Michael Gira’s angels of light | Holly Day

Poetic post-nuclear hillbillies

More than two decades ago, Michael Gira and his band, the Swans, were known for being one of the more disturbing-sounding musical acts in the burgeoning pantheon of American alternative. During their 15-year existence, the Swans made music that could almost double as clinical examinations of what made humankind weak and awful and grimly beautiful, backed by mangled keyboards, thunderous walls of guitar feedback and tribal-sounding percussion and drum lines. Almost immediately after dissolving the Swans in 1997, Gira started a new project, Angels of Light, as well as his own record label, Young God Records. “I have no recollection where the name ‘Angels of Light’ came from,” says Michael Gira of his project. “It was just on a list of a hundred names, and I probably just chose it. The same reason I chose the name ‘Swans,’ for my previous band, was because it elicited an image without describing the music. When I started making music, there were a lot of punk bands, and they always had really unfortunate names, many of which couldn’t hold their music for the rest of their careers. So I try to choose names that don’t try to say too much about the sound, and that evoke something. But it really has no great significance.” Where Swans were noisy and unrestrained-sounding, Angels of Light is incredibly subtle, stripped-down to the bare acoustic elements and lyrically even more disturbing than ever—perhaps because this is Gira himself writing the songs, with only a minimal amount of input from outside collaborators in the initial formation of the songs. In fact, Angels of Light is almost a musical adaptation of the work found in Gira’s fiction collections “The Consumer” and the other numerous Xeroxed chapbooks Gira “released” during the ‘80s, many of which are selling on eBay right now for hundreds of dollars. “You know, I have a bunch of copies left of that,” Gira says when I tell him that “Selfishness,” the chapbook he wrote with artist Raymond Pettibone, sold on eBay the night before for $200. “I could run down to Kinko’s and make some more, too.” “Writing for print and writing songs, it’s completely different,” says Gira. “They don’t relate at all. I haven’t written fiction in probably five years now, because I’ve been so busy running my record label and still trying to be a musician. But that, writing fiction, for me, takes around eight hours of my day, every day, and intense concentration. And a lot of frustration.” He laughs. “Writing songs is equally frustrating, at times, but I usually start with a basic chord structure and just sing nonsense for a while until images start to appear, and then I make a song. I like writing songs right now. That, to me, is what I feel I was made to do.” For his newest album, The Angels of Light Sing Other People, Gira enlisted the help of the eclectic Akron/Family, a band he originally released the debut of on Young God Records. The collaboration of Gira’s lyrics and sinister-sounding, world-weary vocals with the mix of acoustic, archaic stringed instruments, including mandolins and banjos, is both beautiful and chilling, like something you’d expect to hear from a group of illiterate-yet-poetic post-nuclear hillbillies—and mutant ones, at that—banging out their lives’ stories around a smoking campfire. In “Jackie’s Spine,” Gira sings about a man doing something with a razor and a piece of twine that sounds like murder, but is equated with love. In “Michael’s White Hands,” Gira sings about, well, Michael Jackson, with lines like “These hands that love are hands that choke” and “May his body like Christ, come to me in this bed” sprinkled in for staggeringly erudite punctuation. “I don’t really think it’s a disturbing record at all,” says Gira, sounding slightly wounded when I suggest it is. “There’re a lot of songs which are quite positive, and tributes to friends and their gifts. I think there’re a lot of positive things on the record.” Later, it’s suggested to me that Gira was just screwing with me, and after looking for positive rays of light on the record, I can only come to that conclusion myself. Unless, perhaps, it can be found in the song, “My Friend Thor,” where Gira sings, “Your drawings: disturbing. Your sex drive: alarming. The hair on your body would clothe a small nation. Your dogs smell like dead things,” and on and on. Or, perhaps, that ray of light is in “Destroyer,” where he asks an unnamed woman to “Come down for us, down from the dust/to murder what remains.” When speaking to Michael Gira, one gets the feeling that conveniences like the Internet and Caller ID were designed specifically for him—he seems solitary, quiet and perhaps even a little shy. So how does someone like that handle going out on the road on a tour? “Mentally, you just kind of steer yourself against the inevitable drudgery of it all,” he admits. “It’s really hard. I mean, it’s sort of a young person’s sport, really, the level we tour. We don’t tour around in a big tour van or anything. We have a van, but it’s not a bus. So it’ll be cramped, and difficult, and we’re doing it on no sleep. On this tour, I’m giving myself the luxury of days off here and there, because the last couple of tours, I got pneumonia, it was so difficult on my system—I just got sick from pure exhaustion. So now I’m working out, I’m reading a lot, just trying to remain civilized. Our last tour was 29 shows in 31 days, and that meant the days off were 500-600 mile drives. So it was just mainly wake up at 7 in the morning, get in the van, drive to the show, soundcheck, do the show, drive for a couple of hours after the show, sleep, get up, and start all over again. You just do it. It’s really exhausting.” ||