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When the Swans – who play Over-the-Rhine’s Woodward Theater on Tuesday – first landed onto the world of New York underground rock in the early 1980s, they made a deafeningly loud sound.
With distorted guitars blaring, drums martially firing off and singer/leader Michael Gira exhorting the lyrics to the minimalist-structured songs, the band got branded at the time as confrontational, assaultive, angry and even, in one edition of The Trouser Press Guide to Rock, “bowel-loosening.”
That attracted hardcore fans of extremist rock, but not many others. That was one key reason Gira, who had started to introduce more variety and even acoustic elements and a female singer into the mix, disbanded Swans in 1997 to pursue other projects.
“My prescription for suicide is to look out at a theater full of old guys in black t-shirts,” he said in a recent telephone interview.
But he restarted the band in 2010, feeling the time was right for a musical breakthrough that would be better understood by listeners. The new incarnation also features original Swan guitarist Norman Westberg, mid-period Swans guitarist Christoph Hahn, later-period Swans drummer/multi-instrumentalist Phil Puleo and two others who provide bass, percussion, gadgets, vibes, dulcimer and more non-traditional instruments.
Since 2010, Gira’s revived Swans have released three well-regarded studio albums, the newest being last year’s To Be Kind.
Gira, 60, wants Swans’ music to be experienced – at its peak moments – as a beatific gift for adventurous listeners. There is disorienting noise and very loud guitars, yes, but it’s meant to build to something transcendent as a composition takes shape and finds its soul while being played live.
“We’re all part of the same living organism, when this music is happening,” he explained. “We have the task of playing this music that at times is bordering on formless – live that is – but, when it works, it really transports us as players and hopefully the audience along with us.
“Sometimes it doesn’t even have rhythm – it’s just clouds of sound rolling over you. Sometimes it’s veering toward complete abstraction. But it’s a joyful experience when it’s working.”
Gira is not an acolyte for loudness as a be-all/end-all for rock. While the band’s live sets may not be always be the right showcase for it, Gira first turned to acoustic guitar when the singer Jarboe joined the band in 1985. (She is no longer a member.) And it plays a role on his albums.
“I started playing acoustic guitar because I was feeling stymied mentally and psychically by gaining this reputation as this loud crashing band, and it seemed like such a cartoon,” Gira said. “I feel if I can make something as undeniably compelling with just that as I can orchestrating with lots of guitars and drums and everything, then I guess I have a reason to exist as a musician.”
Most surprisingly, this iteration of the Swans has seemed to connect with a new and growing audience – they’ve become respected elders of alternative rock. On the To Be Kind tour, concerts have sold out in Washington, New York, Montreal, Louisville, Denver, San Francisco, West Hollywood and other places.
“It’s fortunate we have miraculously attracted a host of young people to our shows,” Gira said. “That’s very heartening. There are some older people, sure. But now there are young people, and females, too. That’s a good thing.
“Things are going very well,” Gira acknowledged. “Coming from a place of beating my head against the wall for 30-plus years, that’s very gratifying. I feel blessed.
“Of course, I did the work,” he said. “But it’s a blessing to have people actually receive something from the music and care about it, and really seem to share in the kind of joy we share in playing it.”
Swans with Xylouirs White
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Woodward Theater, 1404 Main St., Over-the-Rhine
Tickets: $20; $25 day of show