volume to Chicago Review Press’ series of compiled artist interviews – that became Cobain On Cobain. People who became friends did relay copies to certain individuals associated with Nirvana but I never approached the Cobain family or Courtney Love directly – certain voices and stories were outside the sphere I wanted to hear from. I was much more into the people who don’t get to tell the tale. I think that’s the virtue of oral history, getting to place everyone’s voice on equal footing without the usual superstar premium.

2016-2017 were great years for me: Thurston Moore was an utter gentleman and permitted me to simply run riot tracking down people he’d played with over the years to try and wrap arms around this enormous discography he’s created – hundreds of records and documented performances, something more akin to a jazz artist’s approach where every show is a chance to pull music apart and remake it, rather than the normal rock star mode. The end result is unusual, even to me, Moore becomes the pole around which all these figures and sounds spin, the person binding it altogether. To me that’s such an amazing thing: to put ego to one side and, instead to be a lightning rod for this vast creative universe where you’re inspiring others, spreading the word about their words, sponsoring or supporting them directly, taking risks again and again by lending your artistry and abilities to unpredictable situations and collaborative scenarios.
Around all of that Soul Jazz Records were kind enough to let me put together a compilation called No Seattle documenting some of the lesser heard sounds of the North West American scene of the eighties-nineties: a kind of corrective to the idea that grunge was the only thing that happened up there, or that Sub Pop was the only sound in that region. I was also asked to put together an oral account of a band called Fire Ants for an expanded reissue of their 1992 EP Stripped – that was a blast, using the techniques of extended oral history to paint a tight and concise picture of a band that fell apart in a very brief space of time.

John Wisniewski:  Any favorite bands, Nick?

Nick Soulsby:There’s a duo called NAKED (Agnes Gryczkowska and Alexander Johnston) who unleashed the finest album I heard last year: Zone was beautiful, bruising, danceable, totally alienated. I’m itching to catch them live again and their new EP kept up momentum. There’s also a Dutch free-jazz band called Dead Neanderthals: they’re one of those bands where their live presentation – sax squall, drums blasting the room – can be at such a divergence from the meditative echo of what they do on record – try Endless Voids. I buy a lot of music via the Cold Spring label/shop, the people in charge there have amazing taste: Sonologyst Silencers: The Conspiracy Theory Dossiers was a recent favorite, all these haunting, glitched out sounds floating through headspace and kindling memory of ghost place and time. Margarida Garcia is an extremely talented improvisational performer and her work always sends me spiraling off into space. The dancehall bass and nimble vocals on Miss Red’s album K.O. has been a constant presence on my stereo these past weeks when I want something that makes my head nod and my stomach drop. Around that, sure, I could haul out a long list of references: Coil, Current 93, Thurston Moore, The Stooges, Sunn O))), Jimi Hendrix, Gucci Mane, Prurient, Loren Connors, Urusei Yatsura…But that’d get boring so I’ll stop there!

John Wisniewski: What will your next book be about?

Nick Soulsby:Well, I have a normal career, so my writing works on a simple basis: I never want to write about anything that doesn’t inspire me. It’s a passion not a get-rich-quick scheme or some kinda path toward living wage – the hours I put in are out of all proportion really. There’s a compromise involved between deciding what I love enough to devote nights and weekends to it for a year-two years, versus what a publisher will actually invest in – the sweet spot I aim for is where the two naturally coincide. So, I have various plans afoot, things I’m working on and so forth, but the main thing I can promise is it’ll be something that keeps me up until dawn striving to make it the best thing I feel I can put out into the world. I love the oral history format, it’s a mode of creativity that I enjoy very deeply, but I also know that it’s good to evolve, grow, develop – I don’t want to stagnate in any aspect of my life. That means learning how to express in other modes.


Comments are closed.