Michael Gira | Interview

WIRE | Issue 233 | Alan Licht | Photos: Jo Ann Toy

The Lonesome Angel

The Angels Of Light, formed in 1998 by Michael Gira as he emerged from Swans' long dark tunnel, might not be skull crushing like a train coming the other way, but their songs are no less intense just because he's 'gone acoustic'. Â In this New York interview, Gira explains how his more melodic new material is still shaped by his formative experiences in punk, transgressive performance art and Glenn Branca's guitar orchestra, and explains how his young God label has expanded to release artists such as Windsor For The Derby, Calla and outsider singer/songwriter Devedra Banhart.

Once upon a time, around 1984, Michael Gira's music was rock's most potent antisocial signifier. Â Instantly recognizable, his group Swans ground out painfully slow, dour songs performed with thunderous ferocity. Â Harder than hardcore but too mopey for the average Metalhead, liking them pretty much defined you, rightly or wrongly, as a glutton for punishment. Â "Now, I sit down and write with an acoustic guitar, for God's sake," laughs Gira. Â "There's so many people who do that wonderfully, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, for instance, but I can't even think about them or I'd be paralyzed. Â I can't even begin to let it into my mind when I write. Â They're all better than me. Â So I just resign myself to being who I am, and write from my own point of view, with my finite set of skills. Â But it's important to me that I can make something happen with this stupid piece of wood and wires, that I could go into any situation and make a hopefully true experience occur for both an audience and me. Â

   "I have no idea what chords I'm using," he continues. "I've never had one lesson, and no one's ever showed me how to play.  I think I looked at a chord book or something about 30 years ago.  It's too much.  There's no way I could do it the 'right' way, so I figure out what it is that I do on my own and plough forward. "

With Angels Of Light, the group he formed after disbanding Swans in 1997, Gira has recorded three beautiful though still powerful Cds of acoustic-based songs for his own Young God Records, the label through which he maintains the Swans back catalogue as well as releasing fine recordings by the likes of Windsor For The Derby, Callas, Pogues/Test Dept's David Coulter and Devendra Banhart.  Not only is Gira his own A&R man, he also pens the bios for all the artists he releases.  These activities take up virtually all his time ­ a far cry form the period he described to Ian Penman ( The Wire 185) when he was spending upwards of 14 hours a day in a bar ­ causing our interview to take place via email.  His A&R activities, nurturing and releasing "music I enjoy, that I feel needs to be heard, just out of enthusiasm, really" have played a part in the reinvigoration of his own music with Angels Of Light. Â

   But a big part of what makes Angels Of Light's latest CD Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home Gira's best work since Swans' 1987 double album Children Of God is Gira's deployment of an expanded instrumental palette.  Lap steel, piano, vibes, tympani, glockenspiel, dulcimer, ukulele, accordion, melodica, violin, mandolin and trombone can be heard on all three Angels Of Light recordings, but on Everything Is Good... in particular, Gira's arrangements fill the songs out to a near orchestral degree without ever sounding cluttered.  "I always have the song completely finished before getting other people involved," he states.  "Then, I just daydream about what I'd like to hear, how it can develop, and I get other people involved accordingly.  A lot of orchestrated parts are worked out in the studio, according to what was already on tape, with an initial direction from me, then with a probably more musical interpretation by the musician in question, which is always welcome.  Then, the next instrument/musician of choice comes in, they respond to what's there, and it keeps going.  This new record started out with the same method as the last one [2001's How I Loved You ] ­ which was basically a group of people that had played the material live for a long time, going into the studio, attempting to get good performances on tape.  Then I'd build it up with overdubs. Â

   "About halfway through," he continues, "I experienced a sort of crisis, because I realized it was sounding way too much like the previous record.  So I started dissecting it, erasing, starting completely over in places, working my way through things, forcing it in a new direction.  Unfortunately, I think I alienated a few people ­ good friends ­ in the process, because I was pretty ruthless, even with my own parts.  My biggest fear is getting stuck, staying in the same place, so I had to pay the price."

No one has ever seen fit to demarcate his work this way, but Michael Gira is a master structuralist, starting with the strict sense of design in his cover art.  From the beginning in Swans, the group's name, album and song titles and lyrics have been printed entirely in capital letters, and for a while, every song title was punctuated with a full stop at the end of it.  A subtle effect, but one that effectively conveyed a feeling of precision and seriousness of intent.  Young God CDs have an immediately recognizable look, which Gira first introduced with Swan¹s Filth and Cop LP covers in the early 80s ­ strips at the top and bottom of the cover with the artist name (top) and title (bottom), again all in caps, with a rectangular picture area in the center, or with many of Young God's Swans releases, and encircled image.  The simplicity of design is, of course, a counterpart to that of the music.  The words used in every song title, album title and many of his lyrics are no more than three syllables but  mostly just one or two.  The subject matter hovers around the elemental topics of the body, work, sex, childhood, parents, and God.  "I took these things into myself," Gira acknowledges, "used them as a source of strength, then spat them back out through the repetitive onslaught of the music, and turned these slogans into mantras.  My favorite 'poetry' was advertising slogans ­ clear, concise, blatant statements, but with the hidden, and sometimes complicated agenda of manipulation and persuasion. Â

   "Also,"  he expands, "a memory of a slogan that was on a banner in the tool factory in Germany where I worked as a kid: "Die Arbeit macht Spass" - meaning work is fun, or work brings pleasure, something like that.  Not even considering its close relation to the infamous [Nazi concentration camp slogan] Arbeit Macht Frei, it was such an amazingly bold lie, especially considering the grimy and mind-numbingly repetitive and boring conditions in the factory, that it took on a kind of beauty really."

   Common to both Swans and Angels Of Light is the way Gira's music is frequently reducible to some kind of two or three chord refrain, repeated over and over for anywhere from three to ten minutes.  If his extended refrains are partly rooted in that factory's repetitive pounding noise, they just as readily invoke The Stooges' first two albums, the masterful drone blues of Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was The Night Cold Was The Ground", "Nobody's Fault But Mine" and "Mother's Children Have A Hard Time", and the amazing prison songs of Robert Pete Williams.  By the third track on the Swans' second album Cop , say, you know what the rest of the record is going to sound like ­ slow and crushing.  Its impact parallels the sensation of watching Michael Snow's structuralist film classic Wavelength , a 45 minute work where after the first ten minutes, you know you're simply going to be watching a continuous, slow moving zoom from one end of a loft to the other.  Gira has never let his hallmark sounds lapse into formula, however.  Swans' music was decisively transformed after Cop in the mid-1980s with the addition of Jarboe's voice, keyboards and songwriting. Â

Gira's feel for densely stacked simple parts is also rooted in his association with Glenn Branca, the New York composer of the No Wave era whose symphonic works for massed electric guitars incubated many current avant rock luminaries.  Although Swans' contemporaries and fellow Branca alumni Sonic Youth were initially tagged as the rock group that translated Branca's ideas into a song format, probably because of their fast-strummed detuned guitars, Swans' and, later, Angels Of light's power surges and crescendos reflect Branca's dynamic much more substantially.  "Participating in Glen Branca's music was a revelation in many ways," affirms Gira, who played on Branca's Symphony No 3 (1983).  "Swans had already made an album by then [ Fifth , first released on Branca's Neutral label], but working with ­ or I should say under ­ Glenn was an inspiration, in that he relentlessly went for an overwhelming, transcendent sound, a sound that felt like it atomized everything in its path, and his utterly megalomania cal determination to get to that moment by any means was a sort of justification and affirmation for me, since I guess I possessed a similar sense of invincibility ­ in my case, misguided ­ and a similar desire to make something happen sonically that just erased everything, but with none of his musical knowledge.  I ignored that bit since it wasn't part of my musical world, and found my own crude and fumbling way along my more 'rock' oriented path.

   "But Branca was NOT a musical influence," he clarifies, " more an ideal of what it's possible to achieve through sound.  At the end of Swans, for our final tour, I wrote a song piece, "Feel Happiness" [on the live double CD Swans Are Dead ], which was a conscious 'tribute' to Glenn in its first half, and it also incorporates a lot of the early elements of Swans too, as a sort of goodbye, And the end is more of a melodic song, containing the germ of what I'd later pursue with Angels Of Light."

   Like Branca in the early 1980s, Gira took on the unlikely task of setting up and running his own label, Young God.  "I started YGR in 1990 or 91 or so, after the disaster I'd experienced when Swans was signed to MCA," he says.  "We set up a relationship with Rough Trade, did a few reissues, the material Jarboe and I did called The World Of Skin , then the double album White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity. Just as it seemed I'd finally found a stable, decent situation for the music, Rough Trade went bankrupt, and everything was lost.  Thereafter I put out records by borrowing money, recording an album, then licensing it to another label, with the insistence that it say "Young God Records" on it, but the label didn't really exist, and most of the labels I dealt with went bankrupt ­ probably my fault! - Or the business situation was impossible.  Finally, a few years ago, YGR made a deal with the distributor Revolver USA, and it's a good situation.  They're 100 per cent honest, and completely non-music biz, so some semblance of stability has been achieved, especially now that I have someone called Kristen Posch working with me at the label, who actually has an ability to deal with the financial side of things.  I just freeze up when I see numbers: panic, then run away."

   Singer/songwriter Devendra Banhart is the label's biggest success so far, and arguably the first real star to emerge from the recent US underground folk boom, though none of its prime movers ­ PG Six, MV, Entrance, Iron & Wine, Six Organs Of Admittance, Espers, Campfire Songs and more ­ particularly sounds like him.  "He's such an extreme case of individualism, without even trying," says Gira, who is especially passionate about Banhart's work.  "It's like a spit in the face of the falsity, self-aggrandizement and over-hyped fake sexuality so ubiquitous in popular music these days.  Also, though it's certainly not his intention, he's just a nice, though somewhat bizarre being, after all.  Despite the fact his songs were recorded with the crudest possible means, he's managed to reach through to people ­ and a lot of them ­ that actually want to hear something real.  Devendra  sounds to me like he could have been recorded any time in the last 100 years.  He's like the [Chicago outsider artist] Henry Darger of music ­ you open up an attic that's been locked up for 50 years, and there's this magical, private world, complete in itself."

To my ear, Banhart's singing sounds like a cross between Tiny Tim and early Marc Bolan, and I've yet to find one of his dozens of tunes instantly memorable. Â But his unique lyrical outlook justifies the Darger comparison, and I've seen him totally captivate a live audience, Â "Dev's influences would be more along the lines of Karen Dalton, Vashti Bunyan, Robert Johnson, Fred Neil, Mississippi John Hurt, things like that," Gira continues, "though he's also pretty conversant (more than me) with modern experimental music, electronic and otherwise."

Though he's a record label boss, Michael Gira claims he's no avid music consumer himself, despite the photos of shelf loads of CDs, presumably his own, on the sleeve of Everything Is Good Here (including a strategically positioned Godspeed You! Black Emperor disc on top of one stack).  He is a keen listener, however.  "If I want to feel happy, I listen to Howlin' Wolf, James Brown, Hang Williams, The Carter Family, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Merle Haggard, The Stanley Brothers, Robert Johnson, etc," he enthuses.  "All the above are just a source of joy ­ I can't see incorporating any specifics of that material into my own music.  It would just feel like vampirism, or wearing someone else's skin.  I'm just not skilled enough musically, and wouldn't do it if I could.  It's like Tom Waits, for instance.  I think he's incredibly talented, a true original, and I've loved his music for years, but lately I've found myself unable to listen to it, because it seems so much like "genre raiding".  Dylan, on the other hand, even though he's obviously steeped in music of the past, always seems to be, even at his worst, directly inside the song, inhabiting it simultaneously as a narrator, a feeling singer, a writer, and a conscious auteur of his own stylistic direction."

   Gira's significant influences are personal experiences more than music.  "Of course, anything I write has to pass the 'authenticity' test," he asserts, "in that I have to have a personal connection to the subject matter, But I always police the hell out of the lyrics to excise anything that's too specifically 'me", because the work's not about me per se, or it'd just be an indulgent diary, assuming that I'm somehow interesting just because I'm me, which is a pretty disgusting concept, and unfortunately prevalent in most songwriting.  I just try to make a situation, a place where both the listener and I can live for a while.  As a singer, though, I have to inhabit the song, or it's false.

   "Almost everything I've written," he continues, "has a basis in either what I've felt, read or experienced directly, and I feel a genuine connection to the material.  I just write about whatever is in my life and mind at the time.  Homages to people I know or knew, daydreams, memories, love songs, songs in reaction to books I've read or am reading.  "Kosinski" [from Everything Is Good Here ] is a book song written after reading a biography of [Polish-American author] Jerzy Kosinski.  And I still write from inside the experience of mass media.  How can you avoid it? "Nations" and "What Will Come" [also from Everything Is Good Here ] were both written from inside the shared frenzy/hallucination/nightmare surrounding 9'11, without, hopefully the usual sanctimony involved in that type of thing.  And a new song I wrote just recently was written after watching the Michael Jackson special on TV.  Ha ha ha! My goodness! I have no idea what possessed me, but I did it.  It's called "Michael's White Hands", and somehow, as this was sort of a concurrent with the whole build-up to the war in Iraq, and threats and fears of more terror, these two media spectacles conjoined.  I guess I see them as equally horrifying, disturbing and mythically beautiful/awful."

   Personal references suffuse much of Angels Of Light's work.  The words "Mother" and "Father" crop up many times in Gira's titles and lyrics, while photos of this parents in the 1950s feature on the sleeve of The Angels How I Loved You .  Their audible and visible presences don't exactly square with Gira's expressed desire to keep autobiography out of his lyrics.

   "I think I wasn't clear enough about keeping autobiography out," he clarifies.  "What I mean to say is that almost everything I've written has a basis in either what I've felt, read or experienced directly, and I feel a step in the process is to remove myself from it as much as possible, make it into something bigger than my own point of view, in other words make it usable by other people, abstract it if necessary, so there's a place of entrance to the listener, who after all has no reason to give one shit about me, personally, nor should they.  Yes, I've literally written about looking down at my mother dying in a hospital bed, for instance, in "Rose Of Los Angeles" [on the new album], but why should that mean anything to someone else unless I make it into a story on its own, even one that's not necessarily clear as to its source?  Being, unfortunately, of the type of person that immediately abstracts experience as it occurs, I use everything as fodder for writing.  I'm a little more integrated than I used to be, but it used to be a real problem ­ making love to someone, for instance, watching the act from above, recording it in my mind for future use.  So obviously, some songs are inescapably based on autobiography.  "Song For My Father" is literally a homage ­ of regret, I guess ­ for my father, who had then just recently died.  But again, I hope I removed Michael Gira from it.  It'd be a disservice to everyone if I didn't.

   "An example of this done beautifully and unattainably," he continues, " would be "Tangled Up In Blue" on Bob Dylan's [1975 album] Blood On The Tracks .  It starts out about some damn poet from the 13th century or something, and then circles back around his recent wrenching breakup.  Absolutely beautiful and heart stopping, and I make no claims to ever having achieved anything remotely as worthwhile. Â

   "As to the cover of How I Loved You ," he says, returning to the subject of the photos of his parents reproduced there, "I had those pictures on my wall for years, they were icons to me, these two people that seemed to embody everything about their generation ­ the post-World War Two optimism, their plain damn good looks, and their ultimate, unfortunate abject failure.  And since How I Loved You was a collecting of love songs, I figured that their images belonged on it, since my own halting and pathetic conception of love was necessarily shaped by my experience of their own disaster in that regards.  I actually showed my mother that CD cover on her deathbed, and despite her dementia, it made her happy for a moment.  That alone justifies it, despite the possibly shaky aesthetic decision that went into making it."

What's refreshing about Angels Of Light's music is its lack of musical reference points.  Rock is usually a recombinant form, often involving a fair amount of appropriation.  But there are no overt influences apparent anywhere on the Angels discs.  They truly carve out their own sonic and lyrical terrain.  As striking as Swans' early material is, it's decidedly traceable in comparison to Angels Of Light.  Many of Swans' early songs sound like a cross between Pil's "Theme" (only slower), The Stooges' "Ann" (only noisier) and Teenage Jesus & The Jerks' "Baby Doll" (with much more weight).  "Actually," Gira agrees, "particularly in the early days, I had a lot of influences, but was either smart and determined enough to avoid emulation, or not musically talented or skilled enough to achieve it, or both.  I listened to a wide variety of music then ­ The Stooges, Suicide, Throbbing Grist"le, SPK, Cabaret Voltaire, Whitehouse, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, No New York , Wire, Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, Black Flag.  I'd say the No New York music and Throbbing Gristle probably had a big influence on looking at the potential of music as sound, rather than as a typical series of chords."

   Another survivor from the 1980s New York scene, Christian Marclay, has stated that seeing the physicality of performances by James Chance or NDA or Sid Vicious at CBGBs or Max's Kansas City immediately reminded him of the body art scene of the time, particularly the work of Vito Acconci, who used to attend many punk concerts.  Over in Los Angeles, Gira, like Marclay, was a late 70s art student who witnessed the first stirrings of punk.  "The one that sort of sucked me in was a mammoth benefit for the [LA punk club] Masque," Gira recalls, "where The Screamers, X, The Germs, The Weirdos, The Bags, all the LA punk bands played.  My art school was right around the corner, so I took some video equipment and shot it from the stage.  I had long blond hair, which was a major faux pas of course, and Margo Go Go [later, a founding member of The Go Go's] kept screaming at me from the front row ­ 'Get off the stage you fucking hippy! Fuck off!' - jumping up and grabbing me by the hair, trying to pull me off the stage. Â

   "I was convinced by the show, wanted what it offered ­ unfettered chaos and violence!  Soon, with my friend Bruce Kalberg, I started a magazine called NO Magazine , which was a huge undertaking ­ newsprint, the size/dimensions of Village Voice or NME , and we included the usual interviews with bands - The Germs, The Bags, X ­ but also random pornography, and some performance art material.  We had a piece on Gina Pane and also one on Kim Jones."

   An admirer of Coum Transmissions, The Kipper Kids and Chris Burden, Gira participated in a Hermann Nitsch aktion in 1978.  He also owns up to staging his own performance art piece back in the day.  "I had a loft space in an old factory building in Pasadena, and we invited X and Fear to come play there, a huge dilapidated building," he recalls.  " I think maybe it was billed as a NO Magazine party or something.  So all the punk and art types showed up.  I think this was the last thing I did that I thought of as 'art', and I actually haven't thought about this in years.  The old factory had a raised loft platform that ran along one side of the interior, accessible by a stairway at both ends.  You could look up from the ground floor and just barely see up onto the platform.  We set up a stage on the ground floor for the bands to play on, but the idea was that people would wander up into the loft to see what was going on, throughout the night...

   "I'd been unhealthily obsessed for a while with anonymous sex," he continues," with the impossibility and even undesirability of people 'connecting' through the sex act.  So I set up a situation where I could have sex, that is, fuck, in public without ever seeing or knowing the other person.  I had some friends find a female that was interested in doing this, someone I'd never met and would never meet afterwards.  I rolled out a 75 foot roll of white butcher paper along the loft.  I built these sort of abstract, cubiform penis shapes out of plywood, each about four feet high, with a light bulb in each one, so light shot out the top.  These lined the strip of butcher paper, like a processional, for the 75 foot length of the white paper.  There was about 16 inches between each 'penis' along the way, so there was a lot of them, light shooting up everywhere on both sides.  At each end of the 'processional', I placed a chair I'd made, similarly cubiform, abstract.  I sat at one end, she sat in the other.

   "Each of us had our eyes covered completely, before being led up to the loft from our separate rooms ­ with theatrical putty and make up, so we couldn't see each other, and it looked like we didn't have any eyes to anyone watching ­ they were erased, smoothed out.  Strapped to each of our chests was a cassette deck playing a tape we'd made listing the ways in which we'd like to fuck.  So, before anyone arrived for the 'gig', we were already up there, going about our business, the tapes playing constantly, and as it wasn't announced what was going on beforehand, people would just wander up naturally.  Occasionally, we'd feel our way along the guideposts (the 'penises'), meet in the center, and do what we had in mind with each other, while X or whoever played  downstairs, then retreat back to our respective chairs for a while, then repeat the process...

   "After that," he says, "I started a band, which quickly broke up, and soon thereafter I fled wisely to NYC."

Gira's performance art piece gave early notice of the overwhelming physicality of the music he went on to make with Swans and perhaps more benignly with The Angels. It could also be seen as a harbinger to his 1998 CD Body Lovers: Number One Of Three . This collection of various loops and other tape pieces he had had lying around for ages was also an outgrowth of his use of tapes in the early days of Swans. Â "Volume was a necessary factor of course," Gira asserts, "since the whole goal was something utterly physical-not something you 'listened' to in the usual sense, but felt with your body. Â To me, the effect was elating, uplifting and ecstatic, contrary to the negative intentions ascribed to us by many at the time.

   "After we'd recorded an initial EP as Swans, and before Filth ," he says, "I started thinking about ways to get non-musical electronic or percussive sounds into the music, while still retaining the physical force of drums and bass guitar.  For a while, in my rehearsal space, I'd set up random cassettes playing loops and sounds through different amplifiers at high volume, then just stand there in the midst of it letting it pummel me happily.  Then I tried having a loop going that we'd play along to as a band, and it just felt constraining and artificial and lame ­ very limiting.  So I came up with the idea of having a cassette deck feeding an amplifier ­ an SVT% head with two huge cabinets.  The cassette would be playing a constant roar, or a low end synth drone, or random percussion sounds, just playing constantly.  Playing through a separate but similar rig, the bass player ­ Harry Crosby in the early days, though there were a few other people before him ­ would control the sounds from the cassette amp with a foot volume pedal, as he played bass, pushing the volume up or down, from silence to a sudden whoosh of high volume sound, in rhythm with the music.  The effect of this, coupled with sheets of sustained guitar chords, played with true beauty by Norman Westberg, two drummers and myself also on bass with a similar rig, wasn't so much a sound as a physical force that just knocked you over.  We played atonal chords on the bass, staggered one player against the other usually, choking the sustain in conjunction with the rhythm."

   The tension between Gira's grim, howling delivery of his mordantly bleak lyrics and the oddly feelgood aspect of the music's physical impact is what makes Swans' music so captivating.  "It just felt good ," he agrees.  "I'd always loved the potential for an overwhelming, all consuming sound through rock music ­ from my early LSD-enhanced experiences as a kid with Blue Cheer, Ummagumma -era Pink Floyd, The Stooges, etc, and this just felt like the final, ultimate way to get that kind of experience without resorting to the usual stylistic conceits, which had already been done, were too familiar, which wouldn't work anymore."

Angels Of Light continue to mine this potential for an all-consuming sound but take it in a different direction.  The acoustic element per se isn't new in Gira's work.  After all, he has been writing songs on an acoustic guitar since 1986, when he planted the seed that eventually grew into Angels Of Light.  "It was at a time when Swans was starting to become known as loud, brutal, violent, all the usual buzzwords," he says, " and I was getting sick of it.  And also annoyed with the idiot, mostly male, rock crowd we were starting to attract.  It seemed just plain dumb after a while to rely on volume, that kind of 'power', so I forced myself into that way of writing, with initially ­ and maybe for quite some time ­ mixed results.  But I'm glad I did it.  This wasn't a constant method with Swans. Even up through [Swans' last studio album] Soundtracks For The Blind , the experience of the sound itself continued to preoccupy me sometimes, though in a much more melodic, or at least sonorous way.  After the final Swans tour in 199 I was finished with that, though, and wanted to scale things down.  So when I went about recording the first Angels album, most of the songs were finished and on tape with acoustic guitar and voice before I added any other instruments.  I guess the main concern has been that it start from an intimate place, for the most part.

   "But with Everything ," he sighs, "the demon reared its head again, and it developed in a more intensely sonic way than anything I've done in years.  I keep saying to myself: No more! Stop it! But once I'm in the studio, I'm addicted to the process, and I just want more, more, more.  I think I need to buy an old four track, a compressor, and a few microphones for the next record," Gira concludes, "record it at home, and just force myself into a place where it can't possibly expand.  I really would like to make a simple, quite record.  We'll see."