Interview | M. GiraRough transcript MS: You've been working with, in and around music for over twenty years...
MG: I started my first band in 1978, so... 23 years?
MS: Pretty good... I'd call that experienced.
MG: Pretty bleak if you ask me! (laughter) I regret the day.
MS: How did it happen, actually? What made you decide to do music?
MG: Punk rock, definitely. I was at art school,
always thought I would be
an artist, always was an artist, drew constantly...I used to obsess . I had
notebooks full of drawings. I would draw fifty drawings a day. Just draw,
draw, draw... Then I got to art school and I got more interested in video
and performance art, and conceptual art, which was the "happening thing" at
the time, and I threw myself into that. But really, when I first heard the
Sex Pistols on the radio while driving down the Hollywood Freeway, I just
knew that was kind of what I wanted. Simultaneously, there was this huge
punk gig in L.A. All of these bands played at some Elks Lodge in a Benefit
concert for a club called The Masque, which was where all the punk bands
played and which had been shut down by the police. Bands like X, The Germs,
The Screamers, The Conformers,The Weirdos, The Plugz.who else, I can't
remember.. Just every L.A. band played. I brought my video camera from the
art school I attended, which was right around the corner, and I videotaped
it. I still had long hair at the time, and I remember Margot Go-Go from the
Go-Go's ridiculing me because I had long blonde hair - that was the lowest
you could be. I was on the stage and she kept grabbing my hair and trying
to pull me off the side of the stage.. It was really funny. I didn't
really decide that I wanted to
be in a band just yet, I started this magazine in Los Angeles called "No
Magazine" and it was a
newsprint magazine about the size of New York Press or something. My friend
and I scraped our money together and did it. We interviewed all the bands,
plus we had pornography, writing and art in there. Through that, I started
to get to know a lot of people in the music scene, and of course I had
already cut my hair by then - I had a complete spiked haircut. hah! You
know, I did the first interview with the Go-Go's that they
ever did, actually, for that magazine, once they had formed.
MS: Wow! So VH-1 should have consulted you for "Behind the Music!"
MG: I was at every punk gig in la. Once I got
involved I was at every gig.
I saw the Go-Go's play
twenty times. There was this great band called The Screamers, whose music
I'm now trying to locate, 'cause I really want to release it on the label.
They were an aggressive, synthesizer electronic band, with drums, two
synthsizers and a singer. It was
really great... kind of essential... really good music. And then
eventually, inevitably, I started a
band, and I was the singer, and my own band fired me because I was so awful.
MG: I was completely distraught, you know. I
was listening to music that
was happening in New York, like on the "No New York" record that just came
Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, DNA, and Mars... The band Suicide had a huge
influence on me too. We had an interview with Alan Vega... So I just moved
to New York, because I thought that it was a more interesting place for
music. L.A. punk rock was kind of regimented and conservative, musically...
it was aggressive, sonically and on stage, but musically it was kind of
conservative. I liked the more aggressive noise-tings that were going
on around here. So I moved here, to New York, and started another band,
which was pretty awful.
That lasted about year, and broke up. And then I started Swans. That was
MS: With regard to tracking down The Screamers,
have you checked Napster?
Personally, I have mixed feelings about the use of the site and the
software, but apropos the internet, what is your sense of the possibilities
of the web and it's potential? On the
one hand, you've got a website, and on the other, there is the unfortunate
"free trade" of (your) music through sites such as Napster...
MG: I just look at the internet as information
with lots of tentacles going
out around the world. Our website is factual and textbook-like... I don't
want it to be flashy, visually. I want it to be very severe, clear, and
have it just provide information. But I know that there are - well, not a
lot, maybe ten or twelve people around the world - that
Are interested in what we are doing (laughs), so I just want to make what we
do available to
those people. Since distribution in various parts of the world is a
nightmare, and since there is no venue in which to get this music out on,
for instance, the dreaded MTV or commercial radio, it's just one more way to
get the tentacles out for new and interesting
music. So that's what we are doing, and we're working pretty hard at it.
MS: How much product does the Young God website move?
MG: That's too bleak. Let's not talk about that.
MS: How many hats do you have?
MS: OK, seriously, this whole Napster thing,
what are your thoughts on this
"free trade" of published music on the internet?
MG: If it infringes on my ability, and the ability
of the artists on my
label, to make money from our music, I think it's horrible, because I and
everyone I know that is in music go through incredible hardship to be able
to even make a record, or to even make
music at all. And then to have the idea that some spoiled-brat college
student is downloading it for free, just because he thinks it's cool, is
horrible. If it were one thing, like a single, that's fine, but to be able
to get the whole record for free and
never buy it - I think that's horrible - I mean, how are people going to
make music? I guess the whole major label issue is a different matter - but
the bands on major labels usually have incredibly horrible deals, and they
don't get paid, and they should get paid. I've been on a major label - it's
a nightmare! And I know how those things work. And even people
who are really huge, say, Metallica... it's not like they suddenly made a
million dollars. They
worked their asses off! They toured, probably 300 dates a year! As far as
I'm concerned, aside from what I think about their music, they deserve to be
rich. They worked their asses off - nobody just gave it to them. It's
their property, and they have a right to it. I'll compare it to a book.
Cormack McCarthy wrote a book, "Child of God," one of his best
books, and if that were just free everywhere and he didn't get paid for it,
I would think it an incredible injustice. So, I don't like it at all. But
that doesn't mean that it's not inevitable,it just means that the fact of
being a musician is made even more difficult or impossible.I don't know...
it may end up being that way. I don't see it from the point of
view like, "Yeah, we're gettin' over on the Man," or the powers that be... I
just look at the people
that actually make the music and struggle to do so, and then don't get paid
for what they do.
MS: Last time we interviewed, you told me a bit
about the album you were
working on at the time and described the new songs as "love songs," which in
a certain context is quite apparent, but there is surely a lot more to it.
Care to elaborate?
MG: Well, yes, all of them actually are love
songs in one way or another,
but I didn't start out with that agenda in mind. I'm not making a big
statement about it or anything...it's just that things which preoccupy me at
any given moment are what I write about.
That's what has been on my mind for the last couple of years. So yeah, some
songs are frankly sentimental deifications of certain women, others ones are
vilifications, I guess. One of them is about Nico, or "For Nico," and that
just stems from having had a period of time where I listened to "The Marble
Index" and "Desert Shore" over and over.
I guess that I fell in love with her in a way... I was just incredibly,
erotically aroused by her... I just wanted to fuck her, basically...
(laugher) because she implies everything I admire about certain women: the
strengths, the coldness and the hidden vengeance... I
always liked that aspect. Also, I think that those albums are incredibly
beautiful in terms
of the production and the outstanding arrangements by John Cale. So I was
just obsessed with that, wrote a song, and I kind of melded her with a
couple of other women in there, in my mind, and so I just played to them.
Another song, "New York Girls," is an homage to a certain type of New York
"rock girl," that I've seen around since in moved to New York in '79. You
you see the same girl, maybe with a black leather coat, or a t-shirt, and
she's really smart, strong,
and probably cynical, but usually with a voluptuous soft-white
you see these girls - I've seen them since the early days - and I go to a
gig now, and they
are still there. It's the same phenomenon. And I don't know where they
"My True Body" is an elliptical love song in that its about an experience I
had as a kid - I was a runaway. I went to Europe with my father and ran
away, and I
spent a lot of time just hitchhiking around, and somehow ended up in
Israel.When I arrived in Israel, I believe that I was fourteen going on
fifteen. Somehow I managed to get in there. I was with a couple of older
hippie-guys who were ushering me through this
"life on the road" process. We slept in old barns alongside the road and
panhandled. They had a contact in Israel, so we ended up getting into
Israel, and I spent a year there, just living off the streets, selling my
blood, panhandling, and selling drugs.
I got arrested for selling drugs, so I spent a total of three and a half
months in jail there.I ended up in
an adult prison by some obscure miscarriage of justice, but fortunately I
was pretty much
protected by the American vagabond contingent that was in there. We stayed
in an old army barracks and we were mixed in with Arabs, of which there were
an abundance in jail... So the Arabs would be on one side of the barracks
and the European-vagabond
hippie-derelicts were in the other, and most of us had been arrested for
drugs. Every night, I would hear and see this young Arab being raped
repeatedly by twenty or so different guys, in the mouth, particularly. It
would be dark, and there was a huddled mass working him over, and he would
be crying and protesting. Then he would shuffle across the concrete floor
in these slippers, go to the communal sink, throw up, brush his
teeth, and shuffle back. The other prisoners would snicker a bit, this
process would repeat itself the next night. So that song ("My True Body")
is sung through my idealized, romanticized version of this young saint.
It's kind of a love song in the sense
that it's about sex and passion through his eyes... (laughs) so in that
sense it's a typical love song.
Other songs are simple love songs, such as the first two in particular,
"Evangeline" and "Untitled Love Song." Then there is "My Suicide," which I
guess is an embittered hate song (laughs), but that belongs in the category
of love as well. So they all turn out to be, loosely anyways, love songs.
The songs were written on acoustic guitar, and then I got my great bevy of
musicians together, and we started to rehearse for live shows and develop
organically through that process. The arrangement process is pretty
collaborative. People will come
up with an idea, and I'll direct it, or I'll have an idea and I'll sing it,
and people will develop it. The arrangements on this record were pretty
much developed by all of us in a collaborative way... Most of the musicians
usually come up with their part first, and I'll guide them, or they just do
it and it works great. I don't really know how to work as an
arranger, per se, in the sense that I just keep hacking away at things until
they sound right.
MS: Do you submit a basic track for them to work on independently, or...?
MG: Usually I give people cassette tapes, but
the real work takes place in
the rehearsal studio. This record was recorded after we played several gigs
performing most of these songs, and they developed. "New City in the
Future" was just a little guitar song, and that became this thirteen-minute
thing just from playing it live, trying to hone it down, get into the
Dynamics of it, and the complete sonic overload sections. We just kept
building it and building it, and we played that on the last Angels of Light
tour, and it kept getting longer and longer, and more developed. I like
MS: How long did it actually get to be on stage?
MG: Twenty minutes long? (laughter) On the record
it's about thirteen
MS: You've got a lot of people involved on "How
I Loved You" who either
contributed to the last record, "New Mother," or perhaps toured with you as
a band, all of whom seem to bring in their own sensibilities and
personality. Maybe this is a stupid question, but is this something that
you are planning on developing further right now, or are you concentrating
on other things?
MG: This is probably the last record I will have
recorded of my own music (
and I'm not talking about producing other people here) whre I use a full
band - all at once, in a recording studio. and
that's mainly due to financial reasons, though business isn't such a bad
impetus. The way I record
is kind of antedeluvian, just the assumtion that one has the budget to go
into a 24-track studio for immense amounts of time, build things ups and
record in that fashion. It just doesn't make sense to spend that kind of
money, actually, at all. I mean ,I continually overspend. I've gone into
debt for every single record I've ever made, and I keep rolling over the
debt and moving on, and it's reached an endgame point where I'm just not
going to do it anymore.
It's just stupid. So I'm going to get the usual "Pro-Tools" to record songs
Here at home and just invite people over to add slight, little
orchestrations. This is the last big-sounding thing I'm probably ever going
to do, unless for some reason I actually sell a million records. But I don't
think that's such a bad way of making this decision - I think that necessity
dictates, and often hardship will force people into thinking in new ways,
and I'm certainly going to do that in my case. That's my plan for the next
record, to not go through that shit again, because it's just such a
stressful nightmare. It's just a nightmare! I
see the money running out, and I have to scramble to get more money, and
before you know it,I've dug
myself into such a deep pit so that it'll never break even. So yeah, that's
the last time I'll ever work that way. Live will be a different issue.
Aside from a hopeful Angels of Light tour, which might end up being a Young
God Records tour with several of the bands if I can pull that together
financially. I was thinking of doing a solo acoustic tour, and see what
happens with that.
MS: So you just have to weigh your plans and be realistic.
MG: But you have to think in those ways in this
modern world of music.
Major labels and their media affiliates have everything so sewn up that the
whole world for music like what we do and interesting music has shrunk, you
know, except maybe through the internet. I'm hoping our website will help us
reach our natural audience.
MS: Let's talk about Young God. How did you come about making your own
MG: It began initially with our horrible experience
of being on a major
label, which was the most devastating professional experience I ever had.
ruined me financially and psychically for a long time. It was so damaging
in every way. At the
time, there was a really great distributer in America, Rough Trade, which
was really big, completely independent, and which put out really great
music. They offered us a label deal, so I started my own label, so to
speak. I went downtown, got a dba, and
scraped enough money together to make another record, did a re-release, and
a side-project, and released them. Things were going really well, and of
course, six months later, Rough Trade went bankrupt, and I'd lost all the
money I'd invested, never got paid... it was a nightmare. Somehow, I managed
to scrape things together and record another record, and I just
started using the name Young God Records, put it on the album, and licensed
it as finished records to various people. That went on for another several
years, and yeah, pretty much the usual independent records nightmare.
Finally, after a while I finally had some decent management, and they
managed to work out a deal with our present distributor, Revolver, who are
really good, honest and devoted. This was a couple of years ago . Once I
had found a stable situation again with a distributor, I could be a real
label once again, and I started to think about expanding the label and
putting out music that I think needs a voice, or music that I just respond
to and think is great. So I just started looking around for things, and
whenever I'd across something I thought would justify itself financially I'd
put it out. There's no overriding aesthetic except that the music be
interesting and not leashed to any particular genre... I guess that I have
certain sonic proclivities... I don't know if David Coulter has much to do
with Flux, but both produce interesting music in a different ways. It's
important to me that the label have a very specific look and feel, that it
be sort of a library with a specific identity that people who buy one thing
can be reasonably assured that if they are going to buy something else that
it's going to be interesting too, and maybe fit within their world. So I
guess that I've done what they now call odiously enough "branding"- I make
the label real clear in terms of how it is presented. That idea was kind of
inspired by labels like Impulse and Blue Note,
and later Factory Records, and maybe 4AD to a certain extent, all of whom
had very specific styles. That's the reason for the uniform look of the
packaging. I want the label to be an entity in itself, because that's going
to give strength to each individual thing that I put out.
I was just asked this question by someone at CMJ, whether I wanted the bands
to be identified as Young God Records bands, and that's adamantly not the
case. I don't want people to subsume their identity into it - I just want
the label to have a strong identity. I
don't sign people for anything more than one record. I don't want to be
responsible for someone's career in the music business, god forbid. I just
want to put out single records that I think are interesting. I mean, if
someone wants to put out a second one, that's fine, but I don't want to
leash anyone into a contract. Our deals are very simple: 50-50 after
expenses,which is honest and incredibly fair. And yeah, I want to be as
artist friendly as possible, and still survive. Basically, it's a way of
trying to be completely outside of the normal music business and put out
music to a growing audience that's interested
in challenging sounds.
MS: As an artist running own label, along with
a website, it's inevitably a
way for you to control your own work
MG: it's always been a struggle to have complete
control over the music -
and it's financial aspects as well. Then the shit like "publicity" comes
up... I really don't want anything to do with that. I just want to say,
"Here's what I do. Buy it if you're interested." Cut out everything else.
I don't hire publicists, radio promo people, or anything like that. In fact,
in our press releases there is a disclaimer stating that no one will call
you, no one will bother you to write about us or put you on your radio
playlist. If you are interested, here it is. I just don't want to get into
that. I've spent so much money on publicists, you know? To me, it's kind
of a subspecies of human. (laughter) It's like the gabby girl in school -
it's very clique oriented. OK, people have to make a living. Sure, plenty
publicists are fine people. In fact, one of my best friends is a publicist
at a major label, so what am I saying? (laughter) But anyway, I just don't
want to get into that or any of the anxiety that comes along with it. "Did
you call someone? What did they say?" I don't care. I just send the stuff
out, and if they respond to it, fine! If not, we'll survive.
MS: Is bad press better than no press?
MG: Well, I don't know. I've certainly had my share of the former!
MS: Not to delve on your past history Swans too
much, since it's part of
another era, and since it involves others, but for those who are out there,
and who don't
really know who you are and what you are doing, would you suggest Swans as a
valid reference point to where you find yourself now?
MG: Sure! I mean, Swans was a major part of my
life. I put everything I
had into it for fifteen years! I worked twenty-four hours a day on that
thing for fifteen years! I'm surprised that I'm still alive! I don't know
if I'm proud of it, but it's definitely part of who I am. It was a
monumental struggle, and I don't know how I did it! But of course, I also
had great, joyous moments performing, where I think that it was amazing
music. So I don't know what to say about Swans - you can go to the website
and get all kinds of quotes on that, if you want.
MS: Yeah, but I guess that what I'm getting at
is I wonder, do you feel
removed from it at this point, even though it is a part of you?
MG: Oh yeah, it's dead. It's dead and gone. Sometimes
I look at it, even
getting involved in music, as an incredibly terrible life decision (laughs),
including pursuing that beast for so long in the face of usual rejection and
hopelessness. But I have a terrible character flaw, which is that I don't
give up. That can be a good quality, but in my case,
if you cut off someone's finger, and they don't say "uncle," and then you
cut off their hands, and they don't say "uncle," and you cut off their arms
and legs and they still don't say "uncle"... That's not a good quality.
They should say uncle, you know? (laughs) But I guess, well, here I am: a
legless, armless torso!
MS: Would you sell your pinky for $250,000?
MG: You bet! From my right hand, 'cause I don't
need it from my right hand.
I don't finger the guitar with it. I think that would be an amazingly
effective artwork, because it would call into question all the aspects of
commerce and art. hah! It would also be a definite object which would
convey someone's commitment, or their need to be locked up!
MS: Maybe you should put it up on Ebay?
MG: I had it up on the Swans site, for sale for
a while, but no one bid!
I'd definitely do it. Well, I'm not sure that I would, but I think I would!
I know a doctor who is a fan. Maybe he'd be convinced to do it... I mean,
I don't think that I'd just drink a bottle of whiskey and hack it off with
MS: Well, maybe not now, but perhaps in ten or fifteen years?
(Mutual laughter - ho, ho, ho!)