M. Gira | InterviewINTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL GIRA When a performer perseveres for decades, he can become known as an "elder statesman," one of pop criticism's ugliest cliches. That tag does not apply to Michael Gira, who remains as relevant and as unsettling today as he was in the early 80s when he formed the unfathomably loud, slow and symphonic experimental-rock group Swans. The band, whose recordings range from physically imposing hell-crunch to pastoral purity and back again, lasted for 15 influential years.
By the late 90s, Gira had initiated a trio of new projects: the sound-art unit the Body Lovers; its nightmare twin the Body Haters; and the silver-toned, largely acoustic ensemble the Angels of Light, which just released its second album, How I Loved You (Young God), an assortment of weary, dualistic ballads filled with sweet bliss and intense repulsion, both musical and emotional.
You've been back in New York for several years. Why have you returned?
"I actually left Atlanta not knowing where I was going to end up living. I was fed up with that place and knew I had to leave, but the prospect of coming back to live in NYC was pretty daunting, with menacing ghosts everywhere. Anyway, I left Atlanta with everything I owned in my van, and came here to finish the first Angels of Light record, [1999's] New Mother. I was sleeping on the couch of the studio where I was working, just immersed in the work, and as the record was being finished I realized I didn't have a place to live, which didn't really bother me because I was used to just wandering around the U.S. in my van by myself anyway. I just stayed here through inertia, I guess. I don't really belong anywhere else, being a type-AAAA personality."
A song on the new record, "New York Girls," nicely defines a familiar breed of city dweller.
"Well, there's just an ongoing, always-replenishing crop of tough, cynical and beautiful punk-rock girls that I've noticed at shows since I first came to NYC in 1979. I worship them. I was sitting on the side of the stage at CBGB a couple of years ago, looking out at the audience as a friend's band played, and nothing looked any different than it did back then in 1979. There I was, 20 years older, but still telegraphing lust at several sweating girls in leather jackets or the equivalent outfit. Mixed in with these fresh faces were a few women I'd know for over a decade. [It was] just a strange feeling, like coming home after a long trip, and I felt it necessary to honor them in ways other than the usual nefarious desires."
I can empathize.
"I think Richard Kern's book of photos, New York Girls, captures the same sensation quite well, too. I've spent many hours 'studying' it."
Is "New City in the Future" about those menacing NYC ghosts you mentioned?
"It's really about the loss of someone dear to me. Trying to remember, or capture, the sense of wonder their presence inspired in me, as if the objects she touched, the spaces her body passed through, were altered or made magical somehow by virtue of her having come into contact with them."
Live, you introduce "My True Body" as being about your time in an Israeli jail.
"'My True Body' is an elliptical love song in that it's 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. I believe that I was 14, going on 15. I was with a couple of older hippie guys who were ushering me through this life-on-the-road process.
"They had a contact in Israel, so we ended up getting into Israel, and I spent a year there, a few months on a kibbutz, then just living off the streets, selling my blood, panhandling, 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 at one end of the barracks and the European-vagabond-hippie-derelicts were at the other.
"Every night, I would hear and see this young Arab boy being raped repeatedly by 20 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 his slippers, go to the communal sink, throw up, brush his teeth and shuffle back. The other prisoners would snicker a bit, and this process would repeat itself the next night. So that song 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. So in that sense it's a typical love song. I guess this experience, seeing this kind of thing at such a young age, shaped my perception of human nature, and love, in a way—Christ, I didn't even have pubic hair yet."
Why is the album comprised of love songs?
"In my zeal to escape myself, I fall in love."
Who are the other objects of affection?
"With a few exceptions, they really all meld into the same woman: my mother. I guess that's rather unseemly for a 47-year-old man, but there it is, the naked truth."
What is the significance of putting your parents' photos on the album cover?
"Since they inevitably shaped my conception of love, it seemed appropriate. They're quite handsome, don't you think? They were the ideal, optimistic American couple, and of course they came to a ruinous end."
How I Loved You sounds like less of a solo project than its predecessor.
"Well, this is a band now. I toured with these musicians pretty extensively, and the songs, though written on acoustic guitar, were developed through hashing them out live. Also, it was recorded live, with a few overdubs."
How have you changed as a guitarist since your days playing bass on those early-80s Swans records?
"Even using the word 'guitarist' to describe me makes me embarrassed. I know absolutely nothing, formally, about the guitar, and I've always tried to keep it that way. I would never be able to play someone else's songs—except maybe [the Stooges'] 'I Wanna Be Your Dog'—hah!—and I can't even get that right. I just fumble about until I find something I like, maybe change the tuning a bit to accommodate my lack of dexterity or skill, then play it over and over until I feel confident in the feel and the chords, etc. This is what I've always done—I guess I've always just had the misguided arrogance to think I could do anything if I set my mind to it, so I'm not intimidated by my lack of knowledge, and try to use it as an asset instead. This attitude comes from the early punk days, I guess. It was interesting talking to [Nick Cave/Cramps/Congo Norvell guitarist] Kid Congo Powers about this a few times—he's the same way, just doesn't want to know, ever. Of course, this doesn't mean you don't become better able to express yourself—it just remains within the context of your own special vocabulary."
Why has playing in an incredibly loud, aggressive manner lost most of its appeal?
"Because it became a shtick, a trap, a cliche for me, and besides, as I've grown older, it just would feel unseemly or undignified to 'rock out.' Not that I'm opposed to generating an all-consuming, overwhelming sound at times—I just want to get at that sensation through different means."
What made you decide to be more active with your label, Young God Records? You're signing and producing other bands, like a real magnate.
"Magnate? Ha! I'm more like an expert juggler, tossing one disaster after another from hand to hand. The only time Young God was a real label in the past was when Rough Trade distributed us [circa 1990]. After their bankruptcy I just shuffled from place to place. Now that I've got a distributor again [Revolver], I can think of it like a real label. But I'm a terrible, terrible businessman—I just put out what interests me, then throw it out into the indifferent vortex and see what happens. What a marketing strategy!
"As far as the other bands on the label, I just release them because I think they deserve to be heard, and because I feel passionate about the music. Usually I end up working with people through haphazard circumstance. I don't really actively seek out a 'hot new band'—in fact, I wouldn't want to put something like that out."
You're a pretty snappy dresser these days...
"My father always said, 'When you're poor, dress rich.'"
Volume 14, Issue 23