Angels of Light | Pre-view of Denver showAngels of Light rise from dark screed of Swans Monday, December 10, 2001 - A fter littering the sonic highway with broken mufflers the past two decades, Michael Gira has gone in for a tune-down.
No longer obsessed with blasting intonations on cruelty, power, sex, self-hatred, God and money, the founder of the late noise-rock band Swans is now obsessed with achingly sweet and painful love songs.
"I usually draw on whatever preoccupies me at any given moment, (so) I don't seem to have any choice in what I write about," said Gira, who sounds positively Leonard Cohen-esque in his new release, "How I Loved You," with his song-oriented band Angels of Light.
"The recent songs ended up being about "love' in one way or another, because, I suppose, a few women at the time were basically making a hash of my brain," said Gira, who will make a rare and what promises to be a remarkable live appearance in Denver on Tuesday at the 15th Street Tavern.
"Love is definitely a narcotic, so it has its euphoria, but also subsequent ill-effects and withdrawal symptoms. It can be the most beautiful and transporting experience in the world, but also one of the most vile."
Gira went to New York's Lower East Side in 1982 with former art-school classmate Kim Gordon in search of the "no-wave" scene, where melody, song structure and instrumental technique were afterthoughts to brash, electric noise.
Gira found no-wave had flatlined but he carried the torch through the 1980s underground scene together with Gordon's breakthrough noise band Sonic Youth. Current radio fave Ryan Adams has called Swans "one of the best bands ever."
"Swans left their indelible mark on rock with the finesse of a demolition crew," said William Thieme of Denver, who authored a history of the band that airs in rotation on the University of Colorado radio station 1190-AM. "If listeners were willing to listen past the first song, Swans would leave them with an indelible scar on their perception of what music can be: harsh, abrasive exercises in sheer sound accompanied by Gira's monotoned and screaming meditations."
Swans never sought nor attained mainstream success, but they began to garner an international cult following after the addition of Jarboe, an artist and self-proclaimed ex-sex worker from Georgia who traveled to New York to interview Gira and never left. Her feminine, high-pitched screams complemented Gira's vocals, and they fell in love. But Swans disbanded in 1995 and now, Gira said, "I have absolutely no contact with Jarboe these days, regrettably."
Instead, Gira spends these days running his own 10-band Young God Records by himself from an apartment in Brooklyn where he answers every e-mail and mails out every CD order.
His new acoustic musical direction is a long way from Swans. He says Angels of Light (which features the electric guitar of Kid Congo Powers on "How I Loved You") sounds like "Pink Floyd as interpreted by the original Carter Family live - maybe Black Sabbath and Donovan fit in there somewhere, too."
But there is a similarity to Swans in the songs' buildup of sound and repetition to a cathartic release point. Only now, the buildup is to a sexual or violent emotion, with the emphasis not on the sound but on the narrative. Gira said this is hardly a repudiation of Swans, but he certainly has gone from redefining the potential of avant-garde rock to redefining the potential of acoustic music.
Though Gira has often referred to himself as a tyrannical and raving egomaniac, he finds it a little hard to accept that he might be responsible for redefining anything.
"I do think that's more than a little grandiose," said Gira. "I just follow my instincts. if I get bored with one way of working, I move on. I started using the acoustic guitar because it was something I could do by myself, where I could or couldn't make something happen, where it was absolutely up to me, to my performance and commitment to the song itself. It's the hardest thing in the world, for me anyway."
Gira's new songs are more humble and introspective than Swans', as evidenced in the first number off "How I Loved You," titled "Evangeline":
As I wait for you, Evangeline
Yes my eyes have seen your unselfishness.
And my fingers touched your two sleeping lips
As the echoes passed just above our heads.
"I suppose as you get older you realize the importance, or relevance anyway, of some kind of connection with others, of compassion, rather than assuming you were born to rule or destroy the world," he said.
Gira is touring with Larry Mullins (organ), Dana Schechter (bass) and Thor Harris (piano). His set will include Angels of Light songs, a few from his recent collaboration with Dan Matz ("What We Did"), and reworked Swans arrangements.
"The Swans material will not by any means be performed in the same way as the originals," he said. " "God Damn The Sun,' "Failure' and "Love Will Save You' are already arranged, and we'll look at some others."
Gira surveys the musical landscape today and happily sees no one carrying the torch for Swans. "I hope not!" he said. "I do see a similarity in what Godspeed You Black Emperor! is doing to what we were doing in the later period of Swans, but in their own, very original way."
The most original aspect of Angels of Light may be its sensuous and potentially pleasurable view of sexuality, a radical shift from Swans' music that often centered on God's perception of sex (especially the landmark record, "Children of God"). Gira, however, can't bear to constantly compare what he is thinking about today to whatever he might have spewed out a decade ago.
"In the end, it's all lies!" he said with a laugh. "I can't listen to a record I've made these days without cringing at the falsity of it. Not that it was ever intended that way. But if I could ever achieve even a shadow of the purity I hear in the Carter Family, or conversely, Tibetan ritual music, I'd die a happy man.
"I'll keep trying. What else can I do? I certainly don't have the physical
stamina anymore to go back to hanging sheet rock!"