Angels of Light/Michael Gira | Interview

Altercation Magazine | Justin Habersaat

On this current record, I thought I'd give something back to some of the people I love and admire, so I wrote tributes to them.

July 2005 While few artists would be so brash as to naysay a previous band that brought them to prominence within the public consciousness, fewer yet have been as haunted by their artistic past as Michael Gira. With the genius of Eighties underground stalwarts Swans, which he fronted and eventually came to personify, well in his rearview mirror, Gira has forged ahead down an ambitious creative path. Still, one would be hard-pressed to come across a Gira feature that didn't at least hint at the impressive output of his prior band; the body of work is, after all, quite stunning. Heading his own imprint Young God Records (home to such rising indie cult phenomenon’s as Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family), and maintaining an admirable release schedule of his own recordings (both solo and with his new project Angels of Light), Gira has carved out an unmistakable niche through an uncompromising artistic vision and work ethic. With a new, stripped, acoustic-laden Angels of Light album to his credit (Other People) and an international tour looming, Gira took time out of his busy schedule to speak with Altercation editor Justin Habersaat. Photos by Drew Goren and Knut Neerland. Altercation: I know that the new album has a more 'pop' approach to things. I'm curious what 'pop' bands you enjoy, and what bands or artists you feel have stretched the genre. Michael: Well, I certainly didn't set out to write ‘pop songs’, because I know I'd fail if I tried. But I did notice as the album was finishing up that the songs were generally on the short end, and concise and melodic, so I think I observed somewhere that they're as close as I'll ever get to writing ‘pop songs’. I don't really think they are though, at least by today's standards. There's a host of artists that I feel did a great job with pop, and some remain my heroes still. That'd be Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, even Pink Floyd here and there in the early days and in genres other than ‘rock’ Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and even further away from what I do - James Brown, Nina Simone, Curtis Mayfield all of these people stretched or made inroads in writing popular songs, made sounds that had never been heard before. Then, later, there's Roxy Music, David Bowie, Marc Bolan, and Brian Eno. Eno wrote really great pop songs on his first three or four solo albums. Even Throbbing Gristle wrote a few! Check out "United," if you've never heard it for instance... So who knows, maybe I'll write a great pop song some day. Give a monkey a paint brush and enough time and he'll eventually paint a masterpiece, so they say... A: In addition to the 'pop' elements, the new album has an overall more optimistic feel as opposed to the darker moments of previous Angel’s albums such as Everything is Good.... is that just the yin-yang of songwriting, or more a telling of things in your life at this time? M: If you don't change as a person as your life progresses, learn things along the way, achieve some level of personal transformation, you might as well be dead. There's still elements in me from my early years, but the constantly boiling rage or just plain fury that I used to have for both myself and everything around me traits I don't view as necessarily negative, by the way, has changed into something else. On this current record, I thought I'd give something back to some of the people I love and admire, so I wrote tributes to them. I wanted to give them something, and maybe lift them up in the eyes of others, so I wrote them some songs. I guess since that's the nature of many of the songs not all, some are based on other things but it's inevitable that the songs would be optimistic. A: Obviously, many people point to Swans as a point of reference when reviewing your work. Do you ever feel like that is a detrimental thing? Do you feel Angels of Light has 'come into its own' by this point? M: If I let it get to me, I can see how I could become very depressed about this. I guess sometimes I do let it get to me, but I have to move on. I finished Swans in 1997 - eight years ago now - and I immediately moved on to something else. It's often been distressing to see the Swans comparisons. I'm proud of Swans, I'm glad I did it, but I thought I threw off that straight jacket when I killed it. Nonetheless, I continue to see reviews, for instance, harping on the "dark" "violent" or worse, "depressing" side of things; aside from the fact that I don't think those terms necessarily apply to Swans in most instances, it's pretty frustrating to see them applied to Angels of Light. On the other hand, I've been listening to a lot of Nina Simone lately, and am fairly obsessed with two songs from the double cd reissue of Pastel Blues and Let it All Out. Just amazing! Her cover of the classic song ‘Strange Fruit’ and her cover of Dylan's ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’ are about as "dark" as it gets. Just gut wrenching, absolutely stunning. Her voice is angry, resigned, bitter, and also weary and wise, and it gets right down in there where anguish lives. So, there's two songs - one about lynching black people, and another about a poor farmer that gives up in despair and kills his family and himself - and they are uplifting, even transcendent in my, why I bring this up, while absolutely not putting myself in the company of such an indisputably great artist, is that yes, I do sing about painful subjects sometimes, but I figure that's my duty as a human being, and a duty to myself. I sing about a lot of things. I've written hundreds of songs, using a myriad of subjects and points of view. So it pains me a little to be viewed in such a simplistic way. But as I say: you can't change it, it is how it is, so best to forget about it....fuck it, it doesn't matter. I'm lucky to be able to make a living making music - the thing I love most in this world – and there's still an audience for what I do after twenty-three years of releasing records, so I feel privileged in that regard. It's best to just strip away any expectations and concentrate on what matters most: my wife, my dog, and my friends! (Laughs) A: There seem to be a lot more vocal parts happening on the new release courtesy of the Akron folks. Do you feel this will make it harder to translate on tour in the live setting? Do you place more of an emphasis on recording or live performance? M: Oh, the live arrangements are working out great, and if anything there's more of Akron's amazing ability to harmonize vocally live than on record. I have to say - and I've been meaning to tell them this, but haven't for fear it'll go to their heads - that they're the absolute best musicians I've ever worked with as my backing band. I don't mean technically though they are pretty skilled. They put everything into lifting the song itself up, and supporting me as a singer, without much ego on their part involved. It's a tremendously gratifying experience. But, as to "interpreting" the songs from the record into a live context, I never bother with that anyway. The songs are just a template, a way to make something happen in whatever context they appear. It'd be pretty silly and boring to try to recreate something from a recording, which is an entirely different medium. A: Your last album contained certain songs written from the point of view of characters. With a title like Other People, did you take a similar approach? If not, is there any specific symbolism implied with the title? M: No, the songs are all about "other people" in one way or another, so that's why I called it that. Of course "I" am in there somewhere too, in the choice of the subject matter and how I approach it, but they're not about me really - which I find pretty silly for a songwriter to do anyway. Even when you use direct autobiographical experience, I always feel it's important to lift it away from yourself, to make a story that can exist on its own. A: Young God Records has gained a lot more publicity lately with the emergence of yourself and Devendra Banhart. Has this been a positive thing for the label overall? Are you able to keep up with demand as a DIY entity, or do you foresee changes in the way things are done? M: I'm extremely proud of Devendra and what he has accomplished, and what we accomplished on his behalf. He deserves huge success in my opinion - he's one in a million, the absolute real thing. I had an inkling of what might happen when we released his first record, but had no idea he'd reach the level of success he has. "Success" in this case means that a large amount of people get something from his music, feel a personal connection to it, and are somehow genuinely effected by it. I'm not talking about "moving units" here. I'm always disgusted when I read an article about someone, and they bring that aspect up, as if it had anything to do with the real value of the music being discussed. But it's good to see he has an audience, and I hope it serves him well in life. That's the most, and the best thing, any musician could ever ask for. Anyway, Devendra's moved on now - to XL Recordings/Beggars Banquet, and that's a good thing. He's at a level where there's no way we could do him justice. We're already mind-numbingly overworked here, and we don't want to expand. I don't want Young God to become bigger, and in fact I don't even really want to be part of the music business, per se. I still need to find time to make my own music, because that's who and what I am. Young God is just a way to be able to do that and also bring to light other people's music I think deserves to be heard.