Interview | Michael Gira | Michael Idov

We talked to Michael Gira about the continuing maturation of one of rock's prickliest minds.

It's been almost a decade since Michael Gira dissolved the fearsome Swans and embarked on a figuratively and literally quiet tenure as the leader of an amorphous assemblage called the Angels of Light. Gira's first band aimed to confront the world's evils by enumerating them over deafening funnels of gothic (not goth) noise; his second transfers the struggle to a place of strange, hushed beauty. Even so, the Angels' latest album, The Angels of Light Sing 'Other People', is a shockingly extroverted affair: not only does Gira enlist his Young God Records' signees Akron/Family as the backing band-- resulting in some of the mellowest jangle in his discography—but the LP itself is an honest-to-god cycle of song portraits. We talked to Michael Gira about the continuing maturation of one of rock's prickliest minds. Pitchfork: Swans songs were often about space-- not lyrically, of course, but they seemed to take up huge swaths of headphone space: cavernous reverb, enormous drums, multilayered guitars and vocals. The Angels of Light sound much "smaller"-- intimate and upfront-- and especially so on the new album. What prompted this shift? Does it signal a fundamental change in your relationship with the audience? Michael Gira: A long time ago, as far back as the mid-to-late '80s, I realized that the reliance on "big" sounds and volume was becoming a crutch for me and a cliché, so I started writing songs on acoustic guitar, trying to bring things to a more immediate and intimate place. There were a number of Swans songs that used that method, though I still remained largely obsessed with sound-- an overwhelming sonic rush that could just erase your body-- until the band's end in 1997. But by the time I decided to kill that project I was fed up with it completely and wanted to move on. It took me a long time to get good at writing and performing on a smaller scale, but I think I'm there now. I'm just as comfortable performing solo with just my acoustic guitar and vocal as I am with a band. The main thing for me is that the performance remain rooted in the words and voice, that there be no place to hide. When I first started doing the quieter, more acoustic material in Swans, there was a lot of derision and outright hatred from the audience and press, just as in the early days of Swans when we were rejected outright because of the bludgeoning, single-minded violence of the music. But we learned to thrive on rejection in a way, to enjoy it, and the relationship with an audience was primarily negative, a confrontation from beginning to end. I liked that! Nowadays, I'm more interested in pulling out strands of joy from both myself and the audience. I'm not saying the music or songs are "light," just that when they're performed with the correct commitment it's a source of real pleasure, for me anyway. When it comes, it comes from being able to get inside the song and reveal something that wasn't there before. There's a few performances I hold up as ideals that I probably have no hope of reaching but that are inspirational anyway-- Bob Dylan's of the song "Idiot Wind" and Nina Simone's performances of the songs "Strange Fruit" and her cover of Dylan's "Hollis Brown". When I hear those songs I just want to die immediately. If I'm ever able to reach that level I will immediately and happily blow my brains out. Pitchfork: 'Other People' is practically free of percussion. Was it a self-imposed austerity, or did this sound come together naturally when the songs were being written? Michael: That decision grew out of the nightmare I created for myself with the last Angels record, Everything is Good Here/Please Come Home, which was ridiculously over-orchestrated and almost impossible to mix as a result. So I decided to cut away the whole range of frequencies that drums occupy and see what happens. It also forced me into a different place musically, and naturally disallowed any of the old tropes-- the relentless rhythms and endless crescendos-- that I'd started to slip back into. It forced me to keep things simple and concentrate on the songs themselves. Pitchfork: The album also marks the first time you've absorbed an entire functioning group as your backup musicians. What was that dynamic like? Were Akron/Family mindful of you as "the boss," at least initially? Michael: We had just recently worked together on their album for Young God and the experience was so exhilarating for me that it just seemed natural to work with them on the new Angels album. Each of them plays a variety of instruments and their ability to harmonize vocally is astounding, so the were the whole package right there in front of me and there was no need to bring in the additional dozen or so musicians I usually do. I've told them recently that they're the best backing band I've ever had, including Swans. If I have a specific idea they try to realize that according to their abilities, but also offer a totally ego-less enthusiasm and bring their own sense of playfulness into the situation. They brought a lot of new ideas and approaches into the studio, things I wouldn't have thought of or considered, but their ideas were always in the context of Angels of Light-- no sense of trying to impose their own view on my work. I don't think I've ever had such a good time making a record. We're on tour now together, and I've been watching their set every night before they join me on stage as Angels of Light, and it's like witnessing Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd in the early stages-- not stylistically, of course, but in the sense of watching this rare occasion when four people come together, put their complete focus and energy into making a sound that's bigger than themselves individually, and succeed in making something utterly unique. They're just astounding live. It's a privilege to see them at this stage. They've really come into themselves. We're going to record a split Angels/Akron album when this tour is over, and I hope it can convey some of the intensely passionate joy they bring to both their own and my music. Pitchfork: With Young God Records, you are reconciling your own creative output with enterpreneurship; do you consider Young God a genuine business entity-- one that might, say, sign a band that you personally don't care for but you feel would go over well with your audience-- or an artist collective formed by your personal affinities? Michael: Of course it's a real business. You have to sell records to be able to make more records, and you have to eat along the way, too. I have no fear of financial success after so many years, I can tell you that. But on the other hand, I could never release something on the label I didn't personally love. The label's really an extension of my own musical career, and I'm intensely involved with every aspect personally, so it'd be a betrayal to myself if I released something simply because I thought it would make money. Pitchfork: Tell us about Mi and Lau, the duo you've discovered. Michael: Laurent (Lau) is French and he was working with various bands and doing soundtrack work in Paris when he met Mira (Mi), who is Finnish, and was in Paris working as a fashion model. They fell instantly in love, and after a few months decided to give up everything and moved to a cabin in the woods in Finland, completely by themselves. They spent something like 18 months or two years there working together, writing songs and getting to know each other. They're ridiculously romantic people, very beautiful inside and outside. The songs are acoustic guitar and their voices, but aren't really "folk" at all, more like classical songwriting, very austere and minimal. We recorded their album a few months ago and it'll be out in october. Akron/family contributed also to their record, and a few songs have strings and other orchestrations too. Laurent is an old friend of Devendra Banhart's, and the song "Gentle Soul" was written about him. Pitchfork: A side note-- you've released an album by Calla, a band that I've recently seen live, and they had basically turned into this painfully au currant NYC eight-note rawk machine. Have you followed their transformation at all? Michael: I haven't heard anything they've done since the album they released on Young God, so I can't comment. Pitchfork: What do you think is going on in NYC music in 2005, compared to 1985 or even 1995, the "Great Annihilator" year? A lot of bands seem to enjoy Swans' compositional minimalism in a radio-friendly version, for one thing... Michael: I don't pay any attention to what's going on in the New York music scene. I avoid it as best I can. Pitchfork: You started out writing poetry; do you think your current lyrics could have an impact in the printed form, stripped of the music? You do seem to take more care in bringing the words to the listener-- clearer vocals, lyric sheet... Michael: I never wrote poetry, just prose. [In an interview with Spike Magazine linked on his site, Gira reminisces about writing poetry.] I don't really consider songwriting a form of poetry either. The words are important, of course, but they're dependent on the music. Pitchfork: A banal question, but have you heard back from some of your song subjects? Is there an odd responsibility in releasing art for public consumption that explicitly deals with specific private figures? Michael: Many of the songs were written as a way of paying tribute to specific people, but in the end the songs took on a life of their own and I didn't worry about accuracy or biographical truth, so it's not a problem. Pitchfork: Then, of course, there are the public figures: I have to ask you about "Michael's White Hands" and the natural suspicion that the song is about Michael Jackson. (Even if untrue, this would rhyme well with the fact that Swans' "Celebrity Lifestyle" appears inspired by Madonna). Michael: "Michael's White Hands" was written after watching the television special about Mr. Jackson, but again I just used the event as a starting point. Like millions of other people, I was sucked completely in by the wonderful surrealism of his life. To me, it was as if millions of people had willed him into being, collectively. He's the ultimate media fantasy, the true, logical embodiment of our hidden, sickest dreams-- the ultimate prophet of mass media, corporate consumerism and our infantile, shared narcissism. Simultaneously, the media was hallucinating the build up to the war in Iraq, and Saddam Hussein's gargoyle face was glowing in every screen-- the menacing flipside of Michael's dancing nymph image, and the two figures merged in my mind into one creature, urging us on to our televised self destruction. We deserve it. Pitchfork: And more annoying subject-guessing: Would I be correct in chalking up "Lena's Song" to the impressions from your visit to Russia? How did that visit go? It's kind of an infamous trivia fact among my Moscow friends that you played the city the same day as Nick Cave. Your common fan base faced a tough choice... Michael: "Lena's Song" is a thank-you note to a woman who once saved my life. I hadn't thought about her in probably 20 years, and suddenly she came to mind and the song wrote itself. Way back in 1969-70 I was a runaway kid, and through a series of events I can't go into here, I'd ended up in Israel, living on the street. When I met her I was in Eilat, working in the nearby copper mines by day and sleeping on the beach at night. I was 15 or 16, and was a long way from home. She was 50 or 60, I think, and she took me into her home. She was a Persian Jew who had fled Iran to come to Israel. She was a tremendous, generous soul. She took care of me, and eventually contacted my father, who'd been searching for me for almost a year through Interpol, with no results. My next plan was to go to Africa and wander there. God knows what would have happened to a kid like me if I'd succeeded. Fortunately, one day a plane ticket arrived, and I flew back to California foreign language while I played my acoustic guitar. Ha ha! We're going back soon with Angels of Light and Akron/Family, and we'll see what happens.. As for the Moscow trip, it was a great experience, one of the best of my career. Well over 1,000 people came to scream and bark at me in a strange