Michael Gira | interview

Eye Weekly, Toronto | Jason Anderson

Gira’s music has never been so sophisticated or satisfying

Angels of Light leader Michael Gira has never been know as a writer of life-affirming, heartwarming tunes. In the 15 years Gira fronted New York avant-Rock group Swans, he was more likely to set brooding tales of rage, lust and regret to body-pummeling noise. Slo-core didn't come any slower. On hulking works like Greed and Children of God, as well as the band's literally deafening shows, Gira's bag was transcendence by way of punishment - with Gira and his audience locked in a battle to see who could suffer the most.

But there was always a quieter side to his work. Released in 1989, The Burning World was the band's only disc on a major label and the first of several Swans albums to trade brutality for serenity. The covers of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and Bling Fath's "Can't Find My Way Home" from this era were remarkable for their delicacy. Meanwhile, Gira and Swans singer Jarboe dabbled in torch songs and doomy ballads in the side project World of Skin. When the history of Swans came to an end with a final tour in 1998 (recorded for the magnificent live album Swans Are Dead, which, like most of Gira's music is available from, something brighter beckoned.

"When I terminated Swans I decided to pursue certain elements that had cropped up occasionally on various albums," says Gira in a recent email interview. "Songs like Failure and God Damn The Sun were based more around the song and lyricas than any sonic preoccupation. So Angels of Light was meant to be sparse and close-up. But I can't keep my hands out of the pot, so much of it is orchestrated and intense sonically. Really, I just follow my imagination and whatever happens, happens."

So even if the gentler, more acoustic nature of the two recent Angels of Light albums - New Mother and How I Loved You - is not unprecedented, Gira's music has never been so sophisticated or satisfying. One difference is that rather than being a proper band, Angels of Light is a project in which Gira is joined by a changing cast of guest players, like guitarist Kid Congo Powers and ex-Ministry drummer Bill Rieflin.

Nowadays, Gira says of his collaborators, "I make sure I consider them friends and can trust them in all ways: musically and personally. This isn't to cast any aspersions on ex-Swans members, but our personal relationships were usually bad or at least tumultuous. That was probably my fault!"

The new songs benefit from an expanded instrumental pallet and vary in style from spare country ballads to grandiose semi-orchestral works that recall vintage Scott Walker. Gira likens the sound to "Pink Floyd as interpreted by The Carter Family." Whether using a simple arrangement or a very elaborate one, Gira emphasizes the strength of individual songs rather than the overall effect.

"If the songs are good, it'll sound good on acoustic guitar and voice or orchestrated," he says. "That's one of the main reasons I took this direction: to not be dependent on orchestration or sonic impact, to be able to strip it down to what's important. My idol in this mode is of course Bob Dylan. Not that I share his musical history or influences - just that I appreciate the ability of anyone to create a world with very simple means."

As with Nick Cave - the only artist to brood for as long and well as Gira has - Hank Williams and Johnny Cash seem equally relevant touchstones.

"I'm drawn to all kinds of music," says Gira, "but the main criterion I appreciate is an elemental quality, outside the immediate hotspots of media culture. I can appreciate both Mongolian folk music and Stockhausen simultaneously."

Thankfully, the music of Angels of Light is less likely to cause a migraine than a mongolian rendition of Stockhausen'd "Hymnen," never mind ferocious Swans classics like "Raping a Slave" and "Time is Money(Bastard)." Perhaps that's why Gira's music is discovering a new audience.

"It's fortunate that so many young people are drawn to the music I'm making now," he says." I'd be a candidate for suicide if there were only old Swans fans at the shows. It seems to work in many directions - people discover the music of Swans for the first time, then also Angels, or vice versa. Really, I'm lucky to have a productive career after so many years of making music. I guess this has to do with the fact that I've always tried to leave the past behind."