MICHAEL GIRA ON THE ANGELS OF LIGHT
Discorder Magazine, Vancouver BC | Cover Story | Barbara
AND OTHER MAGICAL THINGSMaybe I was wrong to contemplate a feminist analysis of Mr. Michael Gira. As I stepped into the impersonal and awkward process of initiating an email interview with the man behind the Swans etc., I felt a surge of righteous applicability - I could stick my undergraduate theories all over him, and he wouldn't even care! The day after I sent my questions off, I felt the first tremors of uncertainty. My careful wording, and double-doublethink self-repression notwithstanding, I thought for sure that he would spot me for what I am: a) a university student, b) a very big fan, c) a woman who has trouble with men, and who finds interviews extremely intimidating. As it goes, I never really asked him anything approaching my real questions, which were all about bodies and the things humans communicate through them: Love, power, powerlessness, hate. Bodies are what we are, after all. Bodies, real and imagined, have been the singular fixation of Gira's lyrical universe in everything I've ever heard by him. I really want to dig up those bodies and talk about them, cuz most people who write love songs talk about togetherness in terms of "feelings."
How's this for togetherness: You put your eyes in my headâ€¦.wrap your mouth around my mouthâ€¦I'm sealed in your skin. It's violent, and maybe that's why most writers of love songs don't like dealing with bodies (except in terms of aesthetic appreciation and genital bliss): They don't want to admit that humans are corporeal and mortal, because they want their love to last forever.
But still, listening to Holy Money, Swans' 1986 album, hearing deadly serious lines like "Your body's private. Your body's sacred. You should be violated. You should be raped. Someone weaker than you should rape you," made me think. His music and writing has always dealt with the intersection of sex and violence. Even the Angels of Light's most recent release, the spectacular How I Loved You, while more tender than usual, opens up this wound. "My True Body" documents the young Gira's experience in an Israeli jail, where he listened, night after night, to the sound of a young Palestinian boy being raped repeatedly by his fellow inmates. I saw in these fragments a hint of the insight that evades so many people: That power has many outlets, many courses of action. Our bodies are not private at all. This is an insight shared by feminists, and I wanted Gira's opinion on it. Ultimately though, I chickened out. The following interview has no bodies in it, only words.
I've been listening to the Swans and The Angels of Light and The Body Lovers way too much lately. I'm afraid I've become one of those religious people who is always talking about Jesus and tries to get other people to hang out with him. Well, the Angels of Light are coming to Vancouver. You heard me right. Miss it at your peril.
DISCORDER: THE BAND YOU'RE BRINGING ON TOUR WITH THE ANGELS OF LIGHT IS QUITE PARED-DOWN, COMPARED TO THE ENSEMBLE ON THE ALBUMS. WHAT DOES THIS DO TO THE SONGS AND THE WAY THEY ARE PERFORMED LIVE?
Well, I think the songs are good, so it should work in any context. I guess it's more emotive and raw than with a large group because the energy is more concentrated. Our instrumentation is really odd for this tour - whatever we can play, really. So Larry Mullins is playing a Farfiza organ, electronic vibes, and a drum kit, all at once. Thor Harris is playing a piano, hammer dulcimer, autoharp, acoustic vibes, singing, and percussion, again sometimes all at once. Dana Schechter is playing bass, piano, and melodica, and singing. It's like Pink Floyd as performed by a traditional American mountain music group!
ON "NEW YORK GIRLS" YOU SEEM TO BE ADDRESSING AN AUDIENCE - FROM THE STAGE - BUT IT'S ONE OF THE MOST INTIMATE SONGS ON HOW I LOVED YOU. HAVE YOU PERFORMED IT IN NEW YORK YET? DOES THE SONG WORK DIFFERENTLY THERE THAN IN OTHER CITIES?
The first time we played it here was really surprising. The response was like at a football game. It's a little ridiculous. There is a certain archetype to who it's addressed, as well as specific memories, but maybe I should change it to "Sheboigan Girls" to diffuse the specificity.
A LOT OF EARLY SWANS STRIKES ME AS DISTINCTLY POLITICAL. YOU OFTEN FOCUSSED, LYRICALLY, ON POWER AND CONTROL - ONE PERSON DOMINATING ANOTHER - AND ON ECONOMIC AND SEXUAL EXPLOITATION. AT THE SAME TIME, YOU STATED IN A 1984 INTERVIEW THAT YOU WERE NOT INTERESTED IN "PREACHING" TO YOUR AUDIENCE ABOUT POLITICS. HAVE YOUR VIEWS CHANGED OVER THE YEARS? DO YOU THINK THAT LOVE SONGS, LIKE THE KIND ANGELS OF LIGHT SPECIALIZE IN, CAN BE POLITICAL?
In the past I might have addressed certain themes as you described, that might be interpreted as political by extension, though I've always shied away from being polemical in any way. I'm selfish enough to not want to kill a song by limiting its scope. Also, I'm extremely leery of associating myself with any doctrine - I don't like crowds! I suppose a love song could be political, but I don't consider mine to be so.
HAVE COMPUTERS CHANGED THE WAY YOU COMPOSE OR PRODUCE MUSIC?
They haven't changed a thing as far as Angels is concerned, as it's based entirely on the performance of the song, though of course there's more possibilities in terms of editing. As for other projects such as the Body Lovers or even Swans circa Soundtracks for the Blind, the ability to crossfade and collage had a great deal to do with the final piece. On both of those projects some of the sound sources were culled from performances or recordings that had a distance of 15 years in their origination, then co-existed simultaneously in a new "performance." Also, on occasion, the computer would overload and make the most violent feedback imaginable, as if about to explode - the engineer would leap at the controls to stop it, but I had him let it go, then incorporated it into the piece. It seemed like the computer was showing "personality" at that point. It's still important to me though that the core of a piece have a sense of being made by human hands. I never program rhythms for that reason.
MAYBE I DREAMED IT, BUT I SEEM TO REMEMBER YOUR FINGER BEING UP FOR SALE. IS YOUR FINGER STILL FOR SALE, AND IF SO, WHY?
Hah hah! I suppose that was ironic, but actually I would have cut off my right pinkie if someone had come up with the money - $250,000 to be exact. I think it would look great, pickled in a jar and on a nice mantle place. Not that it's an entirely original idea - see the work of Mario Merz, for example. He sold his excrement in cans and charged Artworld prices for it.
THE LAST COUPLE OF YEARS HAVE SEEN YOUNG GOD RECORDS MORE PRODUCTIVE THAN EVER. TO WHAT DO YOU ATTRIBUTE THIS?
Since the label is somewhat stable now in terms of distribution, I just thought it vain to only release my own music, and since I'm enthusiastic about many different kinds of music from various artists, I thought it was time to give their music a venue. I do what I can with no money, which is what I've always done, I suppose.
ON THE WEBSITE, IT STATES THAT YOU WILL BE DOING "REWORKING OF SWANS MATERIAL" ON TOUR. IS THIS SOMETHING YOU WOULD HAVE FELT COMFORTABLE DOING A FEW YEARS AGO?
Probably not, but in this instance there's enough distance so that I feel comfortable with it. The interpretations will have very little to do with the original sound of the material anyway. It's just a source.
SOUNDTRACKS FOR THE BLIND AND THE BODY LOVERS/HATERS RELEASES USED A LOT OF TAPED/SAMPLED MATERIAL. THE TWO ANGELS ALBUMS USED NONE. WAS IT A PHASE THAT HAS PASSED, OR IS THAT KIND OF SOUND MANIPULATION SOMETHING YOU STILL ENGAGE IN?
I intend, when time and money allow, to do another installment of the Body Lovers. I don't have an agenda in terms of sound or approach. For instance, I can listen to Gorecki's Symphony Number Two (which is quite violent and expressionist), then easily listen to Dylan's Nashville Skyline the next moment, and neither one takes on any more relevance or importance musically, but both contain a core commitment to the passion of the performance, which is the essential thing, in the end, to me.
YOU'VE SAID ELSEWHERE THAT "INNER FEMALE" (FROM NEW MOTHER) IS WRITTEN FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF FRANCIS BACON. COULD YOU ELABORATE ON THIS? (IT'S ONE OF MY FAVORITES, AND I HAD A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT INTERPRETATIONâ€¦)
Well, I've always been a huge fan of his work, as well as the amazing, almost superhuman ability he exhibited in living both a sybaritic, extremely debauched life, coupled with an unflagging dedication to his work. I don't know how he did it: drinking and other sensual pursuits until four a.m., then working in the studio until noon, then sleeping a few hours, then repeating the process. It's really heroic, in a way. Anyway, I was reading several different biographies and interviews with him, and the song came out from the sensibility I gleaned from that, and of course his work. It's not a specific account by any means, though.
THERE'S BEEN A STRONG VISUAL COMPONENT TO THE PACKAGING OF YOUNG GOD RELEASES. WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE VISUAL ARTISTS?
A few years ago I was visiting some friends in Madrid, Spain, and I ended up
going to the Prado museum every day for 8 hours, for a week, wandering aimlessly,
taking my time. I came across an Adoration of the Magi by Van Eyck, and sat
staring at it for a few hours - luminous, magical, the definition of the word
"beauty". At that moment I thought I was finished with modern art.
It just seemed like a sham by comparison. Then, as it happened, there was a
retrospective of the installation/light artist Dan Flavin in the same city.
I was similarly floored. So I give up trying to choose favorites.