M.Gira | InterviewI knew exactly what I wanted to do when I terminated Swans Was the end of Swans a relief for you in any way?
"Definitely. The music never tired or bored me, because I always changed it along the way, but the history of it, and the memories, had become a prison cell I carried with me wherever I went."
Did you have the outline for Angels of Light in mind at the time, or was there a period of taking stock?
"I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I terminated Swans and set about doing it right away. It's been liberating."
Were there particular qualities you were looking for in the people you're working with now? Can you tell me a little about them?
"Absolute loyalty and complete submission! No, actually, I just look for people I like personally, people who have something to offer both musically and emotionally. I immediately reject anyone that seems mercenary or too slick musically. Most of the people I work with now are friends, people with whom I'm willing to spend protracted amounts of time. Also they have to put up with my admittedly infantile tirades and self-imposed frustrations. On the other hand, they ARE excellent musicians, with great feel. Larry Mullins is just an all-around superb musician. He's a classically trained symphonic percussionist, but through the nefarious influences of punk rock was led astray, and ended up being Iggy Pop's drummer for about a decade, then worked with me in Swans, and now Angels. He plays about a dozen percussion instruments—from drums to vibraphone and marimba—on How I Loved You, and also plays the Farfiza Organ. Christoph Hahn has played with Swans off and on for years, then Angels. He's got a great American country feel, but is German and lives in Berlin. Cassis Staudt plays accordion and piano and sings, and is also another German, an Ice Queen with a melting heart. Dana Schechter plays bass and sings and also plays about 10 other instruments, and is a punk rock goddess. Thor Harris plays another hundred instruments and is a country boy from Austin, Texas. Also on this album is Bliss Blood (X of Pain Teens) who, despite her noise mongering past, is an incredibly sensual singer who also plays the ukulele, and has a 'Lounge' band called The Moonlighters. Siobhan Duffy sings too, though her history is as a drummer (she played with God Is My Co-Pilot for years), and she also has a band called The Gunga Din. I guess we're all recovering punks in one way or another."
Was How I Loved You pre-conceived as a collection of love songs, or were these themes you happened to be playing on your mind at the time?
"The latter, really. I'm not clever enough to start out with a concept, then engineer things accordingly. Whatever I'm doing at the time is what goes on record."
Although My Suicide is something of a hate song you seem to hate that person for mirroring certain aspects of yourself, something that also echoes through a lot of Swans and World of Skin songs. The people in your songs often seem to be displacement vehicles for you. Is that a fair assessment?
"It's important to remember that, though I am definitely familiar (or even obsessed) with the subject matter of the songs, they're not about 'me.' They're an atmosphere or a little world that I hope exists in its own right by the time I'm through with it."
Recently in this magazine, David Tibet said he only cared about the world as it existed for him. Is that a view you share?
"Well that might be a curse I've been given, but I think that when actually playing music the opposite occurs."
What was it about Nico that fascinated you so much? Are you attracted to that kind of aloofness you alluded to on New York Girls?
"What fascinates me about Nico is first and foremost her voice. On albums like Desert Shore, Marble Index, and The End (I'm not that fond of her other work), her performance is simultaneously emotionally wrenching and distant, abstract, which makes it difficult to come to terms with—a great quality I think. Also, the orchestration on those records is phenomenal, and the words (always important to me) are also severe, strange, and emotional, but again, difficult to penetrate. Of course her beauty, and its subsequent (self inflicted) decay are also attractive qualities."
Although Swans had their roots in the Stooges and various other bands, musically and lyrically you always seemed to be setting yourself apart. Now you1ve turned your attention towards more traditional forms, do they give you a sense of accommodation you didn1t have before?
"I suppose its fair to say the Stooges were a strong influence, but equally influential would have been Eno, as well as Throbbing Gristle, as well as, Pink Floyd. You figure it out (!). But I never wanted to sound like anyone else, or use the same musical means. Far more interesting was the core potential in the sound to transform. As far as the way Angels works, I just play songs on acoustic guitar at home until they feel right, then think about what kind of orchestration would work with the basic song, without any stylistic preconceptions. I just do what I want."
There's such a well of power in a lot of traditional music that bands like 16 Horsepower and Angels Of Light have drawn on, particularly on My True Body, which totally blew me away when you played live in London. Were you drawn to the darkness (for want of a better word) in that music?
"I don't have any particular attraction to 'darkness.' To me, Britney Spears is as dark and as nihilistic as it's possible to be in this life. As far as being 'traditional' with Angels, I try to make things happen with simple instruments, played by human beings. I guess that's traditional."
I hear you're working on a solo acoustic album, inspired by certain experiences you've had. Can you tell me something about that?
"It's just me with acoustic guitar and singing, recorded with one microphone at home. It's only available at our website www.younggodrecords.com, and won't be distributed otherwise."
One of the threads throughout all your records has been a sense of humility, in various guises, whether it's the self-flagellating kind on earlier Swans records, or generally the recognition that you're always dealing with something bigger than you. Humility doesn't figure very highly in the rock'n'roll lexicon. In Swans, did you feel you were fighting against the grain, and now are you glad to be out of the circus and find the space to express emotions like that?
"I don't really see it as 'fighting' against something, because as soon as you fight, it implies an acceptance of something else having power over you. I just do what I want—time on earth is finite, so don't see any reason to do otherwise."
Are you going to continue with the Body Lovers material? Is there a separate impulse behind making those records to making Angels of Light records? Do you ever find people (ie: old Swans fans) liking the Body Lovers records for their "extremity" and missing the point of Angels of Light?
"Body Lovers is more sonically oriented, where the experience of the sound is what interests me, whereas Angels incorporates songs/narrations etc. (even though the experience of the music itself is also equally important). As far as 'old' Swans fans wanting one thing or another, my attitude has always been that I do what I want and don't really care what other people have to say about it. If people are that fixated on a style or genre, then they're obviously not worth worrying about anyway. Still, I've found that Swans fans, for the most part, appreciate the newer work."
Is there anything you would want to say to earlier versions of yourself?
"Go back, turn around, give up!"
Thank you for your time. It's much appreciated.