Readers Digest - Michael Gira: Records that changed my life

Michael Gira: Records that changed my life

Eva Mackevic

We chat to the founder and frontman of the cult experimental rock band Swans, Michael Gira, about the records that shaped him

Michael Gira: I listened to The Doors’ first album when I was 13. It came at a time in America when there was a great deal of turmoil, a turmoil which I wish still existed today, in that there was mass rioting and protests in the streets. It was the first kind of eruption of a counter-culture and The Doors to me, being from California, were emblematic of this ongoing apocalypse and, sonically, they just embodied that to me perfectly.

The songs can be quite sensual and beautiful. I think that the song “Crystal Ship” is just absolutely beautiful, it’s like Frank Sinatra-beautiful. In fact, there’s a YouTube video—guess YouTube is good for something—of Jim Morrison singing it acapella. I guess they just isolated the vocals but it’s just so unbelievably sensual and tactile.

But then there’s the song “The End”, which is like 12 minutes long, and mainly it’s an experience; it’s this unfolding world that you fall into when you're listening to it. It’s not virtuosic or anything, but it just has fantastic dynamics and drama.

Jim Morrison's vocals are incredible. I guess they had a lasting impact on me in the way that I think about music being an immersive experience.   

RD: What’s your next record? 

MG: The next one is very much conjoined in my mind. And that is The Mothers of Invention album Freak Out!. That’s a pivotal experimental psychedelic spit-in-your-face anti-consumer society record. It’s utterly fantastic. Some of it sounds a bit dated, but it employed sounds, tape loops, great rock grooves and really acerbic words.

It has such great songs like “Hungry Freaks, Daddy”, “Who are the Brain Police?” and a really great psychedelic song, “Help, I’m a Rock”. And this was at a time when psychedelics conjoined with other rejection of consumer society and, you know, people think of hippies as these dazed, happy creatures or something, but I think that this record was more punk rock than punk rock ever was.

It has a great song about the Watts riots. Watts was a black area in Los Angeles and it erupted in riots in 1966—at the time this record came out—and burned down part of the city. There’s a song about that event called “Trouble Every Day”. It's a great pastiche of strange musical adventures and overwhelming psychedelia, and it’s truly a great record. 

RD: Do you remember how you were introduced to it originally?

MG: You know, that’s centuries ago. I just hung out with the hippies and did the things that they did and the word got around. I certainly wasn't reading magazines about music or anything of that nature. It was just around—it was kind of the lingua franca, a great psychedelic record at the time.

"When I was about 16, I ended up in prison in Israel and to pass the time, I would recite The Doors album in my mind"

I listened to it on one of those little record player stereos that were like a tiny small-size suitcase, it didn't have any external speakers, and I listened to it hundreds and hundreds of times. 

I had a sort of chequered youth and later on, when I was about 16, I ended up in jail and then in prison in Israel after running away. And to pass the time, I used to recite The Doors album in my mind, I didn't really actually need to play it anymore. 

RD: How did you end up in prison in Israel?

MG: I was in Europe with my father and I ran away. I was in Germany with some older hippies, and I hitchhiked down Germany through Yugoslavia into Greece and then into Istanbul. We were running out of money and someone knew someone in Israel. So we went to Israel and I spent a year there as a vagabond, just a homeless kid basically. My older friends had procured some hashish and they left town and left it with me—and I idiotically went to sell it at some youth hostel and then I was arrested there for that.  

RD: What a story. So naturally you still associate The Doors with that rebellious period of your life? 

MG: Oh yeah. I mean, I didn’t listen to them for decades and I started exploring them again recently for some reason, and I think the Doors records, the first three albums, really hold up very well. And I can't listen to them without associating it with my childhood, so it still sounds magical to me.

You know the song “When The Music's Over”? That to me is just Wagnerian, you know, when it takes off and the synthesiser and the slide guitar enter—it’s just unbelievable. 

Morrison was a great singer, even though his poetry was a bit juvenile sometimes. But he sang with such authority that it didn't matter. And I guess, speaking of sticking it to the authority and singers, I could segue into another artist who had a great impact on me, which is Nico.

After her first stilted solo album Chelsea Girls, with the album Desertshore, she became a true artist and chanteuse. Her solo albums DesertshoreThe Marble Index, and to the lesser extent The End…, are just unique in modern music. I think that they’re thoroughly uncompromising and most importantly, she’s just completely engrossing and her voice is without apology. She sings in these difficult to parse words but she delivers them with such force that they just convince you immediately.  

The arrangements on Desertshore as well as on The Marble Index are just phenomenally good and strange and very abstract. They’re done by John Cale who’s one of my idols in terms of music production. They’re art records, you know, I guess they’re like art classical records.

I guess it didn't have this European feeling to them in that they’re often dissonant and they’re very sparse, there’s a lot of spaciousness to them. But her voice is a warrior’s voice, it’s really powerful.  

RD: Would you say you borrowed anything from Nico, musically speaking?

MG: Well, yeah, actually. There's a song on the new Swans album that I specifically drew from the arrangement on a song called “It Has Not Taken Long.”

If you listen to that and then you listen to the song “Sunfucker”, you’ll immediately see the relationship. It's not the same musically, but the arrangements are very similar. I just used it as a template because I was so taken by that arrangement.  

RD: What’s your next one?

MG: I'll say two records that directly influenced me to move from Los Angeles to New York in 1979. And those two records were the No New York compilation record, which was put together by the so-called no-wave bands of New York at the time. On this record, there were the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and The Jerks featuring the marvellous Lydia Lunch, DNA and Mars.  

And the other record, which I conjoin in my mind, the Suicide’s debut album. When I heard that record I thought, Wherever that sound’s coming from, I want to live there, and so it had a direct influence on my moving to New York City when I was first starting to make music.  

It has moments of beauty and of touching love songs like “Cheree.” But then there is the infamous “Frankie Teardrop”, which is I think an 11-minute song, and it’s got the most minimal accompaniment possible, it’s just kind of this keyboard throb in the background while Alan Vega narrates the song.

It’s a song about a factory worker who loses all his money and ends up killing his wife and kids and then kills himself. And it's kind of a nightmare, a sonic nightmare, it’s really well-done. I realised recently that it relates directly to the Bob Dylan song “Ballad of Hollis Brown”, which is a song about a farmer in a depression who loses all his money, kills his wife and kids and kills himself. [Laughs] So I guess that’s something people do sometimes.

The Suicide album was inspirational to me because it’s pointing to the fact that, if you’re a musician, you can make something happen with the most minimal of means. Musicianship is not the point, it’s about being able to organise sound and have a voice that has conviction.

And that’s certainly also true with the No New York record and particularly in the case of Lydia Lunch who was at that point a fantastic lyricist and just the brattiest, most in-your-face singer imaginable, she was really a great presence. Seeing someone like that living in New York as well as Kathy Acker, the writer, all of those things made me want to live in New York City.

RD: Did the New York scene prove to be everything you wanted it to?

MG: Absolutely not. When I moved there, most of the bands had disbanded; I saw the Contortions a couple times but that whole scene didn't last very long at all.  I just started from scratch and made Swans happen, made one really bad record and then found my voice and the music found its voice, and then we had a career. 

RD: You said that musicianship is not always the key to success. Do you think that's typical of the current music scene? 

MG: I don’t know anything about the current music scene and I never have really. But for me, punk rock’s primary lesson is that you can make something happen with the most minimal of means. You don't have to be some virtuosic musician. You can organise sound, whether that’s through bashing on a guitar inexpertly or a bass, or through using tape loops.

"I have never gotten “better” at guitar, it's just a piece of wood with some wires on it that I use to make sounds so I can sing to it"

It just takes—well, first of all, it takes talent but it also takes vision and commitment. And that's always been my way of approaching music. I have never gotten “better” at guitar, it's just a piece of wood with some wires on it that I use to make sounds so I can sing to it.

RD: When did you properly discover your voice?

MG: It took a couple of records for me to find myself vocally. I used to shout a lot, I don’t know if that qualifies [Chuckles]. I guess after the first record, I felt some kind of strength in my voice, I learned to sing better. I’m certainly not a great singer per se but I think I've learned to do what I can do pretty well.

"I guess I just have the arrogance to think that I can make something happen"

RD: That’s such a modest answer [Laughs]. 

MG: Well, I’m not being humble, it’s just a fact. You know, I'm not a musician really, I don't know most of the chords I play. I guess I just have the arrogance to think that I can make something happen, I don't care what anybody says and I'm just going to do it. So that's what I’ve done and I gather people around me that have much more musical skills than I do, but I'm able to work with them and guide things into a sonic terrain that I think is convincing.

RD: Do you have more records for us?

MG: Oh, Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma. I didn't buy it at the time I saw it. When I was a runaway in Europe, I went to a rock festival in 1969, it was a rock festival in Belgium where I saw Pink Floyd, as well as Chicago Art Ensemble, Pretty Things, an early incarnation of Yes—all these psychedelic experimental hippie bands at the time. And I remember seeing Pink Floyd play at the exact era that generated Ummagumma and it was, again, through the aid of certain gateway substances but it was transformative.  

I was sitting there in the dirt with all the rest of the hippies and “Careful with that Axe, Eugene” was played and to me, that was just mind-shredding. It’s a completely immersive experience, with music not being about songs so much as an unfolding journey that you would partake in. I lost interest in them very soon after that record. Particularly with The Wall 

RD: What made you lose interest in Pink Floyd?

MG: I guess it became too finessed and engineered for me. It didn’t have that kind of abandon, the searching quality that their earlier works had. And I guess it sounded kind of pompous and plodding. But that is not a true qualitative judgement, because who am I to judge.

But Ummagumma, the whole album is just an experience. One LP is their live concerts and the other LP is them each doing a song. It has all kinds of light and shade and different kind of qualities to it. I like how it goes from these grand sonic statements into these very minimal moments.

And I took that as a direct influence on the Swan's album, The Soundtracks for The Blind, which has a lot of that, a lot of dynamics and a different sonic world. So, I guess that would have been the influence that Pink Floyd had on Swans. 

RD: What’s your next choice?

MG: I guess to include something more recent…this record was released posthumously. It’s a record that David Byrne's label released recently, of Alice Coltrane, and it’s called The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda. I love Alice Coltrane, but this one is something that I kind of refer back to as a template for what’s possible in music: not technically—but for what’s possible in terms of how it can lead you towards something greater than yourself.

She retired from the music industry and went to live on in an Ashram in Northern California and as part of their ritual they would play music. I presume that these recordings were not made with the intent of releasing them, except maybe on a cassette among the followers of the Ashram.

But they’re snapshots into these transcendent group experiences that were taking place with chanting and building spiritual music that leads you to a higher place. And it's interesting musically in that it had obviously Eastern influences in it because she was a Hindu, but it also has gospel! It’s mixing the best of both worlds, and then obviously her jazz influences.

She sings on this record too, and it’s all just yearning and reaching for a higher place. I think it's quite beautiful for that reason and it serves the purpose of what music should do in my view, which is that it should lead you to a higher place.

RD: Do you try to achieve that through your own music as well?

MG: I hope that it has an entirely positive effect on people. Certainly, there are the so-called “dark subjects” involved, but there's also a lot of positivity in the music too, I mean it’s not maple syrup. So, since the late 1980s I've been trying to create soundtracks, you know, music that’s like a film where you can fall into this place and go through different aspects of the world and lose yourself in it.

Swans' latest album leaving meaning. is now out on Mute (Young God in North America) and the band return to the UK in spring 2020 for a tour that includes EartH London