Interview | Michael Gira

Tucson Weekly |Gene Armstrong

"The important thing to me about being a small label is being able to work with really honest and good people...."

PUBLISHED ON MAY 5, 2005: Angels and Family Michael Gira hits the road with his new, less-aggressive act--and a new musical discovery, too The Angels of Light Singer-songwriter Michael Gira sits in a motel room in South Dakota gazing out the window at a strip mall. He's on the phone, explaining why he doesn't really enjoy interviews with music journalists. To be fair, though, it's a topic I brought up. "Well, to be honest, (being interviewed) is one of my least favorite things to do. It's not because it's intrusive or offensive. I know it's necessary (to fully interest) people in the music, so they can more directly and fully listen to it." But interviews just feel kind of redundant to making music, the act of listening to music and the meanings contained in music, he says. "Lately, I have been listening to John Wesley Harding by Bob Dylan a lot," Gira says. "I have been listening to that album for years, since it came out, when I was something like 13 or so, and I never read an interview about him talking about this music. Not really until he wrote his book Chronicles, and that was different." In this age of mass media, though, Gira has found it necessary to subject himself to interviews for more than 20 years, first as the leader of the highly influential Swans, with the extreme sonic assault that broke new ground from 1982 to 1997 in the realms of industrial and grindcore music. Since 1999, Gira has helmed the less-aggressive Angels of Light, an avant-garde, folk-rock band that will return to Tucson for a concert Friday, May 6, at Plush. The fourth studio album by the Angels of Light is the unnervingly beautiful The Angels of Light Sing "Other People," which was released in March on Gira's label, Young God Records. The CD is a series of thoughtfully rendered character studies, from various points of view, intended as tributes to friends and acquaintances. Anchoring each tune is Gira's ominous baritone, which is rich and full but also creaks artfully between phrases and on held notes. The musical styles range from delicate lullabies to pizzicato minimalist rock soundscapes to Gothic death marches. For this album and concert tour, the Angels of Light consists of Gira and the 20-something members of the inventive young alternative rock quartet Akron/Family, who relocated from the American heartland to New York City in 2002, soon capturing the attention of Gira with their creativity. Akron/Family recently saw the release of its debut album on Young God, and is pulling double-duty on the current tour--as opening act and as Gira's back-up group in the Angels of Light. Gira, however, considers the fellows in Akron/Family to be his full-fledged collaborators on Other People. He wrote the songs by himself on acoustic guitar, and fleshed out the intricate orchestrations in rehearsals with the band. He especially appreciates "the wide palette of possibility" that Akron/Family brings to the arrangements. "I mean, they play like 20 instruments between them, and their ability to harmonize is flawless." As artist and label head, Gira is something of an impresario, discovering promising young acts--such as Devendra Banhart, Windsor for the Derby and Calla--and bringing them to the world's attention by releasing their music. Gira isn't averse to this image, he says. "The Akron/Family have taken to calling me 'The Puppeteer'," he chuckles. "From a purely promotional and cynical point of view, which I'm not, but it was one aspect that the strength of the label is my own fan base. I involved Devendra in my music, and brought him forward to a greater audience. Being so naturally gifted, he naturally rose from there." Gira is perfectly comfortable playing cheerleader, and is especially generous with his raves about his friends in Akron/Family. "I am very confident they are going to grow way beyond this. They have been getting an amazing response on this tour. Audiences are going through the roof. "When I saw them the other night in Minneapolis, it was one of the best rock performances I've ever seen. Watching from the side of the stage, it was like seeing Led Zeppelin at their peak; the musicianship is just so outrageous, and the sense of experimentation so strong." Gira notes that the Angels of Light and Akron/Family are preparing to record a split album together when the bands return from the current tour. Maintaining a music career and running Young God Records occupies most of Gira's life, but his Brooklyn-based label is truly a labor of love. "The important thing to me about being a small label is being able to work with really honest and good people. I have a final criterion for people I sign: I have to feel good about having them come into my home. You know, to have them in that personal space and see how they react to my dog and things like that." For Gira (and unlike much of the record business at large), working, performing and behaving with integrity always takes precedence over financial or artistic success. "I'd like the label to be successful, of course, but it's just as important to be sincere and honest and down-to-earth. That's why I write the press releases and things myself, and they come from me in the first person. It's not that omniscient journalistic narrator spewing accolades about this new band or that latest singer." Indeed, when you speak with him, Gira is disarmingly forthright and decent. He doesn't cop an attitude; he's friendly and polite, and he comes off as completely lacking in irony and cynicism. He says he never gets tired of playing the same songs every night. "I love that actually. I play the same set every night. I find it very interesting to discover something new in the songs each night, to explore different ways of playing them, such as changing that phrasing or expanding that section. I like looking at it like a stage play, and it has rising and falling action, and the ups and downs change with each performance. You'll find new body movements or ways to switch from song to song. It's this character-oriented kind of experience. "There are a lot of different things you can learn only by being out on the road, playing the same songs night after night, and I really like that."