Michael Gira | Interview

Alternative Press | Issue 132 | Dave Clifford

Following Swans' dissolution in 1996, Gira has pursued several projects, but the recent release of Angels Of Light's New Mother finds him once again fronting a full band to initiate a new form of musical menace.

Since first maligning the blues in 1982 with his brutally antipathetic noise group Swans, Michael Gira has been experimenting with sound as catharsis, and exploring lyrical themes that posit that life, sex, work and death are humanity's only art. Following Swans' dissolution in 1996, Gira has pursued several projects, but the recent release of Angels Of Light's New Mother finds him once again fronting a full band to initiate a new form of musical menace.

What are some of the projects you've been involved with since the end of Swans?

Immediately after Swans, I started the Body Lovers project, which was more of a continuation of the collaging of concrete sounds that I'd started using in Swans. I also went through the massive nightmare undertaking of recording the Angels Of Light album. I like the music, but putting it together was the usual nightmare of budget. In the process of recording the album, I ran out of money and actually had to solicit investors to lend me money to complete it. Consequently, at least half of New Mother was funded by fans.

Young God, my label, has just released the Children Of God and Various Failures reissues. The final reissue is the first Swans album, Filth, with live tracks and studio outtakes from that era. And I moved back to New York, where my stress level found its natural affinity.

I'm glad to move beyond Swans. It was like an ever-tightening noose, basically.

It's Interesting that your post-Swans recordings have taken such divergent paths.

I don't have any prejudicial agenda musically, other than excellence. So I can simultaneously do something like Body Lovers and Angels Of Light with no psychic ill effects.

Why seperate the projects?

It makes more sense to me to compartmentalize. It just makes more sense when I'm working with Angels of Light to focus on the aesthetic that it has, and then to work in the sonic preoccupation of Body Lovers. Actually, it was quite liberating when I ended Swans to be able to think that way. With the Angels Of Light, there's nothing programmed. There's a couple of loops, but otherwise everything is completely organic and played by human beings in a room. Deciding to work that way, narrowing the possibilities, is quite liberating.

Are you striving for a narrative style in Angels Of Light's lyrics?

I may be going for a narrative structure, but with my lyrics, writing each sentence, each word, is more like trying to pull a tooth out with a pair of pliers. I don't have much control over it. I usually get the notion of a subject or an image, then I'm sort of hacking away at my face with an ice pick to try to get a lyric out of it. I aspire to write very long narrative songs, but I'm not what you'd call loquacious, so it's difficult. I have a song I've been working on now for two weeks, and I just can't spit it out. Somebody needs to beat me up or something. [Laughs.]

What fuels your prolific nature?


Fear of death, or...?

Fear of having lived a pointless life - which I ultimately suspect will be the case, anyway. But I have to work, or I feel completely useless.

Are you compelled to leave behind things that illustrate who you once wore?

I had the misfortune of having gone to art school, where I was taught to think critically. But when I left, I decided I wasn't going to be analytical; I was just going to follow my intuition and work. So I don't question what I'm doing; I just do it and look at it later. As for the subjects I choose, they're somewhat random. Sometimes I'll have a memory and start expanding on that. Unfortunately, some of the memories lately have had to do with ruined relationships and drinking, and things like that. But some of the other songs are inspired by different things that preoccupy me. For instance, "The Man With The Silver Tongue" is based on the images of the Viennese artist Rudolph Schwartzkoggler. "The Garden Hides The Jewel" is sort of an homage to Marcel Duchamp; "Inner Female" is an homage to Francis Bacon. There's actually a lot of songs about art on New Mother.

An interesting aspect of your lyrics is the ambiguity of the voice in them.

Maybe that's because I have no soul.

Well, you often imply that you are evil.

Yeah, there are a lot of songs about evil on [New Mother]. Some of them are based upon personal experience, but hopefully they're extrapolated and abstracted enough that anyone can step into them. I think that's the test. You don't want to write something that's so personal it's about "me"; you want people to be able to use it in their own mind. I guess in that way I exploit my own evil for the good of other people. Some of the songs are inspired by my own recent transgressions.

It's interesting that in certain parts of songs, one can see the impetus for your lyrics, but it's never clearly defined. You're never specifically explaining a situation or feeling.

I think it's repugnant when someone is too personal in their writing. Bob Dylan's great at avoiding that - like on Blood On The Tracks, that's a really personal album, but he expands it. It starts out as something really personal, and he extends it into this epic story.

Like in traditional folk music, how everyone who plays a standard adds a new twist to the lyrics?

Yeah, the song enters into a universal theme, as opposed to being about oneself - which is the usual fare in MTV- and Spin-land. People write about themselves as if their life were really important to everybody else. For instance, Alanis Morissette - who cares about your problems? Get a shrink. ALT

Suggested Listening:


Where the purest notions of American and European folk music are refracted through the tarnished lens of experience. (Young God, 1990)

M. GIRA Drainland

The first hints of Gira's interest in sparing sounds and narrative structures spring up among pummeling rhythms and acoustic loops. (Young God/Alternative Tentacles, 1995)

SWANS The Great Annihilator

A popular favorite, exhibiting the culmination of drone-drenched rhythmic attrition paired with surreal erotic lyricism. (Young God/ Invisible, 1995)