Michael Gira | Biography

Handbook Magazine | R.W. Hessler



October, 2002--Michael Gira performs live at San Francisco's Noe Valley Ministry, an intimate stage that is used on Sundays for the purpose of Christian Fellowship, but has been shared by thousands of national/international music and performance acts, secular and otherwise, in the organization's grass roots effort to invite and embrace the diversity of their immediate community. The stage has exceptionally warm and inviting acoustics, the perfect setting for a solo Gira and his acoustic guitar; his presence and semi-formal dress is reminiscent of a backwoods minister, his very countenance and smoldering eyes suggesting that he has walked into the very mouth of Hell and has lived to tell the story... Gira paces the stage like a prisoner, carefully measuring the dimensions of his cell; he personally oversees the few, simple technical specifications his performance requires after opening band Vetiver (featuring the talents of rising Young God Records artist Devandra Banhart, whose first recording OH ME OH MY... is making quite a stir, both critically and commercially) breaks down, while sucking cough drops like candy and occasionally sipping at what is presumably tea. His preparation seems slow and deliberate, as if he were mentally running through a checklist he has gone over thousands and thousands of times before; something about the odor of his microphone profoundly disrupts his quiet and commanding air, and a palpable hush breaks through the church's expectant crowd as Gira slowly wipes the microphone off with his sleeve, an expression betraying annoyance creeping into his typically stoic glare.

He introduces himself with a wry wit, opening the show with self-deprecatory comments about his poor guitar skills... then proceeds to play the set of his life, his voice alternately purring or roaring through 90 or so minutes of new songs from his band ANGELS OF LIGHT, as well as acknowledging the strengths of a handful of songs from his former glory, New York's legendary SWANS. Included amongst these older songs that have been reworked to their basic bones for purposes of solo performance is the classic gem from 1987's CHILDREN OF GOD recording, "New Mind". Gira's performance is nothing short of pure excellence, including his simple yet dynamic guitar work; he seems at home as echoes of 1989''s "God Damn the Sun" resound and spellbind the audience to complete and tangible silence in this house of God. The performance of "Nations", a new song to be featured on ANGELS OF LIGHT's new recording EVERYTHING IS GOOD HERE/PLEASE COME HOME is urgent and relevant; the song suggests the horrors that lie ahead with America's current political projections, and is a salute to the people whose lives have already been permanently stained by those that "...sound the scream of nations..."

Following the performance at the Ministry, Michael Gira continues with the role of backwoods minister, personally greeting the outpouring audience in the church foyer and hawking his own merchandise; his energy is not unlike a loving pastor who has just delivered the sermon of his career-We enter the warm October night in San Francisco transformed by Gira's power to captivate an audience; his ability to find a familiar yet uncomfortable place in the human psyche through his words, as well certainly as the intensity of his vocal delivery, which since the beginning of his career has been his own personal testimony to his strong personal drive and diligence to create uncompromising music and be heard-Somehow this night has been enormously fulfilling...

Michael Gira is an extremely private person; he doesn't like interviews, and he does not enjoy the prospect of sharing his personal emotions (outside of the realm of performance) with anyone... unless he chooses to. Choice is a key concept in relation to attempting to better understand Gira; his personal freedom is perhaps the core, the very foundation of a musical odyssey that has lasted nearly a quarter of a century and shows no signs of slowing or mellowing by any interpretation. The man says and does exactly what he chooses to do, woeful to the point of insolent at any forces outside of his choosing that might attempt to control or carve out his destiny. Out of this resistance to anybody or any institution that might exercise authority or control over his person or his thoughts, one could argue that Gira has forged a meaningful career.

That is not to say that Gira is a closed or obviously temperamental personality these days, though he would be the first to admit that his unpredictable and often caustic behavior served as a distancing factor early in his career with SWANS; on the contrary, he is capable of demonstrating a very keen sense of humor and is self-deprecating to a fault. His dealings in the past with the record industry and music journalists have caused him to shun rubbing shoulders with their ilk, even to dread it; any effort to analyze or intellectualize his works seems equally irksome to Gira who claims, "I have absolutely no mission' whatsoever except to make music. I have no point' to make. There's no ulterior motive. I love making music, singing, shaping sound. That's enough."

It took nearly two months to pin Michael Gira down long enough to score an interview; running Young God Records is satisfying for Gira, though the toll he pays is one of time: "I am incredibly, stupidly, mind numbingly BUSY. I am not only trying to make music, but also run a record company, and service merchandise from our website, and 1000 other tasks. My supreme goal is to clear up busy work here, stuff that HAS to be done to keep YGR afloat, so that I can again pick up my guitar, and also deal with aspects of my own career... My priority is to first clear up this mountain of nagging junk on my desk (see back cover of Everything Is Good Here-) and screaming unanswered e-mails in my inbox, which often reaches about 300 e-mails I need to answer... I have to clear up basic exigencies first..."

Gira's background is reasonably researched and displayed on the Young God Records website: to summarize several excellent articles about Gira's background, he was born in the 50's and grew up in a relatively affluent suburb of Los Angeles called Palos Verdes during the 60's, the son of a wealthy international businessman and a housewife. Shortly before entering adolescence, Gira's parents split up; his father moved to Indiana and his mother slowly spiraled downward into alcoholism, drinking away the holdings and neglecting the young boy. Soon, at 12, he began delving into the world of drugs, enjoying the music of his day such as the DOORS, the SEEDS, LOVE, and BLUE CHEER. His delinquency culminated into getting busted during junior high with a pocket full of Seconals; to avoid a lengthy sentence in juvenile hall, he was required to live with his father in Indiana, which Gira recollects as "an armpit".

Around 1969, Michael Gira moved to Paris with his father, where Gira began hanging out with hippies, panhandling (though he didn't need to), and taking drugs. At one point he was jailed for several weeks in Amsterdam (as a minor) for vagrancy, abandoned by his father in hopes of teaching the young boy a lesson. After a stint at a tool factory in Germany which he chose over a prestigious school in the Swiss Alps, Gira ran away, hitch-hiking through Greece and Yugoslavia until arriving in Israel at the age of 15, selling hash first on a collective farm, or kibbutz, and later (after a near-bust) a hostel, where he was finally taken into custody by Israeli police.

Gira was incarcerated for a month and a half in Jerusalem without formal charges before a civil rights lawyer found out about his case. Released without bail, he hung out in Jerusalem, mostly panhandling or selling his blood before his trial, in which he was sentenced to another two months in an adult prison, where he depended heavily on his luck and quickly acquired shrewdness to avoid being gang-raped. Gira recollects, "Total time was only about three months, not much really, but enough to get me thinking later about TIME (one's own control of it) being the most valuable thing one can possess..." After his release, he spent nearly a year in Israel working twelve-hour days in a copper mine before being tracked down by his father with the aid of Interpol agents. Deciding he could no longer deal with his son, Gira's father sent him back to his mother in California, who was now living in the working class community of Torrance. He tried his hand at working at a plastics factory, roofing, and plumbing before jumping back into formal education. After passing a high school equivalence exam, he went to junior college to study art; later, he attended Otis Academy Art Institute (where he first met Kim Gordon, who would later go on to join SONIC YOUTH in New York), and later began publishing NO MAGAZINE with Bruce Kalberg, featuring band interviews, stories and pornography.

It was also around this time that Michael Gira became highly influenced by the DIY ethic of the burgeoning Punk rock scene. "I always thought I'd be an artist all my life (visual, that is). I was attending art school in LA, and was having qualms about the art world per se, the increasing irrelevance of it, the academic elitism and cloistered quality of it. I heard the SEX PISTOLS on the radio. I didn't want to make music like that, but I liked the guerilla' aspect of it; its violence and media savvy quality just seemed immediately relevant and more important and interesting than most art of the time. I'd always been hungry for extreme music-of the overwhelming, body and mind pummeling variety- and soon found out about a lot of other music being made that had the violent energy of punk, without using the standard rock format: THROBBING GRISTLE, SPK, TEENAGE JESUS, DNA, the CONTORTIONS, Glenn Branca (as THEORETICAL GIRLS)... So I was inspired to think that I could make something happen, even with my extremely limited musical means. It took several years to find my way, though. I was in a bad punk/art band in LA called the LITTLE CRIPPLES, which was silly. Then I moved to New York City, and had another silly band for a while called CIRCUS MORT (yikes!). Anyway, after that I'd gleaned enough musical ability and confidence to completely oversee the music, which is when I started SWANS (1981)..."

Gira came to New York at the tail end of New York's No Wave scene, hoping to find his own unique niche; initially, he was met with disappointment. "I moved to NYC because I was frustrated with the style-oriented punk scene in LA, and thought when I arrived here it'd be a great place to do something new. I loved SUICIDE, for instance, as well as TEENAGE JESUS, etc.- the NO New York area of things. But when I arrived here that had all fizzled out, and there wasn't much going on anymore, just the tail end of it all."

Out of the death of No Wave was born the rise of the so-called "Noise" scene, a movement in which SWANS and SONIC YOUTH were pioneering forefathers, not to mention two bands that have had as much influence over hardcore, industrial, and indie rock as the VELVET UNDERGROUND and its offshoots have had on all modern music. In SWANS' camp was Gira on bass and vocals, and Jonathan Kane, who had also been part of CIRCUS MORT (who had split up after releasing one record); by the spring of 1982, they were joined by Sue Hanel, who already had a reputation for being one of the "Noise" scene's "most fearsome" guitarists (she was later replaced by Norman Westberg). SWANS' first gigs were joined bySONIC YOUTH'S Thurston Moore on second bass and various friends of the band playing a variety of found percussion. SWANS were sharing a rehearsal space with SONIC YOUTH as well. By May of 1983, SWANS' line-up solidified with the addition of Roli Mosimann as a second drummer/percussionist and Harry Crosby on bass, freeing up Gira for vocals and tape loops.

It was also around this time that the camps of SONIC YOUTH and SWANS embarked on their first U.S. tour together, which amounted to ten people in one airless, seatless van pulling the equipment behind them in a trailer-several long months dubbed by SONIC YOUTH's Lee Ranaldo as the "Savage Blunder Tour". According to Jonathan Kane (featured in his insightful article about the early days of SWANS, which can be read on the YOUNG GOD RECORDS website), "Michael was notoriously difficult to deal with." When asked about those early days, Gira responds, "SONIC YOUTH and SWANS were very supportive of each other in the early days, but we grew apart, and I distanced myself from the so-called "Noise" scene. I don't know why-egotism, I guess."

The live shows in these early years of SWANS were legendary for their volume and sheer brutality; consisting of thunderous walls of guitar feedback and relentlessly slow rhythms of early industrial style bass and drums that scrape and pummel away at the mind and body, SWANS invaded every show with the subtlety of a jackhammer, ripping away at the collective flesh to expose a horrifying and barren landscape from which Gira's mindless, savage rants exemplify, purge, and cleanse the inescapable weaknesses of the human body and the mind while examining with brutal honesty the power structures and violence that emanate from every human aspiration and desire.

Gira's explanation of the vocal attack and its influences is simpler: "I usually took my lyrical ideas from a lot of different sources-work (which uniformly felt like slavery at the time), to sex (which felt like an invasion of my privacy) to mass media (which felt like complete mind control-and still does)..."

Following the release of two e.p.s from 1982, SWANS released a full-length recording entitled FILTH in 1983 that received serious critical attention, not to mention a great deal of national attention due to significant exposure from college radio; New York had found its new hardcore band, and Michael Gira was at the helm of its vision. The core of the band was made complete by 1985 with the induction of Jarboe, who had made a pilgrimage in 1983 to meet Gira from way down in Atlanta, Georgia, based on the impact that FILTH had made on her. While Gira admits in interviews on his web site that he felt an immediate connection to Jarboe, she did spend her share of time schlepping band equipment before she was officially asked to join in 1984 to sing and play keyboards. In time, she would come to be Gira's lover and principal collaborator.

By 1987's CHILDREN OF GOD, Gira's strong sense of drive and seemingly unconquerable will had impressively guided SWANS through seven brutal and uncompromising recordings; the new record was a radical departure stylistically and lyrically from anything the band had ever recorded before.

Gira explains, "Musically, the reason for the shift was that SWANS had run its course with the physical assault of sound that we employed previous to that. I wanted to move on to other things and didn't want to get stuck in some style, which in our case had the potential of becoming cartoonish if we'd continued in that direction. So I forced myself, and the music, into unfamiliar territory. Lyrically, I'd always seized on abstract subjects like money/power/sex/work, etc., and I was watching a lot of Jimmy Swaggart on TV (the televangelist), and I thought he was a great rock performer, so I stole his thunder. I tried not to mock the religious impulse, which would have been a typical thing to do at the time, but instead to get inside it. Everyone wants to lose themselves in something bigger than they are. I don't know if this is a bad thing or a good thing, honestly..."

Many of the hardcore-oriented fans of SWANS departed at this stage of SWANS' career, despite new and varied sources of critical acclaim for Gira's new vision of SWANS. Out of the ashes of the old SWANS rose a new direction that included the once forbidden notion of traditional song structure, actual melodies as well as complex harmonic parts, and greater senses of collaboration with Jarboe, whose background came from a strong choral tradition and formal song structure. As members of the band came and went, the new core of Gira and Jarboe began to fill once barren sonic soundscapes with a strong sense of musicality, citing strong influences of Greek and Middle Eastern traditions of drone and repetition mixed with a layered "wall of sound" that would become SWANS' stock trademark.

The next ten years would prove to be both physically and financially draining for Gira, despite the critical success of what is essentially his most prolific period consisting of: six more SWANS' studio albums; an outtakes recording; two WORLD OF SKIN recordings (a side project of Gira and Jarboe, focusing more on individual compositions); 1994's publication of Michael Gira's first book of fiction entitled THE CONSUMER AND OTHER STORIES; two live recordings; a compilation of SWANS material, ironically titled VARIOUS FAILURES; as well as his first solo recording, DRAINLAND (Alternative Tentacles, 1995). In 1997, even though SWANS were at the top of their creative powers, Michael Gira called it quits.

" I was damn happy to kill it," says Gira, regarding his decision to end SWANS, once and for all. "It was 15 years of total immersion in something, which is enough. But of course it was painful-like giving birth, finally, to a child which came out retarded, wrinkled, old, and ugly..."

Gira also cites on the YOUNG GOD RECORDS website that "After 15 years of this grueling struggle with really no reward to show for it, the intelligent thing would be to move on." Another article on the site indicates that Gira really has no love lost for the former glory of his own
creation and quite possibly, the only band that ever really mattered. "I just want to have it discreet, finished and over, and I can move on. I have other ideas I want to do. I think it's necessary".

Nothing has changed with Gira's seemingly endless sense of drive or his work ethic. Out of the death of SWANS came the BODY LOVERS/BODY HATERS recordings, two strongly contrasting productions which began as conscious steps in the direction of experimentation with pure sonic ideas (this is especially more true of BODY HATERS), with little to no emphasis on song structure of any sort. 1998 also marked the last Gira/Jarboe collaborations, as she provides background vocals and perhaps not so strangely, weeping, on the recordings by Gira called BODY LOVERS: NUMBER ONE OF THREE and BODY HATERS: 34:13, which upon several listens, one could almost see as the next logical SWANS albums. According to Gira, "The BODY LOVERS grew out of the sonic ideas/ manipulations I'd begun to use in SWANS towards the end. I'm not sure if I'm ever going to do another BODY LOVERS/HATERS. I'm a little distanced from that area of things sonically now. I just want to write good words, with simple accompaniment, and try to deliver the words convincingly. I want something simple these days"...When asked if he could foresee working with his former lover/SWANS' collaborator in any future recordings, Gira responds, "I try to look forward. It's the only way to keep yourself interested in what you're doing really. I wish Jarboe all the good things in her life and work..."

YOUNG GOD RECORDS, owned and operated by Michael Gira, finally became somewhat of a living entity around this time, largely due to the successful liaison between YOUNG GOD and San Francisco-based distributors REVOLVER RECORDS. While nearly all of Gira's recordings bear the quasi-ominous YOUNG GOD stamp, it took slightly over 15 years and nearly a dozen burnt bridges and bad luck with the record industry (HOMESTEAD, MUTE RECORDS, UNI/MCA, ROUGH TRADE, CAROLINE, to name a few, and the list reads like a graveyard discography) for YOUNG GOD RECORDS to see the light of day in the record stores, with Gira being able to keep his metaphoric shirt on and relatively intact. His comments on the current state of affairs in the record industry, displayed on the YOUNG GOD RECORDS website, are particularly poignant: "I loathe it entirely. We found our own little niche now, with our own business and good distribution system, so we're able to survive on our own, I just can't deal with it. I don't go out to clubs. I don't talk to A & R people; I don't schmooze; I don't do anything to advance myself in that way. I just can't stand it anymore. I tried in the early days. Of course I was always pounding away. But there's only so much you can take." Despite better luck in recent years, Gira is still "pounding away" to keep YOUNG GOD out of the red, stating in late December of 2002 that, "I'm just terribly overworked, to the breaking point, shuffling impending disasters and hoping everything doesn't collapse..."

Gira has never been a stranger to hard work, though; maybe it represents his earthly purgatory for being such an evil child. At any rate, his hard work has won him the right to make his own decisions in his career, without kissing one ounce of corporate ass or depending on the fashion whims of the money-grubbing record industry. "Having my own record label now, which operates very simply-like selling shoes! - I don't concern myself with it or care about it at all. I had enough heartaches with it, and am happy to have been able to carve out a place for my work and other people's work I enjoy..." YOUNG GOD RECORDS has put out the music of such varied bands as WINDSOR FOR THE DERBY, CALLA, DAVID COULTER, (CHARLEMAGNE) PALESTINE/COULTER/MATHOUL, ULAN BATOR, LARSEN, FLUX INFORMATION SERVICES, and most recently, DEVANDRA BANHART, whose record sales in San Francisco record stores may indicate what could be a bonafied "hit" for YOUNG GOD RECORDS and Michael Gira. When asked what he was looking for in the bands he releases on the label, Gira responds, "I release music on the label that I feel has a personal integrity and immediacy, as well as a commitment to making a genuine experience happen through sound. I have no interest in what's popular or fashionable, or even "interesting" for its own sake. I have no interest in genre specific music, nor do I want anything to do with anyone that wants to "make it" in the repulsive music biz..."

Michael Gira released the first recording of his new band, ANGELS OF LIGHT (entitled NEW MOTHER ), in 1999, and was later followed in 2001 by HOW I LOVED YOU. There may not be a more poignant love song in Gira's entire career than "Two Women", the last song on HOW I LOVED YOU, which features Gira's mother on the front cover and an imposing photograph of his father on the back liner. Gone is the "wall of sound" that typified the earlier SWANS work, but the major difference between ANGELS OF LIGHT and the previous band is Gira's tone, both musically and vocally. The resulting recordings are some of the most honest and heartfelt music being independently produced today - fragile yet crushing, cathartic and probing, without sacrificing the momentum or passion of his pioneering work with SWANS. Gira attributes the difference in this Gira incarnation to a change in his personal drive: "I was boiling with a sort of non-specific rage in those early days, and it fed everything I did, my music, my personal life, everything. That's not completely dead, but it's not really the source of my work anymore."; and later, in another article on his web site: "I left my past behind ... The way I work as a producer is first to follow the visual picture I had of the song's final outcome when I wrote it-then eventually I throw out all my high fallutin' ideas and dreams, remaining open to chance, "mistakes" (especially), random juxtapositions, blind alleys, and most importantly, the input of others."

His personal examination of his past catalogue points toward ambivalence: "As for the older recordings, they're all equally embarrassing. Sometimes I like them, sometimes not. I just finished a new album (EVERYTHING IS GOOD HERE/ PLEASE COME HOME) and I can't even listen to it anymore. I wish someone else could make my music for me!"Self-deprecation seems to be a fairly normal state for Gira these days; when asked if he has radically changed his approach to the craft of singing and songwriting since the old days with SWANS, Gira laughs, "Ha ha! Craft seems like a lofty term when applied to me. I still have zero conventional skills. I just go where my imagination leads me. My approach now is to try to challenge myself, to make an uncomfortable or unfamiliar moment in time happen. I think that's how it's always been..." Simultaneously, he recognizes that all the dues he has paid has earned him at least a shred of credibility as a live performer: "I think I have a talent for performing, because I'm not scared of being embarrassed. What's the worst that could happen? Maybe I even crave the worst that could happen! I try to embody the material I'm singing, and give as much as I can. I absolutely hate irony and distance, as is sadly so prevalent in today's music. My idols are people that were/are able to make a song real, no matter if it's solo or with a group... People like BOB DYLAN, JOHNNY CASH, NINA SIMONE, WILLIE NELSON- they're all way above me though, and I'm not putting myself in their company here..."

A recent collaboration with WINDSOR FOR THE DERBY'S Dan Matz capably demonstrates Gira's ability to avoid what he calls genre specific music. WHAT WE DID (2001/2) reveals shades of evolution in composition style we've never heard before in Gira's work; as well as what feels like comfort and ease, which are qualities hardly alien to his work, and yet the relaxed mood of the album truly seems very un-Gira like, one of those misperceptions an old fan might have, even from repeated listens to his past catalogue. Gira suggests, "Well, what Dan and I did was very unselfconscious. We just came together in a room over a period of months and each proffered ideas/sketches for songs, and then built them up without any preconceptions as to the outcome. Again, neither of us wants to repeat ourselves, I'm sure."

EVERYTHING IS GOOD HERE/PLEASE COME HOME (2003) is the new ANGELS OF LIGHT offering that joyously indicates that the experimental side of Gira grew restless and has returned to the equation of composition. This recording still has the earthy, grounded simplicity and traditional warmth of the other two ANGELS OF LIGHT albums; what Gira built as a foundation with NEW MOTHER and HOW I LOVED YOU is essentially intact in the compositions, but that might be the only point of comparison between the three recordings. The newest recording seems to be the natural culmination of Gira's former approach to the wall of layered sound he experimented with in SWANS, combined with a warm grassroots flavor and instrumentation (take the sonic manipulations on the dirge-like "Sunset Park" or the hauntingly beautiful "What Will Come"). And yet it also possesses an urgent, manic quality (take the relentlessly driving "Rose of Los Angeles", another of many high points on this collection of eleven songs) that Gira only hinted at with his work in SWANS. Nearly all of the vocals are farther stretches of anywhere Gira has been in past recordings. Some of the most memorable moments on EVERYTHING IS GOOD HERE are contained in the excellent "Family God", which in Michael Gira's words is, "based on images/memories of someone (fictionalized) quite like my mother- the first half is a portrait of her, the second talks about how she- and her affliction- lives inside the singer/narrator-funny, I couldn't stand to be around her for more than five minutes when she was alive, but once she died her persona' (the only way I can put it- she was a very extreme character) inspired quite a few songs. But it's not too specific, I hope. I don't view any autobiographical event/memory as being important in and of itself (or relevant to anyone else) - just a starting point for writing something, like any other subject."

And despite the workload that currently inundates Gira, he fantasizes about projects that, for some reason or another, have not yet come to pass. "I would love to produce a record by Leonard Cohen, get him thinking again about the arrangements that accompany his amazing words and voice."

While it would have been easier for Michael Gira to throw in the towel after the death of SWANS, inarguably one of the most influential and under-appreciated band of the past two decades, Gira recognizes the importance of his own time being just that-his own; he has made the sacrifices he believes will facilitate the possibility of his own career in music, and has lived by the repercussions of those decisions. He is a survivor of his own death; and like his former
co-conspirator, Jarboe, continues to demonstrate a strong resilience to being rolled over by the fickle music industry , trudging ahead to make challenging, uncompromising music at his own pace and with his own set of standards. When asked what he perceives to be the most common misunderstanding people have regarding him, Gira offers, "They're all wrong! Positive or negative..." And yet he recognizes what he considers to be mistakes. "Well of course I try never to repeat myself, though naturally, I am who I am so certain moods and approaches will be inevitable. My mistake, always, has been to not be able to reign myself in, to learn when enough is enough. But I accept that flaw."