Angels of Light/Michael Gira | Interview | Daniel Robert Epstein

Aug. 23/05 Michael Gira is best known as one half of The Swans along with Jarboe. Now he is running his label, Young God Records, which is shepherding a number of upcoming acts. Gira’s latest album is The Angels of Light Sing Other People. Get The Angels of Light Sing Other People Daniel Robert Epstein: How long have you been working on the new album? Michael Gira: About a month or something. It just came out in April. DRE: How’s it doing? MG: Very well. This band that played on the album, Akron/Family, are doing really well. We just did a tour together and they opened first as themselves and then they played as my backing band. DRE: How was that? MG: It was amazing. I don’t want to be crass music biz person, but I think they’re our next Devendra Banhart. They’re getting a lot of great response. DRE: Where do you find them? MG: In their case it was pretty banal. They just sent me a series of demos but I was so incredibly busy for the last two years with Devendra that I didn’t really listen to the stuff on my desk. When things cooled down with Devendra, I listened to them and freaked out. Fortunately they hadn’t been signed yet. They came over to my house, met my dog and they passed the smell test. They all got along with my dog and the wife. Then I saw them live and they were fantastic so I started to work with them. DRE: They must be very excited to be working with you. MG: They’re great. We’re pretty close, because we toured together for so long. That’s what I like in a label, actually, I don’t really want to be a regular music biz entity. DRE: Does Young Gods have an office? MG: Yeah I’s in my house. DRE: Do other people work at the office with you? MG: No, I have someone who does accounting, because that’s way beyond me and I have someone to do publicity. Then for everything else I fill in. DRE: Do you get a lot of demos? MG: Oh yeah, but not even hundreds a month, but I’ve taken the mailing address off the website, which has helped immensely. Now I have people send a description of their music first, so I can pretty much glean from that if they’re worth listening to. DRE: Can these bands articulate that kind of stuff well? MG: No not always, but I can just tell from the tone. I’m not really interested in just working with someone who wants to have an exciting career in the music industry. It’s more about someone having a real intense personal connection to what they do and being first and foremost a genuine artist and person. Also music has to be interesting and original. I just weed it out that way. DRE: Is Angels of Lights still just you? MG: Angels of Light is my moniker and I get different people in for each record. In this case it was Akron/Family and a few other people played different instruments but most of the work was with them. DRE: I read a pretty funny review that said, your lyrics haven’t gotten any cheerier but the music has. MG: Yeah, I have to endure that kind of comment. I don’t know if cheery is even something you even need to bring up. It’s not supposed to be Christina Aguilera or something. DRE: Do you feel that you’ve lightened at all as you’ve gotten older? MG: I don’t know. Life’s very difficult for most of us. I have moments where I think it’s wonderful, and at other times it’s just grueling and hard. But I don’t think I’m so much different than most people in that way. The songs I wrote on this record are tributes to people and most of them friends. So in that sense, they’re generous and not fluff. DRE: I didn’t mean it that way. MG: I guess I’m a little sensitive to that question, although I know you meant it well. I was just listening recently to Nina Simone and if you hear her version of Strange Fruit, it’s about the most harrowing thing you can imagine. It’s not really light but it’s really incredibly uplifting. Or if you hear Bob Dylan’s Idiot Wind it’s a great song but it’s not fluff. But I guess things need to have some context. It just seems weird that music has become so incredibly vacant, not that it was ever like reading Shakespeare. I’ve been around for a long time so I remember the 60’s, when stuff would come out, and let’s just take it at random, Jim Morrison wasn’t light. That kind of stuff was ubiquitous. In fact it was on commercial radio in those days. So there was a space for this kind of music in the olden days for a brief period, from the mid-60’s until the early 70’s before it kind of got corporatized. DRE: Do you think radio’s just gone dead? MG: I don’t even bother with it. There’s college radio but I don’t even listen to that. I don’t really think in that way anymore, we have our own label so we release music to a growing audience of people that seek out music that they can’t find elsewhere. So I kind of just leave it like that. I’m not really concerned with being big in the media or anything like that anymore. I just don’t care. I want to make my music and I’m really happy that I have an audience after 20 years of doing it. DRE: What kind of venues do you play? MG: Bigger clubs. I certainly don’t play stadiums. DRE: Did you ever play stadiums? MG: A couple of times The Swans played huge festivals. DRE: You turned 50 last year, did you think you’d be doing this stuff for as long as you have? MG: No, I sure didn’t but also it’s what I do. I don’t make rock and roll music. I’m not going to run around with my shirt off. I think what I do is relatively dignified. I hope so anyway. So I don’t really feel that bad about doing it at my age. I think if I were still trying to be a rock dude, I’d be pretty embarrassed. DRE: But were you trying to be a rock dude in the very beginning? MG: I don’t know if I was trying to be a rock dude, per se, but the performances were pretty extreme. DRE: Jarboe told me that when you two were playing together you were a perfectionist, which is pretty easy to understand. Has that changed at all? MG: With this new record I was a lot looser than I usually am. DRE: How was that? MG: Great experience. I let a lot of stuff go that I normally wouldn’t, including out of tune vocals. I just said, "Let’s just do it" and I let it go. I just didn’t want to get into being the obsessive-compulsive person that I’d been in the studio for the last fifty decades [laughs]. DRE: Why not? MG: One gets sick of themselves. DRE: So you had no anxiety attacks or stress attacks or anything like that? MG: Really, not this time. In the past, I remember one time this guy who has this old studio in Brooklyn where I used to work, and I spent five 18 hour days mixing one song. I never left the studio, I slept on a couch the whole time. DRE: How’d that song come out? MG: Horrible. I did that with my last record, Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home, to an insane degree. I’m just tired of it. I don’t want to be that way anymore. DRE: Does it stop getting better at a certain point, when you’re working on it for that many hours? MG: You lose perspective. For this record, most of the songs were performed live by me first with just acoustic guitar and voice. Then I started building it up with the rest of the musicians. I just did the song and rehearsed a lot before I went in. So basically the whole record was done on tape then I could just sit back, listen, talk to people and start building it up. DRE: Have you changed the way that you’re on stage at all? MG: I don’t know, people say the live performances are very intense. I think they’re kind of joyous. I guess maybe they’re a combination of the two. DRE: That’s kind of what you do.? MG: Yeah. The live version of Angels of Light with Akron/Family playing worked out really well because they do all these amazing vocal harmonies which adds a real lushness and a sort of organic natural quality to the sound. It really helps me sing, also I get the drummer on the tour because there are no drums on this record. DRE: So you used the drummer because he is part of the band? MG: Right it was better than having him just sit there the whole time. We’re going to go in next week and record a shared Akron/Family and Angels of Light album. DRE: You’re really getting into these guys. MG: I’m a huge fan. I watched them every night of the tour for six weeks from beginning to end and I never got bored. To me it was like watching a nascent Led Zeppelin or something. Their record is kind of cerebral and deliberate because a lot of it was recorded at home. DRE: Does stuff you’re doing go by the wayside when you’re dealing with Akron? MG: To be perfectly frank, I have currently an immovable case of writer’s block at the moment. I’m not really that worried about it though because it’s happened from time to time. But running the label now takes up about 80 percent of my time and I pick up the guitar and write when I can. That’s fine with me. I’ve released over 20 albums or something, and at my place in life I think it’s fine for me to take on this role. The whole label is sort of like a huge art project. DRE: Did the writer’s block come about because of something specific? MG: I don’t know, I guess it’s because I’m pretty self-critical and as soon as I try to write something I realize I’ve already said it before so I just stop. But that’s common. I don’t know what my subject’s going to be on my next record. DRE: When you say subject you mean the entire album will be one subject? MG: Not always. You get stuff that opens up the gates and you follow a path. It’s not like you start out with a concept album or anything. This last record happens to be about other people and a great many of them ended up being about friends. DRE: Friends that are still around? MG: Sure, some that aren’t but other ones that are. DRE: Are they musicians or people we know? MG: I can’t really talk about that. DRE: What do you do when you get writer’s block? MG: I just wait. The writing process doesn’t come as easy as it did 15 even ten years ago. I usually just wait and something happens then I start writing. I’m not trying to be mystical or anything. It’s just something beyond my control. It starts happening and opens up my writing process. DRE: Is it not as frustrating as it used to be? MG: I don’t worry about it too much because I’ve written 400 songs or something. DRE: I know you mentioned this at the beginning but you sound a lot jollier than I thought you were going to be. MG: Oh really, you thought I’d be an imposing autocrat. DRE: I thought you’d be nice but I didn’t know what or expect besides that. What do people expect when you meet them, say fans after a show when you go chat with them? MG: Well some of them quiver and stutter. Otherwise they thank me for the work and that’s what I like. I used to be pretty standoffish with people that like the music but usually I enjoy meeting them, in most cases. There was another weird guy in Holland that I just had to tell him to get out of the place. He was just obsessed and weird but generally people are just nice. DRE: That pretty much is always what’s happened to you since the beginning, because of the kind of music you’re doing. MG: It’s not a huge audience, but the people that like it seem to really get something from it. DRE: Do they get what you’re purposely putting out there? MG: I don’t know about that, and I don’t really have a purpose. I’m not a teacher or a preacher or a philosopher or anything. I just write songs. I don’t have a master plan. What people get from the music is their business. They seem to get a genuine emotional or some kind of artistic experience from it which is great. SG Username: AndersWolleck