Paste Magazine, Issue #15, April/May | by Benjy Eisen


A published version of this appeared in Paste Magazine; Issue 15, April/May '05 Some people spend their whole lives waiting for something to happen and then others make things happen before their lives have even started. Long before forming Angels of Light, long before producing Devendra Banhart, long before founding Young God Records, and, yes, even long before breaking noise-rock ground with the Swans, Michael Gira sat helpless in an Israeli jail, imprisoned for a month and a half without charges. A year earlier, he was behind bars in Amsterdam. He wasn’t even old enough to drive. So okay — being imprisoned two different times in two different countries isn’t exactly a model of productivity. But it does indicate that young Michael Gira was at least doing something from an early age. Whereas other teenagers may stay out past midnight or get caught smoking pot in the attic, Gira was running around Europe with hippies twice his age, panhandling, selling hash, doing hard labor, and experiencing the meaning of being alive — mistakes and all. “It colored me,” says Gira, from the comfort of his home office in Brooklyn, NY. “It colored my perception of the world in a lot of ways. Particularly, being in jail made me realize the importance of time. Like what you do with your life, your time, is everything.” And Gira, now 50, has certainly used his time well. After his father tracked him down in Israel and sent him back to California to live with his mom, he enrolled in art school and worked several odd jobs. He was in Los Angeles publishing NO MAGAZINE when he got word of an underground music scene in New York called “no wave.” Although the word “no” usually implies something negative, Gira explains that, “this negativity was a positive gesture back then.” The no wave bands took the visceral immediacy of punk, stripped it of any discerning melody, and threw it at audiences in highly confrontational performances. It was concept art, really, and in 1982 Gira moved to New York to participate. Finding the movement dead on arrival, he formed his own movement with his own band, the Swans, and pals Sonic Youth. The new movement became known as “noise-rock” and while that may not be the most accurate title, the Swans did create enormous waves of sound that Gira describes as “very monolithic.” It was loud, heavy, and angry. Fifteen years and as many albums later, Gira disbanded the Swans without regret. By that point the band had progressed musically, developing a more orchestrated sound. In fact, it looked as if they were just beginning to reach a new creative peak, but Gira disagrees. “It was an onus,” he says, flatly. “It had such a history…it didn’t seem like something I could punch my way out of anymore.” So Gira moved on. His latest project, Angels of Light, is as worlds apart from the Swans as it is its next-of-kin. A musical collective that Gira periodically deconstructs and reassembles, Angels of Light affords him the freedom to take his music wherever he wants, without the burden of expectation. Even the ringmaster himself remains pleasantly surprised by the outcome. “I sit around here in my office and write the songs on acoustic guitar and then think about other people and how they fit with the song — even if they don’t play the instrument that they normally would,” he explains. “I gather people around me and orchestrate the songs with them.” For the new release, Angels of Light Sing Other People, Gira enlisted the help of Akron/Family, asking them to texture the songs with an eclectic array of melodic instruments. (Gira produced Akron/Family’s self-titled debut and released it on his Young God Records label this spring.) “One thing on this album that I intentionally did was to eschew drums completely,” he says. “I felt that throbbing rhythms had become a crutch for me, so I decided to eliminate that aspect and see what that opened up. I think it opened up a lot, actually.” Most of these songs first appeared — in stripped-down, barebacked versions — on Gira’s solo disc, I Am Singing to You From My Room, last fall. Haven’t heard of it? No, you probably haven’t. Gira released it in a limited edition of 1000 exclusively through his website, Fans who didn’t blink own something unique — each copy is individually signed and numbered with hand printed cover art. Like everything else in his life, Gira did almost all the work himself, including filling and shipping the orders. “As a musician, over the years I’ve learned the only way to survive really is to do maybe 20 different things. Between touring, these solo recordings, regular recordings, producing other people, it all ties in and finally I make a living, you know?” If only his cellmates could see him now.