Transcript of John Moore's interview with Michael GiraJohn Moore's interview with Swans founder and creator Michael Gira, who will play with Angels of Light on Tuesday at the 15th Street Tavern:
JM: Your new CD sounds as achingly sweet and yearning as anything you've ever produced. There is pain, certainly, but hope. Is there a parallel in your own life for this change in direction to all love songs?
MG: Thank you. well, I usually draw on whatever preoccupies me at any given moment. That's ranged from work to media/television, to a book I'm reading, to my own (failed) need for some kind of spiritual release, to sex/lust, to veiled revenge messages . . . whatever interests me at the time. Really, the subject matter of my songs is random, in that I don't seem to have any choice in the matter in what I write about. I'm not very good at explication, so I usually just occupy a subject, or it occupies me. In the case of the recent songs, they 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! 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.
JM: You often remark that your work, though somewhat autobiographical, is a window into something you may be familiar - even obsessed - with, but is not necessarily culled from personal experience. How does Angels of Light compare in this regard to previous projects such as Somniloquist and other spoken-word pieces . . . or your writings?
MG: I don't usually write about an experience I've had literally, though in this case, I guess I let myself be a little self-indulgent, while still trying to veer away from the dreaded "confessional" songwriting genre. I let the "story" grow into its own world, let it take on its own life, whether it's a song or a short story. I don't see any reason why anyone should be particularly interested in the decidedly prosaic events of my personal life per se, so I use what's important to me just as a place to start. It's like praying in a way - you just want something greater than yourself to take over. I don't know if I believe in God, but it is a process I don't seem to have much to do with, that comes from somewhere outside me, and takes me over from within . . . I hope I don't sound romantic here, because it's really more banal than anything else. I spend a great deal of time just staring at the computer screen waiting for words to arrive, strumming the guitar, waiting for something to happen.
JM: You've gone from reinventing avant-garde rock to now, reinventing what acoustic music can be. Is this fair, was it deliberate, and if so, what does it mean?
MG: Ha hah! Thanks for the compliment, but I think that's more than a little grandiose! 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. As far as the orchestration of this record went, it grew organically out from that point, through working with a group of people I trust both personally and musically, just playing the songs together over and over and trying to find where the strength lies, squeezing the blood out of it. I didn't want the result to be just these songs played on acoustic guitar with adornments added on top, so to avoid that you really have to throw yourself as a group into the process and not be overly attached to the basic beginning point.
JM: You've said Angels of Light is an attempt to make "real music with real people and real instruments," as opposed (presumably) to tape loops and sounds (many "found" and recorded) mixed with a beautiful crushing sound and repetitive rhythm. Angels also holds to a more perceptible traditional song structure. Do you miss any of the aspects of the "noise sculpture" evident in Swans, and/or does Body Lovers satisfy this?
JM: I don't know. I think Angels reaches a point of sonic overload sometimes, just through different means, and I've always been attracted to slowly evolving repetition, so that's in there too. I would have said I didn't miss the "loudness" factor of Swans, etc., until recently, when I saw Neurosis play at the Beyond The Pale festival. We just played with them in San Francisco. I'm not generally a fan of "heavy" rock music these days, but their focus and commitment to the sound they were making both physically and psychically at the performance I saw, was just elating. I suddenly became a fan of rock again! Hah ha! Anyway, I'm talking to them about recording some basic tracks to be used for the Body Lovers as a result.
JM: One facet of Swans music was the buildup of sound and repetition to a cathartic release that was palpable - especially live. Is Angels of Light in any way a repudiation of that notion, or just another way of building to a similarly sweet release point?
MG: Not a repudiation, no. I can switch easily from listening to the Carter Family to Tony Conrad or from Nina Simone to Keji Heino, for instance, and don't see how one negates the other.
JM: You have often referred to yourself as a raving egomaniac, and some of your more recent projects seem to point toward that. Angels of Light's songs appear to be more humble and introspective. What's happening here?
MG: 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!
JM: Can fans of Swans music look forward to hearing anything from the Swans' repertoire on this this tour, and if so, what?
MG: Yes, we'll probably work up versions of several of those songs, though not by any means performed in the same way as the originals. "God Damn the Sun," "Failure," and "Love Will Save You" are already arranged, and we'll look at some others.
JM: You once listed Leonard Cohen as one artist you'd love to work with. I assume you've heard he's come "down from the mountain" and released a new album. Have you heard it? Is it just me or are the similarities striking between his new effort and yours? What do you think, and how does this bode for any future collaboration? How about the others on your list?
MG: That's really just a pipe dream. I haven't been able to get past the production on his last few releases, though I think the songwriting is stellar as usual.
JM: Do you see any bands of today carrying the torch for Swans?
MG: I hope not! 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. I love their music.
JM: Your fans would think it remiss if I did not inquire about Jarboe. What is your relationship like these days? What is she doing? How is her health? Any plans to collaborate?
MG: I have absolutely no contact with Jarboe these days, regrettably.
JM: Much of Swans' music seems concerned specifically with a person's direct, personal relationship with God - especially "Children of God" - in a nearly medieval way, and especially concerning man's perception of God's "perception" of sex. Obviously, Angels of Light portray a much more sensuous view of sexuality, and much more potentially fulfilling and pleasurable. Would you agree? How much of this is part of you, and how much is fictional?
MG: In the end, it's all lies! 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. If I could ever achieve even a shadow of the purity I hear in (once again) 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!
JM: Anything you want to add that I'm neglecting or missing?
MG: Nope, that's it John. Please mention our website at www.younggodrecords.com
if you would, at the end or something. It's really our best way (aside from
touring) of reaching people that have an interest in what we do.