Michael Gira | Interview

Sex and Guts Magazine | Mark Reynolds

Michael’s White Hands

Michael Gira has occupied a very dark corner in rock music—if you can even still call it that once it drifts into these sinister alcoves—for two decades. Fifteen years of that were as the frontman for a band called Swans. If you don’t know that name, go and educate yourself posthaste, as you’ve got a lot of history to catch up on. Suffice it to say that this band witnessed more musical (and personnel) growth than any band to spring from New York’s noisy No Wave scene of the early 80’s and turned and burned countless ears over the course of the beautiful and bad trip.

In 1997, Gira killed Swans, absolving himself of the baggage associated with that name in order to effectively start anew. If anything, this move opened the floodgates—since then, he has recorded no less than ten albums under his own name and such monikers as Angels of Light and Body Lovers. He has produced albums by the likes of U.S. Maple and Larsen, and he continues to spread various gospels via his increasingly prolific record label, Young God Records, which has released albums by Calla, Flux Information Sciences, Windsor for the Derby, and Devendra Banhart (whose album, Oh Me Oh My, is receiving bucketfuls of great press, and who also served as one-fourth of Angels of Light for their recently-completed world tour).

I had the immense pleasure of interviewing the tireless (and quite gracious) legend that is M. Gira recently, still bowled over by the punishing and transcendent Atlanta leg of the Angels of Light tour, supporting their album Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home.

MR: The Angels of Light show I caught, in Atlanta, was unbelievable. How do you feel the tour went as a whole? Is touring something you enjoy, or is it an evil necessary to the merchandising?

MG: As always, it was a grueling trial. In fact, I hate and dread everything about it—the endless boring drives, the lack of sleep and exhaustion, the filthy, sticky, dank dressing rooms, the bad food—except playing my songs for people, which I love probably more than anything else.

We had good experiences, in general, with audiences on this tour. I actually like most of the people that come to see the music now, and am grateful they're interested and seem to get something from it. This is, of course, exactly the opposite of how things used to be, with Swans, in the early days, when the audience was the enemy, or the victim—something like that. It wasn't really an intentional stance, but it ended up that way, probably due to the nature of the music.

Like I say, I hate touring, but love playing the music. I’m not calculated enough to look at it as simply a way to sell merchandise, my god! But I certainly don't mind getting paid for my work, like anyone . . . .

MR: At what point did your view of the audience go from adversarial to, I dunno, collaborative?

MG: Never. I definitely don’t feel any sense of collaboration with the audience. Yuch! I suppose, over time, as the music’s changed, the relationship has naturally changed, too. Also, I’m older now and am tired of fighting!

MR: Is the touring lineup of Angels of Light likely to be lineup for the next album, or is it too early to think of such things?

MG: Patrick [Fondiller, bass and mandolin], Christoph [Hahn, lap steel and electric guitar], and Devendra [Banhart, electric guitar] will all play on some songs on the next album, but as usual I’ll probably involve other people as well, just based on the sounds/instruments I hear as coloring the songs. I’m pretty set on the idea of no drums, though. I want to see what opens up if I eliminate that aspect entirely.

MR: The older songs that Angels of Light "covered" or reworked, like "God Damn the Sun" and "Blind" (both favorites of mine) were beautiful. What inspires you to rework older material with the new band(s)? Is it purely a decision of the ear, or is there some strategy in there, sort of placing Angels of Light in a certain historical context in relation to your previous work?

MG: No, I don't think like that—"placing myself". I’m not a rock critic, and I have no "strategy" except to try to make something happen that transports both us as players, and by extension, the audience, into a place we wouldn't have expected to visit, for a while. I don't really care about Swans, the context in which it fits, or even Angels for that matter. I’ve written hundreds of songs over the years, and for live performances I just choose the ones I think work best. Doesn't matter when they were written—now or in the past.

MR: Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home seems somehow to come from a different place lyrically than your previous work--almost like you're moving from victim/assailant to confessor/commiseration. Have you made specific efforts to try new lyrical ground as time goes on, or does it all spill from the ether, or am I just deluded?

MG: It gets harder and harder to write new songs, especially ones that surprise me, as time goes on, since I’ve written so many, and the natural tendency is to draw on the same pool of imagery, to repeat yourself. So it's a lot of work, and takes painful self-criticism to break free from it. I don't know if I always succeed in that effort—probably not. Lately, I’ve realized that I have little control over the process, that the best things come from somewhere behind my head—someone else writes them, and the best thing I can do is get out of the way, later hacking away at what's appeared on the page.

This statement is uncomfortably close to a statement Michael Jackson made on his weird-ass TV special [laughs]—something like, "My songs come from God," or "It's God singing through me." In a way, I identify with that statement, though I imagine our concepts of god differ considerably! He was the "muse" for a recent song I wrote, incidentally, called "Michael's White Hands."

I guess I really haven't changed much in terms of where I get source material for the songs, as I’ve never really differentiated between something experienced in the mass media and "personal" experience, or something I read in a book or a newspaper, etc., though I certainly would have never thought I’d write a song with Mr. Jackson as its source!

MR: How long did it take to record Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home? From what I’ve read, it was quite the odyssey...

MG: I can't remember. Maybe eight months, a year... something like that. But not working constantly. It went by stages. It'd get to a plateau, and it would just sound so useless and dead and terrible that I’d have to leave it alone for a while, scheme up ways to get myself out of the sonic trap I’d created for myself, then go back at it, start over, erase things, make some more mistakes, then maybe panic and suddenly find a way out, or in. I actually like that process though, especially when the thing is on the precipice, ready to collapse entirely, and you're forced as a result to take a new direction, often at the last moment, juggling the chaos.

I have to say I’m blessed with good musicians to work with, and that helps considerably, but their patience is perhaps their best attribute, because I often have no "musical" way to describe what I want from them. But, despite my often retarded lack of eloquence, I still have a healthy dose of arrogant self confidence (or hubris), so while drowning, I’m sure I’ll be able to fly, any minute now.

MR: With Young God Records demanding so much time, does that tend to delay or slow your recording work, or do administrative tasks slide into the background when it's time to enter the studio?

MG: Things pile up quickly here, so it's always a choice of which thing to give some energy. Often, I just stare, comatose, at the piles of stuff on my desk, unable to move. I actually hate the business aspect of things, but it has to be done if I’m going to continue making music and living. Still, it's a better job than most I’ve had. I could never work for someone else again. Fortunately, I have a good, honest, efficient person working at the label with me now (Kerstin Posch), who takes up a lot of the slack. The "label" is just us—two people. Still, I guess going into the studio is the same as touring for me—I just don't even check my e-mails then, or do anything else at all, then when it's over I come home to a huge, horrible mess and try to sort it out as best as possible. The unfortunate but expedient solution is to sometimes simply sweep the whole mess into the trash, then see what rears it's head again later—who contacts me demanding attention [laughs]. What a business "strategy!"

MR: How do you choose your collaborators on your projects these days? Is it a matter of sounding the alarms when studio time arrives and those available join, or do you have the collaborators in mind beforehand and you coordinate the studio dates accordingly?

MG: Before I think of recording an album I have all the songs written on acoustic guitar, with my words/voice/melody established. Then I think about ways to orchestrate, and the players fall in as a result. As I say, since I’ve been working so long now, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and become friends with a lot of talented musicians around the globe, so sometimes I just picture the face or persona of a particular musician as being appropriate for a song—just who they are as a person—rather than any particular instrument they might play. Maybe they're a drummer, and I might want this person to sing instead, but I just want them to inhabit the song in some way.

MR: You've always struck me as someone more influenced artistically by things other than music—writers, painters. ("Kosinski" being just the most recent evidence). What was the first book or movie or painting that you can recall really pricking up your ears and making you rethink things? And is it something you've carried with you and still bears and impact, or has it faded somewhat with time?

MG: Everything has faded with time, naturally, especially my memory [chuckles], but some early writers I read in the early years that had an effect on me (though I don't think they answered any questions in particular or even offered wisdom) would have been Genet, Celine, and later Robbe-Grillet and, yes, Kosinski. But my special friend was Bukowski, though I don't think he was a particularly good writer. I say "friend" because reading him gave me comfort—when lonely, hopeless, or depressed, he'd be there to say, "it's all right, I’ve been there and survived," which I think is one valid use of "literature," though not the only one. . . . As for art, well, Francis Bacon was an early hero, though I can't really describe why. I suppose his paintings looked how I felt! [laughs] Nowadays, I can hardly remember the books by these writers. I’ve tried to re-read Celine's Journey to the End of the Night a few times recently, and just fell asleep.

I’m anxiously awaiting the next James Ellroy novel. I also always look out for the next Russel Banks book, and am waiting for Cormac McCarthy to write a decent book again.

As for art, I hardly pay attention any more . . . .

MR: Do you see Angels of Light being a project for you from here on out, or do you see it one day being retired?

MG: I’m always thinking that the current album will be my last, whether it's for Angels or just in general. Anyway, it's just a name I chose to apply to the work, so I’m not sentimental about it. I guess I do like having an appellation that defines it other than my own personal name, to remove it a step, get it away from "me."

MR: I read on the Young God Records site [] that you will soon be re-releasing the first Body Lovers record (coupled with its Body Haters sister)—does this mean the second is in the works? [Body Lovers were the first post-Swans project for Gira—instrumental "psychoambient" music which was subsequently mangled into the infinitely more abrasive Body Haters album 34:13. Body Lovers was initially conceived as a three-album project.]

MG: At least for now, those projects are finished. I’ve lost interest.

MR: Devendra Banhart was wonderful. I loved his honest weirdness, something rare in the children of Syd Barrett.

MG: Yes, to me, Devendra's a true child of god, just a fountain/flood of music and images, and he pretty much lives in his own world and follows his imagination where ever it leads, which is a rare quality. And he's utterly genuine. I just hope he doesn't get eaten up or devoured by the cynicism and cruel realities of life. He seems to have a magic touch, though, and somehow kind of floats above the muck.

Anyway, we're working on a new studio album this summer of his songs. He just gave me his "demos"—58 songs! So now our task is to sift through them and try to form a cohesive album to record from this onslaught. The album will be a little more orchestrated than the last one, and recorded in a "proper" studio.

MR: I’ve been impressed with the Young God roster as a whole--it's definitely shaping up to be one of those rare labels where the fact that an album is on Young God is reason enough to buy it, sound-unheard. Who else does Young God Records have coming down the pipeline? New artists? Follow-ups to the old guard?

MG: I am waiting now for music to arrive from Scanner, the UK experimental electronic musician, for release on Young God Records. And I’ve got enough songs for a new Angels album, so I’m grappling with the approach for this recording. I’m back and forth between the ideas of fully orchestrated parts, or simply playing the songs with acoustic guitar and voice, and adding a few sounds here and there. We'll see.

MR: What bands/artists are you listening to these days?

MG: I just bought a bunch of Throbbing Gristle material, since I lost it along the way somewhere, and I’ve enjoyed revisiting that. I’m listening to the Beach Boys sometimes, too, and James Brown is always a pleasure!