ANGELS OF LIGHT | GIRASCOPEExtensive Article / Interview with M. Gira Since unburdening himself of Swans' legacy of extreme body music, Michael Gira has aspired to a state of grace with his new group Angels of Light.
The outermost city limits of Rome. A place where grey stone angels seem to wait for you round each corner, and Michael Gira"s afternoon is a transit through the usual rooms - motel, lobby bar, concert hall. His face, in Italian light, is a tired angel's vulpine skull, parchment skin, a bon viveur's what-me-worry lines. A frequent and animating smile rubs out the tiredness and replaces it with a kind of abashed glee, a delight in the absurdities of the day.
Even in Mediterranean heat he is crisply turned out in Oxford check, shirt and tie and brogues; a beautiful hat shades his bright, darting eyes from the sun. In repose, Gira's countenance is magnetic; photographs have been remiss, converting its diamond cast to a Mount Rushmore of ruminative fixity halo'd with gloom. Nothing about his work or Gira in the flesh supports this image. Many things in the world today induce an immediate and intense gloom in me, but Gira's dedication to his art and craft is not one of them.
With Swans - the group Gira birthed, brokered and buried - an End has come and gone and Gira is now in afterlife time. This may be why he calls his new gypsy group Angels of Light - to differentiate it from the hard body talk of Swans, a group as earthed as tectonic plates. Whatever, Swans now are a legacy, done and dusted, a museum of sound Gira will do his best to oversee, keeping that non pareil name out of a rocky mine where many would prefer it to remain. In another lifetime, some sense may be made of his massive legacy, which began in 1982 with four songs, and was wrapped in black bows with 1998's valedictory Swans Are Dead live double. Whereas so much alt.culture is a thin white whine, Swans always met the world head on with a body music as true as disco or dub. Listen now: hear the caterpillar-track grind lift and list and unfold into a beating of wings, a broad and lucent mesh lit up by voluptuous Eros as bony Thanatos.
In what passes for recorded wisdom, Swans have been assigned their place. But rather like Goya's death squads or Bacon's screaming Popes, the chosen imago is violently reductive. Swans were always as much Love of Life as Shame, Humility, Revenge.
"I thought the music, especially in its early, quote, heavy days, was so incredibly, amazingly uplifting," affirms Gira. "It felt so good! I just couldn't understand it! I guess maybe the sloganeering lyrics I used might have given people the wrong impression."
Gira lights up a cigarette, sips at a restorative biera and looks both ways at once: back to dead swans and forward to oblique angels.
"I still get that 'doom and gloom meister M.Gira' stuff and I'm so sick of it I don't even know what to say about it. I mean, SURE, I GET DEPRESSED- WHO DOESN'T? - but it usually ends up being nourishing because I withdraw for a while and draw on things that are inside me."
If you were truly depressed you wouldn't produce so much. "Yeah! I work my ass off. I'm really, intensely interested in enjoying and getting some essence out of living. I'm not like this simpering.FOP."
He lets out a great hoppity hare of a laugh. He laughs a lot, Michael Gira; he may have recently penned "My Suicide" ("One of my best songs") but he isn't a suicidal guy. There is a bluesman aspect to Gira; a rough-hewn American, given over neither to blanket optimism nor therapeutic whim. Pragmatic; poetic. Hard working; hard living. Abrasive;affirmative. Picture it, now: Gira as far nearer Howlin' Wolf than the simpering FOPS of U.S. alt. or post-industrial rock.
"Yeah, I don't care about that shit.but I wouldn't dream of putting myself in the company of Howlin' Wolf though. What a genius, man! What a singer! I drove across America a couple of times by myself constantly listening to Howlin' Wolf. You can't even approach him! Just so essential.almost like an opera singer, he goes from this deep guttural thing from the pit of his stomach right up to falsetto. It's amazing, beautiful, completely intuitive at the same time."
One reason Gira won't accept my "born under a bad sign" map refs is that he thinks those blues guys probably had one hell of a time. Onstage; the blues. Offstage; sharp suits, good food, nourishing liquor, a new mama in every old town. And their audience loved them in their refusal to lie down among the root vegetables and rubber-type shoe soles of their supposed station. Rock has far less flexible ideas about "authenticity", and alt.fanboys need to see their icons "living out" certain caricatural roles. . Swans' demise was inevitable, if only because Gira was leaving behind the places an increasingly custodial audience clung to.
"It started to get very frightening looking out into the audience and seeing a sea of greasy, barely post-adolescent males pounding their heads," recalls Gira. "I realized I wanted nothing to do with that world. Also, hopefully, I caught self-parody pretty quickly and decided that to go on like that would be stupid. I deserved better. So I put myself into a different situation and tried to make different kinds of records that did not have to rely on that pummeling aspect."
So Gira began to listen again - to Bob Dylan and Neil Young and others; a bridge into both a quieter Song and a longer career. A certain age, you begin to cast around, vexed now by the music industry's emphasis on perpetual adolescence. Maybe Leonard Cohen runs through your tired head, and you try and discern how these venerated elders have performed their magic act of non-obsolescence, dignified labor, golden repetition. In the long run, it adds up to something more effectively "revolutionary" than any short term fizzle and pop.
The defining event for Gira was his sole attempted negotiation with a major label. Produced by Bill Laswell, The Burning World (MCA 1989) was an attempt to hollow a softer song out of the pig iron of Swansound. It predicted Gira's current "singer/songwriter" turn, to sing something simpler, with "just myself and one instrument and not rely on the overkill of volume." But whatever its aesthetic merits - and I think Gira is far too harsh on this period, just released on the Various Failures compilation - on a personal level it was akin to meeting Mephistopheles on Main Street. "It was totally devastating, in every way imaginable," he remembers, "It sapped my confidence as a singer, as a songwriter, as a musician. Financially, it was a disaster the took me five years to recover from. One of the worst professional experiences I've ever had. Although I enjoyed working with Bill Laswell - and respect him tremendously - I should have had more confidence and produced the record myself. It would have been more me."
So, further on down the road, we meet a new Gira song. The same song, in a way, just breathing different air(s). Angels of Light is Gira's new loose acoustic assembly, and the songs on the just-released New Mother are chequerboard chamber pieces, hymns of praise and tenderness, awe and enquiry. If he can still make John Cale's Music For A New Society sound like the Wedding March, his most beautiful songs here are as "up" as Gira has ever sounded.
"Yeah, they're all like little hagiographies. I really tried to step beyond my usual ways of working in Swans - which relied too much on obsession and visceral imagery, which I'd like to get away from - and just write about what came to mind."
What came into Gira's mind makes up quite a palette - literally. "Inner Female" is a paean to Francis Bacon, written "from his point of view, using his imagery, about his brutal all-out approach to living". "The Garden Hides The Jewel" is an exquisite resetting of a Duchamp installation, which has long haunted Gira. "The Man With The Silver Tongue" invokes Viennese "body artists" Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler. New Mother's tentative acoustic spoor may be soundly unSwans, but it circles a familiar Gira region: on canvas and in extremis.the Body, covered.
Gira's other work in progress is the "soiled-ambient" probe of Body Lovers/Haters, which is another sonic world again. Although far from the strummed yet lapidary eroticism of New Mother, they similarly start out simple, and then "let things accrue", or, add shades of "orchestration". Such syntax suggests the tactile acts of applying paint or editing film. The bristling lament of Body Lovers/Haters could be a strip of sonic fil run through some clanky old editing machine scratched, bleached, exposed.
"That's exactly how I made that record," he says. "I just kept hacking away at it. I had huge boxes of cassette recordings and loops and things I'd made. And I'd record a bunch of new ideas, then dump everything together into a computer and record over it further - or match them - cut them up - slow them down - turn them around - until the thing was finally exhausted."
Music as material to be manipulated? I think of the (lost) world of New York avant garde film: Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Robert Frank, Jack Smith. These pants-seat pioneers were fundamentally American in their foraging for a radical, new "urban frontier" spirit, but they forged themselves by the distant incitements of European modernism. Ditto Gira: body forger, repo man of sound, stateless cartographer.
Deren's trademark recordings of Haitian Voodoo ceremonies start out in bird chirrups, communal breathing, rooster thoughts.and end up calling down a bruising, catalytic Other from the mother sky. In London recently, Angels of Light pulled off a similar feat: starting out ethereal, they locked into a modal flightpath which pulled the breath from your lungs. Just as I was once truly Spooked by the to-and-fro of Swans Are Dead: drones build, overtones whistle, discrete elements coalesce into a worrying dust devil presence.
"It was really ecstatic to play that material (Swans Are Dead)," remembers Gira. "Really transporting. Just the physical intensity of the sound and the intense concentration it took to make it was really elating. Just the adrenalin, I guess, the effect the music had on your body. Usually after a tour it was a couple of months of depression."
Critics can be expansive about music entering its audience, but have little to say about how it sounds to the performers, whose experience remains closed to us. Gira nods vaguely. "Well, that was my selfish reason for making Swans music to begin with - which was just to hear the sound I wanted to hear.and be overwhelmed by something."
Where did Swans fall from? Hearing them for the first time, in the dead dog days of the mid-80's, was like coming upon some Gaudi miracle: a big, bold profane cathedral of sound. Gira was never one to rest on his laurels though. Draw a dream graph, today: plot the routes Swans took by indexing Jarboe's credits on successive departures - from simple "vocals, scream" to beckoning "vocals, backing vocals, mirage" to a final resplendent place of "choral/orchestratral arrangement". Song became a golden bow lifting out of deep blue murk - but some kind of urgent communication has always sprung from Gira's lips. Swans grew under the dark sun of a split psyche, fed by Gira's ferocious sense of ego and itch to control.but also this quasi-ethical dream of reaching for something higher, better, holier. Live, Swans had the definite feel of a necessary ritual - a tight radius of enacted calibration being the first and best ultimate way Gira found to step beyond the rigid "I" and connect out, join the audience.
"That's what music is!" he affirms. "You know who I found inspirational in that regard, in the early days, was Glenn Branca: Intensely egomaniacal and focused, totally obsessed.but the music he makes is frankly spiritual, totally transcendent. It's like certain devotional or religious music, or Mozart's Requiem, pieces that really reach these grand heights - that's what he's really going for. I worked on one piece he did and that was a tremendously influential experience. Not so much from the point of view of sound or style - but just going for the absolute transcendent epiphany in sound.
"That's also what I liked about Hermann Nitsch. I was in one of his performances back in LA, 78 or 79, just as an assistant. It was a relentless onslaught of sound - he'd gathered a variety of punk musicians and street musicians and they were just blowing into these horns as loud as the could for probably six or eight hours, and there was blood and carcasses, and this ritual went on and on, and after a while the wine was flowing and the blood was two feet deep in the room and it just reached this point where you gave up and just fell into this pagan ritual. It was beautiful."
Music as elevation, callused fingertips scraping at the beyond. Gira was vouchsafed a vision of this early on - music as total event - which was perhaps only confirmed by Branca and Nitsch. Young and on the lam - and full of LSD - he attended a free festival in Belgium, with a line-up so good it's gotta be apocryphal: Pre-Moon Pink Floyd, The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Amon Duul, and other rock/experimental outfits. This confluence of bowel opening music and brain opening chemicals was truly epiphanic to Gira: a cruel theater that reminds you that you have a body, but also that you might transcend it; music seen not merely as a social badge or compendium of "good" solos, but something dizzyingly elemental.
"That's what I always EXPECTED music to be! One of the first concerts I went to as a kid was Blue Cheer!" He laughs uproariously like this needs no further comment. "I grew up in Southern California, started taking acid when I was about 11 or 12, was caught up in the whole hippy movement, and to me, it was just axiomatic that music was supposed to just wash through your mind and clean it."
The adolescent body, innately irruptive yet agitated further by blue sunshine and sonic boom.no careers advice necessary here then. As Gira describes it, his adolescence reads like a knife edge paradigm of a once mandatory teenage loop: low life brushes, derangement of the senses, existential verification. His California is likewise one of the other Californias: eggbox housing, teenage boredom, cheap drugs, big dreams channelled into petty crimes. A white trash lost continent kept in memoriam by Fante, Bukowski, Towne, Mike Davis; the oubliette LA of Nathaniel West's thwarted Locusts, or James Rechy's City of Night, whose city angels are numb teenage hustlers. Most of all perhaps James Ellroy's dark pages.
"Oh well, see, that's the LA of my parents (the time Ellroy writes about). They met at UCLA - my mother was a campus debutante, my dad was on a basketball scholarship - they were a classic post-war optimist couple.that quickly degenerated into alcoholism. LA is a disaster now, but when I was a kid, you could still walk from my house through the gullies and fields, all the way down to the beach where I used to surf and take drugs. It was really almost rural in certain areas. Now every square inch is filled in with manicured lawns or tract homes. It's really a nightmare."
Gira's grimy life is one few current rockboys would recognize, unless they've read about it in Genet, Kerouac, Sam Shepard.
"I got arrested so many times for drugs and vandalism and breaking and entering and things, the police decided that my mother wasn't capable of taking care of me - she was an alcoholic - so they sent for my father, and he took me first to Indiana - he was a business executive - and then later to Europe. I promptly ran away and hitchhiked around Europe, and later ended up working in a factory his new wife's stepmother owned in Germany for a year. My father's company had a perk that they would put me in a Swiss school until the age of 18. I just refused to go, so he said, "Right, if you won't go to school then you're working in this factory". He thought I'd last a month or two, and I ended up working there a year! And after a year he said ' OK, now you're going to school.' And I ran away and I hitchhiked around Europe and I ended up in Israel where I spent about a year panhandling, selling my blood, working on a kibbutz, working in a copper mine, just generally doped out, a vagrant. Finally, I was arrested there for selling hashish, spent some time in jail, and then went back to California. I tried to go to high school but just couldn't. It was too surreal for me to be in this middle class suburban high school after the experiences I'd had. I quit and I worked some construction jobs, and saw how pointless that was for me. So I took a test and got into college, then went to art school."
There to be refashioned and end up a cover line in Artforum? Not so fast, now: as with many of us in the liminal 70's, punk's rude interruption put paid to any such dreams of stepping-stone culture.
"Punk to me was just SO relevant!" Gira flashes a great big Xmas smile. "The first time I heard it on the radio driving down the Hollywood freeway it was just YES!" He bangs a phantom dashboard. "It seemed much more relevant to real life and to culture. Even though I liked certain artists, it just seemed to me that the art world was this sequestered, elitist enterprise - it had nothing to do with real life."
When Gira wants to cut off discussion about someone he doesn't like, he calls them "foppish"(or "precious" or - eek! - "too English"). Conversely, his higher terms of praise (he is not a man who gushes indiscriminate praise) center on "solipsistic" - alone, or in conjunction with "autodidact". This would suggest dissimulated vanity (approving only those qualities he sees in himself), or a way of honouring those people who once turned his world around. Like the firefight of punk, certain French texts delivered an incendiary power: an entirely other way of seeing/saying things, outside traditional channels. Certain writers shift (or obliterate) the boundary line between life and letters of fire. From certain signs, I'd always assumed that Georges Bataille must once have touched Gira in a turnaround way. "A bit too precious" he avers; he always preferred the go-wilder shores of Rimbaud, Lautreamont, Celine and Genet. Autodidacts. Solipsists. Body lovers/haters.
"The thing I liked about Genet was the solipsism, the maniacal solipsism - his refusal to accept 'reality' and his insistence on dictating reality on his own terms and just refusing any kind of constraint upon his imagination. Also, I identified with him because I first started reading books seriously when I was in jail in Israel.the prison library had 120 Days Of Sodom, Genet, Oscar Wilde." He hoots in disbelief. "And that's how I started to read - there was nothing else to do but just masturbate and read!"
A critic once described Genet's project as "masturbating the world": the ultimate onanist, merging sacred and profane into one(handed)gesture. Gira's most cerebral work likewise comes down to the blunt (f)acts of of bodily routine - as if Song might turn to air all that would otherwise be an unbearable agitation deep in his cells.
"Well, I remember in the early days of Swans one of the things I wanted was to completely erase my body with the music. I felt it was this agglomeration of cannibalistic molecules that just needed to be dissipated - like a Dali painting where you see the paint atomizing. I just couldn't stand my own physical presence. Maybe it had to do with taking LSD - sometimes you just feel the weight. Maybe it had to do with a lack of comfort with my sexuality. Or maybe just a kinda unreality about living that I gained at an early age from taking a lot of LSD and watching a lot of television - because even when I was in a prison cell in Israel, nothing really seemed to have any kind of consequence."
So how did this itchy, schizzy kid find his voice, first break into song? "When I first started singing I was in a really terrible punk band in LA and I think I probably sang about two octaves higher than I do now, because I took a lot of methadrine! Then I went to New York, and I had another band which was really atrocious. I did an EP with Swans, and I still didn't really have my voice. Once I started opening the music up, making it slower, filling in the soace with my voice, I found the place in my stomach I could sing from."
It sounds like a fable, and maybe it's a boy in search of his Silver Tongue. Gira's trajectory might be limned as the search for his own lost chord, four-finger host for a feeling of lost wholeness. Early lyrics evince what can only be called Womb Envy, when it's not nostalgia: Swans' titles worked a distinctively medial zone of ambivalence between, oh, "Public Castration(Is A Good Idea)" and "Anonymous Bodies(In an Empty Room), between "Sex,God,Sex" and "Money Is Flesh": between utopian hope and utilitarian humping. Songs where "Skin is hanging off in sheets", and the firstborn is "a red sack full of failure/infested with my future crumbs", are Gira at his most Sartrean: if hell is other people, intimacy is the poisoned chalice. It pre dates dating, too - with the mother/child scene being only the first time "you kept me hanging on". Like tattoos he can't decide whether to flaunt or have erased, the words 'MOTHER' and 'FATHER" seem never far from Gira's lyrical mind: "I am evil, and unrepentant, just like my father before me" (from the New Mother song "Shame"). Had he consciously seeded this figurative loop, or would he really rather not know about the shadow - the pivotal thing that psychanalyst Serge Leclaire calls or 'narcissistic wound' - behind his Song?
"Although I don't want to get too specific, it would be the intense grotesque alcoholism of my mother. That's something that I'm really coming to grips with right now, how she inhabits me. I used to witness her sitting alone in a room drinking for days and days, talking to herself, full blown conversations by herself, in the same stinky bathrobe she wore every day. She had a complete interior resentment and hatred of the world. Although I was always kinda cavalier about any effect it might have had on me in the past, I'm now examining more and more how she lives inside me."
He isn't interested in analysis or therapy? "Nah, self indulgent. I think it's part of the challenge, to deal with your problems yourself. Although certain aspects.I mean, normally I'm revolted by it, people baring their problems in public and feeling this need to quote, share, which is like wanting to smell someone's armpits or something!"
The son is shining now with sardonic splendor. "On the other hand, I think it is healthy to look at how.what would normally be called 'evil' or violence, and how that transfers from generation to generation. How personal relationships bleed from one generation into another - the father's cruelty transfers into the son, who then finds that aspect in himself.my father's generation would have shut themselves off from those questions. Stoic: they had to be stoic."
As far as drinking goes, has he ever felt torn between the bad seed of his Bottle and wanting to make a clean start? "Oh, I would never do that," he protests. "I went to AA for a couple of years when I was a kid. When I finally got off drugs, I just wandered back to California, and somehow I ended up in an NA or an AA meeting. In retrospect, I realized just how cultish it was, the whole group mentality thing.people sharing their horrible feelings." He pauses. Another sardonic gleam. "So no, I would never do that. I had a period where alcoholism was really a problem, where I realized I'd been spending about 14 hours a day in the bar. I can't say, because it would be a clichÃ© - 'I have it under control now', but it doesn't go to the depths it once did."
Don't most men go through some kind of odd or 'lost' transitional period round about 30? Where fear of time's onrush pushes them into.
"Panic! Fear of complete uselessness?" The laughter now is in a higher gear: owlish, self-damning, fond, all at once. He continues : "I do think I've gotten better at disciplining myself in my work and criticizing myself and refusing to let bad things go out into public domain. I'm struggling now at a personal level to try and not be such an EVIL person." The raconteur's twinkle lights up his straight-man face. "But I'm not sure I've accomplished that."
It's worth noting that in the time I spend with Gira, he is evenly courteous to everyone. In the past, he feels that his temper had let him down, even damaged Swans' arc of opportunity. "I had a really bad attitude!" he testifies. "I alienated a lot of people and I didn't realize until very recently that not only wasn't it wise - from a pragmatic or career point of view - it's also just not good and not healthy.I mean, I have the reputation of being an incredible asshole. I mean, really. I had no respect for the music industry. People - maybe they're misguided, maybe they're just venal - they still deserve respect. It's a skill I just never learned. Maybe I've learned it now. This band doesn't hate me now! Most groups of people I've worked with ended up hating me."
Whoah there, Sisyphus. What about his good qualities? "My good qualities?" Gira parrots in disbelief. "I'm still struggling to discover them, trying not to be such a bad person. It's terrifying for me to think that.obviously I'm going to die and by the time I'm lying on my death bed I might have blown it. I will have to have done something worthwhile."
Meaning, in practical terms."Just keep working. Fortunately, I'm not relying on record labels now so I just do it no matter what I have to do.it's what I do."
He just has to because.he hears the ether sound of a certain Song always just out of reach, because he's maybe the last of a certain raggedy lineage - Kerouac slurring and belligerent on a slick chat show, Sam Shepard and his father alike as two worms in a mescal bottle. Genet sleeping rough, Sartre frazzling his Being to Nothingness with daily amphetamines - because he's wholly American, because he's a little bit German, because they love him in Finland, because he hitchhiked and is hitchhiking still, because surely to Sex-God-Sex there's got to be something better, less boring than oh pornography or born-again Puritans.something better, for all our bodies.
And it takes a while, but one morning you hear this newborn sound, then realize it's Michael Gira's warmth seeping out into a cold, cold world: it's not sundered limbs and sulfurized bodies and dead places he's singing now, it's mothers and lovers and any number of loved others.and so you get ready to drop your own final reluctance, reaching now for what surely lies on the other side of.
"Yeah." The born again angel/demon reaches for his dandy's hat and readies himself for one more exit, one more room, one more departure. "Yeah. I usually just kinda leap into situations and then claw my way out of them.you know?"