Angels of Light / Michael Gira
Angels of Light is the songwriting project I started immediately after terminating Swans (1982-1997).
The first album, New Mother, was released in 1999. Next came How I Loved You, released in 2001. Then, Everything Is Good Hear/Please Come Home was released in 2003. The album The Angels Of Light Sing ‘Other People’ was released in 2005. We Are Him was released in August 2007. ( I’ve also done a few solo, at-home recordings along the way – one mic and my voice and guitar - available only at this website, as well as a mostly instrumental soundtrack-without-a-film recording called The Body Lovers).
I write the songs on acoustic guitar, then gather musicians and friends, and build up the orchestrations with them in the studio and in live performances. I guide the process, but solicit their creative contributions actively. Each recording contains the contributions of an ever-changing plethora of amazing musicians, whom I thank here heartily! After many years (too many to comfortably contemplate!) of dwelling on “sonic overload” with Swans, I now concentrate on augmenting the songs I write with orchestrations that support the basic song, rather than the sound itself taking over. My goal is to achieve the same sense of magic I experienced as a child listening to Burle Ives recordings of Brer Rabbit and other such marvels, including the early Disney children’s records I listened to long ago. I view the arrangements as little films created to make a context for the words and voice, so that one can drift off into the world the music creates. I produce the Angels recordings, and the production of the recordings is as important to me as the songs themselves. Most of the instruments used in the recordings are acoustic, but not all. Electric guitars, bass and drums etc., are sometimes used (as well as an occasional electronic sound, or loop), but I intentionally steer clear of a “Rock” sound. It doesn’t interest me at all any more. However, I have no particular fealty to “The Song” as if it were some sacred codex. On the other hand, just sitting around my house, writing these things, and finally coming up with a statement that I think makes sense, I want to bring them to life as much as possible, in new and challenging ways for both myself and you, so I always strive to present them in a fresh and interesting context. For this reason, I’m always changing the sonic approach from record to record.
My greatest wish is that you will find something to enjoy in the music. Thanks! Michael Gira –
Here’s an interview I did a while ago with Jennifer Kelly for PopMatters:
Michael Gira Interview
by Jennifer Kelly
Michael Gira in His Own Words
[30 October 2007]
Even after decades of creating powerful music, first through Swans and now with Angels of Light, Michael Gira finds the creative process mysterious, chaotic and a little frightening.
Starting in the late 1970s, Michael Gira made some of those most abrasive, visceral and violently beautiful music imaginable, his shows with a shifting cast of Swans now legendarily loud and brutal, his artistic collaboration with Jarboe one of the oddest and most compelling mixes of energies that the rock world has ever seen. Swans recorded dozens of albums from 1982 to 1998, closing their career with the monolithic two-cd live album Swans Are Dead. Gira and Jarboe went separate ways, and Gira almost immediately began working on an entirely different kind of project, rooted in traditional folk, blues and country; more lyrical, less ritual. He called it Angels of Light.
Many people have been part of Angels of Light over the years, Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family most famously, but dozens of others have contributed voices, instruments, personalities and ideas. Even so, it’s Gira’s project, as strange and joyful and confrontational and intelligent as the man himself. The project has changed over time, incorporating massive, celebratory anthems at one stage of Gira’s creative process (check out “Rose of Los Angeles” from Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home), and tamping down to the musical equivalent of line drawings in the mostly acoustic The Angels of Light Sing ‘Other People’. For the last three albums, Gira has drawn on the giddy exuberance of Akron/Family to flesh out his songs. They are the latest in an impressive series of artists—Calla, Devendra Banhart, Mi and Lau—whose music Gira has discovered, helped to shape and released on his own Young God record label.
Gira’s latest album We Are Him represents a high point in the Angels of Light catalogue, denser and more largely drawn than his last several albums, drawing on the talents of people from every part of Gira’s career from Swans to the present. It also may stand as a turning point, as Gira’s collaboration with Akron/Family winds down and he considers ending the Angels of Light project. Gira talked to PopMatters recently via email about his new work, his evolving bond with Akron/Family, the muse (or demon?) Joseph who takes over when he writes, the process of creating music out of chaos, and his relationship with his musical past and fans. Gira’s words are unusually revealing and artfully written, so rather than editing it down as usual, we’re offering it to you as it came to us, intact and in total.
I really like We Are Him...it’s got such a grand scale to it. Was it your intent to do something bigger and more dramatic than Sing Other People...or just the way it turned out?
Thanks, I’m glad you find something to enjoy in my music…There was a moment on the last tour that I did with Akron/Family—where they opened as Akron then played as Angels of Light with me singing—it was in Italy I believe. As is usual, I was sick with bronchitis/pneumonia (who knows why, I always get sick on tour), so we’d started doing a lot of extended instrumental passages, since I could barely sing—just croak and wheeze. We were playing the song “The Provider,” and we entered this sort of droning/mantra section, and it just kept going and going and going, and I realized—laughed out loud actually, that it sounded exactly like Swans. I don’t think Akron’s even vaguely familiar with Swans, so it was a shock. Seth’s guitar in particular was this howling, rising and falling open chord, slamming down on the one, choking on itself, then erupting and expanding again until the next downbeat, then repeating the process, each time getting bigger and somehow more symphonic.
It was pretty elating. I thought, “Well, maybe Swans wasn’t such a bad thing after all” and I sort of tucked that moment away in my mind. I think that was the germ of this record. But then, when we started to rehearse for We Are Him, I tried to push things in that direction, and it was just lame and awkward. Whatever wandering spirit had entered Akron that night in Italy was gone. You can’t go backwards. So we struggled along, and things eventually took their own shape, and that’s how it should be anyway. After we’d recorded all the basic tracks, I spent a month listening to them, and realized I had to really dig into the songs and bring in orchestrations to make them live, to find their sonic place. Akron did a great job of course, my fault entirely, but it wasn’t cutting it. Slowly, through adding, subtracting, adding and subtracting, things took shape. It really is my favorite thing, to confront complete disaster and chaos, then force it into a form that makes sense and might even be a pleasurable listening experience.
What were you listening to/reading/thinking about while you were working on this album? Was there a different set of influences than in the past?
As usual, it was random at first, then somehow things coalesced. There have been times in my ridiculous and long career where I’ve actually been able to sit down and decide I’m going to write a song about a particular subject, and actually accomplish that. But rarely. Usually—I have no other way to describe it—I’m in a sort of vacant state, fooling around on my guitar, and suddenly images start flowing through me. It starts with a phrase or two, then just grows like Kudzu on a tree, feeding on hapless me, the unwitting host.
I’ve used the conceit of calling the person or entity that inhabits me at these moments Joseph—even wrote a song for “him” on the record – but in truth I don’t understand the process at all. I’m more than a little frightened of it actually and don’t really want to know what goes on there.
I certainly don’t mean to imply the songs are just random words though. They do end up with a fairly particular subject matter. It’s just that I discover what that is along the way. “Promise Of Water,” for instance, became a sort of “chanelling” of the images that flooded the media during the national disgrace and horror of Katrina, and of the usual carnage and disaster of Iraq, but more than that, the song is about being inhabited internally by the media, realizing that my thoughts aren’t my own.
On a completely different note, “Sunflower’s Here To Stay” came from a vision I had of the lovely Devendra and Genesis P-Orridge conjoined as one creature, like a Satyr, leading his/her children into the flames. If you look at the famous Goya painting Saturn Devouring His Children, that’s sort of what I saw, except with the morphed face of Gen and Devendra, devouring the world. Why? I have no idea. I love ‘em both!
You’ve said that this might be your last album as Angels of Light. Why?
Well, let’s be frank. How long does it make sense for someone to slam their head against the wall, before they realize maybe it’s best to just step back and walk around the other side?
Not being morose here, just have realized I’m at an impasse, and it’s time for a change. Still not certain I’m going to end it, but seems likely. I don’t suppose it would make much difference commercially whether I release music under my own name or Angels, and artistically it’ll go in whatever direction I want regardless. I have absolutely NO new songs though, so the point’s moot.
I get the sense that your collaboration with Akron/Family has changed since the last full-length and the split...is that the case? Is that relationship winding down now?
Akron were completely different people when we first started working together. They had virtually no “professional” musical experience, had barely been in a recording studio, had never made an album, never toured, were all working the usual shit jobs to get by. Just kids really (to me anyway)—very, very smart and precocious, erupting with ideas and talent, no sense of boundaries or obstacles. They were exploding with optimism and enthusiasm, thrilled to be able to make a record, and this enthusiasm was infectious. After we’d worked together on their first album, I felt sort of revivified by it myself and it naturally made sense for them to play in Angels of Light.
Now, we’ve toured together several times, they’ve recorded with me several times, they’ve toured on their own countless times of course, they’ve released four varied recordings and have received a fair amount of acclaim and have garnered a significant live audience for themselves (when I first saw them play, only 3 ½ years ago, there were perhaps 15 people in the audience), thanks in no small part to their spectacular live shows. How could they not be different people?
Necessarily, they’re immersed in their own musical trajectory, which has taken on an immense energy and life of its own, and all that implies in terms of their available time and what they choose to focus on. So, they’re leaving their old “Uncle Mike” behind and going their own way! That’s how it should be…
Akron/Family has a very positive, sort of hippy-ish peace-and-love vibe...which seems very different from where you’re coming from, which is darker and more complicated...why do you think those two kinds of energies have worked so well together? Is it an unstable combination? (Like, baking soda and vinegar, maybe?)
I guess you’re right, they are hippies, in a way, in that they’re expansive and they seem to be after a total experience in their music. That’s not so much different than what I’m after though, through different means, and maybe using different language/signifiers. And they’re smart as hell, and they’ve been generous and open hearted enough to adjust their personal inclinations to work within the world of my aesthetic when they’ve participated in my music, so it hasn’t really been a problem. We’ve sort of used each other up in that regard though, so it’s time to move on…
You also brought in a couple of people you’d worked with in Swans—Bill Rieflin and Christopher Hahn. How was it working with them again...and on very different material?
Both Bill and Christoph have worked in Angels at various times actually. Just hasn’t worked out that they could be on one of my records for a while. Christoph’s way the hell over in Berlin and Bill’s touring and recording with big shots like REM and Robyn Hitchcock all the time.
Their participation marked the point when the record started to cohere. Really intense sessions. Each had two 12-hour days—no breaks—to play on the songs, and neither had heard the songs before entering the studio. Christoph just trounced the songs, really strangled his guitar and came out with some great psychotic—weirdly American-sounding, for a German—and muscular lines. He can also play very sensitively of course, and did so in several places, particularly when using his open-tuned lap steel guitar.
Bill played bass, guitar, organ, piano, synthesizer, drums, sang here and there and more—I can’t remember what else. The great thing about him, no matter what instrument he’s playing, is that he makes a performance out of it, there’s always a dramatic flourish. Anyway, I just love being around those two gentlemen, two of my favorite people in the world. Once their parts were on this record, everything else started to fall into place.
I love the density of sounds on this album...you never feel like you’re hearing everything there is to hear, no matter how hard you concentrate. Were there any songs where you felt you’d put too much stuff on, and you had to pare back?
Oh, most of them! An impossible amount of tracks. I double almost everything, for a start, aside from other numerous flourishes, jabs, and smears of sound everywhere. Even the DRUMS are doubled on this record—one set is close mic-ed, the other played in a room with a natural ambient sound and just one or two mics, then mixed together. (Dana from Akron did a great job at this, by the way...) ...
But yes, that’s what I mean about fighting my way out of the mess. I make the mess myself, then figure out the ultimate form by cutting things away. It’s a terrible, terrible way to work, since it’s a nightmare to sort out in the end, but since my conception of things is always changing and adjusting along the way, it’s the only way to do it… but yeah, you’re right, it is hard to tell what’s playing what. I realized the other day while listening to one of the songs that I was primarily hearing one of David Garland’s flutes in a particular part when I’d assumed it was a guitar. Ha ha!
I know you made some rules for yourself in the last album—no drums, no extended instrumental breaks. Were there any similar parameters for this one?
None really, except for the first misguided notions of what it should be, mentioned above. I guess I just got in there with the rubble and shards and fought it out until it sounded like music.
Tell me about writing “Black River Song” which is, I think, my favorite on the new album. Is black river a metaphor for something? (Rivers are always metaphors, it seems like, even in real life.)
It has a really quotidian beginning, actually (maybe a pretty banal end too!). I was leafing through a book of poetry, instantly passing out, since poetry has always bored the shit out of me, and I came across Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” and there’s a line about a black river in there. It sent me dreaming, since I’d quickly fallen asleep anyway. I suppose it has something to do with the “collective unconscious,” but with a much different interpretation than Jung or whomever might have implied. We’re all sharing thoughts and images now, like teenage lovers swishing their spit back and forth in their mouths. No one in places in the world where media has infested everything can claim their thoughts are their own.
“We Are Him” is the other one that kills me—it’s just sort of overwhelming and fantastic. I understand it’s about the madness of crowds?
I have no idea where this song came from. One of those songs that just appeared suddenly, finished before I knew it. But yes, it is a paean to our human tendency to subsume ourselves in belief systems or the hysteria of a shared spectacle or ritual. I LIKE this though, I applaud it. It really can lead to transcendence, even if delusional. This is one song that would be great to perform live with 20 people on stage. I suppose they’d have to be naked and covered in honey for the proper effect though.
“The Man We Left Behind”...who have you left behind?
Some old drunk guy in a bar! No, it’s a love song, pretty sappy actually, wherein the character is thanking a woman for saving him from his despicable ways.
Who is Mary Lou and what did she do to you?
She is every God Damn woman that has ever wronged me, all of them, the bitches. ha ha! Quite puerile and unfair, actually, but I see nothing wrong with being a snide and bitter asshole in a song.
Are you surprised at how your life and your music has turned out?
If I look at that question with the eyes of the person I was 25 years ago, well yes, I certainly would be surprised. Strange thing, but back in those days I had the arrogance of someone that always assumed huge amounts of money (i.e. magic) would just come my way some day, that I’d float through the world on a cloud, tasting the joys of whatever exotic experience I’d come across. I’m not kidding. I didn’t realize it at the time of course, but looking back, that’s how I thought, even though my life then was an extreme, maybe even an abject, struggle. Well, essentially nothing’s changed, though the circumstances of my life might be different. I’ innately optimistic, willfully naïve, and completely mega maniacal. I’m like Steve McQueen in Papillon—though certainly less good looking and rugged—floating off to sea in my pathetic raft, shouting “I’m still here ya Bastids, I’m still here!”—ha ha!
You’re in this position where some of your music has taken on a life of its own and means things to people that, probably, you never thought about or intended and possibly even object to. How do you deal with all that baggage...or do you?
What I enjoy the most is when I meet someone after a show and they’re polite and well spoken, and they might mention how much the music has meant to them, possibly at a particular moment in time. That’s great. It really feels then like I might have done something worthwhile. But when people seem to be looking at me as some sort of persona or figure, I’m repelled. It’s just silly, and a result of media bullshit/damage. As far as the music possibly influencing other people’s music, that’s a whole other issue, and usually I’m incredibly embarrassed to think that what I’ve done would be used in such a way. It feels foul, rotten, false—or often, and even worse, stupid.
What are you working on now?
I’m hacking away at a bare bones idea for a new song and getting ready for a solo tour of Europe. I love playing solo. It’s a complete life or death challenge to me. It’s like that Vigo Morgenstein scene in Eastern Promises where he fights the knife-wielding thugs naked, or something like that, or maybe like watching an epileptic in mid fit trying to work things out for himself. I’m playing several shows in Europe opening for The Boredoms. It should be an interesting feat. Just me and my dead piece of wood and my voice.
Your track record of discovering new bands is pretty great—Calla, Devendra, Akron/Family—got anybody new you want to talk about?
I’m working with a fantastic group of singers/players called Fire On Fire now. They used to be the art-punk-prog-chaos collective Cerberus Shoal, but they ditched their electric instruments, went into hiding for a while, and now play all acoustic—stand up bass, mandolin, banjo, harmonium, accordion, acoustic guitar, dobro etc, and they all sing and harmonize on the songs. Live, they do it “old school” and just use two mics placed in front of them on the stage, like a bluegrass band. They all live in the same house up in Maine. They’re like a backwoods, fierce, psychedelic Mamas And The Papas or something. They’re great people and I love their music.
It’s all acoustic, but it’s not in the least folky. More old-timey American music with truly excellent words and performed with the honed violence of intent that truly great music requires. They’re a total blast. They just recently played my back porch actually and it was one of the best live music experiences I’ve had in years. We’ll be putting out a limited edition, hand made 5 song EP, available only through the Young God website and at their live shows, in early November, then an album in early spring of next year.
The other person I’m working with is a real piece of work. Her name is Larkin Grimm. We’ve been in contact for a few years now. She’s been sending me music randomly from where ever she finds herself on the road, and we both decided it was time for her to do some music on Young God. She calls herself a shaman and she travels around throwing spells at people, I guess!
She’s got a voice that’s a force of God, and writes very eccentric and magical songs, and tours around by herself, sleeping on floors, whatever. She’s a fearless person, which is something that sold me on her as much as her music. She’s always sending me these emails wherein she gets into some impossible adventure or other and somehow comes out of it OK. At this moment she’s traveling around with her guitar on the back of a motorcycle of some guy she just met and they’re playing shows, god knows how or where.
Anyway, if I have my way, we’re going to make a record where her inner Sarah Carter and Nina Simone come to the fore and her North Georgia mountain roots are going to conjoin with her hippy ways! But that’s only my notion. I’m sure she’ll kick my ass, and we’ll make something better anyway… we’re going to record her album at Fire On Fire’s house and they’re going to be her backing band. That record will also come out in early spring, and we’re all going to tour together as some kind of Young God circus act…
A bunch of people have asked me to ask you if YGR is going to reissue any more Swans records? And also, is there anything else in the pipeline at your label that you want to tell people about?
The bones of Swans have been picked clean.
Here’s a bio below that RW Hessler was kind enough to write a while back:
Michael Gira Bio By RW Hessler (from 2005)
In the spring of 2005, YOUNG GOD RECORDS releases two new recordings, AKRON/FAMILY’s self titled debut, as well as the fourth album by Michael Gira’s ANGELS OF LIGHT, entitled THE ANGELS OF LIGHT SING “OTHER PEOPLE”. The new works represent 24 years and 28 recordings of stubborn musical and artistic resilience to present vital (and more often than not, unrepresented) music, as well as, to a lesser degree, a means of fiscal survival within the clutches of a record industry that has undergone what is essentially a revolution (thanks or not to the Internet) as far as how listeners preview and buy the music that interests them. At the helm of this ever-changing vision is Michael Gira, whose undying passion and self-reliance to be heard musically at any cost has given fans the undying legacy of SWANS (1981-1997), a slew of solo projects/recordings, and since 1999, his continuing musical saga, ANGELS OF LIGHT, which features Gira and a revolving cast of collaborators.
THE ANGELS OF LIGHT SING “OTHER PEOPLE” features seven retooled songs from Michael Gira’s solo recording I AM SINGING TO YOU FROM MY ROOM (a limited edition, website only production, recorded live in his home/office in 2004—a way of giving something to committed fans that can’t be had elsewhere), as well as five new compositions. It sounds like nothing Gira has ever produced before; “OTHER PEOPLE” is simply the most focused and relaxed album that Gira has ever made, and is likely to represent a new phase of his entire career. According to Gira, “I didn’t really set out to make a “pop” record, and don’t think I have, at least by the current standards. It is maybe more accessible though, and that’s a welcome aspect.” Several elements contribute to this assessment, and Gira speaks very candidly (which is rare!) on this shift of direction: “One factor in the new album sounding so different is that I used different musicians. By the time I finished with the last ANGELS album, I was a bit uncomfortable with the fact it was beginning to sound like a “band”—the same instrumentation basically, played by generally the same group of people, which was definitely not the concept I had in mind when I first started the project. It was always meant to be a group of revolving, changing personnel. I don’t usually like bands per se, since their “sound” eventually becomes predictable. For better or worse, I’m a songwriter, and I want the context and orchestration for the songs to change as I go along. I’m not comfortable staying in the same place.”
In a recent YOUNG GOD RECORDS press release, Gira continues to describe the process of constructing “OTHER PEOPLE”: ” I intentionally eschewed long instrumental passages, crescendos, that sort of thing—I’ve done enough of that, and I’m tired of it. The songs say what they have to say, then end. Many are entirely acoustic. When electric instruments are used, they’re used sparsely. I set a limitation before recording: there would be no drums (one song contains about ten seconds of drums, but otherwise, nothing)—double bass or bass guitar is used instead as the rhythmic base. This had the effect of opening up a lot of space, as well necessarily forcing the songs into focus. This is as close as I’ll ever get to making “pop” songs, though I of course realize my definition is probably a little different than yours! He goes on further to say, ”I enjoyed working with AKRON so much in fact that for my own current ANGELS OF LIGHT album I solicited their services as backing band and full collaborators on the arrangements… The result was a revelation to me—a complete turnaround in many ways. I guess it’d be fair to say that their youthful enthusiasm and continually erupting stream of ideas infected me with a long absent sense of elation. They all play about 20 instruments with varying degrees of skill, and their approach was often the exact opposite of what I would have initially thought. Of course, in some cases, they did exactly as I said, and shut the hell up about it—ha- ha! But the best thing for me was the surprise of hearing the songs in a new light… I had a great time making this record.”
Gira acknowledges “OTHER PEOPLE” is largely a tribute to heroes and friends, and that the record is “a place for the people in the songs to live”—this is certainly obvious in songs like “My Friend Thor”, “Dawn”, and “Simon is Stronger Than Us”, which almost have a Lou Reed-esque quality in that each song’s subject possesses an heroic ability to somehow transcend their surroundings. Gira explains, “When I think about them—whether they’re still here or gone—they occupy the mythic space of HERO in my mind. In any event, they’re ultimately just as unknowable, which is one of the things that makes “OTHER PEOPLE” so attractive.”
Michael GiraSeveral songs also weigh topical issues, such as Michael Jackson and Saddam Hussein (“Michael’s White Hands”, and the “war on terror” in Iraq (“Destroyer”). “To Live Through Someone” examines the War on Stalingrad in WWII where a million people died, having a deep effect on the muse of Gira. “They endured hardships that are impossible to imagine”, Gira suggests, “but they continued beyond reason—squeezed in the vice of history, like all of us.” The song is charged and haunting, one of the high points of the album. Perhaps the most heartfelt and sincere performance comes out on “The Kid is Already Breaking”, clearly an apology of sorts regarding unresolved feelings in the setting of what must be a very close personal relationship, whether these “other people” are real or idealized is irrelevant. According to Gira, from a recent press release, “When I choose a subject, or a subject chooses me, I ascribe no particular hierarchy of importance to it in comparison to other subjects. It’s all equal. It’s just something that passes through me, and thankfully, as I say, it’s beyond my control—at least in the best of circumstances. In the end, it’s all experience, and experience is incredibly strange, completely beyond my personal ability to comprehend, whether it’s received through the media or through a person standing right there in front of me. So if there’s a song about you on this record, don’t go thinking you’re a big deal now—it’s all coincidence!”
AKRON/FAMILY,the latest contributors to YOUNG GOD RECORDS and Gira’s work are four young men from different parts of rural America who banded together in NYC in 2002 (around the same time as YGR artist Devendra Banhart’s premiere recording OH ME OH MY… hit the streets). Gira describes in a recent press release that AKRON/FAMILY’s exodus was an attempt “to make music, hoping to find a thread of real magic still winding through this city’s music scene. They certainly did just that, but they did it by retreating into a tiny Brooklyn apartment, where they made their own world instead, in complete and stubborn isolation. They proceeded to make several albums worth of recordings on crude home equipment—the material compulsively chopped, spliced, and orchestrated into fractal jewels of song and schismatically opposed atmospheres. Along the way they sent me the increasingly compelling results.”
Michael Gira seems that the aspect of live performance, however, was what would come to win over Gira’s support, as he describes in an interview associated with the construction of this essay: “I actually had a little time to start thinking about new releases, I fished them out of the pile and thought “Holy shit! I can’t believe I haven’t pursued this yet!” and contacted them right away. Fortunately they hadn’t gone elsewhere. Then I saw them live, in a really intimate setting in a tiny room at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn—about 20 people in there and it’s packed, and the show was so good I knew they had to be on the label. Aside from the sprawling and weird arrangements of the music, the vocals were stunning. I think that’s the crucial one element I look for these days—the vocals.”
Gira gives a brief synopsis of the making of AKRON/FAMILY’S delicious and sonically varied first recording for YOUNG GOD RECORDS: “When we started work on this album we first spent a good deal of time sifting through the trove of already-recorded songs. A few of those are included here with varying amounts of further orchestration. The rest of the songs are highly edited-down studio versions of the abovementioned live “epics”, YOUNG GOD RECORDS not being just yet in the position of being able to release a triple cd debut…”
In another interview regarding AKRON/FAMILY’S debut, Gira describes the whittling down/reconstruction process further, “It’s a delicate balance as a (in this case CO-) producer. I didn’t want to constrict them of course, but on the other hand, some things that work live don’t necessarily work on a record. So there was a great deal of work there, before even going into the studio. Then, I helped with the basic sounds of course, and made suggestions about further orchestration. But this latter aspect was largely their doing—they’d take my suggestions or not, and they had plenty of their own ideas anyway. Too many! Ha-ha! Like kids in a candy store. So another role of mine, having been in the studio for many years, was to keep looking ominously at my watch (!), and enforce the need to get things done, and quickly, within budget. I think it’s fair to say it was an equal collaboration, but with their musical ideas taking the lead, as they should.”
Michael GiraFlashback to October, 2002 --Michael Gira performs live at San Francisco’s Noe Valley Ministry, an intimate stage that is used on Sundays for the purpose of Christian Fellowship, but has been shared by thousands of national/international music and performance acts, secular and otherwise, in the organization’s grass roots effort to invite and embrace the diversity of their immediate community. The stage has exceptionally warm and inviting acoustics, the perfect setting for a solo Gira and his acoustic guitar; his presence and semi-formal dress is reminiscent of a backwoods minister, his very countenance and smoldering eyes suggesting that he has walked into the very mouth of Hell and has lived to tell the story...
Gira paces the stage like a prisoner, carefully measuring the dimensions of his cell; he personally oversees the few, simple technical specifications his performance requires after opening band VETIVER (featuring the talents of YOUNG GOD RECORDS artist Devendra Banhart) breaks down, while sucking cough drops like candy and occasionally sipping at what is presumably tea. His preparation seems slow and deliberate, as if he were mentally running through a checklist he has gone over thousands and thousands of times before; something about the odor of his microphone profoundly disrupts his quiet and commanding air, and a palpable hush breaks through the church’s expectant crowd as Gira slowly wipes the microphone off with his sleeve, an expression betraying annoyance creeping into his typically stoic glare.
He introduces himself with a wry wit, opening the show with self-deprecatory comments about his poor guitar skills... then proceeds to play the set of his life, his voice alternately purring or roaring through 90 or so minutes of new songs from his band ANGELS OF LIGHT, as well as acknowledging the strengths of a handful of songs from his former glory, New York’s legendary SWANS. Included amongst these older songs that have been reworked to their basic bones for purposes of solo performance is the classic gem from 1987’s CHILDREN OF GOD recording, “New Mind”. Gira’s performance is nothing short of pure excellence, including his simple yet dynamic guitar work; he seems at home as echoes of 1989’s “God Damn the Sun” resound and spellbind the audience to complete and tangible silence in this house of God. The performance of “Nations”, a new song to be featured on ANGELS OF LIGHT’s new recording EVERYTHING IS GOOD HERE/PLEASE COME HOME is urgent and relevant; the song suggests the horrors that lie ahead with America’s current political projections, and is a salute to the people whose lives have already been permanently stained by those that “...sound the scream of nations...”
Michael GiraFollowing the performance at the Ministry, Michael Gira continues with the role of backwoods minister, personally greeting the outpouring audience in the church foyer and hawking his own merchandise; his energy is not unlike a loving pastor who has just delivered the sermon of his career. The audience drifts like gas into the warm October night in San Francisco transformed by Gira’s power to captivate an audience; his ability to find a familiar yet uncomfortable place in the human psyche through his words, as well certainly as the intensity of his vocal delivery, which since the beginning of his career has been a testimony to his strong personal drive and diligence to create uncompromising music and be heard-- somehow this night has been enormously fulfilling.
Michael Gira is an extremely private person; he doesn’t like interviews, and he does not enjoy the prospect of sharing his personal emotions (outside of the realm of performance) with anyone... unless he chooses to. Choice is a key concept in relation to attempting to better understand Gira; his personal freedom is perhaps the core, the very foundation of a musical odyssey that has lasted nearly a quarter of a century and shows no signs of slowing or mellowing by any interpretation. The man says and does exactly what he chooses to do, woeful to the point of insolent at any forces outside of his choosing that might attempt to control or carve out his destiny. Out of this resistance to anybody or any institution that might exercise authority or control over his person or his thoughts, one could argue that Gira has forged a meaningful career.
That is not to say that Gira is a closed or obviously temperamental personality these days, though he would be the first to admit that his unpredictable and often caustic behavior served as a distancing factor early in his career with SWANS; on the contrary, he is capable of demonstrating a very keen sense of humor and is self-deprecating to a fault. His dealings in the past with the record industry and music journalists have caused him to shun rubbing shoulders with their ilk, even to dread it; any effort to analyze or intellectualize his works seems equally irksome to Gira who claims, “I have absolutely no “mission” whatsoever except to make music. I have no “point” to make. There’s no ulterior motive. I love making music, singing, shaping sound. That’s enough.”
Michael GiraIt took nearly two months to pin Michael Gira down long enough to score an interview; running YOUNG GOD RECORDS is satisfying for Gira, though the toll he pays is one of time: “I am incredibly, stupidly, mind numbingly BUSY. I am not only trying to make music, but also run a record company, and service merchandise from our website, and 1000 other tasks. My supreme goal is to clear up busy work here, stuff that HAS to be done to keep YGR afloat, so that I can again pick up my guitar, and also deal with aspects of my own career... My priority is to first clear up this mountain of nagging junk on my desk and screaming unanswered e-mails in my inbox, which often reaches about 300 e-mails I need to answer... I have to clear up basic exigencies first...”
Gira’s background is reasonably researched and displayed on the YOUNG GOD RECORDS website: to summarize several excellent articles about Gira’s background, he was born in the 50’s and grew up in a relatively affluent suburb of Los Angeles during the 60’s, the son of a wealthy international businessman and a housewife. Shortly before entering adolescence, Gira’s parents split up; his father moved to Europe, then Indiana and his mother slowly spiraled downward into alcoholism, drinking away the holdings and neglecting the young boy. Soon, at 12, he began delving into the world of drugs, enjoying the music of his day such as the DOORS, the SEEDS, LOVE, and BLUE CHEER. His delinquency culminated into getting busted during junior high with a pocket full of Seconals; to avoid a lengthy sentence in juvenile hall, he was required to live with his father in Indiana, which Gira recollects as “an armpit”.
Around 1969, Michael Gira moved to Paris with his father, where Gira began hanging out with hippies, panhandling (though he didn’t need to), and taking drugs. At one point he was jailed for several weeks (as a minor) for vagrancy, abandoned by his father in hopes of teaching the young boy a lesson. After a stint at a tool factory in Germany which he chose over a prestigious school in the Swiss Alps, Gira ran away, hitch-hiking through Greece and Yugoslavia until arriving in Israel at the age of 15, selling hash first on a collective farm, or kibbutz, and later (after a near-bust) a hostel, where he was finally taken into custody by Israeli police.
Gira was incarcerated for a month and a half in Jerusalem without formal charges before a civil rights lawyer found out about his case. Released without bail, he hung out in Jerusalem, mostly panhandling or selling his blood before his trial, in which he was sentenced to another two months in an adult prison, where he depended heavily on his luck and quickly acquired shrewdness to avoid being gang-raped. Gira recollects, “Total time was only about three months, not much really, but enough to get me thinking later about TIME (one’s own control of it) being the most valuable thing one can possess...” After his release, he spent nearly a year in Israel working twelve-hour days in a copper mine before being tracked down by his father with the aid of Interpol agents. Deciding he could no longer deal with his son, Gira’s father sent him back to his mother in California, who was now living in the working class community of Torrance. He tried his hand at working at a plastics factory, roofing, and plumbing before jumping back into formal education. After passing a high school equivalence exam, he went to junior college to study art; later, he attended Otis Academy Art Institute (where he first met Kim Gordon, who would later go on to join SONIC YOUTH in New York), and soon after began publishing NO MAGAZINE with Bruce Kalberg, featuring band interviews, stories and pornography.
It was also around this time that Michael Gira became highly influenced by the DIY ethic of the burgeoning Punk rock scene. “I always thought I’d be an artist all my life (visual, that is). I was attending art school in LA, and was having qualms about the art world per se, the increasing irrelevance of it, the academic elitism and cloistered quality of it. I heard the SEX PISTOLS on the radio. I didn’t want to make music like that, but I liked the “guerilla” aspect of it; its violence and media savvy quality just seemed immediately relevant and more important and interesting than most art of the time. I’d always been hungry for extreme music-of the overwhelming, body and mind pummeling variety- and soon found out about a lot of other music being made that had the violent energy of punk, without using the standard rock format: THROBBING GRISTLE, SPK, TEENAGE JESUS, DNA, the CONTORTIONS, Glenn Branca (as THEORETICAL GIRLS)... So I was inspired to think that I could make something happen, even with my extremely limited musical means. It took several years to find my way, though. I was in a bad punk/art band in LA called the LITTLE CRIPPLES, which was silly. Then I moved to New York City, and had another silly band for a while called CIRCUS MORT (yikes!). Anyway, after that I’d gleaned enough musical ability and confidence to completely oversee the music, which is when I started SWANS (1981)...”
Gira came to New York at the tail end of New York’s No Wave scene, hoping to find his own unique niche; initially, he was met with disappointment. “I moved to NYC because I was frustrated with the style-oriented punk scene in LA, and thought when I arrived here it’d be a great place to do something new. I loved SUICIDE, for instance, as well as TEENAGE JESUS, etc.- the NO New York area of things. But when I arrived here that had all fizzled out, and there wasn’t much going on anymore, just the tail end of it all.”
Out of the death of No Wave was born the rise of the so-called “Noise” scene, a movement in which SWANS and SONIC YOUTH were pioneering forefathers, not to mention two bands that have had as much influence over hardcore, industrial, and indie rock as the VELVET UNDERGROUND and its offshoots have had on all modern music. In SWANS’ camp was Gira on bass and vocals, and Jonathan Kane, who had also been part of CIRCUS MORT (who had split up after releasing one record); by the spring of 1982, they were joined by Sue Hanel, who already had a reputation for being one of the “Noise” scene’s “most fearsome” guitarists (she was later replaced by Norman Westberg); SWANS’ first gigs were joined by SONIC YOUTH’S Thurston Moore on second bass and various friends of the band playing a variety of found percussion. SWANS were sharing a rehearsal space with SONIC YOUTH as well. By May of 1983, SWANS’ line-up solidified with the addition of Roli Mosimann as a second drummer/percussionist and Harry Crosby on bass, freeing up Gira for vocals and tape loops.
It was also around this time that the camps of SONIC YOUTH and SWANS embarked on their first U.S. tour together, which amounted to ten people in one airless, seatless van pulling the equipment behind them in a trailer-several long months dubbed by SONIC YOUTH’s Lee Ranaldo as the “Savage Blunder Tour”. According to Jonathan Kane (featured in his insightful article about the early days of SWANS, which can be read on the YOUNG GOD RECORDS website), “Michael was notoriously difficult to deal with.” When asked about those early days, Gira responds, “SONIC YOUTH and SWANS were very supportive of each other in the early days, but we grew apart, and I distanced myself from the so-called “Noise” scene. I don’t know why-egotism, I guess.”
The live shows in these early years of SWANS were legendary for their volume and sheer brutality; consisting of thunderous walls of guitar feedback and relentlessly slow rhythms of early industrial style bass and drums that scrape and pummel away at the mind and body, SWANS invaded every show with the subtlety of a jackhammer, ripping away at the collective flesh to expose a horrifying and barren landscape from which Gira’s savage rants exemplify, purge, and cleanse the inescapable weaknesses of the human body and the mind while examining with brutal honesty the power structures and violence that emanate from every human aspiration and desire.
Gira’s explanation of the vocal attack and its influences is simpler: “I usually took my lyrical ideas from a lot of different sources-work (which uniformly felt like slavery at the time), to sex (which felt like an invasion of my privacy) to mass media (which felt like complete mind control-and still does)...”
Following the release of two e.p.s from 1982, SWANS released a full-length recording entitled FILTH in 1983 that received serious critical attention, not to mention a great deal of national attention due to significant exposure from college radio; New York had found its new hardcore band, and Michael Gira was at the helm of its vision. The core of the band was made complete by 1985 with the induction of Jarboe, who had made a pilgrimage in 1984 to meet Gira from way down in Atlanta, Georgia, based on the impact that FILTH had made on her. While Gira admits in interviews on his web site that he felt an immediate connection to Jarboe, she did spend her share of time schlepping band equipment before she was officially asked to join in 1985 to sing and play keyboards. In time, she would come to be Gira’s lover and principal collaborator.
By 1987’s CHILDREN OF GOD, Gira’s strong sense of drive and seemingly unconquerable will had impressively guided SWANS through seven brutal and uncompromising recordings; the new record was a radical departure stylistically and lyrically from anything the band had ever recorded before.
Gira explains, “Musically, the reason for the shift was that SWANS had run its course with the physical assault of sound that we employed previous to that. I wanted to move on to other things and didn’t want to get stuck in some style, which in our case had the potential of becoming cartoonish if we’d continued in that direction. So I forced myself, and the music, into unfamiliar territory. Lyrically, I’d always seized on abstract subjects like money/power/sex/work, etc., and I was watching a lot of Jimmy Swaggart on TV (the televangelist), and I thought he was a great rock performer, so I stole his thunder. I tried not to mock the religious impulse, which would have been a typical thing to do at the time, but instead to get inside it. Everyone wants to lose themselves in something bigger than they are. I don’t know if this is a bad thing or a good thing, honestly...”
Many of the hardcore-oriented fans of SWANS departed at this stage of SWANS’ career, despite new and varied sources of critical acclaim for Gira’s new vision of SWANS. Out of the ashes of the old SWANS rose a new direction that included the once forbidden notion of traditional song structure, actual melodies as well as complex harmonic parts, and greater senses of collaboration with Jarboe, whose background came from a strong choral tradition and formal song structure. As members of the band came and went, the new core of Gira and Jarboe began to fill once barren sonic soundscapes with a strong sense of musicality, citing strong influences of Greek and Middle Eastern traditions of drone and repetition mixed with a layered “wall of sound” that would become SWANS’ stock trademark.
The next ten years would prove to be both physically and financially draining for Gira, despite the critical success of what is essentially his most prolific period consisting of: six more SWANS’ studio albums; an outtakes recording; two WORLD OF SKIN recordings (a side project of Gira and Jarboe, focusing more on individual compositions); 1994’s publication of Michael Gira’s first book of fiction entitled THE CONSUMER AND OTHER STORIES; two live recordings; a compilation of SWANS material, ironically titled VARIOUS FAILURES; as well as his first solo recording, DRAINLAND (Alternative Tentacles, 1995). In 1997, even though SWANS were at the top of their creative powers, Michael Gira called it quits.
“I was damn happy to kill it,” says Gira, regarding his decision to end SWANS, once and for all. “It was 15 years of total immersion in something, which is enough. But of course it was painful-like giving birth, finally, to a child which came out retarded, wrinkled, old, and ugly...”
Gira also cites on the YOUNG GOD RECORDS website that “After 15 years of this grueling struggle with really no reward to show for it, the intelligent thing would be to move on.” Another article on the site indicates that Gira really has no love lost for the former glory of his own creation and quite possibly, the only band that ever really mattered. “I just want to have it discreet, finished and over, and I can move on. I have other ideas I want to do. I think it’s necessary”.
Nothing has changed with Gira’s seemingly endless sense of drive or his work ethic. Out of the death of SWANS came the BODY LOVERS/BODY HATERS recordings, two strongly contrasting productions which began as conscious steps in the direction of experimentation with pure sonic ideas (this is especially more true of BODY HATERS), with little to no emphasis on song structure of any sort. 1998 also marked the last Gira/Jarboe collaborations, as she provides background vocals and perhaps not so strangely, weeping, on the recordings by Gira called BODY LOVERS: NUMBER ONE OF THREE and BODY HATERS: 34:13, which upon several listens, one could almost see as the next logical SWANS albums. According to Gira, “The BODY LOVERS grew out of the sonic ideas/ manipulations I’d begun to use in SWANS towards the end. I’m not sure if I’m ever going to do another BODY LOVERS/HATERS. I’m a little distanced from that area of things sonically now. I just want to write good words, with simple accompaniment, and try to deliver the words convincingly. I want something simple these days"...When asked if he could foresee working with his former lover/SWANS’ collaborator in any future recordings, Gira responds, “I try to look forward. It’s the only way to keep yourself interested in what you’re doing really. I wish Jarboe all the good things in her life and work...”
YOUNG GOD RECORDS, owned and operated by Michael Gira, finally became somewhat of a living entity around this time, largely due to the successful liaison between YOUNG GOD and San Francisco-based distributors REVOLVER RECORDS. While nearly all of Gira’s recordings bear the quasi-ominous YOUNG GOD stamp, it took slightly over 15 years and nearly a dozen burnt bridges and bad luck with the record industry (HOMESTEAD, CAROLINE, MUTE RECORDS, UNI/MCA, ROUGH TRADE, to name a few, and the list reads like a graveyard discography) for YOUNG GOD RECORDS to see the light of day in the record stores, with Gira being able to keep his metaphoric shirt on and relatively intact. His comments on the current state of affairs in the record industry, displayed on the YOUNG GOD RECORDS website, are particularly poignant: “I loathe it entirely. We found our own little niche now, with our own business and good distribution system, so we’re able to survive on our own, I just can’t deal with it. I don’t go out to clubs. I don’t talk to A & R people; I don’t schmooze; I don’t do anything to advance myself in that way. I just can’t stand it anymore. I tried in the early days. Of course I was always pounding away. But there’s only so much you can take.”
Despite better luck in recent years, Gira is still “pounding away” to keep YOUNG GOD out of the red, a Herculean labor made slightly easier since the introduction of Devendra Banhart (who now stands in the forefront of what is being called by West Coast journalists a “freak-folk” movement, along with equally distinguished talents such as BRIGHTBLACK, VETIVER, JOANNA NEWSOM, and a tight-knit, revolving door of several others) into the YOUNG GOD RECORDS roster in 2002. Gira explains how Banhart became associated with YGR: “My fiancé, Siobhan Duffy, was playing drums with FLUX INFORMATION SCIENCES, and they did a show in L.A., where Devendra opened. Siobhan is a big aficionado of all things “roots” music, and she was standing out in the parking lot smoking a cigarette after sound check and heard this unearthly, wailing voice emanating from the club. She knows a good thing when she hears it. She went in and watched Devendra’s sound check, and was mesmerized. She talked to him and he sold her (for $2!) a hand made cd-r of his songs (many of the same songs that eventually found their way onto “OH ME OH MY…”). She couldn’t listen to it in the van on tour, since the recordings were so quiet, but when she got home she played it around the house and we were both just enthralled. It was obvious that he was (and is) very, very special. I wrote him a very long letter telling him how much I liked his music, and explained what YOUNG GOD RECORDS is all about, and sent him a few ANGELS OF LIGHT cds. He then moved here to NYC from L.A. to be on the label.”
It’s easy to see that Michael Gira has a protective, almost “fatherly” affection for Devendra Banhart, and his musical evolution, which has undeniably been a huge commercial and critical credit to YOUNG GOD RECORDS and its evolution. Throughout the development of this essay, Gira stressed over and over Banhart’s personal importance to him: “At first, rightly or wrongly, I viewed myself as a mentor of sorts. I just wanted to teach him what I’d learned from years and years of basically doing all the WRONG things professionally, alert him to the things he should know to protect himself from the wolves that would eventually gather. He was so innocent. He had almost no professional experience at all. I also tried to emphasize the importance of just rehearsing the hell out of the songs too, running through the live set at home endlessly, so that it could become second nature when performing live. In retrospect though, none of this was necessary at all, and I was probably a little intrusive on my part, against his nature, and I think he disregarded most of it anyway! Ha-ha! But Devendra has this quality, where when you meet him, you just instantly want to help him, take him in, protect him. He’s such a natural though that none of this was ultimately necessary. I remember his first “big” show at Tonic here in NYC. He started the set with his acoustic guitar, then instantly thought better of it, put it down, and just belted out an amazing, sort of psycho-gospel version of one of his songs a cappella. It was riveting. The crowd went nuts, and he was on his way. The thing about him is, and it’s a rare, rare quality, is that his voice and songs appeal to a huge amount of different types of people, from folk purists, to experimental music fans, to rock fans, just everyone. But he just does what he does, doesn’t analyze it. It’s who he is. He doesn’t second guess himself. He’s CONSTANTLY playing guitar or drawing, always just EXHALING an endless creative output. I’ve never seen anything like it, actually… Anyway, NINO ROJA (Banhart’s fourth recording with YOUNG GOD RECORDS) was the last record he’ll do for YOUNG GOD RECORDS—he’s moved on now to a bigger label (XL, a subsidiary of BEGGAR’S BANQUET). This is actually fine with us, a good thing! He’s grown beyond our capacity to deal with effectively, and he needs a larger system to reach his potential now. I have no doubt that he has the potential to sell records in huge, huge quantities, and for once, it would be an instance where a widely popular artist doesn’t completely suck! Ha-ha! I have no a priori dislike of commercial music per se—my childhood heroes, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, etc., sold millions of records, and they were absolutely great. Sadly, the situation has changed, of course, and almost anything on that scale these days is mind-numbingly awful and repellant. But, as I say, I think Devendra has a rare quality that could reach pretty great heights, and he deserves it. I hope his new record company sees that too. We are of course really proud to have helped him on his way, and we’re grateful to have the records he’s done for us in our catalog…”
Based on West Coast sales alone, Devendra Banhart’s work has been a huge feather in YOUNG GOD RECORD’S cap, a point that Gira has been insistent to downplay: “Sure, it’s opened up a lot of possibilities. I suppose the biggest change is that people actually listen now, and pay attention to what we release in the initial stages. But in other aspects, we still keep things very simple here, and we don’t really have any ambitions to become a huge label or anything. It’s just me and Kerstin Posch (she’s the right side of the YGR brain) here at the label, and we don’t want it to get to the point it where it needs other employees. We both work from our houses—we don’t have an office. We do hire my friend Howard Wuelfing to do publicity, and occasionally an outside radio promo company, but that’s enough. It’s best to keep it simple… I’m first and foremost only interested in releasing music that seems NECESSARY, that can’t be heard anywhere else. I of course want to sell records, but that’s not the first consideration in choosing music for the label. We have to like the music and the people involved and feel that we’re working for and with our friends.”
Gira has never been a stranger to hard work, though; maybe it represents his earthly purgatory for being such an evil child. At any rate, his hard work has won him the right to make his own decisions in his career, without kissing one ounce of corporate ass or depending on the fashion whims of the money-grubbing record industry. “Having my own record label now, which operates very simply-like selling shoes! - I don’t concern myself with it or care about it at all. I had enough heartaches with it, and am happy to have been able to carve out a place for my work and other people’s work I enjoy...”
YOUNG GOD RECORDS has put out the music of such varied bands as WINDSOR FOR THE DERBY, CALLA, DAVID COULTER, (CHARLEMAGNE) PALESTINE/COULTER/MATHOUL, ULAN BATOR, LARSEN, FLUX INFORMATION SERVICES and DEVENDRA BANHART, and now AKRON/FAMILY. When asked what he was looking for in the bands he releases on the label, Gira responds, “I release music on the label that I feel has a personal integrity and immediacy, as well as a commitment to making a genuine experience happen through sound. I have no interest in what’s popular or fashionable, or even “interesting” for its own sake. I have no interest in genre specific music, nor do I want anything to do with anyone that wants to “make it” in the repulsive music biz...”
Michael Gira released the first recording of his new band, ANGELS OF LIGHT (entitled NEW MOTHER ), in 1999, and was later followed in 2001 by HOW I LOVED YOU. There may not be a more poignant love song in Gira’s entire career than “Two Women”, the last song on HOW I LOVED YOU, which features Gira’s mother on the front cover and an imposing photograph of his father on the back liner. Gone is the “wall of sound” that typified the earlier SWANS work, but the major difference between ANGELS OF LIGHT and the previous band is Gira’s tone, both musically and vocally. The resulting recordings are some of the most honest and heartfelt music being independently produced today-fragile yet crushing, cathartic and probing, without sacrificing the momentum or passion of his pioneering work with SWANS. Gira attributes the difference in this Gira incarnation to a change in his personal drive: “I was boiling with a sort of non-specific rage in those days, and it fed everything I did, my music, my personal life, everything. That’s not completely dead, but it’s not really the source of my work anymore.”; and later, in another article on his web site: ”I left my past behind ... The way I work as a producer is first to follow the visual picture I had of the song’s final outcome when I wrote it-then eventually I throw out all my high fallutin’ ideas and dreams, remaining open to chance, “mistakes” (especially), random juxtapositions, blind alleys, and most importantly, the input of others.”
Gira’s collaboration with WINDSOR FOR THE DERBY’S Dan Matz capably demonstrates Gira’s inability to avoid what he calls genre specific music. WHAT WE DID (2001/2) reveals shades of evolution in composition style we’ve never heard before in Gira’s work; as well as what feels like comfort and ease, which are qualities hardly alien to his work, and yet the relaxed mood of the album truly seems very un-Gira like, one of those misperceptions an old fan might have, even from repeated listens to his past catalogue. Gira suggests, “Well, what Dan and I did was very unselfconscious. We just came together in a room over a period of months and each proffered ideas/sketches for songs, and then built them up without any preconceptions as to the outcome. Again, neither of us wants to repeat ourselves, I’m sure.”
EVERYTHING IS GOOD HERE/PLEASE COME HOME (2003) was the third ANGELS OF LIGHT offering, and it joyously indicates that the experimental side of Gira grew restless and has returned to the equation of composition. This recording still has the earthy, grounded simplicity and traditional warmth of the other ANGELS OF LIGHT albums; what Gira built as a foundation with NEW MOTHER and HOW I LOVED YOU is essentially intact in the compositions, but that might be the only point of comparison between the three recordings. The EVERYTHING IS GOOD HERE… recording seems to be the natural culmination of Gira’s former approach to the wall of layered sound he experimented with in SWANS, combined with a warm grassroots flavor and instrumentation (take the sonic manipulations on the dirge-like “Sunset Park” or the hauntingly beautiful “What Will Come). And yet it also possesses an urgent, manic quality (take the relentlessly driving “Rose of Los Angeles”, another of many high points on this collection of eleven songs) that Gira only hinted at with his work in SWANS. Nearly all of the vocals are farther stretches of anywhere Gira has been in past recordings. Some of the most memorable moments on EVERYTHING IS GOOD HERE are contained in the excellent “Family God”, which in Michael Gira’s words is, “…based on images/memories of someone (fictionalized) quite like my mother- the first half is a portrait of her, the second talks about how she- and her affliction- lives inside the singer/narrator…funny, I couldn’t stand to be around her for more than five minutes when she was alive, but once she died her “persona” (the only way I can put it- she was a very extreme character) inspired quite a few songs. But it’s not too specific, I hope. I don’t view any autobiographical event/memory as being important in and of itself (or relevant to anyone else) – just a starting point for writing something, like any other subject…”
His personal examination of his past catalogue points towards ambivalence: “As for the older recordings, they’re all equally embarrassing. Sometimes I like them, sometimes not. Whenever I finish a new album, I can’t even listen to it anymore. I wish someone else could make my music for me!” Self-deprecation seems to be a fairly normal state for Gira these days; when asked if he has radically changed his approach to the craft of singing and songwriting since the old days with SWANS, Gira laughs, “Ha ha! Craft seems like a lofty term when applied to me. I still have zero conventional skills. I just go where my imagination leads me. My approach now is to try to challenge myself, to make an uncomfortable or unfamiliar moment in time happen. I think that’s how it’s always been...” Simultaneously, he recognizes that all the dues he has paid has earned him at least a shred of credibility as a live performer: “I think I have a talent for performing, because I’m not scared of being embarrassed. What’s the worst that could happen? Maybe I even crave the worst that could happen! I try to embody the material I’m singing, and give as much as I can. I absolutely hate irony and distance, as is sadly so prevalent in today’s music. My idols are people that were/are able to make a song real, no matter if it’s solo or with a group... People like BOB DYLAN, JOHNNY CASH, NINA SIMONE, WILLIE NELSON- they’re all way above me though, and I’m not putting myself in their company here...”
Michael Gira has experienced a plethora of momentous career highlights in the live setting and definitely considers his 2004 tour of Russia and Scandinavia to be amongst those: “Just the fact of being there was in itself disorienting and magical, and coupled with the intense jetlag—from which I never recovered, the entire trip—it made the whole thing like a dream in a way. But I had no idea what response I’d receive, especially in Moscow. There were over 1300 people there to see me perform with my little useless acoustic guitar, ha-ha! They had to turn people away. I think I did a good job of hooting and hollering my songs, and the response was like Tartars rampaging through the tundra. Pretty gratifying. I guess SWANS had built up something of a reputation through the years through cassette bootlegs, etc., during communist times, but people also seemed to know ANGELS OF LIGHT. So, after that, the audiences were more realistic—500 or so in St. Petersburg, then anywhere from 100 to 300 throughout Scandinavia. A show every night, always spinning with jetlag for two weeks; I guess my age is starting to show in that regard. I am completely, utterly exhausted at all times on tour these days. I sleepwalk most of the time, come alive on stage, then collapse.”
What does Michael Gira see in the crystal ball as far as the future projects of YOUNG GOD RECORDS? “ANGELS OF LIGHT and AKRON/FAMILY will be recording a split ep/cd immediately after our U.S. TOUR(mid April through early June 2005). We’re aiming for a fall release for that too. The double cd re-issue of BODY LOVERS/HATERS (with a new track recorded for this release) is finally seeing the light of day in April 2005, with deluxe new packaging (and there will be an ultra special version available at the website too).”
Gira also looks forward to working with international artists L’au and Mi: “In Tempere, Finland, I got to meet L’au and Mi, whose music I’d heard through Devendra. She (Mi) is Finnish and he (L’au) is French, and they met in Paris, fell in love, and gave up everything, and moved to a tiny cabin in the country outside Helsinki. After seeing them perform live (they opened for me), and meeting them and seeing that they were good and decent people (another prerequisite for anyone being on the label), I decided they had to be on YGR. They make very beautiful, sparse, songs with just two acoustic guitars and their voices. The songs have a sort of loneliness, and a sonic emptiness, that could best be described as sounding like one might imagine a barren, Finnish landscape looks. Austere, and not at all “folk”. The songs are great, very “classic” in a way. We start recording their new album soon, and it’ll be out in the fall of 2005.”
And despite the workload that inundates Gira, he does fantasize about projects that, for some reason or another, have not yet come to pass. “I would love to produce a record by Leonard Cohen, get him thinking again about the arrangements that accompany his amazing words and voice.”
While it would have been easier for Michael Gira to throw in the towel after the death of SWANS, inarguably one of the most influential and under-appreciated band of the past two decades, Gira recognizes the importance of his own time being just that-his own; he has made the sacrifices he believes will facilitate the possibility of his own career in music, and has lived by the repercussions of those decisions. He is a survivor of his own death and continues to demonstrate a strong resilience to being rolled over by the fickle music industry , trudging ahead to make challenging, uncompromising music at his own pace and with his own set of standards. When asked what he perceives to be the most common misunderstanding people have regarding him, Gira offers, “They’re all wrong! Positive or negative...” And yet he recognizes what he considers to be mistakes. “Well of course I try never to repeat myself, though naturally, I am who I am so certain moods and approaches will be inevitable. My mistake, always, has been to not be able to reign myself in, to learn when enough is enough. But I accept that flaw.”
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