Interview with Michael Gira
Loose Lips Sink Ships | Sophie Harris
"Play some Swans!" "No, fuck you!"January 2006
The exchange is between a punter at a guess, fat, forty, and hiding behind the merch stand and Michael Gira, the man on stage. The guy who founded Swans in the eighties. He is smiling, amenable; but he still means it. Fuck you.
It's a reliable irritation at pretty much any show you see the fact that someone, who feels they know the musician's oeuvre better than anyone else, will yell out for the oldest most obscure song they can think of. As if the musician's face will light up: "Well done!". But in this instance, it's not only irritating, it's also baffling. Why would you ask Michael Gira to play Swans, when the music he's putting out now is so extraordinary? No-one made a record quite like last year's "Angels Of Light Sing Other People". It twinkles and snares in equal measure: on the one hand, you have really pretty melodies, plucked out on mandolin and glockenspiel; umber tones on oboe and cello, fluttering string. And then on the other, there's Gira's voice, a commanding deep, guttural thing, heaved up from the belly, swooping around and often just missing the notes. And why, why would you ask for Swans, when Gira is now playing with the group he considers to be best "in the universe", as his Angels Of Light? The band who are now sitting on stage chanting like hungry ghosts, spinning out shimmering melodies at Gira''s bidding?
The answer, of course, is that the Swans years are the bits of Gira's life with creases in the spine and the page corners folded down: the rockist's "Lady Chatterly's Lover", if you like. With Swans, Gira basically altered the boundaries of what you could do with music, in terms of it being a physical experience. If the sound itself was a pummeling, grating drone, it was made flesh by the Swans live encounter; the volume was louder than a body can bear, and Gira would repeatedly throw himself to the ground, in time with the music, breaking ribs, shattering teeth, spitting and bleeding. Those who saw the shows wear it like a badge of honour now, eager to launch into a litany of injury at the first prompt (my eardrums burst, my girlfriend vomited etc). But twenty years on, Gira is bored with is all. "It still follows me around," he says today, with a shrug and a smile, "Prince of Darkness playing Minneapolis" y'know. Give me a break!"
In any case, in terms of the life Michael Gira has lived and boy, has he lived it the Swans years are the least disturbing, romantic or compelling of its chapters so far. Let's pick a different point in the story this time.
"You're pretty nice for a British music journalist" says Gira, from the bar across the room.
"You're pretty nice for an American rock star,"
The thing that strikes you as soon as you meet Michael Gira, is his clarity. Everything about him is forthright and clea. Clothes: a pale suit, Stetson and braces; he seems about eight feet tall. He has a dazzling deliberate smile that illuminates like a strip light switching on, and impeccable manners. Physically, Michael Gira's face is like a drawing: good, clean lines, like in a colouring book, a well-shaped face. Lots of him. Like in those airline emergency cards. But mainly the clarity is in the way that he speaks: he is measured, precise, there is no tailing off, no upwards inflections at the end of a sentence. His directness is a pleasure.
Gira once said, in an interview with the Wire, that he's not embarrassed about anything. And the more we talk, him all candour and sanguinity, the more I begin to marvel that it might actually be true. At first I think it's a gift: the ability to not be embarrassed or squirm-prone about anything, and the creativity that must afford you. But then I start to wonder, where does it come from? And Gira's approach, it seems, is born as much from need as from nature: like so many of the best people, he was never going to have an "easy" life.
Born in 1954, Gira's parents sound straight out of an Updike novel. His father was a business executive with a military background, a disciplinarian. His mother started out a sorority girl at UCLA, so beautiful she was offered movie roles and modeled for a while. "They did a whole spread of her as "That American Girl" in Look magazine," says Gira, kind of fondly, kind of sadly. "It shows her working on a car with a little bit of grease on her nose. And then with a towel wrapped round her head holding a baby, and playing tennis. "She was very intelligent too," he says. "She also had serious mental problems." Gira's father walked out when he was ten. His mother became an alcoholic. "Divorce was devastating for her, because she did not have a career. It kind of ruined her life, the whole thing. She didn't know how to adjust." He thinks for a moment. "Yeah, I was a pretty messed up kid."
Gira took what was available to him. The Doors, Dylan, Blue Cheer, Pink Floyd. "And that was closely associated with drugs, because I started taking drugs when I was 12. Intensely so."
More intensely than the average 12 year old?
"Well, I think I used to count my LSD experiences, and when I
was 13 I'd taken LSD 200 times," (chuckles).
When he was really little, Michael listened to Disney Records, to Burle Ives reading Brer rabbit. He says he felt "transported." And yet as a young man, Gira has described himself as bubbling over with "non-specific
Were you a horrendous person to be around at that time?
"Uh, I presume so, yes."
And when you were small, listening to Brer Rabbit, were you a sweet
"I think at some point I probably was. But one of my earliest memories
is walking into my cafeteria in 6th grade, carrying my food in, and the entire
cafeteria broke out in a loud Boo. Hahaha!"
Wow! You Bad kid!
"Cos I was a bully in sports. Cos I was really good and I was always
telling everybody what to do! I think I was very uncooperative."
Were you aware of you unpopularity?
His father took Michael to live with him in Europe when he was 13. He ran away immediately. He hitch-hiked around for a while, and wound up in Amsterdam, in a jail for adults. "And when I was released, he gave me a choice. Which was either to work in a factory in Germany, or go to this elite private school in the Swiss Alps, and he'd support me all the way through high school til I was 18. And of course, I chose the factory, haha!"
At first his dad thought he would change his mind and then tried to force him back into school. Gira ran away again ("I didn't know what I was doing, I was 14"). Some hippy friends took him to Istanbul first, and then on to Israel, to a kibbutz. The kibbutz sounds pretty nice. Gira sold hash; he had "good experiences with a rotating crop of hippy girls". And then he went to work in a copper mine. Living on the beach and working 12 hours a day for $5. Gira thought he could save up to go to Africa:
"I had a sense of just wanting to see the world and wander," he says, "I wasn't really scared, I was too stupid or too young to be scare." Who knows how Gira's story would've turned out if it hadn't been for Lena? A 65 year old Persian Jew, Lena had fled Israel from Iran; her son was working at the copper mine, and the family took Michael in: "And just sort of nurtured me and guided me towards the idea of going home, eventually contacting his parents. He shrugs, almost apologetically. "My father had been searching through Interpol for a year. And was, of course, beside himself."
After returning to Germany, it was decided best that Michael live with his mum in California. At the grand old age of 17, he went to high school. He dropped out. 'It was just silly!" he laughs, "I'd been through all this stuff!" He took construction jobs, apprenticeships, and eventually went to Junior College, passing the test because he read so much. "I started reading seriously in jail, Oscar Wilde, Jean Genet, Jean Paul Sartre", he says. My eyes widened. Rather naughtily, he adds, "They had De Sade in there too!"
Where were we? Ah yes. Art school. Gira went to art school in LA, with Kim Gordon. He was convinced he was, very seriously, an artist, painting constantly ("very realistic, but I don't think it had much content"); just before graduating, he decided the art world was elitist, so he dropped out. Started a fanzine. Got himself a band. "And that was it." In New York, 1978, he formed the Little Cripples. Gira describes the city as being like an apocalypse, all gunshot, sirens and junkies; he says he was drawn in by the music (Suicide, Glen Branca, Contortions): "It wasn't formulatic punk rock, it was pushing the boundaries in a very intense, emotional way."
Which, of course, is exactly what Gira went on to do with Swans.
Do you ever fell like an icon?
"No. I don't. At one point I may have liked to get a lot of media attention, and I got a little full of myself. Then I had some hard knocks which introduced me to reality again."
What sort of knocks?
"Oh, losing labels left and right, losing all my money, being penniless, all that kind of thing. And I'm really grateful for it now, because I learned self-reliance. And to build slowly an audience that wants music for its own sake rather that being fashionable."
How ambitious are you now?
"I'd like to sell a lot of records, but I don't really care about pop stardom. The idea of being all over the media doesn't appeal to me now. It's kinda gross. Cos it's so temporal and false." Gira could, and kinda should, be a cynic. Emotional scars from an early age, physical violence, experience with the British music press ("That's why I said you were nice, because my experience was that they were very friendly on the surface and then they would trash you"). But he has an alive-ness, and enthusiasm that is unavailable to cynics. The dedication he gives to the record label he owns and runs, Young God; the naked admiration for the music that inspires him (AKRON/FAMILY, Dylan, Nina Simone). Seems that having your blood boil, as a kid, is one thing. Finding your heart, and beating on it like a drum the loudest, fullest, and proudest is quite another. There really is nothing to be embarrassed of.
"Play some Swans!"
"No, fuck you!"