Michael Gira | Interview


New Mind Of A Young God

The first time I went to see this band, that I would later join called Sonic Youth in 1981 at the Mudd Club, I was first slammed into a new stratosphere by the opening band, Swans. The line-up then was Michael Gira and Thurston Moore both pounding basses in singular slow extremely loud harmonics, Jonathan Kane playing a double bass drum humongous kit, Roli Mosimann playing a metal table with a thick deadly chain, and a butch guitar player (Sue Hanel) whose sound can only be described as two brontosauruses fucking. The slow throbbing thunderous roar coming from that tiny stage with lyrics such as "getting taken to the basement, getting fucked to ease some tension" scared even the downtown trendies of the time running holding their ears. Mike lived in a windowless bunker on 6th and Ave B with empty 40-ouncers and photos of men hanging from the ceiling from meat hooks adorning the walls. This is where both Swans and Sonic Youth started out rehearsing. Both bands crammed into one van with a U-Haul and headed down south and then to the Midwest to attempt to convert the masses. What the fuck were we thinking? I remember Michael leaning over bodies in the van to punch out his drummer, while calling him a pussy, me trying to get out of a dressing room,while Sue the guitar player was throwing full cans of Bud at his head, yelling - NEVER TOUCH MY AMP!! This was the same night that he jumped off the stage, mid set, to pummel some idiot for pogoing. Witnessing those early Swans shows were the only time that I could, actually, feel the insides of my body moving from the power of the volume. Despite his difficulties dealing with a lot of people, we always got along. I could never figure out why, although, I always appreciated his art and hard work ethics. He did corner me and gave me shit once, after the band that I had recently joined in 1986 (Pussy Galore) had appeared in Vanity Fair because of Julie's socialite family calling them rich brats ... and he had to put up sheet rock for six years before he could make his first record. I just laughed. Anyway, it was great to get together with an old friend and find out what fed the fire. Michael Gira has never stopped applying the hard work ethic to his music/art and keeps releasing great passionate records. Check out his brilliant book of short stories called The Consumer. Through his label Young God Records, he has also made available records by bands such as Calla, Flux Information Sciences, Angels of Light (post Swans project) and many others and has worked with U.S. Maple.

BB: What was your childhood like growing up in LA?

MG: I grew up in sort of an affluent suburb of LA called Palos Verdes, which is in the Bay Area, on the beach. That was in the sixties. In the early days of my life there, I was little Lord Fauntleroy. Really the high life. My Dad was a successful international businessman and my mother was the ideal American housewife. Then my Dad left my mother and she descended into alcoholism big time; drank up all the money, lost the house.

BB That bad?

MG: Oh yeah! Totally, like pissing in her pants bad. One of my earliest memories is going to a supermarket with her and she was wearing a mink coat open with just her nightgown underneath, and she pissed in the supermarket while I was there. Then the sixties happened and there were all the drugs and the hippies around, so I started hitchhiking down to this place called, Hermosa Beach, where all the hippies and bikers hung out. I started taking drugs really early on like around twelve years old. It was sunny California... yet, in the midst of all the stuff that was going on... I was listening to the Doors, the Seeds, Love and Blue Cheer, when all that happened. Taking huge amounts of drugs, too.

BB: Did you see any of those bands?

MG: Yeah, I saw Blue Cheer but I hardly remember it, I was on acid. In retrospect, I could have done things better, not taken drugs, gone to school and become a lawyer. I guess drugs changed me quite a bit, especially, starting to take them at such an early age. I got arrested. I had a pocket full of seconal. I had been arrested for vandalism, theft, shoplifting, curfew. I was always out breaking into houses, spray-painting Cadillacs... all the usual stuff. I had been arrested several times and kicked out of school. I was expelled from junior high school. Then I got caught with a pocket full of reds and the police said that either I was going to spend time in juvenile hall, up until my 18th birthday, or I was going to live with my father because my mother was incapable of taking care of me. So, he flew out and took me first to South Bend, Indiana. He was setting up a factory there for this big corporation called Bendix. I lived a hellish year in South Bend, Indiana, which is really a white trash horrible place.

BB: That’s where Notre Dame is.

MG Notre Dame’s there, that’s a good thing. My Dad was friends with the professors and stuff there, but the general vibe of the place... I still think Indiana is an armpit. We stayed there for a year and then he got a business offer in Europe. We were in Paris and he was working for ITT or some other big corporation. In his initial early days, he had his own aircraft parts company with my uncle and they lost that through some kind of merger. Then he became a business consultant. He was over there in Paris and I was a drugged out hippie constantly battling his attempt to apply authority to me. We were staying in some hotel in Paris and I was hanging out with the hippies panhandling, which I didn’t need to do and taking drugs, then I ran away. I hitchhiked with a bunch of hairy, ugly hippies up to Amsterdam, but on the way... somehow I stopped in Belgium, at this big rock festival. I think it was 1969. With thousands of other hairy, ugly hippies in the mud, we watched some really great groups like Pink Floyd right in the era of Umma Gumma doing “Careful With That Axe Eugene” and songs like that.

BB: I saw that show in Passaic NJ... we are like the same age. After Umma Gumma they turned into the worst band in the world.

MG: Yeah, but up until then they were great. The Chicago Art Ensemble, who were booed off the stage by the hippies. I’ll never forget it because I was on acid, of course, and I was really enjoying it. Then suddenly it was like boooo and I saw Frank Zappa and Amon Dull, as well. In my dealings with Laswell, he told me it was a famous festival because it mixed jazz and stuff. We continued with our hippie sojourn up to Amsterdam. I was sleeping in abandoned buildings there and I ended up getting arrested for vagrancy and spent a couple weeks in jail there. As it turns out, my father knew I was in jail [there] and said ‘just leave him there and teach him a lesson.’ After I got out, I relocated with my father to Germany, but he left me in the care of his second wife’s aunt. He offered me a choice of either going to this school in the Swiss Alps for the children of business people, diplomats, etc....or going to work in this factory. So, of course, being brilliant, I chose the factory. He thought I’d last a couple months and then agree to go to school. After a year of working in the factory... it was a tool factory in Germany... he came to me and told me I had to get with it and go to school. Then I ran away. I hitchhiked across Europe. I had saved a couple hundred bucks, enough to buy a plane ticket in advance from Istanbul to Israel. I hitchhiked with some hippie friends down from Istanbul through Greece and Yugoslavia, it took like three weeks to a month. I arrived in Israel pretty much penniless. I stayed on a kibbutz for about three months, until I got kicked off for sending hashish through the mail. These older hippie guys had this brilliant plan that you would take these bricks of hashish and cut it into thin strips and put a postcard on either side and then put it in an envelope and write - careful do not bend, photos enclosed. (laughing) We’re sending these out from the kibbutz and the police came and everything and I ran, I escaped to the woods. I dug up the hash, that I had buried out in the woods and took it to Jerusalem. I was selling it in Jerusalem and I got busted. The police just walked into this hostel while I was selling it and they arrested me. I ended up spending a month and a half in jail in Jerusalem. They didn’t charge me, they just kept me in a cell. This civil rights lawyer found out about my case.

BB: Was it really hellish like that movie Midnight Express?

MG: It wasn’t like that but it was bad. I was in a cell with other vagabond Westerners. They did this thing where they had a stick and you would tie the persons hands to their feet and insert the stick in the hole there and then swing them and beat them or burn the bottoms of their feet with cigarettes to find out information about bombs. I remember, at that time, they had bombed a school bus and a university cafeteria.

BB: Then what?

MG: Then I got out, finally, after a month and a half, released without bail. Hung around Jeruselum, still panhandling and hanging out. I went to trial and spent another two months in prison. They put me in a adult prison, brilliantly, I was fifteen going on sixteen. I didn’t even have pubic hair (laughing). But fortunately it saved my life, It was, basically, haphazard circumstances that ended up protecting me. I was in this place that was a converted prison barracks. The area that I stayed in was with the hippie vagabond types that had been arrested for drugs and stuff, although, we shared it with Arabs, too. I came close to getting raped once but didn’t. I witnessed a lot of horrible things there and then got out. I spent about a year total in Israel. Then I survived for a while working in the copper mines 12 hours a day, 5 days a week and made about $10 a day. I was still trying to save money. My father had Interpol and all these people out looking for me this whole time. Finally, he tracked me down. I got on a plane after a year and went back to Germany. Finally, he said ‘I can’t deal with you’ and sent me back to California. I lived there for a while, and didn’t go to school. I tried to go back to 10th grade but it was so surreal after all the stuff I’d been through.

BB: Who were you living with then?

MG: My mother, she had, temporarily, stopped drinking. So, I went to this suburban high school in Torrence, California. She descended down from Palo Verdes to Torrence, which was more working class. I was in this middle-class high school, surfer culture, which was really surreal. I quit high school and lived a year or two doing various dumb jobs like working in a plastics factory. Then I became a roofer’s apprentice, a plumber’s apprentice, all these different trades. It didn’t suit me so I took a high school equivalency test and past it. I went to junior college and studied art. Then I went to Otis, which is where I met Kim Gordon. I was convinced that I was to be an artist. Then this scorch of the earth... punk rock happened. I went to this, really, famous concert at the Elks Lodge or Veterans’ Hall, right near Otis... the Screamers, X, Germs, all these really great groups. I was video-taping it for school and I was on stage. I was, completely, enthralled and loved it.

BB: Whatever happened to that videotape?

MG: God only knows. Just around then I published this magazine called No Magazine, I don’t know if you remember that.

BB: Yeah, I do.

MG: This friend of mine, Bruce Calberg and I, decided to publish it while we were still in art school. We did interviews with bands, such as Suicide, plus writing and pornography and different weird kind of stuff. I worked on two issues. The second issue was corpses being dissected on the cover (laughing) with a picture of my father in the middle. No one would print it in LA because of the pornography, so we had to drive up to San Francisco in his Volkswagen to a pornography printer to get it printed. We hawked them at gigs. We got it at newsstands and some stores.

BB: I got it in NYC.

MG: He carried it on after I left after the first two issues. I did that and then I, eventually, got in a band.

BB: What was your first band?

MG: It was called The Little Cripples. Then it became Strict Ids first than IDS.

BB: What does IDS stand for?

MG: I don’t know. (laughing) About that time I, really, started to get into Teenage Jesus and I heard that Theoretical Girls single and Suicide. Just seeing what was going on in New York made me decide to move to New York.

BB: What year did you move here?

MG: ‘79

BB: How long after you moved to New York was Circus Mort formed?

MG: Immediately, a friend of mine moved with me here from LA with the idea of starting a band here. We started that and that was a hideous embarrassment but once that broke up after about a year, I made a decision that I was really going to focus and control what I was doing. So, I started Swans; I picked up the bass. Rhys Chatham gave me my first bass. I started writing these percussive things, working with tape loops and building it up.

BB: I want to ask you what drove you to composing slow, loud songs dealing with passion and pain, but after hearing about your jail experiences of youth, it makes more sense.

MG: I was full of rage. I didn’t realize it then. You remember me. I was not an easy person to be around. On the other hand, it was a really pure flame of energy. I kind of envy that person now. I am not that person anymore. There was a real focus on making something happen no matter what the cost. I used to work twelve hours a day plastering and then rehearse for six hours, subsisting on various white powdery substances and quarts of Bud, basically. I don’t know where the energy came from. As far as the content of the lyrics and all that, it had a lot to do with reading.

BB: What writers inspired you?

MG: At the time, I was reading Genet, Saline, De Sade and Wilhem Reich was a big influence. His book The Mass Psychology Of Fascism. A big stylistic influence was advertising television commercials. The impact of that kind of language. Another influence would have been Jerzey Kosinski. Not Painted Bird ,which I read, but his early books like Steps. I just wanted a methodical blunt language without metaphor. That’s how I wrote. The music just seemed to slow down and slow down; it seemed to become this pulse instead of this rocking thing.

BB: I remember when Swans played at Maxwell's in Hoboken, like to three people, and while you were sound-checking, you told the soundman that you wanted the bass drum to feel like: THIS!- as you shoved him hard in the chest. (both laughing)

MG: No wonder I’ve never been asked back there. The influences, musically, were not the typical ones. I didn’t want it to sound like any fucking punk band in any way, although, there was a certain energy in like say the Germs that I really liked. It just seemed redundant and silly to do those chords. I was more influenced by SPK or Throbbing Gristle and the Stooges were always a huge influence. I didn’t want to sound like anybody else. Once I made the leap to make the music sound like chunks of sound rather than riffs, it kinda opened up.

BB: What were the early Europe tours like?

MG: Our first tour to Europe, we just booked a few shows and went over there. We didn’t have tickets home, we didn’t have any money, we slept on floors. At the end of the tour we were in London, we played and typically 10 people would show up and 9 of them would leave. They would have no idea who we were, it would just say Swans from NYC, they would show up and go ahhhhhhh and run out. (laughing). So, we did a whole tour like that, making enemies across the land. We ended up in London with no money at all. AT ALL! No way to get home and we had this gig at this place called Heaven opening for the Fall. We played. It was a terrible experience but there was a guy in the audience, Rob Collins, that worked for Some Bizarre records. He saw us and gave us the money to get home and then help us finish this record, that we were working on which, eventually, became Cop. We had put out Filth through Neutral, of course. After Cop we did this EP called Raping A Slave and then we did the series of 12” called Greed, Holy Money, Time Is Money, Bastard. I started incorporating other elements like early sampling, like the kick drum and the snare on Holy Money were a nail gun I got from work. Just one an octave down and one an octave up. It slowly transmuted. Jarboe got involved and I started utilizing her talents as a singer.

BB: That was around the time of the double LP Children Of God that Rob Collins put out. Wasn’t that a long process and an expensive record to make?

MG: I guess so! (laughing).

BB: He always said that it put him out of business.

MG: I’m sure it did but it got done, at least. I always get shit done no matter what.

BB: Was that the first record with Jarboe?

MG: No, she had sung a little bit on Greed and Holy Money and she had toured with us playing one of the first commercially available samplers called Insonic and it was just noise. She would hit it along with the percussion; big slabs of sound. She did that for a couple tours and sang a few token songs.

BB: Didn’t you meet her through a fan letter she sent you?

MG: Yeah, basically, talked to her on the phone, we got along and she came to New York. Through the whole Greed, Holy Money thing, I started to get fed up with the whole “brutality” aspect of the music and also the expectations of the audience to be pummeled. Heavy metal kids started showing up. It just started to feel a little ridiculous. That wasn’t the point. I decided to expand it and picked up an acoustic guitar and started singing. We still did some heavy stuff but started to incorporate the softer stuff. Looking back at it, me playing an acoustic guitar, I was pretty inept but I was trying. I always try to keep myself interested in what I’m doing and not get trapped.

BB: Was The Burning World next after Children Of God?

MG: We did Children Of God and then we did this unfortunate single Love Will Tear Us Apart (Joy Division), which did not come out how I wanted. Mute [Records], who we were with at the time insisted that it be produced by someone. I wanted it to be produced like that Little Drummer Boy song, Phil Spectorish but it ended up being this tight thing with drum machine and it’s embarrassing to me. Yet that got us signed to MCA, which was a total disaster. They spent a ton of money on making the record and I had to have an outside producer. They wouldn’t let me produce it. I had admired some of Bill Laswell's work but I don’t think the combination worked well. It’s a decent record but within a week of it being released, MCA was bought by some huge company. I don’t remember who it was and they fired the whole staff of this subdivision that we were on called UNI. Our A&R guy quit and the record just trickled out. Then in my misguided enthusiasm, I hired a publicist at my own expense wasting thousands of dollars of the advance we got. Rather than give managers percentages, I paid them cash each month. I just used up all the money from that record on that kind of shit and it still flopped. It was a nightmare. Fortunately, we got dropped.

BB: Was it your idea to have Robert Mapplethorpe’s photo on the front cover?

MG: Oh yeah.

BB: Was that easy to do?

MG: Our A&R man was a friend of his. We got free of our contract and I went to Rough Trade and started up Young God Records. I re-released stuff, did a World Of Skin thing and recorded at my own expense, White Light From The Mouth Of Trinity. All that seemed to be going well and the week that White Light came out, Rough Trade went bankrupt. Never saw any money from anything; a complete disaster.

BB: How were the World Of Skin records different from the Swans records?

MG: You mean... sonically?

BB: Yeah.

MG: It was just Jarboe and me working with simple means. A little piano, a little guitars and samplers with strange sounds, and then we got ridiculous and got a string section for a few songs. I’m just a work obsessive and always looking for new ways to do stuff. Also, what I learned after I was able to quit my construction job, was that the only way to survive was to keep putting things out all the time. The worst thing you could do is end up at a job you hate. So, that’s what I still do. I just keep working all the time. The motivation was to make good music but also to keep working. Then we subsisted for a while putting out records and licensing. We did a lot of records, Great Annihilator, Feel Good Now, Soundtracks For The Blind. Now the label is a real label with a real distributor [Revolver].

BB: What was the final lineup of Swans?
MG: It always changed, especially, for the last five years.

BB: Ever count all the members?

MG: I think it’s thirty or something like that.

BB: Tell me about your book, The Consumer?

MG: It is a compilation of short stories. The last half of the book is up to 1985; ones that I had written back then. I went back and edited them and fleshed them out a bit. The second half, when I left NYC for Atlanta for a short hiatus that lasted a couple of years. I got there and just locked myself in the basement and forced myself to write more stories and wrote the first half of the book.

BB: It’s an amazing book, you really feel the horror of what you are trying to get across.

MG: I have no idea what I was trying to get across. I, certainly, didn’t set out to shock. It’s strange, certainly. I don’t have any clue how to get back into the frame of mind of where I was, when I wrote the old stuff up until ‘85. And I don’t even think I have the ability to get into the place, where I was when I wrote the newer stuff. I write a bit now but, frankly, I’m having trouble finding a new voice.

BB: What was it like running the band out of Atlanta?
MG: It was difficult. Atlanta is sort of a black hole, as far as getting something to happen. There are just no resources. You come here and everybody’s so competitive and energized. At the time I moved there, I was completely drained from seventeen years in New York. Seventeen years of struggle, never making any money and constantly battling. My personality being the way it was as you know I’ve made a lot of enemies

and a lot of bad memories and I sort of fled. I couldn’t deal with it, drinking way too much. I would go to the bar at four in the afternoon and be there until three in the morning. It was called “my office.” It was right around the corner called the Horseshoe Bar. I had to get out so I went down there. I broke up the Swans because, to me, it just became a dead end. I think I made a fine final statement and there was just nowhere to go after that. It garnered this reputation that was kind of a straitjacket. It felt best to just leave it behind after fifteen years.

BB: What’s the difference between the Body Lovers album, which I have and consists of lush instrumental soundscapes and the Body Haters, which I didn’t know existed until I saw it listed on the Young God website?

MG: I have one of those left and you can’t have it. (laughing) The Body Lovers was made with 24-track recordings, little tape recordings, loops, found sounds, all that stuff was amassed. A lot of that stuff I’ve had for fifteen years and pulled out of a box. I recorded new things with the idea of the Body Lovers and dumped it onto a computer and found how it all worked together somehow. The Body Haters... I threw all my samples and sampler away when I left Atlanta, but at the time, I had the sampler on my desk and a keyboard and with a few sounds loaded in, I just hit the keys like this and made this sonic soundscape piece, and then I put that into a computer and freaked out the computer. The engineer was working on it and this loop started to happen, the computer was screaming like the screen was going to explode. He went rushing to the controls and I was like wait! Wait! I had him get a DAT and we recorded that and

had him put that back into the sound. Organic things like that were happening.

BB: How did the Angels Of Light evolve?
MG: It’s probably just what I would have done if I continued Swans. Songs that I write with an acoustic guitar and once I have a song, I just think of how to orchestrate it and what instruments are required. For the first record, I didn’t have a band, so I just brought in all my friends to play on it and orchestrated it like a film. The second record How I Loved You is more like the band as it was at the time. This new record will probably be a little bit of that but more filmic-composed than the last one.

BB: When you are struggling with a recording, do you consider yourself more a perfectionist or more of a neurotic?

MG: I wouldn’t say I’m neurotic. When I’m in the studio, I get intensely involved in the project.

BB: How long did it take to record How I Loved You?

MG: Months. New Mother the first one took longer. This new one will take a long time, too. Once I’m in the studio, I have ideas and things, but accidents happen and I just pursue them. I don’t hang on to my original perception. If something happens that surprises me, I go with that instead. I, usually, wring the blood out of the process until that’s all that I can do. The studio is like an instrument to me. It is it’s own world.