Winter of Darkness Part II: the scene moves to deepest Cornwall, in the frigid grip of February. I’m standing in a primeval forest by a tidal river. Above me crows wheel and screech in alarm at the sound emanating from the stone walls of an ancient sawmill. It’s the sound of some demonic machine, incredibly loud, a circular pounding and pulverizing that echoes around the glade and dies in the gnarled bark of the trees.
It’s the sound of Swans having a run-through of their song New Mind.
At this point the band had 5 members. Michael Gira and Jarboe were joined by longtime guitarist Norm Westberg, with Al Kizys on bass and Theo Parsons on drums. These guys could kick up a racket like no other, but as this album demonstrates, they could also be pastoral as all get out. Together with the Skin material that was later included, this work represents the full flowering of the Gira/ Jarboe creative partnership.
Real Love may well be my favourite of all the songs I’ve recorded. The title track sung by Jarboe still gives me chills, as does much of the album to be honest. I fell into a bit of a depression after it was done; I think I knew I’d probably never work on anything quite as good again.
Al, Norm and Theo were fun loving guys who liked a drink. One night we took the studio boat (no road went there) down to the local pub at Fowey and got good and plastered. Then we took it out on the ocean waves, soon realizing even in our stupor that death was imminent. Somehow we got the boat back to harbour and up the river, where we crashed it into a buoy.
So began my incredible “winter of darkness” (as I remember it) in which I co-produced the albums Opus Dei by Laibach and Children of God by Swans. The first of these projects began in November 1986 when I flew to Ljubljana, Slovenia (then still part of Yugoslavia) with my trusty Akai S900 and a big wad of cash to pay for studio sessions.
I’d been expecting to further refine the montage techniques used on Nova Akropola, and I suppose we did in a way. Laibach love to nonpluss, though, and they evidently enjoyed my reaction when breaking the news that they wanted to do a version of the Queen track One Vision in German, and versions of the cheesy euro hit Life is Life in both English and German.
As it turned out these songs were the centerpiece of the album and represented the future for Laibach. The more familiarly collaged tracks, good as they were, served as “entr’actes” to the main programme.
Laibach had the benefit of a wide pool of local talent at their disposal, and when I say that, I have honestly never seen anything like it: superb musicians, technical staff, cooks, growers of a certain smoking mixture favoured by your devoted auteur, you name it. A gifted orchestrator (code name Nightingale) who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal did a truly spectacular job on the cover versions, and played a lot of the parts himself on an Emulator III. The local working men’s choir came down to sing on the German Life is Life (Leben Heißt Leben) which may be the single most glorious session I have ever conducted.
When I referred to this as my “winter of darkness” I’m certainly not referring to the mood of the sessions. Laibach were a particularly uproarious bunch, completely entertained by what they were doing, and my main memory of them is the sound of laughter.
One day two of the lads took me and a visiting Japanese girl up to the mountains to enjoy the spectacular scenery. We came upon a four-seater sleigh and without thinking twice jumped into it and plummeted down the mountainside with no idea of where we’d end up.
A career in contrasts, that’s what I’m all about. And so it was that, after a few weeks of breezy french pop, I took the early morning flight back to London and found myself in a Soho loft with one Michael Gira, mixing tracks for this remarkable EP.
One hates to use the word “literally” but when it came to grinding out a riff, that’s what Swans literally did, more than any other band ever, Sister Ray excepted of course.
Like other bands that feature in this blog, Gira’s subject is evil, the examination of it, the facing down of it, holding up a mirror to it, tricking it into revealing its mysterious secrets.
I got on well with Michael and was lucky enough to do a fair bit of work with him and Jarboe over the next couple of years.