Michael Gira | Interview
ARTVOICE, Buffalo NY | Tracy Morrow
God Damn The SunAs far as will, intent and integrity in underground music is concerned, Michael Gira is one of the last men standing. As leader of infamous NYC noise pioneers, Swans, to his most recent project, Angels Of Light, Michael Gira is responsible for some of the most frightening and visceral meditations on despair, longing and damnation ever.
One time contemporaries of Sonic Youth, Lydia Lunch and Foetus, Swans came out of the post-no wave noise scene of early 1980s New York City. Lurking in the darkest corners of the lower east side of Manhattan, the band produced a sound so dark and unsubtle that their peers looked accessible by comparison. Relying heavily on percussion, confrontational lyricism, and most importantly, Gira's baritone voice, Swans invoked decay, oppression, struggle and pain to often ugly extremes. Although challenging listens, albums such as Greed and Holy Money continue to be seen as some of the most interesting and innovative music to come out of that era while 1987's Children Of God is truthfully one of the greatest albums ever made.
"I do see the value in the past work, but I'm completely removed from it personally. No connection at all" Gira said in a recent email interview. "They just sound like bad memories to me! It's over, it's gone, and I'm more interested in what's going on now, but especially in what'll happen in the future."
By the late 1980s, Gira began to elaborate on and diversify Swans' sound. While the intensity remained, acoustic guitars, instrumental flourishes and a female voice, courtesy of longtime Swans member, Jarboe, pushed the music into a new direction. As the music transformed itself between hard and soft, Swans balanced themselves between beauty and despair. Still, Swans remained on the fringes of music and retained a sense of self exploration and inventiveness that far too many of bands had begun to lack. For example, one album, Die Tur Ist Zu, was a haunting work sung entirely in German. After Swans ended in 1997, Gira worked on various music projects, concentrated heavily on his record label, Young God, and published The Consumer, a harrowing collection of graphic and horrifying stories. In 1999, he began Angels Of Light, an acoustic based project with grandiose instrumentation that later Swans recordings only began to hint at. While some may perceive it at as a continuation, Gira felt it was time to wipe the slate clean.
"After 15 years of Swans, I was fed up. Angels is probably the kind of music I would have made had I continued Swans, but there was too much baggage attached to the name, and I guess I needed to psych myself and feel I'd moved on to something new. Unfortunately, I came along for the ride! Ha!"
Not a mere solo project nor really a band, Angels Of Light takes facets of Gira's musical past and throws them into entirely new areas. Their second recording, How I Loved You, was almost a folk record, albeit one that had been filtered a thousand times through dark regions of Gira's psyche. A masterpiece, it's one of his darkest and most personal records. However, Angels Of Light most recent release, Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home, is something different altogether. The album, which utilizes instruments such as lap steel, flutes, vibraphones and accordion, stretches itself across a sea of emotion. Ranging from quiet interludes to periods of complete insanity and everything in between, it is an extreme catharsis and one of the best records he's made.
"One of the reasons I still have a 'career', such as it is, is that I always move in a new direction as much as possible without losing sight of who I am, my limitations and strengths." Gira says. "It'd be pretty depressing if I'd continued to make music in the same mode as early Swans, for instance, not to mention a little pathetic. So I always try to push myself into unfamiliar territory. When we recorded the basic tracks for the new album, I was incredibly depressed and almost gave up, because they sounded so much like How I Loved You- the previous album. So I re-recorded a lot of it, and hacked away at the things I kept until the sound of the album took on a different shape. I decided to make this more of a 'producer's album' rather than a depiction of a band or ensemble. I treated nothing as precious, not even my own performances, and just forced it into a different place. Lyrically, the last album was mostly love songs. This one seems to be about disasters- personal, social, historical. But as usual, the subject matter found me on its own, I didn't seek it out. The way I look at both the music and the words is that they already exist- somewhere behind my head- before I get involved, and it's just my job to uncover them."
Lyrically, Gira has gone through various stages. Early on, Gira often repeated harsh and profane slogans and phrases to a point where the audience was basically forced to respond and submit- almost imprisoning the listener. Later, he came close to a Leonard Cohen style of lyrical narrative, 1989's beautiful "God Damn The Sun" being one of the earliest, and best, examples. In Angels Of Light, like later Swans, Gira's lyrics fall between straight storytelling and the surreal. According to Gira, the source of Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home's lyrics come from a range of areas.
"I shy away from the word 'inspiration'- seems too romantic to me. So whatever is floating around is what I write from (not about), ranging from books I'm reading or have read to what's in the media, to what's in my personal life, to vaguely masturbatory daydreams. To me, they're all equal source material to build on. I just juggle the images until they fall into place, trying to leave my personal self out of the process as much as possible. In the end, sources for this album ranged from a biography I read about the writer Jerzy Kosinski, to a book about the Haitian slave revolts in the late 18th century, to the media dream/nightmare/hysteria surrounding 9/11, to the death of someone close to me."
Beginning in Swans, Gira has always taken his material and re-interpreted for the stage. Angels Of Light is no different. While the foundation of the songs remain, they're always up to explore and re-arrange. The newest touring version of Angels Of Light not only do not sound like previous tours, it doesn't sound much like the recent album at all.
"I look at the studio and live performances as completely different worlds. The line up for this tour is much, much different than the album and from the previous Angels tours. I put the group together by instinct, figuring since I liked all the people, we'd make something good happen musically. I really had no idea how it would sound. There's absolutely no drums or percussion, for instance. To my surprise, it sounds like a mixture of amplified Wagner and bluegrass/Celtic music in places! Very transporting and overwhelming sonically sometimes [while] other parts of the set are quiet. It's a very unique sound."
Angels Of Light's music is a draining and beautiful asylum of both melancholy and horror. Any longtime fan or open minded listener will not be disappointed.
Angels Of Light will be performing at Mohawk Place on March 30th. Also performing is the critically acclaimed Devendra Banhart. An artist on Gira's Young God label, Banhart's debut album Oh Me Oh Myâ€¦ is 21 surrealist glimpses into terrain once treaded by Syd Barrett and Daniel Johnston. Released last year, it one of the best albums of 2002 and his solo set will most likely be a bizarre contrast to Angels Of Light's dark psychosis. Barrel Harbor will open the show at 8 PM.