Michael Gira | Interview

Altercation | Justin Habersaat

On The Wings of Angels: Swans' M. Gira Sees The Light

A creative powerhouse that helped mold the art-rock climate of the eighties, Swans' back catalog is as diverse and eclectic as it is creatively stunning. The group's ability to experiment with sound and structure helped usher in a new wave of musical exploration, and behind it all was songwriting pioneer Michael Gira.

While Swans were eventually laid to rest, Gira remained prolific. His label Young God Records has become a symbol of artistic freedom and possibility, while his new musical project Angels of Light grows more amazing with every release. The group's most recent album, Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home , is a perfectly crafted masterpiece that defies both expectation and genre classification. Altercation caught up with Gira recently for a telling look into the mind and creative process of a modern legend. Interview by Justin Habersaat.

Altercation: In your press letter about the new Angels of Light album you mention your desire to leave your past behind. Do you feel as though the lasting impression of Swans has pigeonholed you in any way? Are you proud of your musical background, or do specific moments make you feel regret?

Gira: One of the reasons I've been able to continue making music is that I never stay in the same place too long – I hope. So Swans changed constantly along the way. What I'm doing now probably would be what I would have done had I continued with Swans, but I had to excise all the baggage associated with that project, so I killed it. Yes, I regret just about everything to do with Swans, but then again I am proud of the work. Not all of it's great of course, but much of it stands up. Not that I sit around listening to it! I remember the process as being slowly crushed by a lead weight. At times the music had a transporting/transcendent effect on me though, and I guess for some other people as well, so it was worth it.

A: In what ways, from a songwriting approach, have you tried to distance yourself from Swans?

G: It's more intuitive than anything else. It's not really in me to make music in the “style”, if such a thing exists, of Swans anymore, so it's not an issue. I suppose I do look for an overwhelming sound still on occasion, but go about it through different means.

A: You mention following a visual picture of a finished song in your mind when trying to complete a piece. Do you always work this way? Do you ever pursue a half-realized idea and then get surprised by the end results?

G: Oh sure. The best things are usually accidental in the end. Often I'll follow a thread of something that's completely random, then discard the original idea altogether.

A: You say that the new album is your response to disasters and cataclysms of sorts. Do you mean that in a physical sense, like natural disasters and terrorist acts, or more so mental/spiritual/cultural breaks?

G: I mean all those things. A few songs are about people that were/are walking disasters. To be fair, I guess I'd include myself in that category!

A: You worked with a large amount of contributing musicians on the new album. Do you think your fellow band members in Angels ever feel threatened by collaborations like that? Since it is largely your vision, do creative conflicts ever come to rise within the band?

G: It's not really a band in the usual sense. I bear responsibility for the whole thing and direct it according to my imagination, which is understood by everyone I work with. I've never had a “band” per se. I do allow, and want, people to express themselves within that context though. The songs are completely written on acoustic guitar before anyone else participates, and I have an idea of where I want it to go. Then it's just a matter of wrangling and fucking until something bigger than the song itself is achieved.

A: You mention that this new album is quite a departure from earlier Angels albums, with some friends calling it a ‘breakthrough'. Do you consider this album to be creatively superior to your earlier works? Do you see the sound captured on the new album as a sign of things and musical directions to come, or do you take each individual work as it comes to pass?

G: I certainly can't tell if it's a breakthrough or not. I do know that I forced the production intentionally away from the last album. I tried out new things, discarded a huge amount of original recordings, and re-recorded things…much to the annoyance of a few people that had played on the original takes…until the album took on a life of its own. Yeah, just about every new CD contains the seeds of the next one. For instance, I intend for the next one to contain no traditional rhythm section – no drums at all in fact, and more electronics and orchestral instrumentation in places, but in others almost completely naked.

A: How creatively fulfilling is your soundtrack work as compared with the crafting of the Angels music? Do you take a drastically different approach?

G: I've only really done one soundtrack, for Beth B's Two Small Bodies . Otherwise, the soundtrack-like work with Soundtracks for the Blind/Body Lovers etc. has expired for the time being as a source of interest. I really just want to write good songs now, and try to bring them to life.

A: I read some of your recent online interviews and was surprised by how candid you were about your past explorations with narcotics. Do you think that drugs helped, hindered or did nothing to shape your creative body of work?

G: I have never ever done anything worthwhile on drugs. Most of that type of activity took place in my very early youth, and I stay away from that now.

A: Some artists that seem especially chaotic in their younger years from a performance perspective almost inevitably ‘mellow' as they mature, a trait that sometimes creeps into their songcraft as well. Nick Cave's evolution from The Birthday Party to his current piano based albums come to mind as one example. Obviously, physical age will change the way a performance takes to the stage, but do you feel like you've “mellowed” at all since your days with Swans? Are you a more satisfied songwriter, or do you view your body of work in an equal light?

G: I'm just more interested in simpler things these days. My ambitions are less extreme and grandiose. Also, it'd be foolish and embarrassing to do anything resembling my earlier work. I suppose I have “mellowed” in a sense, in that I'm not so personally violent – inside and out – as I once was. Performing the material now though seems just as intense and all consuming to me. It still acts as the best narcotic around.

A: I found it interesting that the new album was funded solely through the profits of a live album offered on your Young God Records website. Is that a tactic you'll consider again? Are you now, from a monetary standpoint, free to pursue what you like without having to cater to ‘industry' people?

G: Well, it's always a struggle. I much prefer to be self reliant, as we are now at the label, than have to kneel and plead to get the funds to do the work. It's small scale of course, but it feels like an honorable way to go about things. The website has been instrumental in that regard. Simply a place where people can get the music direct, if they're interested – here's the music, if you want it we'll sell it to you, your buying it helps making more music possible, so thank you very much. Nothing else to the process. It all seems clean and simple.

Many thanks to Michael for his contribution and to Howard at Hownin' Wuelf Media for his assistance. Angels of Light's new album, one of the best of 2003, is available now from Young God Records.