Interview with Michael Gira of Swans
last sigh press | Kim Alexander and Michael Lund
conducted at the Double Door, Chicago IllinoisWe wandered into the bar early and cold from the brisk winter air to find Gira, which did take some doing in the catacomb like basement of the club. After checking out a number of rooms in the place, we heard voices coming from down the end of a hallway. Slowly we were guided by the deep droning of a male voices, only to peek around an open door to see Michael Gira in the company of two other journalists, peppering him with questions. Gira was sitting on an old 50s style couch, with a crumpled 50s style lamp on a little end table next to him. He wore a big Stetson style felt cowboy hat, and as we entered the room quietly, the brim of his hat lifted, his head turned towards us, and feeling his eyes upon us, the cigar in his hand touched his lips.
This was the last tour for Swans, and quite frankly, we were pretty happy to have a chat with him. The rest is history... -- Michael C. Lund.
Michael Gira : Is this going to be downloaded? [on the net] Or are you going to transcribe it?
M. Lund : We are going to take what we get from you and we're going to write it...
Michael Gira : OH so it's not going to be audio?
Kim : It could be?
Michael Gira : It's something you might want to consider? The voice itself doesn't eat up too much memory right?
Kim : yeah. Maybe at the end, you say something very profound, we could just put that on as a sample?
Michael Gira : I have *nothing* profound whatsoever to relate to you. Go home and read.
M. Lund : Secretion wisdom right there.
[After a rather lengthy discussion of film, philosophy, and writers, and a great many laughs over where to put the microphone....we began our interview.]
M. Lund : ok now, we have a huge audience of people out there who might have not heard a lot of Swans stuff, so to give people a general idea, I've heard your whole catalog of music and it's very apparent to me of certain phases you have gone through and I was wondering if you could explain maybe what sort of things influenced those changes? I mean, once Jarboe came along, it seemed to get a more "multi-cultural" feel, and maybe a greater tendency towards harmonics, or melodic music. The three of [the] four first albums were very minimalist, if that's alright, and more percussion oriented, and maybe distortion oriented.
Michael Gira : Ah, well, when I started making music, the biggest influence on me in my attitude was the punk rock that was going on at the time. But not the kind of *meathead* punk rock, the more interesting stuff. I didn't want to be, I didn't [have] to do with the conventions of three cord rock music and I'd also learned from the kinds of examples of music that I'd been listening to like, even from Brian Eno, to Throbbing Gristle, to SPK, to all these other groups that were making things then. Eh, of the importance of sound you know. So I started with a really limited ability to play the base. I started working out ways to play these really kind of phat cords to build rhythms, and then I started just learning how to make tape loops, and working with drummers, giving them a basic idea of what to play. And working with taped sounds coming in and out, and then using a guitar more as sheets of sound rather than as a melodic instrument. But not from any really intellectual stand point just more from wanting to make a sound that completely overwhelmed, me, or the listener. And that kind of.... filled me with joy.
M. Lund : That certainly came through.
Michael Gira : Ahhhh, Good. Well not too many people liked it, [they] see it as dark and ugly. To me I see it as joyful. So that was just the impetus really, and I was not really a musician, but I wanted to make these sounds ......so I started doing it, and as time progressed, we started to get some audience and because we were heavy and powerful and those kind of things, we started to attract a really sort of stupid element, which I thought was these young boy metal-rockers you know? And that coincided with touring a lot, and realizing it was a limitation to be dependent on being loud and being aggressive all the time. So I started to work with things like an acoustic guitar or just a piano or other simple elements and try to learn how to make something happen without being dependent on those elements. Not that they're bad in and of themselves, but that I just didn't want to be dependent on those things. So we did a tour of Europe, and sometimes when we'd sometimes encounter a club that had a tiny little blood, we toured eastern Europe for instance, and they had No PA's to speak of at all, and they just had a Fender Twin for us to sing from so...we could either play the music very loud and hear no vocals, or we could adjust the entire approach, and make something happen. So we did. The drummer would play just a snare, the base player would play an acoustic guitar, etc. So we just started to work that way. If the situation was such that it couldn't handle what we normally did, we'd do an acoustic set.....that just lead into other things.
And then of course with Jarboe's influence, she being more a kind of trained musician and things and having a really great voice, I started to incorporate those elements as well,.... and learn from them.
M. Lund : When did you know about *your* voice? Because to me, I think you have a fantastic voice...
Kim : I agree...
M. Lund : ....very powerful. I don't *know* anyone else that I could really list alongside that. This is not just me, it's like all the people I introduce your music to, if nothing else, they enjoy your voice. So you have no classical training at all?
Michael Gira : OH no. no. I don't know anything about music.
M. Lund : And you don't treat your voice at all?
Michael Gira : Sometimes I double it. But...
M. Lund : oh...yeah...
Michael Gira : John Lennon did that so..I did it...
M. Lund : Well you know some of these musicians that are out now, they try to filter through the synthesizers to get that really deep, reverberating sound that I guess you just have naturally, and you use the overdubs..
Michael Gira : That sounds horrible...
Kim : Could we have a short example?
Laughter... [I was dying to hear his voice!]
Michael Gira : nooooo
Kim : ooooh.. p>Kim's lower lip hangs out; she frowns, then laughs
M. Lund : I was also talking about the thematic change that has taken place, it seems that the first album was perhaps very very personal, and about just basic states of being whereas Children of God and The Burning World and the albums following that became very concerned with religious questions. And sometimes ambiguously so, unless I am ignorant? But I really love on Children of God for example, how it sounds almost like gospel, yet the music is so dark and powerful, that is almost, you know? I mean, it works as a counterpoint...to that.
Michael Gira : See I was coming from,....there was a time when I was watching a lot of tel-evangelist preachers....
M. Lund : ok...
Michael Gira : and uh...
Laughter... [I wiggled in my chair, a 50s style vinyl, to get comfortable, with the microphone near it...the sounds that came from it were....Gira summed it up...]
Michael Gira : That's a suspicious sound!
Michael Gira : And I was so enthralled with their ability, they [tel-evangelists] were great rock performers, you know, Jerry Falwell, and Jimmy Swaggert. To me, they were amazingly electrified rock performers. The way they would work up a crowd. So I started listening to their language. And taking some of their language. Because it fits with rock music, and that kind of incendiary performing. But also I didn't want to just *mock* christianity, or be negative about christianity because that is sort of a dumb alternative rock thing to do. It's kind of predictable. So I took the things I thought were valuable, and twisted them, and used them as an excuse to get into that frame of mind. I am not religious in any conventional sense at all. But, just things I seek in music maybe are kind of spiritual, or transcendent, or....
M. Lund : Well I was going to say that, then maybe to jump forward to Love of Life, you know you even have the Buddhist symbol for the core self, is that correct?
Michael Gira : The symbol star? Yes...
M. Lund : I don't know to much about Buddhism, but I know it stems from there... and also one of my favourite songs, In The Eyes of Nature, it certainly seems to evoke more of an Eastern, religious view of life. I was wondering how that change came about then?
Michael Gira : Just the reading, it's not really a kind of conversion to Buddhism. Jarboe is a Buddhist. But umm...I'm too cynical I suppose, too maybe selfish or something, to be anything so....
Chuckles around the room...
Michael Gira : Hehe...so you know, I tend to gravitate towards the ...thinking about everything being equal, well, this is just too obtuse. Thinking about the ahh...Life Force or the molecules that inhabit all things are transferable, that I know that know our body is constantly changing, that it will eventually rot, then as it rots, it will transmute into something else. And that nothing is stable, nothing is...nothing really has an entity in and of itself except our Universe which is constantly feeding and shifting, and drifting back into itself. So, that's sort of a Buddhist way of thinking too. It's also a modern Physics way of thinking about things. In time, the way Physics thinks about time is sort of similar to Buddhism also. Just through reading various things, not necessarily seriously, not like *scholarly* investigations, but just, that's what I think about it really...
M. Lund : That's a more serious way of reading.
Michael Gira : Yeah, well whatever..I read very randomly. So when I'm reading about something I incorporate it into what I write about, naturally.
M. Lund : One little note about Love of Life that I've always wanted to ask about is the little segment with The Hunter, can you clarify that a bit? I know it's...
Michael Gira : That's Jarboe's Grandfather. A lot of these tapes that we use are from her personal archives, or from things that I've collected, interviews of my father. On the new album there's an interview, one segment of it, I have like ten hours of my father, he recently died. But it's, from [him] discussing his illness, his blindness, his aging, and the trouble his mother is also going, undergoing the same process of aging. She was the next person on there... So eh...I just wanted to, for personal reasons, document it but also I thought it was um...just sort of epigramatic narration's that anybody could identify with. So I use them. And I like these little stories and things because I like to set them to music. Because they create a nostalgia to me that is really nice.
M. Lund : But apart from just nostalgia, did you incorporate that specific segment because you have a particular view on hunting or animals?
Michael Gira : No way, no! I think it is fine to kill animals.
Michael Gira and Kim laugh out loud and both look at M. Lund
M. Lund : No, but... it's a very interesting segment for me! Because I've been a vegetarian all my life, I feel strongly about animals. Not to a militant degree or anything.
Michael Gira : [interjecting...] ...I think.... the way of mass production of meat and everything, that's sort of frightening and disgusting, but this is a man, [Jarboe's Grandfather], he was probably 75 years old when he wrote that. He was a...to me what was interesting was his accent [on the segment], and his Americanism. He was the Sheriff of this little town in Nevada. and every day, he would go out hunting you know, and he didn't just kill, he dressed the meat and ate it himself. So it was a way of life, he came from more like the early 1900's or the late 18th century kind of way of thinking about America. He didn't die until he was 95 or something. So I see nothing wrong with him going out and killing a deer. He was just matter-of-fact discussing it...
M. Lund : It was interesting because it was matter-of-fact, and yet there was an element of pride I felt at first, but then there was also... to me interpreting it, my perception of it, there was this underlying sense of shame about killing this killing this young buck.
Michael Gira : That probably didn't enter into it, I am sure.
M. Lund : Well it's interesting though; ambiguous to someone who doesn't know the story behind it.
Michael Gira : I usually don't try to make a point with something, even with lyrics. I don't try and teach, or make a point with something. It's usually more the opposite here with the thing, or the psychological aura surrounding it that interests me, more than the specific content of what's happening.
[Inaudible mumbling as I get up to get some bottled water in the corner of the room decorated in 50's style Goodwill furniture and mirrors]
M. Lund : ...I feel that there's almost a circular pattern, that you've come back to, more of the feeling that you had in the beginning, but in a very different musical way. I mean I think your music has gone full circle, from being very symphonic on some of the albums of the early 90s, and now it's starting again to sound very minimalist, but in a very different way that is was. It's a circular pattern. Is that why you chose to end Swans here?
Michael Gira : I chose to end Swans now because I realize how futile it is to continue. I think the name itself is become a noose around my neck. And so I want to get rid of it. I'm still going to continue to work musically, on a lot of different things. But just the name Swans, I find to be a limitation rather than an asset. I'm discontinuing it. After 15 years, that's long enough to continue one thing, so just put it to rest. I'll make sure the music stays available, and it has it's place in history. But I won't continue to work under that name.
M. Lund : So you will continue to make music?
Michael Gira : Yes.
M. Lund : Will you also continue to make music with Jarboe?
Michael Gira : I'm not sure how much we'll continue to work together.
M. Lund : So it that your child on [You Know Everything]...I should say?
Michael Gira : No. That's her, that's Jarboe, as a five year old girl.
M. Lund : Oh wow...Yeah I love how you changed the title to that song. You know nothing, you know everything I should say?
Michael Gira : On the song *Her* are you talking about? On Love Of Life? There's a song called "Her" That's a love song I wrote to Jarboe. And there is a recording of her Jarboe when she was, 13 I think, talking about wanting to go see her favourite rock bands and things and so I put that in as a little tribute to her.
M. Lund : It's a nice job.
Kim : aw....[to Gira] You're so *sweet**! aww...
Michael Gira : I'm really sentimental.
Kim : Yeah you are.
M. Lund : I'd say so.
OK I also noticed when I read your book, and the great shame is that I got your book in September (96), and all my CDs are back in Denmark. So I don't have your early ones here (in the U.S.). I noticed a lot of the titles and pieces in that book correspond to song titles on your albums. Could you explain to me, I know that you stopped writing I think because that I read somewhere you got too involved with the music or something. But how did those two things work together, the little pieces of story....
Michael Gira : See, the works I have in my title. [Laughs] And the two works don't have much to do with each other, except the title. I have a new song called: "My Birth", that's a new story I wrote. But the song has nothing to do with the story. I just took the idea of my birth and I started building on it. Sometimes a title is just what inspires me just to write something.
M. Lund : So there are a few new books to come out?
Michael Gira : I hope so.
M. Lund : Oh yes I also want to ask you since I am from Europe, how if you feel different performing in Europe from America? Is there a difference at all?
Michael Gira : I really like Scandinavia, recorded there a lot. Our audience seems to be really growing there, it's growing. I have a great time there. Friends there, a lot to see, it's got a beautiful landscape. I particularly like Norway. Northern Norway.
M. Lund : I also wrote down some other things to ask you, about you recording Kill The Child in German, and do you speak German? Or how did you write that song?
Michael Gira : Well that was just for Rough Trade Germany, they've been very helpful to us over the years. I was in Germany, and since I speak some German and have a history in Germany, my father, from his second wife, he married a German woman and they lived and raised a second family, and there's half-sisters and half-brothers in Germany. And I lived there for a year. I just thought I would do this song we were recording also in German. The Beatles did it, so why shouldn't I? [Laughs] I did it then it turns out the Germans *hated* it, they couldn't stand it.
M. Lund : You did it quite well. I know German, so you speak German then?
Michael Gira : Ahh well I speak it ok but I always forget it because I'm never near it enough. I go back after a couple months I am pretty good. I lived there for a year so....
M. Lund : Well I am jumping around a little bit here but also since a lot of the audience who will read this may not have heard much of your music... if you had to hold up one or two of your releases which one(s) would it be for them to listen to?
Michael Gira : The last release.
M. Lund : What stimulates your song writing? Is it mostly other music or, where you talked about the literature....or how about the visual arts?
Michael Gira : Yeah, actually, I have a couple new songs. One of them is called: "The Man With The Silver Tongue". And that's about Rudolf Schwartzkogler, who was one of the Weiner Aktionismus Movement, that was in the late 50s, early 60s up until the early 70s. Pretty ahhh.. *visceral* and violent and, transgressional and *replusive* art. Him, Otto Meuhl, (did you ever hear of him?) Arnold Freuner, he's a more conventional painter. Roman Neitzche. Roman Neitzche is most famous because he slaughters animals and has entrails and crosses with a young boy crucified under them with blood pouring over them, sort of like Francis Bacon paintings made real. [Chuckles].
M. Lund : OK, alright, that sounds really violent...
Michael Gira : With music he had a thing called: "Orgies Mystery Theatre", and there would be these long rituals which happened for like four hours at a time. They'd slaughter an animal, they'd drink the blood...they'd take the entrails......anyway.... Schwartzkogler, there was this mythos apostumen that he had... he committed suicide by cutting of his penis inch by inch. [All laugh] It's not true... but he made these series of photographs of performances which is, this is way before performance art, this is more things that were just *ritual* right?
M. Lund : right...
Michael Gira : There were these really *strange* images, like his face is wrapped in gauze, there's electric wires coming out of his nipples, there's something in his penis, penis is in the mouth of an eel, his body is covered in white powder. It's just *really strange*, and kind of terrifying images.
M. Lund : I can see how that would have influenced your book at least.
Michael Gira : Well anyway...I just sort of wrote a song, an *ode* to him. He killed himself by throwing himself out a window. *Not* by cutting off his penis...And then I wrote another song recently called: "The Garden Hides the Jewel, and that was a little tribute to the last piece of art that Marcel DuChamp ever made called: Etant Donnes. Do you know that one?
M. Lund : Probably not that piece but....I know of him...
Michael Gira : Well it's this one where you look through this big wooden door, and inside you see this beautiful landscape, there's a naked woman lying in there, you can see her body, you can't see her head....
M. Lund : That's from a Clock DVA cover...
Michael Gira : They took that yeah, she's lying in the twigs and things, it's just really beautiful landscape, so I just wrote a little sort of dream images about that...it's a really nice, nice piece.
M. Lund : So that's coming out on a future solo project?
Michael Gira : Yeah..I'm just working on them now [January 1997].
M. Lund : And it will be under your name?
Michael Gira : Probably "The Pleasure Seekers".
M. Lund : OK.
Michael Gira : One project I am doing is the "Pleasure Seekers", that's more *songs* and quiet things, and the other one is: "The Body Lovers", that's going to be more the experimental, soundscape things I've been doing.
Kim : What label?
Michael Gira : Young Gods, my record label. Under my record label distributed by, well, in the United States by Touch and Go. And in Europe..distributed through Rough Trade.
M. Lund : Relating to that, do you anywhere you can get a hold of the early *Skin* release on CD?
Michael Gira : They are going to be reissued in April , the first two, all over the world. We are re-releasing the entire catalog as a series of double CD's....
M. Lund : WOW!
Michael Gira : And the first release is "Children of God", and the "World of Skin" stuff...and it's all in this kind of packaging of the new album, which is the big digi-pack that opens up....
M. Lund : It's almost worth getting a second time... Also I wanted to ask you...now that you've done a soundtrack for the Blind, are you ever thinking of doing a soundtrack for the *seeing*? As a movie soundtrack?
Michael Gira : Yeah, if somebody offers me a bunch of money, I'll do one Heh.. But otherwise I'll just do soundtracks that don't have films.
M. Lund : OK....well I mean you'd be interested working ON a soundtrack? I'm surprised you haven't done anything there!
Michael Gira : Sure! No one ever asked...
M. Lund : That's amazing. [pauses]... awww man there's so many things... to ask...
Michael Gira : Is that enough?
Kim : Yeah, we need to let you get ready... Can I just ask you one more thing?
Michael Gira : Yeah sure...
Kim : Could you just give us your autograph on a few CD's and your book? Michael Gira : Yeah no problem...
Kim : Really? OK! Thank you.
M. Lund : See I didn't want to ask you that....
Michael Gira : [To Kim] So where are you from?
Kim : Well... ehhh...
Michael Gira : Where?
Kim : I just know I am here now.
Michael Gira : What country are you from?
Kim : I'm from America.
Michael Gira : WHERE? [in America]
Kim : Well... [hesitates...]
Michael Gira : Come on you can ask *me* intelligent questions...and now I can ask *you*.
Kim : I'm currently residing in.... in Michigan. But I was in the NW Rocky Mountains for 12 years. Hiding out from...socialization, and civilization, and technology..
Michael Gira : Well... Good for you!
Kim : ... in teepees and log cabins...
Michael Gira : Really! In the Rockies... Where?
Kim : Northwest Montana
Michael Gira : Alright! I hitchhiked through there...
Kim : You DID?
Michael Gira : Shit yeah!
Kim : When?
Michael Gira : 1971 or 2...
Michael Gira : I hitchhiked across the states twice... and I used to hitchhike up and down one all the time cause I'm from LA.
Kim : I used to hitchhike a lot back then...
Michael Gira : Yeah, same generations, that's when you could do it, but you can't anymore. Yeah I spent some time in Wyoming where I got a job working as a sheet rocker, then they sent me down to another job, and they sent me to Four Corners area surveying, and I lived in the desert there for quite some time.
Kim : Read any Edward Abbey?
Michael Gira : Oh yeah, Sure!
Michael Gira : That shit is great!
Kim : Yeah he is...
Michael Gira : Like it a lot...
Kim : He's gone now you know that right? [Abbey]
Michael Gira : OH he died?
Kim : Oh yeah...
Michael Gira : What was that, five years ago?
Kim : I missed him!
Michael Gira : Yeah, that happens...
Kim : I almost missed YOU. I missed 12 years of music living in the mountains..
Michael Gira : That's great... totally self-sustaining?
Kim : Well for about six years yeah... teepees and log cabins...
Michael Gira : Yeah?
Kim : Yep, hauling water, splitting wood, killing elk and deer and eating them... fish and things..
Michael Gira : Oh Wow! Sounds like a good life?
Kim : It was the best.
Michael Gira : It's a great experience.
Kim : Well we were talking to this guy tonight in a coffee shop, about some different things and I thought of a title to a chapter or a book: Evolution is a Bitch.
Michael Gira : Evolution is a McDonald's Hamburger... unfortunately.
Kim : McLibel
Michael Gira : Yeah...McPerson.
Kim : Yeah... Oh well.. Thank you!
Michael Gira : Yeah...Thank You...
M. Lund : Thank you.
Michael Gira : Keep in touch. Write me ok?
Kim : Sure thing.
We went on chatting for another few minutes, then separated our ways to get ready for the long awaited live performance. Gira was a delightful person with which to chat.