Michael Gira | Interview


a career in music that has been as focused and uncompromising as Michael Gira’s

In the world of popular music, you can probably count the musicians who’ve had a career in music that has been as focused and uncompromising as Michael Gira’s on your twenty digits. From his work with Swans, who exploded onto the scene with their frightening self-titled debut EP in 1982 to his current more pastoral work in Angels of Light, his music has always been a favorite of The New Afternoon Show. We have often had the pleasure of having Michael in as a guest on the show over the past twenty years, and it was a no-brainer to invite him to participate in the first Static of the new millenium. Originally, the idea was to look back at the history of Swans, the intensity of their live shows as well as the shockingly brutal directness of their earliest recordings. However, space limitations being what they are, we’ll leave that for a few years and perhaps revisit Swans history for their 25th anniversary. Since Swans called it a day w/ the release of their final record in 1998, Michael Gira has unveiled a few other musical projects. The most long-lasting and prolific has been Angels of Light. The latest album finds Michael Gira collaborating with a new group of musicians, labelmates, and fellow Brooklyn residents, Akron/Family. The Angels of Light Sing ‘Other People’ is a cycle of songs, many of which were conceived of as tributes to the songwriter’s friends. The album finds new songs perched comfortably next to new versions of tracks some may have heard on last year’s acoustic solo record I Am Singing to You from My Room (Young God). Other than producing his own record, Gira runs Young God Records, a label whose roster includes Calla, Larsen, Swans, and a fellow by the name of Devendra Banhart, who had quite a year in 2004, and who could be found elsewhere in this publication. I caught up w/ Michael in February as he was taking a break from a recording session. We discussed Michael Jackson, Young God Records, and the new Angels of Light album. Here we go! Interview by: Daniel Blumin Transcription by: Janelle Wohltmann Daniel Blumin: What are you recording right now? Are you doing your own stuff? Michael Gira: No, I’m working on this new act that we’ve signed called Mi and L’au. It’s short for Mira and Laurent and they are two people who met in Paris. She was a model and he was working a lot of crummy jobs doing some stuff in music. They fell in love and stayed there for three months apartment hopping. Then they said, “fuck it,” and moved to Finland, where she’s from. For the last three years, they’ve been living in a cabin just by themselves most of the year when its not too cold writing these really beautiful songs with their acoustic guitars and both of them singing. Just really stately and austere beautiful kind of classic song-writing songs; they’re not at all folk. I came in contact with them through Devendra [Banhart]; he knew Laurent in the old days in Paris. They sent me this really rough demo and I liked it. Then they sent me some more and I liked it. I met them when I was on tour in Russia and Scandinavia recently. They played with me and they were great, so I signed ‘em. DB: Is there a set date you are shooting for in terms of a release? Is it going to be this year? MG: Yeah, I think its going to be around October when we release it. If I can get all this shit we have to do done in time. [Laughs] DB: Is what you are recording in the studio different from the stuff you have in demo form? MG: Well, what they did was they got a little money together and they got Pro Tools. They recorded the basic guitar and voice, and they came here and we orchestrated it and replaced some things. It’s good ‘cause the songs are already written. They’re one of those people like Devendra; they have like 300 songs already. DB: Makes it easy . . .[Laughs] MG: It’s really romantic actually; they moved to this cabin and got to know each other and made music together. DB: And thankfully they actually stayed together! Because it could have ended up . . . MG: Yeah, ended up murdered in the first three months, but they are really sweet. They hold hands while they are working. Its totally romantic, really beautiful. DB: You’re the one that makes all the decisions about what comes out on Young God. Since you do so much of the work, it makes sense for you to pick the things you are going to spend your time with. MG: Yeah. DB: How does that process work? Is it basically people that have heard of the label getting in contact? MG: It happens by random. Akron Family sent me demos. There was no personal connection at first, but I’ve gotten to know them. It’s really important to me that the people we work with on the label are friends. I can invite them over to my house and feel good about it and feel like we have a relationship. ‘Cause I’m not really interested in only furthering someone’s “career in rock”, so to speak. There are other labels for that kind of thing. We all want to be successful, but I don’t want to be like a normal record company. I want to be very personable. DB: I saw Akron Family recently, so I know that their album [Akron/Family] sounds different than their live sound. MG: Oh yeah. They’ve actually grown a lot. The stuff they do live now involves a lot more of their vocal harmonies and backwoods feel as well as the improvisational stuff, but the record is a mix of things they had done at home, which are necessarily simpler. There are a few overdubs. And I guess four or five songs were recorded start to finish in the studio. They’ve just grown and are just getting better and better all the time. I think they’re great! DB: When did you get the idea of working with them as the backing band for Angels of Light on The Angels of Light Sing Other People? MG: After co-producing their record with them. They were there and we got along great! I have a whole phonebook full of people I can call, but the relationship is so good. We really get along. They’re so incredibly diverse musically. They are just amazingly skilled musicians technically, without being musos, thank God! They can play anything. They were able to do what the song called for; it’s not like they imposed their Akron Family aesthetic on the record. They did add some personalized touches that might fit in Akron, but mostly it was just finding out what was appropriate for the song, which is actually a pretty rare skill in terms of musicians that you work with when you’ve written a song, you know? They are able to bring something to the song that the song needs, not something they feel is just expressing their vibe. DB: Did you have a bunch of Angels of Light songs ready to go when you began working with Akron? MG: Oh yeah. I bring the songs to people and then we start arranging… DB: But with this album it is a group of people that are also together in another band. Was there any difference in the dynamic this time given that all of the previous Angels of Light members had other individual projects but were not all in another distinct band in their own right? MG: I don’t really know how different it was; they didn’t all play their usual instruments, either. We just sat around and said let’s try this here and just did it. But the first caveat that I had was that there would be no drums whatsoever, so that eliminated one of the main persons’ main instruments [Laughs], but he also plays saxophone and sings tremendously and plays the guitar and bass too. It was kind of organic the way it developed. DB: How about the fact that you played a lot of the material live for a long time before you committed it to tape on the last album, Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home [2003]. That was different this time, right? MG: Yeah, in my opinion, that affected the material in a deleterious way, which is why I had to go back and redo a lot of it. It sounded too much like a band and I didn’t really like that. I want to make songs express a kind of cinematic idea where each particular song has its own rather than each song sounding like the same people playing as a band. It became a bit of a problem trying to undo habits, you know? DB: But in the case of the new album, it wasn’t? MG: Not at all. DB: So how does it work? Do you just bring the chords and the lyrics and play them for the band? MG: I probably played eight of the twelve songs on the album with acoustic guitar and voice - just a mic on the guitar and a mic on the voice live and then started building them up. On the rest, I just played guitar and sang after I got some orchestration on it. DB: And when you say building them up, do you mean on your own or was it that you played it for the band and they were in the studio and it was built up from there? MG: Yeah. I did a performance, which still exists as the final performance that is on the record. And then we just started building up on that. DB: Some of the songs were fairly old, right? “Michael’s White Hands” was something that I remember you talking about and playing live… MG: Eighteen months ago… DB: Are there any other songs that have been around for a while? MG: Probably five or six songs on there have existed for a while, but mostly I’ve played them live solo and now just rethought them, redid them in different ways for the record. DB: What’s really very bizarre is that “Michael’s White Hands” is so appropriate now! [Laughs] It’s ridiculously appropriate! MG: It was written at the time of that really uncomfortable [Michael Jackson] TV special. DB: That British one? MG: Yeah. It was awesome! It is not meant to be a snide comment upon him; its just more of the whole media spectacle I found completely psychedelic. It was that mixed with the whole media spectacle of the gear up for the war in Iraq and Saddam Hussein. I just kind of blended the two figures together in the song. DB: Yeah, reading about Michael these days; it just seems… MG: Well, he’s like the kind of total metastasized cancer of media-shared consumerism… I mean I don’t know him obviously, but I couldn’t imagine his life having been famous since he was like eight. He must have very little interior life, since he’s been surrounded by these kind of surface, shallow people his whole life telling him how great he is. But I just saw this Quincy Jones special on public television, which was really great. He’s such a great arranger. He was talking about working with Michael Jackson. It sort of softened my opinion of him. He said what an amazing natural talent Michael is, which he obviously is. DB: Let’s shift gears and talk about the new songs. Talk about why the record is called The Angels of Light Sing Other People? MG: The songs are a tribute to friends. And I think that’s one thing that’s different about this record. I’ve lightened up considerably, I think. I just said, “I’m just gonna do some simple thing ‘cause I like this person; they deserve a tribute.” DB: In terms of people I noticed Thor, Lena, and then Simon and Jackie. Dawn, I think, is currently my favorite one. If you were doing singles, that’d be my pick! MG: Yeah. I like that song and the way it turned out. I don’t want to go into too much detail ‘cause it kind of spoils the song. She’s a bartender. As you might imagine, I frequent bars on occasion, and she’s kind of a hero to me; she’s such a wonderful person! She’s in her early forties. She had a couple children by the time she was twenty. She’s extremely intelligent, and she’s an actress when she can be, but she just kind of gave up her life for her children. And bartending is a way to make money. She did a lot of other jobs, I guess, and she’s still supporting her children even though they are in their early twenties; she’s putting them through college. She still has a sunny and optimistic view of life, which I’m just pretty in awe of. So it was a tribute to her ‘cause I admire her so much. DB: And the song about Lena? MG: Yeah that’s based on this elderly lady. I’m sure she’s dead now, but when I was a runaway in Israel, she took me in. I met her son-in-law when I was working in the copper mines in Israel and sleeping on the beach. I didn’t have a place to stay. She took me into her home and kind of saved my life in a way ‘cause I was maybe fifteen. I had been in prison in Israel for selling drugs. Then I was down there in the mines and I was just a completely fucked up kid. She eventually found out a way to contact my father, who had been looking for me for a year through Interpol. He couldn’t find me, and didn’t know where I was. She contacted him and he called or wrote a letter or something and sent me a plane ticket and took me back to Germany. And then I went back home to California after that. DB: So, you were in Germany when you ran away? MG: Yeah, I lived there for close to a year - worked in a tool factory there as an apprentice. DB: Wow, you were allowed to work that young?! MG: Yeah, if you joined this apprentice program. DB: So you were not in school? MG: No, I had quit; well, previous to that, I had had one year of high school. DB: That was in California? MG: It was actually in Indiana; it gets really complicated… Then we went to Europe, and I ran away several times and my father finally said, “Ok, you’re gonna go to this school.” He was a business executive for a major corporation, and he was working for a company, which had a perk where I could go to this renowned school in the Swiss Alps. And I said I didn’t want to do that. [Laughs] So, he said, “Ok, you can work in this fucking factory.” He thought I would last a month, but pigheadedly I ended up working there for like ten months just to avoid going to this school, and at the end of the ten months he said, “This is ridiculous! You are going to this school no matter what.” And at that point I ran away again, and I ended up in Israel. DB: You just hitchhiked? MG: Yeah I hitchhiked down through Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Greece, and into Turkey. Then in Turkey we bought a plane ticket to Israel. I was with a couple of older hippie types. They had some friends there on a kibbutz; somehow we managed to get in the country with very little money. DB: That’s where the Lena song comes in… MG: Yeah, she was a great lady! She was really a good person. DB: You talking about these actual real people made me think of this notion that a lot of the subject matter you write about on the album you’ve either experienced firsthand or in one way or another it’s part of your experience, but there’s also a sense of erasing the autobiographical in the songs and abstracting the stuff so that it becomes more… MG: Accessible to other people. It’d be really kind of egotistical of me to think that just because I experience something anybody should be interested. DB: There’s even an element of it in the artwork. On the new album, the photographs are kind of hazy, slightly out of focus. The individuals pictured are kind of obscured. MG: That was a way to abstract the figures in the photos. DB: When I’m listening to the songs’ lyrics, I get the sense that I almost get a precise image of a person, and then something shifts and makes the character a little more oblique. Is that something you would say is intentional. Is that a of way erasing some of yourself from the song? MG: Well, I just think that that’s my job. Not to put myself in his company, but if you think about Dylan on Blood on the Tracks when he’s howling about the breakup of his relationship, it enters a whole other realm that only has a beginning point from his personal experience and becomes something greater than himself. I just think it’s self -indulgent to sing about my fucking problems, you know? If you think about Hank Williams, his songs aren’t about Hank, they draw on personal experience but they’re… or Willie Nelson is a fantastic songwriter; he’s one of the best song writers ever. He doesn’t talk about his personal stuff too much, but I’m sure it’s based on personal experience. DB: Let’s go back to Young God. How are things going? MG: It’s going well. It’s treacherous as always, as I’m sure you could imagine. Devendra changed things quite a bit, but it doesn’t mean that we’re flying high. We have to pay him, [Laughs] which I’m happy to do! Yeah, the whole thing’s a learning process, really. DB: Has the learning process changed you in the way you approach music? MG: Of course. When I listen to music now I am looking at it from an A&R perspective quite often, which I don’t think is necessarily terrible. For instance, my childhood idols the Beatles - a lot of that music was looked at both commercially and artistically at the same time. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. DB: Does it ever infringe on your own songwriting, or are you able to keep those two things completely separate? MG: No, I wouldn’t be able to make money if I tried to just make my music more commercial or something. I’m not that good of a musician. I just end up with what I end up with and deal with it, you know? DB: I know you write your own band biographies for Young God - is there a reason why you do that yourself? MG: Yeah. I sign them too because I want people to know it’s coming from me. It’s not some objective omniscient critical voice. It’s my opinion, and when I write about other groups on the label, I wax pretty poetic ‘cause that’s how I feel. And when I write about my own music, I just kind of tell the story of how it came about and don’t get into the accolades, of course. [Laughs] That would be pretty unseemly… It’s important to me that people understand that it’s a couple people working at a label, and this is what we do. We release this music, and I hope people listen to it and enjoy it, and if not, fine thanks. DB: There’s the artistic presentation of the label, as well. The cover art - there’s a kind of standard way of having Young God written. Is that also part of the… MG: Yeah, well that’s the, I guess you’d call it branding these days. I just thought it was important when I really got serious about the label that the label have a strong identity, so I try to keep the artwork within a certain framework. DB: Are you interested in specific genres in terms of label identity, or is it possible for you to do pretty much anything? How do you see the label? MG: I look for originality first of all but also for a kind of strong sense of personality in the music, a sense from the musicians with whom we work that they have a personal commitment and need to make the music beyond trying to make it in the music business, which I find revolting. So if I sense that someone couldn’t kind of exist without doing what they do and that it’s integral to who they are as a human being, then I’m interested. If I hear someone trying to gear their band or their music towards a certain market, or anything like that, I’m instantly turned off by it. But yeah, I would like to put out a lot of different kinds of music. I started out wanting to put out more experimental music. I’ve kind of lost interest in a lot of electronic stuff, so that’s why that hasn’t really happened. It’s also a little bit disastrous financially, too, so that’s a consideration. [Laughs] DB: But if something did come up that was electronic and it was something that you felt was… MG: If I felt it was completely original and interesting, of course, I would release it. I wouldn’t have a problem with that at all. The one thing I wouldn’t release is kind of standard rock music; like I wouldn’t put The Strokes out on my label. DB: Do you feel pretty confident that Young God is in a pretty good place and that financially you’ll be able to keep going? MG: We’re always in the black ‘cause we don’t do stupid things. We don’t spend a lot of money on things we don’t need to and we rely on people touring - the old fashioned way. And we take out a few ads here and there; we don’t do anything extravagant. One of the ways I get the bands out there is because I have, however small, I have a reputation. So, for instance, what I did with Devendra was first to tour with him solo, with him opening, to do shows where I could draw an audience and he would open and people saw him that way first. And then I toured the States with him with Angels of Light, and he’s obviously so talented and so unique that people gravitated to him immediately. I do what I can with the tools that I have to at least get bands up to the audience that we have as a label first, and hopefully it will take off from there. That is exactly what I’m doing with Akron Family. They played on my record; they are going to tour the States opening for me, and they will be my back-up band, so artistically it’s great, but it’s also the point of view of getting them out there. It’s the way to go. DB: As an independently-owned label, do you feel that being independently distributed [through Revolver] is basically a good place to be right now in today’s business environment? MG: I have no idea how they are doing business wise, but last I heard major labels are suffering pretty badly, which is good. And Revolver is not over-ambitious. They don’t over ship records. They are pretty realistic about that. And they’re my first experience ever in the music industry where I don’t have to ask for an accounting or money. I get an accounting every month and money if it’s due. And we have a really great personal relationship. It’s the way to go for me. I look at it from the business point of view; I don’t look at it like the music business; it’s more just like selling shoes. [Laughs] I mean, you have a product and you try to sell it. You try to keep it simple; in the contracts I’ve had when I was an artist signed to other labels, there were these massive tomes of bullshit. Our contract is like two pages long, and it’s very simple. It says, “We’ll do this for you and we’ll do this for you and we split the money 50-50”, and it’s just all very simple and clear. DB: How bout the internet side of things? What’s your take on making things available for free downloads or downloading in general? MG: We do a little of that. I’m not particularly enamored with the idea of people picking and choosing the songs to download, but you can’t deny that it’s there. It’d be like rebelling against stereo. It’s just there, you gotta go with it. DB: Do you think there’s a net benefit from downloading songs? What’s your take on file sharing or downloading from the perspective of Young God’s owner? MG: I haven’t really seen a drop in sales because of it. Maybe our packaging is really nice; people want to own the thing. Maybe the people that buy our records still want to own the actual CD too. And have it as a physical object, instead of some anonymous bleep in their ipod. DB: It’s interesting – some people were talking about ipods on TV the other day and mentioning that people don’t listen to albums anymore, which I think is kind of funny considering the artist supposedly put the album together to be listened to in its entirety. MG: I think that’s on that level where people want the hit song. We spend a tremendous amount of time making an album, not just songs, not just hit songs. In a way, it’s kind of going back to the way the music industry was in the 50’s, which was singles oriented. I don’t think it applies to us; we have our own world. I mean, of course, I want to sell records ‘cause I want to survive and make music and release people’s music, but it’s not about the way that… DB: That’s what you think about after you record the music! MG: Yeah. DB: You want as many people as possible to listen to it, of course. MG: Yeah. ‘Cause I love it and I think its worth hearing. DB: So what are your plans? You’re going to be going on tour in April, correct? MG: Yes. DB: Is that going to be taking you through the United States and Europe? MG: It’s the whole United States. We’re actually doing six weeks instead of four ‘cause at my age I need some days off here and there. The last tour I did, we did 29 shows in 31 days and I got pneumonia… was completely sick afterwards - not doing that again. So, we’re doing six weeks in the States and then we’re going to, I believe, London, Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels, and then coming home. DB: Do you have any future projects you want to talk about briefly? MG: Just Mi and L’au. That’s the next thing that’s gonna come out on the label. I’m putting out the Body Lovers/ Body Haters again as a double CD package. That is a project I did in ’98 or ’99; it’s coming out in a really special package. I don’t know what the hell else we are doing - too much! [Laughs] DB: Would you do anything else like the Body Lovers stuff again, the instrumental tape loop stuff? MG: I just don’t really feel that anymore. I really like that project I did. I’m really proud of it; I think its one of the best things I’ve done actually, but I don’t feel that need to do that kind of thing anymore. DB: OK, good luck with the recording session. Hope it goes well. Looking forward to hearing the results! MG: Yeah, thanks. I’ll send it to you as soon as it’s done. Angels of Light: The Angels of Light Sing ‘Other People’ CD is out now on Young God Records