Michael Gira took charge of his music and became an established, not establishment, businessman
Houston Chronicle | by ANDREW DANSBY
For such a simple music, punk rock had plenty of baggage regarding how music should be conceived, performed and sold. Its art rock successors lugged around even more opinions and snobbery. But Michael Gira chose to pack light.If Gira's name doesn't ring a bell, perhaps you weren't scared senseless bythe Swans, his noise-rock ensemble that channeled punk energy into a droning, menacing, gothic nightmare of a sound in the '80s. The group released numerous Ã¼ber-dark albums and EPs between 1982 and 1996. Before the band collapsed, Gira established his own label, Young God Records. Young God is operational and successful today, and it affords Gira the opportunity to release music at a pace he finds comfortable â€” swift. He's also become something of a tastemaker, signing some startlingly original acts (particularly the ethereal-voiced Texan Devendra Banhart) to Young God. While the major labels continue pursuing flawed business models built around massive overhead and overt gambling, Giras is quite comfortable with his own bag: a moderate-risk, moderate-reward operation with music at its center. Skepticism that the guy who hatched album titles like Anonymous Bodies in an Empty Room and Public Castration Is a Good Idea is now a businessman can be excused. But aging in the music industry is a classic sink-or-swim deal, and as outside as Giras' music and tastes are, he's paddling away. A trio of acts has recently released outstanding records on Young God, making the past six months among the label's most glowing. The prolific Banhart issued another acclaimed album, NiÃ±o Rojo, last fall. There's also Gira's own post-Swans troupe, Angels of Light. The new Angels of Light Sing Other People sounds nothing like the industrial Swans or even the almost symphonic 2003 AoL album Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home. Other People opens with Lena's Song, in which Gira's deadpan voice and some fingerpicking bursts into a gothy Beach Boys vibe with handclaps and ba-ba-bas. Much of the record â€” particularly On the Mountain and Purple Creek â€” sounds like Gira's twisted take on country. That new sound is due in part to Gira's new Angels, Akron/Family, a gifted group of multi-instrumentalists who fuse wood-and-wire roots to a progressive, electric strand of eccentric art rock. The band's new self-titled record (co-produced by Gira) is a complex and compelling mutation of Americana. Akron/Family will open for Angels of Light before performing with Gira on Wednesday at the Orange Show Center for Visionary Arts. Grabbing the controls So how did an oddball New York art rocker become a label guy? Gira describes his independence as inevitable. He says he started Young God after dealings with a major and some other indies "left my career, finances, everything in complete ruins." Instead of quitting, he found a way to make the industry work for him. "I took control of everything," he continues. "It took years to get into anything approaching a stable situation, and it's a huge amount of work that takes away time that could be spent on the music itself, but it's better than hanging Sheetrock." Like other successful independent music purveyors, Gira has found the Internet an invaluable tool. He keeps lines of communication open with fans and signs CDs sold through the Net. "It seems honest and direct," he says. "Here's my music, I'm really glad you enjoy it, thank you very much for buying it, this means I can continue to make more of it. ... Period." Young God has benefited particularly from Banhart, whose albums have drawn raves, and whose shows have sparked a dedicated following. But still, we're hardly talking 50 Cent sales. Gira and his stable have to keep costs down and find ways to spark buzz, maintain interest and initiate knowledge that new merch is available. Billboards in L.A., commercials on MTV, print ads in Rolling Stone ... they're out. But the Internet has allowed rock's surviving freaks to better identify, inform and contact their constituencies. Good thing, given Gira's nomadic muse. It's not every listener who's road-ready for his switchback-filled journey. "I have a hard-core resolution that a record won't sound like any of the previous releases," he says. The one constant amid his varied catalog is an outsider's perspective â€” an outsider of Gira's creation. "I use all my experiences, memories, lusts, love, fear, hatred, joy, observations, images culled from mass media, everything, as fair game for songwriting," he says. "But (I) always try to get my personal life out of it, away from it, as much as possible. I don't like the idea of me singing about myself. But once the song's written, I try as much as possible to inhabit the world the song evokes as I perform it." That philosophy might explain Gira's unlikely role as able label head. He's spent almost 25 years in the business, and he has no intention of leaving it. So he took a quarter century of experience â€” bad as well as good â€” applied what worked, and jettisoned what didn't. Not bad for a recovered nihilist of the '80s no wave. "It's rare for someone to be able to keep releasing music after so many years," he says, "and to still have an audience that's interested. I'm sure there's more than a few people who had careers on major labels along the way flippin' burgers at this point."