Interview with M. Gira | Angles of LightMichael Gira enlightens the world about ukeleles, the dangers of Demon Rum (or bourbon actually), the tragic history of Swans, life and death in New York and his latest Angels of Light Record. Long ago and far away, in a mythical world of art and depravity known as The Lower East Side (circa 1980), Michael Gira founded a band called Swans. Over the next decade and a half, Swans made darkly beautiful, often very disturbing music, eventually garnering a cult following despite being ignored by the mainstream press. Members came and went, the sound evolved. The legendary live shows became an orgy of confrontational, operatic despair, with Gira alternately declaiming and crooning his bitter invectives over a pitch-black morass of orchestrated chaos getting progressively slower and louder and more intense, then at times almost mystically lyrical. Charismatic chanteuse Jarboe collaborated with Gira on the best Swans releases and several excellent related projects. In the late '90s Gira put Swans to bed, emerging as an author and spoken-word artist, in addition to recording and performing with his top-notch new band, Angels of Light. Their current release, How I Loved You, on Gira's Young God label, is a glorious affair that backs the artist's morbidly sexual narratives with bucolic soundscapes embroidered with melodica, hammer dulcimer, piano, lapsteel and saw. It's like falling asleep listening to Nick Cave's Murder Ballads, then waking up in the arms of the most beautiful nightmare you've ever had.
People often assume an artist's work is autobiographical. Does that trouble you?
I'm always plagued with that, but I'm not really bothered by it anymore. Most of the songs I've written in the last 20 years grew out of some personal experience or preoccupation, but generally I abstract them. Why should anyone care about my own personal problems? ÂŒMy Suicide,' for example, isn't from my point of view necessarily, but if I didn't have some kind of familiarity with that inclination, it would've probably come off as specious. Maybe it does, anyway. I don't know!
How I Loved You has some really beautiful songs. Is this something you tried for, or did it just come out that way?
I just sit down with the guitar and start playing without any preconceptions or knowing where it will lead and let the song take shape by itself. I'm not a good enough musician to start out with an idea or a style I want to achieve.
Any instruments you're interested in learning? I struggle enough as it is within my limited vocabulary of guitar and voice. I wanted to keep How I Loved You in the realm of instruments played in real time by real people, no programming, etc. For the next record I'm hoping I can have it be just acoustic guitar and voice, with a few bits of orchestration here and there. But I always get carried away.
What's your take on collaboration?
I used to be violently anti-collaborative, but I've opened up to it a lot more lately. The rampant egoism of my early days was long ago kicked out of me. The Angels records have grown through allowing other people to breath inside my songs, and I like the result. It's just a matter of choosing people whose sensibilities are correct in the first place, trusting them as people and musicians.
Who would you like to work with?
Oh, let me see nowÂ‹Brian Eno, Bob Dylan, Low, John Cale, Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Del McCoury, Johnny Cash, Whitehouse, Pansonic, PJ Harvey, Doc Watson.
What made you think of the ukulele for How I Loved You? I work with people because I like what they do, and/or like them personally. Bliss Blood (vocalist/ukulelist for The Moonlighters) qualifies on both counts. The ukulele seemed appropriate for the songs in questionÂ‹it has a lightness and playfulness, which counterbalances my usual moping and negativism.
You've just fled Manhattan againÂ‹this time for Brooklyn. How's life for you out there? Very, very different from the Lower East Side you loved/hated in the ÂŒ80s?
I live in a normal, working-class section of Brooklyn now, with a garden out back and a little plot in front for a tree and flowers. That's about as opposite as it gets to the windowless Lower East Side bunker I lived in for 15 years.
How is New York different now from your early days there?
Now the Lower East Side has nothing to do with the old days. When I first moved there in 1980 or '81, there was gunfire every night, used syringes and dead rats outside my door, broken glass everywhere. And about nine out of every 10 buildings were abandoned but housing drug dealers. The line for dope stretched for blocks. The police would cruise nonchalantly by, ignoring it. It was extremely dangerous but the rent was cheapÂ‹I paid $100 a month. There was a point when the neighborhood reached a desirable equilibriumÂ‹still affordable, but a little safer. But now it's just ridiculous. Affluent, really.
Where would you live if nothingÂ‹money, politics, geography, whateverÂ‹were an issue?
My favorite part of the world is the Four Corners area in the Southwest. I've spent a good deal of time there, working in the desert in southern Utah and in southern Colorado, near the New Mexico border. It's where my body feels most acclimated. Ideally, when I'm rich I'll have a house there and a place in New York, too.
Your parents are so hopeful and happy on the cover of How I Loved You. When you think of them, is that what you see? Or do you see what they became after their American Dream crashed and burned?
I sometimes romanticize their golden, early years, because they did embody the post-war optimismÂ‹and materialismÂ‹of their generation. But the loss of those ideals, and their undoing, was probably inevitable. And maybe a good thing in the end.
How does one reconcile conflicts like that?
I don't really have any desire or hope to reconcile conflicts or problems. I just do my work and try not to worry too much about what a fucked-up, piece-of-shit human being I am! Anyway, you can't blame other people for your problems.
There's always been this tragic mythos about Swans. How does that make you feel?
When I think about it at all, it's usually with regret. Fifteen years of pointless struggle except for the work itself, much of which was worthwhile. And I appreciate the fact that younger people are still discovering it, which is probably the main reason I still have a career. But if the only people interested in Angels of Light were old Swans fans I'd be in deep shit, indeed.
What's the worst review your work has ever got?
They're all bad, because if you pay attention to them they can make you second-guess yourself.
Worst press in general?
Probably the worst experience we ever had with Swans was in '85 or '86 with an interview for Spin magazine. The writer came over to our house, was very polite, proper and solicitous. I had the walls covered with my drawings, which were violent and sexual, and various risquÃ© photos on the walls. Things like that. So I presume she got a certain impression she felt gave her license. Anyway, she conducted the interview, seemed enthused about us and the work, then when it was published she'd written new questions from the point of view of a dominatrix to her slave. Things like, ÂŒTell me, Michael Gira, you sniveling worm, before I spank your bottom, about your new album.' Then she inserted an answer drawn from a more polite question. The entire interview was constructed this wayÂ‹false questions and answers taken completely out of context.
That's so evil.
Extremely embarrassing, even humiliating. It made us into a really one-dimensional, ridiculous cartoon. It was absolutely devastating. To this day, I can't imagine how anyone could be so shallow and maliciousÂ‹to come into your home, to be treated courteously and then to do such a thing.
Tell me about your new solo album.
It's just me with an acoustic guitar, croaking my songs. And its only available through the Young Gods website [http://www.younggodrecords.com]. People seem to like it, though, and I recently had a great time doing a few solo shows in Ireland, so I want to do more of it. It's very frightening, but its also the ultimate way to perform. If you can carry that off, you can do anything.
What's your favorite drink?
Any beer from the tap in Bavaria or the Czech Republic. Otherwise, it would be Bookers Bourbon, straight up. However, the latter draws out the violent, sex-crazed demon within, so I avoid it in the interest of survival and other people's safety.
Does television still effect you so strongly as it once did?
I stay away from TV these days. Like so much else in the modern media environment, it's a corporate conduit leading directly into your brain, designed for psychic behavioral control. But it's pointless to complain about it. People's identities and perceptions, their anxieties and desiresÂ‹including my ownÂ‹have been so successfully shaped by it, that it's like complaining about the weather.
If you were invited to a "Come As You Went" costume ball, where the guests dress as their favorite literary or historical suicide, who would you go as?
I guess Jesus qualifies as a suicide, since he could have chosen to avoid his death, so I'd like to be him.
JD Beghtol is a musician and writer currently living in the murky depths of Brooklyn. He plays the ukulele in his band Flare and does all manner of things in the bi-coastal artpop ensemble, Moth Wranglers. He recently stopped wondering why people look at him funny on trains.