Michael Gira and The Angels of Light

Slugmag | by Lincoln Lysager

Interview / Show preview

For over 20 years, Michael Gira has been creating works of lasting importance and integrity. As founder of the seminal and constantly evolving Swans, he established a reputation for creating some of the most overbearing, honest and moving music to emerge from the East Coast “noise scene.” In addition to this, he has been active in a variety of other endeavors as a producer for other musicians and as an author, sending out ripples of unease and critical acclaim with the release of The Consumer, a collection of short stories and prose which was later followed by a spoken-word disc. Michael was born in the 50s, the son of some privilege, and his early years were spent in L.A.—quite fitting when considering the modern malaise and urban conditions that spawned the themes that run through his work.

“I suppose moving to New York City way back in 1979 from L.A. did have an influence on the work I eventually made with Swans, starting in 1981,” he says. “Where I lived at the time—East Village/Lower East Side—was an extremely dangerous, decayed, wasted urban environment…only a few buildings on my block were “officially” occupied by tenants. The rest were blown-out, abandoned buildings occupied by junkies or drug dealers. I heard automatic weapons fired every night, the streets were covered with broken glass and trash, I was mugged at knifepoint, and once saw a guy lying on his back, his head on the curb, dying, with blood pumping out the gash in his throat, which had just been cut. A few onlookers had arrived, along with the police. Half a block away, a few kids were playing basketball on the street. I guess there was a sense of apocalypse in New York City at the time in general, and I responded to it.

“Also, I was preoccupied with the fact of my own struggles within that context to survive, the kind of work I was doing. I’d been supporting myself pretty much since the age of 14, working various crummy jobs, and coming to New York City. I had a series of jobs in construction—mostly grunt work, demolition, that kind of thing. Once I was tearing out a ceiling in an apartment and it collapsed on me, covering me with piles of moist rat shit. Ha ha! So, I hated work, being subject to someone else’s time and wasting my own, and that became a theme money/work. , etc., that preoccupied me.”

Despite this sort of drudgery, it is a very strong work ethic that has driven Gira to create such a wide variety of musical, artistic and written documents. It’s the sort of vocation that began early on. “I always always thought I’d be a visual artist all my life. I used to obsessively draw, every day, maybe 50 sketches per day, and continued that, even when in art school I became interested (like everyone else at the time) in performance/conceptual art. But the art world left me cold ultimately, the elitism, the academic nature of it, and when punk rock first happened in the late 70s, I just naturally gravitated to it, in my own way.”

During his youth, Michael left America with his father to live in Europe, an adventure that resulted in several incarcerations (in Amsterdam for vagrancy and Jerusalem where he was held for a month without formal charges as the result of his involvements selling hash). It is easy to suspect that such early exposure to the grim realities of confinement and the rigors of penal society fostered a rage and worldview that would continue to blossom unabated and eventually find an outlet in the visceral forays of Swans albums and performances that began in 1982. By 1987, the unmitigated spleen had threatened to parody itself, and with the release of Children of God, and element of beauty offered new dimensions and perspective to the proceedings. The many aspects of love and the exploration of spiritual devotion and manipulation were juxtaposed with their opposites as the music evolved and confounded the expectations of many. Nonetheless, there was no irony in the changes taking place and no apologies were offered. This spirit of musical transformation and integration continued for another 10 years until Michael felt it was time to kill things off with the massive Soundtracks For The Blind, a requiem and monument to all that had gone before it.

Gira was anxious to move ahead with new projects. There was a renewed focus on running and operating Young God Records, a labor of love that Michael takes full personal responsibility for. “I have one other person at the label--Kirsten Posch—who acts as the rational, pragmatic side of the label. We do everything ourselves.” The label has been quite noteworthy in its array of idiosyncratic releases, including albums by a variety of international artists such as David Coulter, “minimalist” composer Charlemagne Palestine (in collaboration with D. Coulter and Jean Marie Mathoul), Windsor For The Derby, Calla, Ulan Bator, Flux Information Sciences, Larsen and most recently, Devendra Banhart. Overseeing label affairs is a massive undertaking. “Every workday is already an average of 14 hours…” It’s an effort that pays off when you consider the value inherent in the sort of uncompromising and highly personal material Young God offers.

1998 saw the first post-Swans “soundtrack without a movie” material in the form of The Body Lovers and The Body Haters albums. The first was a “metastasizing sonic flower garden,” and the second was a very dense affair with heavily processed layers of sound that would have done well in a film like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. While these albums stood on their own as natural extensions of areas touched on in the later Swans work, it was the creation of The Angels Of Light (in addition to his solo recordings) that grounded Gira and his collaborators firmly in the present, free of any debt to his past.

The arrival of New Mother underlined Michael’s devotion to honing his skills as a consummate songwriter and storyteller. He is backed by an impressive array of instrumentation: piano, accordion, strings, mandolin, banjo, flugelhorn, lap steel, Irish harp, and so on. The songs began with voice and guitar, then are obsessively adorned with orchestration over the course of the recording process. The result was a new breed of acoustic/narrative based (though still imbued with plenty of electronic elements) music. Grounded in traditional songwriting, there is something fresh and heartfelt to these pieces, more akin to the hard-bitten, experience oriented tales of bluesmen, early American folk and country musicians than the tepid regurgitations of those who merely go grave-robbing all things “rustic”.

Concerning subject matter and his approach to writing the material, Gira is quite clear. “ To me, everything is fair game, whether its ‘personal’ or derived from things like what’s going on in the mass media, or a book I’ve just read. It’s just material I use to make something happen. The “personal” stuff is usually abstracted and pulled away from the literal references to specific incidents in my life. Song For My Father (from How I loved You) would be an exception, though. I wrote that after he’d just died, and it was an homage. In general, the subject matter comes out of the blue. I just wrote a song called Michael’s White Hands, for instance, which was inspired by the magical spectacle that is Michael Jackson!”

In their current incarnation, The Angels Of Light are creating something quite unique, sincere and of its own time and place. Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home, the latest release, continues to up the ante. More than ever, Michael’s voice is an instrument full of nuances and dynamic range delivering each song with an all-or-nothing intensity and great clarity. As an album, it is a big step forward for the band, as they continue to seek out new atmospheres textures. Gira has placed a great deal of emphasis on this evolution and how it affects the final outcome.

“If the music doesn’t develop, change and surprise me, there’s no reason to continue, so I try, with varied levels of success, to push it and myself into new places. This last record was very difficult, because the basic tracks at first were way to reminiscent of How I loved You the previous album—and I had to thoroughly dissect it to move it into another area. This created some hard feelings here and there, but that’s my job, so I did it. Contributors do have a large influence on what’s recorded, guided or cajoled by me, but in the end, I try not to be precious about any one part—including my own performances on guitar or voice—and try to find the picture or sonic image that’s implicit in each song.” It is this attention to detail that continues to set Michael and those involved with Young God Records apart as individuals willing to put forth the effort to provide highly personalized and brave sounds. All you have to do is listen.