Swans have released their final work, “Soundtracks for the Blind.” Michael Gira and Jarboe are closing the final chapter in the long and distinguished life of Swans. The strong, independent, and beautiful Jarboe, graciously shared her unique insight into her music and life.
In an interview featured in “Angry Women in Rock: Vol. 1,” Jarboe tells part of her life story.
Jarboe had an unusual childhood. Her father was an undercover F.B.I. agent who was always assuming different personas for spy work in rural America. When he died, Jarboe found all sorts of spy equipment and quite a few tapes of recorded phone conversations. He had their home phone “bugged” and an unknowing Jarboe had her private conversations taped and listened to by her dad. Some of these tapes of Jarboe, as well unknown people, are used in “Soundtracks for the Blind.”
As a child, Jarboe learned to sing from her father. She progressed from singing in church choirs, to imitating other people for lounge acts, to doing performance art in galleries, and finally to her own projects and Swans.
In Jarboe’s mid 20’s she was desperate for the energy and power of performing, but she constantly found the doors of the music industry closed to women and found that the “only way to get close to that power was to have sex with those people.” She became involved with the music industry by providing “sexual entertainment” to “big-name rock ‘n’ rollers.”
All of the humiliation she had to endure has enabled her to reach a point in which she is now confident in herself and completely unafraid of an audience. Jarboe says, “Inside I feel quite elegant, and yet what people want to do is describe someone who’s been through those experiences as trashy.”
She further describes her reaction to sexual degradation by saying, “I really identify with the Clive Barker films, when different creatures pull themselves up from the blood matter and become a form– I know that well. I absorbed all this destruction, and became someone else.”
Her personal life has taken many turns, and possibly the most dramatic was in her late 20’s when she had a comfortable life with a husband who was a corporate systems analyst. She balanced the mundane with a secret life in the noise and hardcore music scene. Jarboe decided to give up everything in order to get back to “people who were doing something with their lives” and pursue her dream of becoming a member of Swans.
(Juno, Andrea ed. “Jarboe: Swans” Angry Women in Rock: Vol. 1. Juno Books: New York. 1996. p 9-35.)
Tell me about how you first met Michael Gira.
When I came to E. 2nd St. off of Ave. A in March of 1984, I took a young male friend as a chaperone. I expected the voice of Filth to answer the door in chains and black leather, eyeliner and sticky dyed black hair. Instead, he had a sort of average preppie Ivy League drug addict look about him. The skinny frame of a speed freak and wild intensely blue eyes, amazing cheekbones, beautifully disheveled blond hair, and elegant almost feminine hands. He wore a blue pin-striped shirt that was ripped and too small even for him, and Khaki’s that he had stitched at the ankles in big coarse thread . . . He was the most gorgeous thing I had ever seen. His phone rang, he went to answer it, inviting my friend and I to “come in and have a seat.” We walked in. It was a combination kitchen AND bathroom– a typical New York tenement, I suppose.
We looked around. The only place to sit was on the edge of the bath tub next to a laundry line strung above the tub– where stiff dry socks with holes framed an expressive row. But except for cans of Bustello and dusty strewn New York Times, the small room was bare. I noticed the window had big black bars across it lending an ominous and oppressive air.
What are your individual roles in the band? How have they changed?
Changes with every recording experience. It requires diligent practice with my meditation and Buddhist studies to get along with Michael in the recordings, rehearsals, performances, tours, etc. He is volatile, emotional, demanding– at least in my experience. He is also extremely talented and I respect him 100% as an artist. Sometimes I don’t enjoy taking his direction or criticism, especially when I work very hard. The tables have never been turned in our arrangement to the degree I would like to see. I would be very curious how he would react to doing an album of primarily my lyrics and songs and performing them (phrasing, tonality, dynamic, etc.), how I thought they should go! I think he would say he isn’t musically or vocally flexible enough to do that . . . whereas he thinks I am . . . but I disagree and think it would be challenging to us both. In the studio, I frequently critique his performance– but it’s still not the same thing. However, most of our recordings would not sound the way they do without my input and vice versa, of course.
How have your solo projects evolved?
I’ve loved doing all three solo projects and they have evolved my becoming more and more “experimental” and risk-taking.
How do you view the relationship of music to art?
I still consider myself an artist working in sound. I’m utterly alienated by the music business, MTV, and all the ego trips attracted there in.
Are there any painters/artists that reflect what you have done musically or lyrically?
Sacrificial Cake’s cover painting by Deryk Thomas, definitely . . . sexual demons, psychedelia, transformation, joy/pain, sublimation, set free.
How have you grown as an individual since your beginnings with Swans?
Responsible, working to the point of dropping, acutely aware of how temporary life is, and that we don’t have or own anyone or anything.
What led you to abuse drugs when you were young? And how have you overcome their power?
They made me very very sick, and I was in a mental hospital for druggies even at 15. I’m very happy I finally got off drugs. I grew to love “reality’– that’s how I got off them also the fact that I almost died in my twenties as a result of drugs. I have nothing to do with them physically anymore. Michael, is in my opinion, doing far too much. I try not to let it worry me– but it does . . . Alcoholism is a horrible sad thing, and I see it all around me. So many musicians I know, so many friends . . .
Do you want to have a family?
I don’t have a steady enough income or a stable life, but it’s hard to let the idea go . . . It’s sad that this planet is just too populated . . . most people shouldn’t have children. They should adopt one, already here. And it’s criminal to have more than one child even if you have money and can provide a secure stable home life. People should have to pay enormous taxes if they have more children. Over population has destroyed the Earth. We have destroyed the balance of nature with our greedy pollution an reproduction.
Is spirituality a part of your life ?
Most definitely. I’m taking a special course at the University now– [Tibetan Mysticism: Images of Shangri-La at the Oglethorpe University Museum]
What occupies your time when not working on music?
Studying, gardening, writing (vignettes & poems) care giving . . .
What do you write about?
Memories, daily experiences, passing emotions . . .
What other music do you listen to?
Classical, ambient, experimental . . . some industrial . . . But my favorite is to sit down at the piano and improvise both instrumentally vocally– and let the air take both . . . Music for my soul and life force and not for commence at all.
Who are some of your favorite musicians?
Aphex Twin, Lustmord, Whitehouse, CCCC, Merzbow, Maria Callas.
Some people have tried to categorize your music using the “G” word. Is labeling a necessary evil needed to group music for marketing purposes?
Why do you think Swans have remained basically an underground band, despite the talent and proliferation of music?
Unfortunately, when an album has a hit song (like Trent Reznor’s “Closer”) it ruins the entire work/album for me. Hit songs trivialize the work– making it unlistenable, because the hit song is a commercial jingle you are bombarded with everywhere you go . . . The inherent conformity, mass appeal, result, and media bombardment revolt me. And of course it is said you cannot “be” what you despise! Michael would probably say it’s because he has the reputation of being an asshole!
What motivates you to create and continue?
Michael used to say: “Does one question a butcher why he cuts meat?” to that question, and I still think it is a good answer!
Your newsletter says that the entire back catalogue of Young God Records will be deleted then reorganized and rereleased? Will everything be included?
Repackaged, edited (selected, that is) editions will be released. The original full albums and cover art, etc., are no more.
Why have you decided at this point to disband Swans?
We want to do different projects without the linear connection to the title “Swans.”
Why did Michael decide to sing in German For “Die Tur Ist Zu?”
A language he spoke fluently as a teenage when he lived there. Rough Trade Germany put out that recording, and they asked him to sing in German since the record was essentially made for German distribution.
What is Michael planning for the future?
He is going to release other artists on Young God Records, so he is jokingly calling himself “a record mogul” now. He will also remix select vintage Swans recordings with a hybrid of ambient. And course write. He’s a writer first, even though he won’t admit it.
What are some of the other music projects you’ve been involved with recently or plan on doing?
PBK, Ignis Fatuus, Norwegian Ambient Compilation, more solo work . . . Collaborative work with other established artists. I hope to work with Mark Spybey and also Tribes of Neurot.
Where do you see the future of your music headed?
Multi-dimensional and difficult to define.
Will we ever see Jarboe and Michael perform together after your last tour as Swans?
Have no idea. Maybe on a spoken word thing? We’ll see . . .