Feature/Interview with Michael Gira

As the architect of two key bands (Swans and Angels of Light) and one adventurous label (Young God), Michael Gira has created his very own American Gothic Underworld... Drawn to New York City by anti-rock acts such as Teenage Jesus & The Jerks and Suicide, Los Angels -born Michael Gira arrived on the Lower East Side during the coda of the No Wave explosion. In 1982 he formed Swans, who along with fellow noise pioneers Sonic Youth offered the Big Apple an unrelenting aural assault, pummeling the Bowery with an evil-seeming heaviness. Swans' brutal sound makes Joy Division sound like a pack of happy-go-lucky castratos. Industrial percussion plods beneath visceral chainsaw guitars, and Gira's apocalyptic baritone conveys tales of addiction, love and soul sickness. The band was always more complex than critics cared to admit, and as time went on the palette of dense feedback expanded to include a complex mix of acoustic guitars, strings, Middle Eastern drone and keyboardist/vocalist Jarboe's ethereal intonations. During their 15 year career, Swans issued a number of essential albums, but none is more powerful than 1987's Children of God. The sprawling, epic collection perfectly balances Gira's brimstone with Jarboe's elegance. Not one to beat a dead horse, Gira disbanded Swans in 1997 and started Angels of Light, a more acoustic-based songwriting project. Four albums into the Angels oeuvre, Gira's post Swans career has proven especially fruitful. 2003's Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home, a swirl of hyper-articulate Godspeed-on-steroids crescendos and teeing-avalanche choruses, easily ranks among Gira's best work. Gira launched Young God Records the same year as Angels of Light in order to re issue out of print Swans material. In addition to Gira's music, Young God has also released records by Calla, Windsor For The Derby and minimalist icon Charlemagne Palestine. The label's biggest critical success though, is Devendra Banhart. Gira first heard about Banhart from fiancee Siobhan Duffy. In the fall of 2000, Duffy - then playing drums for Flux Information Sciences - wound up on the same bill as Banhart in Los Angeles. She bought a CD-R for two dollars and brought it home to play for Gira, who was so enthralled by what he heard that he wrote Banhart a letter asking if Young God could release his music. Since, Gira has helped to launch Banhart's career, releasing four albums on Young God, including last year's Nino Rojo. (Banhart recently signed to XL Recordings in the U.S. , and Gira seems especially proud of the wandering bard's accomplishments.) The 50-year-old Gira has just issued the immediately satisfying The Angels Of Light Sing 'Other People', his most stripped-down collection to date. It's an acoustic-hearted, drum-free cycle about friends, family and Michael Jackson that even Swans haters could love. Its sometimes sunny vocal harmonies and rich instrumentation are provided by labelmates Akron/Family, a New York group of psychedelic country/rock crooners. MAGNET spoke with on the eve of his trip into Seizure's Palace, a studio where he's recording Young God's latest find, Finnish/French duo Mi and L'au. Though it's a chilly day, Young God label manager Kerstin Posch's Brooklyn home is bright and spring-like. The first thing you notice about Gira is his firm handshake, and joyful, open-mouthed laugh. Dapper as ever, he's wearing his trademark grey suit and sports a slight trace of facial scruff. After talking a bit about the shittiness of New York public transit, the brilliance of Antony and The Johnsons and the humor in Scott Crary's documentary Kill Your Idols, Gira sits at the kitchen table to begin our discussion, visited now and again by a frisky orange kitten named Rocky. I’m interested in your storytelling. Maybe I'm wrong, but "Goddamn The Sun" has always reminded me of Malcolm Lowry's great novel, Under The Volcano. Under The Volcano is one of those books I've started to read about 5 times now and for some reason I have never been able to get through it. I do like the movie though - directed by John Huston, who himself knew something about drinking, I believe! God Damn The Sun was written for a friend that had moved to Spain back in the late 80's. He was French, smoked 2 packs of non filter Gitanes a day, and developed an unfortunate love/addiction to the local Absinthe. Do you have any favorite writers? Writers I always return to include Russell Banks, Cormac McCarthy, Jack London, Nelson Algren, Hubert Selby Jr., James Ellroy, and Mark Twain. A special "old friend" writer to me is Charles Bukowski. I've read him off and on since I first discovered him in the early 70's, then religiously bought every bit of fiction he put out until he died (can't stand his poetry though). In fact I don't think he's a very good writer at all! He's self-indulgent much of the time and also plain corny here and there. But there's something about his personality and his dogged refusal to be kicked down, and his profane and grim humor that I enjoy. At the very worst moments in my life I've always been able to pick up one of his books, fall immediately into it, and think "Well, at least Hank's still here!" Reading him is really like hanging out with an old guy at a bar, passing the time, listening to his self-aggrandizing but entertaining yarns. Speaking of yarns, what do you generally aim for when you sit down and write lyrics? Honestly, I'm don't have much control over my personal writing process, so I can't say I aim for much of anything. I sit down and twiddle ineptly on my acoustic guitar until the words start to appear, then guide them along. Somehow they end up having a narrative thread. But I don't feel like I personally write the songs. They come from somewhere just behind my head. The subject matter inevitably evolves from whatever is going on in my life at the time, what I'm reading, or what's preoccupying me. With this current record, I'd been thinking a lot about what matters most to me, on a personal level, just in terms of surviving the time I've been given, what's possible for it to be decent and at least somewhat meaningful, and so many of the songs became tributes to friends, as a way of giving something back to them. I've spent so much of my life at odds with everything around me, lashing out at things, that it seemed appropriate at this time to say "Thank You" to those few misguided souls that have for some reason decided to stick around! Your work has always been impressively personal, but I’ve never seen you discuss that aspect. You often sing about your mother, and you put your parents on the cover of (Angels of Light’s 2001 album) How I Loved You. There's definitely a fine line there that I try not to cross. I've always written about subjects I care personally about a great deal, or have first hand experience with. On the other hand, there's no reason anyone should give one shit about anything in my personal life or the characters and things that inhabit it. So, even when the subject of a song is intimately connected with my life, I work pretty diligently to make sure it's not "about me" in a direct way. I look for ways to make the song stand on its own. But yeah, I have used my mother (and father, and friends, and my life experiences) as a starting point in several songs, but she was such an extreme character in her own right that it would have been a travesty to ignore her as "material". I obviously won't get into details here, but imagine Elizabeth Taylor in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf" or Betty Davis in "All About Eve" - just a constant stream of really quite articulate and even poetic invective and bitterness coming from the mouth of a once extremely beautiful, sophisticated, and intelligent woman whose face and body and mind deteriorated steadily over the years due to almost constant, black-out-level inebriation. She was once the subject, when she was in college, of a several-page spread in Look Magazine, posing as "That American Girl" - ha ha! That's my mom! Both my father and mother embodied the American ideal of post-war optimism, and their ugly and rancorous divorce, with all its' disastrous financial and psychological/emotional consequences, formed the flip side of that ideal - in my mind, anyway. So, on the album "How I Loved You", which is basically an album of love songs, I decided to use their handsome images as cover art, since they, for better or worse, had inevitably helped shape my own exceedingly flawed conception of love. But I've worn that subject to death. Now it's time to pillory my friends in public! Though I’m guessing you don’t know him personally, on “Michael’s White Hans”,” Michael Jackson takes on a sinister Pentecostal cast. I’ll make a jump here: Could the listener also read the hands as belonging to you, Michael Gira? Oh no no no no, I'm not singing about my hands here. My hands are increasingly GREY and the skin is cracking! This song came from watching the infamous Michael Jackson TV special, a totally surreal, psychedelic experience if there ever was one. Like millions of other people, I was just helplessly mesmerized by the sheer narcissism and self delusion involved - in which we all share a part of the blame or credit, by the way. It was like a never ending crescendo of mass media induced hallucination, as if we were hooked directly into his veins, mainlining him our shared sickest, most shallow consumer dreams, and he fed them right back to us through the TV screen. But his hands, my goodness! No wonder he wears gloves. I don't know, he must bleach them or something, but they look like wiggling, nervous boiled fish. I couldn't take my eyes off them. At this same period of time, I believe we were gearing up for war with Iraq, and Saddam's face was looming in every television screen too, bringing with it the titillating and seductive promise of chemical or nuclear annihilation, and the two media streams - each one with its' own narcotic pleasures - merged together in my mind into one terrible collective rush of ecstatic destruction, with this horrible messianic demon creature, Michael Saddam, leading the charge. I’m focusing so much on lyrics because on Other People, your vocals are especially loud and crystalline, to the point that you can make out each word even if you’re only half paying attention. What you're basically saying here is that for the last 15 years or so, since I started veering towards a "songwriting" direction, I have failed completely as a producer and songwriter! Ha! Ha! Seriously, certainly with the Angels of Light recordings at least, anyone who has ever worked with me knows that I obsess mercilessly over the vocal level and always struggle with the balance between vocal and music - working to make the vocal completely audible (and for this reason I haven't used a drop of reverb on a single Angel's song - just natural room sounds), without dwarfing the music - which is always the challenge. I do agree though that on this record in particular my voice is pretty damn loud. In fact it gives me the willies, it is so loud! I hate my voice! Still, it's what I have, and singing is what I do, so I accept it... Anyway, the words are always important to me, and since I excised a lot of my usual (over?) orchestration on this record, in the end, that's what you're left with as a focal point - the words and voice. My feeling is that if you're going to sing, you'd better have something to say, and if you have something to say people should understand what you're saying - otherwise, shut the fuck up. I absolutely loathe the mumbling, lazy-ass, approach to vocals that many singing-from-the-phone-book bands employed, beginning in the mid 80's I guess - a mindset that's unfortunately still with us in many instances. I mean, can you imagine if say, Nina Simone's or Bob Dylan's voice were buried in the mix? So, without putting myself in their company (!), I apply that standard to everything I produce, whether it's my own music or someone else's. Besides complex vocal harmonies, it’s a pretty spare record. What attracts you to this minimalist approach? I was obsessed for years with being able to escape into the sound of a record - just lose yourself in the flood. But, like anything else, it gets tiresome and predictable after a while - a personal crutch. Even as far back as the mid/late 80's, when I started writing songs on acoustic guitar, I set myself the goal of being able to make an experience happen that was just as "powerful", in its own way, as a wall of sound, with just my guitar and voice. It has taken me a long, long time to be able to do that, but now I feel I can perform live, solo, and really get down into a place inside the music that works for both myself and an audience. Still, even with the Angels of Light albums, I've relied on atmosphere and orchestration to set a context for the voice. I'm slowly whittling away at it though. How did you decide to forgo drums entirely? After the last album, which had a nightmare amount of detail and orchestration - making the mixing process a perpetual heart attack - I realized that drums were taking up a huge amount of space, and why not just eliminate them? It was both a limitation and a liberation. It forced me to concentrate on what's important in the song itself, which is what I should be doing anyways. I hope on the next record I can find the discipline to take it down even further. Who knows, though? Once I get in the studio, the SOUND of things is a very addictive drug. Akron/Family acted as your studio musicians. How did they change the sounds or your approach? Akron/Family are good enough musicians that they were able to adjust their approach to the situation, rather than the opposite. They did what the song called for, with guidance by me in some cases, and in other cases they just went for it. It’s the most relaxed I’ve been in the studio – and the most fun I’ve had making music - in years. They’re just 4 guys, but it was like having twenty different musicians at my disposal, since they all play so many instruments. The vocal harmonies are one of the most unique aspects I noticed when working on their record, which I think they’ve only just begun to explore in their own material, so I exploited the hell out of them in that regard for Angels, knowing a good thing when I hear it! They’re really expanding that side of their own music now, and the results are astounding. Last time I saw them live I was hooting like a teenager. I think they asked me from the stage to please be quiet and simmer down! They’re like a weird-ass, backwoods, twisted psychedelic Barbershop Quartet, emerging suddenly with huge grins on their faces from extended noise/improv calamities, howling out these absolutely stunning and beautiful vocal harmonies. It’s just plain thrilling to witness. I find it funny that, for a certain crowd, Young God is completely associated with Swans/Angels of Light. But for a different, younger crowd, it’s the label that introduced them to Devendra Banhart and so-called “freak folk.” I’m really proud of Devendra and the success he’s achieved. I absolutely love him and his music, and it’s actually been a pivotal point in my own career – one of the most satisfying musical experiences I’ve had – working with him in the studio and also having the privilege to release his music. He’s the most innately talented musician/singer with whom I’ve ever worked – just the complete package right there in front of you. On the other hand, this whole “freak folk” thing is OK I guess, but it’s definitely not my bag. I think certain people like Joanna Newsome and Vetiver are great, but a lot of it makes me want to tie a neo hippy kid up to a giant set of speakers and blast Whitehouse into their body at full volume. Playing a guitar and singing your song should be an act of love, but to be any good it also has to be an act of violence, disciplined violence. If it doesn’t corrode your bone marrow it’s useless. When I interviewed D. Banhart he kept talking about his group of friends as 'the family'. The Manson connotations aside, Young God also strikes me as a family. I’ve been hammering my head against the so-called music business for years, and at a certain point, I just decided I don’t want anything to do with the usual striving, climbing, conniving, shallow creeps that inhabit that world (most bands included), so we only work with people we like and feel we can trust, people that usually in the end become good friends. Whatever the music we release, I always look for the fact that the musician does it out of personal necessity – that it’s integrally connected to who they are as a human being - that they couldn’t live with themselves without it. Everything flows from there. If it sells, it sells… I write all the press releases myself. I describe why I like the music and why I think it’s worth someone listening, sign the thing personally, and hope for the best. My office is in my apartment. If I don’t feel comfortable bringing someone here to my home, there’s no reason to be involved with them. I want the label to be successful obviously, for both YGR and the bands we work with, but I think there’s a way to go about it without becoming a creep. So far it’s working. We’re growing, solvent, and at least I can sleep at night. Well, not really, but that’s for different reasons! I read that you worked in a German tool factory. Yes, it was in a little industrial town called Solingen. Maybe you learned this hardcore, multi-tasking work ethic while making hammers and plyers? I’m just one of those people that doesn’t feel like I exist unless I’m working. I have supported myself since I was 14 years old, working every shit job imaginable along the way, so an especially strong motivation now is that I could never go back to doing that sort of thing at my age. I’d rather shoot myself, or someone else! Also, I have an all-consuming, absolute terror of poverty and hunger, since I’ve been there. There’s no back up plan. I have no other skills. This is it.