Michael Gira: Interview
“This is what I have to do right now in order to stay viable as a human being and as an artist.”
Michael Gira was the leader of the legendary experimental rock group Swans for more than 15 years before announcing the end of the project in 1997, capping it off the following year with the release of the epic live album Swans Are Dead. Gira remained busy for the next 12 years, touring and recording with his new band Angels Of Light, running his own Young God imprint, and mentoring the careers of musicians such as Devendra Banhart and Larkin Grimm, all the while insisting that Swans would remain dead.
Last year, Gira announced that a reactivated Swans would record a new album and tour, with a projected 18-month world jaunt, of which the band is still in the midst. I spoke to Gira last October, one month after the release of My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky (TMT Review), as he was taking a brief respite after the first US leg of the tour.
I just saw Swans play to a packed house at Bowery Ballroom in NYC. It was an extremely powerful performance. Were you happy with the show?
I don’t know. I think so. I had a little trouble with the show because the previous night [at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple] was so intense that I was unable to muster the energy to really commit to the Bowery show. I finally got there, but it was very difficult. I was just happy to get through it. The previous night was pretty astounding. I don’t know what happened, but I think I went insane, in a good way.
Have you been happy with the reception that this new incarnation of Swans has been getting on tour?
Yes, very much. It’s kind of strange to play to such committed audiences, people willing to undergo the torture we inflict.
You open the show with an instrumental piece that lasts more than an hour, involving heavy drones and the percussion of Thor Harris. It’s amazing but also a real test of an audience’s patience.
I think everything should always go right to the edge of tolerance. Then it moves on into something else. I like that piece. That first half-hour of drone is one of my favorite bits. I like the middle section with Thor’s percussion, which is another half-hour long, and then the end with the full band is another half-hour long. I think there are three half-hour “songs,” if you want to call them that. God knows what is going to happen as the tour progresses. Things will probably get even more arduous. We’ll see.
I heard from a few friends who were at the show at the show in Chicago, and they said there was some kind of physical confrontation with the audience that created a very tense atmosphere.
A couple of bozos were slam dancing… I think that’s what you call it. They saw it on MTV so they figured that’s what they were supposed to do. They were slamming into people who were actually paying attention and listening. I kept spitting on them trying to get their attention, but they wouldn’t look up because they weren’t really listening, they were just bouncing around being idiots. I finally managed to get hold of one guy’s hair, and I pulled him up on stage and screamed in his face, and then they stopped. They were ruining the show. I don’t mind if people move, but they were living out their fake rock ‘n’ roll fantasy. They were ruining the show for other people, so I put a stop to it. I just hate that whole fake ritual. I remember the beginnings of it. I used to go to punk rock gigs in Los Angeles back in 1977. People weren’t slam dancing then; they were pogoing, which is just as silly. The first show I saw that happen was The Cramps at a gig in LA in ‘79, there were these surfer jocks stage diving and moshing. Thurston Moore and I used to go to the hardcore shows in NYC in the early days. I thought some of the music was OK, but I just didn’t like the jock aspect of it. The people that used to want to beat me up in school were now emboldened, having found their métier, and they were pounding into people, jumping off stage, and I just thought that was idiotic. That behavior gradually became the de rigeur thing you do at a rock show, which is really unfortunate. So there’s my sermon about that.
I had a chance to listen to the new Swans album My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky before the show, and though I enjoyed it, the mood of the album created a certain anxiety that I would be seeing a Swans performance in name only; it would really be an Angels Of Light show with the volume cranked up, and not the kind of sonic assault for which Swans are legendary.
By necessity, the album is a transitional amalgam of the two projects. The process for the next album — which is a long way off because there is still so much touring — will begin with those long instrumental passages, and words and so-called “songs” will come later. I wouldn’t know what to say about where Swans ends, and where Angels begins. Swans changed so much from the early days to the end, there’s not a particular style you can ascribe to it.
“We all aspire to losing ourselves in the universe, or in something bigger than ourselves. To dissolving, dissipating, atomizing.”
You have said that this incarnation of Swans should not be seen as a reunion, but rather a “revivification of the idea of Swans.” What is the idea of Swans?
Maybe a love of sonic overload. The idea of the Swans is sonic intensity, which is something I eschewed for the most part with Angels Of Light, because I didn’t want to regress. With Angels, I was more interested in the song per se, and the lyrics.
There were always dynamics — the Swans had a lot of quiet songs — but one central salient feature is the cascading sounds that make your body feel like it’s levitating when you’re inside it. I’m speaking mostly about live performances, of course. That’s something I was going for with this incarnation. I wanted to experience that feeling again. Making something that is so much bigger than yourself that you feel like you are inside the mouth of God.
How did you choose the musicians you would be working with for this incarnation of Swans?
These are people I wanted to be around, with musical skills that I admire. Norman Westberg was a pretty important choice, given his very particular sound, and also his long history with the band. It was kind of fortuitous because I had been thinking about wanting to do this for a couple years. Actually, it had been insinuating itself into my consciousness, the idea that I might undergo this ordeal again. I did a solo performance a while ago in New York and Norman came to the show. I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and I was flattered that he came. We talked for the first time in years and we got along great. We kept in fitful, intermittent contact. Then when I finally decided to take the plunge I called Norman, and I was very pleased that he agreed right away. The other people are people that have worked in either Angels Of Light or Swans. Chris Pravdica is a very good friend who played bass in a band with my wife Siobhan. Thor Harris played in Angels Of Light, and he’s a great addition. He also cuts an interesting figure on stage. The whole band is a police lineup photographer’s dream. We all used to be cute. Not anymore.
I noticed that everyone on stage was dressed in a very muted non-style. You looked like prison inmates.
If we had a dress code, it was that we should look like workers, not rock stars. The goal was to look as blank as possible. I like performing barefoot, too. On some of the stages, that can be hazardous, because they are pretty filthy.
You played songs from past incarnations of Swans, but it seems that you chose the most brutal and minimal songs and mostly avoided the mid-to-late period Swans output.
Well, we played two songs from Children Of God, but they were the particularly harsh songs from that album. We played “I Crawled,” “Your Property,” “Sex God Sex” and “Beautiful Child.” Two of those were completely altered. They used the template of the original but moved it somewhere else completely. “Sex God Sex” ended up being faithful to the original, although not by any motivation. I just didn’t see any reason to transform it into something else. With the others, I didn’t feel comfortable playing them the old way. It felt corny, so I changed them. With “Beautiful Child” we added this quasi-Pink Floyd intro, which I guess makes sense somehow. I have toyed with the idea of playing that song very quiet instead of very loud, whispering the words over it instead of screaming, which might be advantageous in terms of getting through the tour.
I wanted to do the more “blues”-oriented Swans material, for lack of a better word. By “blues” I don’t mean stylistically. I mean the songs that have that digging feel… something elemental. I wanted to concentrate on that, rather than get into the kind of orchestration that happened later in Swans. It didn’t seem right to do anything from Soundtracks For The Blind, because even 15 years later it’s still too close. We chose the songs rather intuitively. We tried other songs but they sounded silly as hell. When we started playing them it didn’t sound right. I just wanted to play songs that we could feel authentic playing, that didn’t feel like some kind of “reunion” thing. We found the songs that we as a particular unit could fall into and feel good playing.
At several times during the 13 years you were focusing on Angels Of Light, you stated in interviews that you would never consider the idea of reforming Swans. What changed?
I had a pretty severe case of writer’s block over the last 3-4 years. I was just squeaking out songs. It was really difficult to get a song written at all. These songs that appear on the album were written as Angels Of Light songs. The method I normally used to record an Angels record was to go into the studio and record the songs acoustically with a drummer, then begin orchestrating on top of it, building it up as a little film.
With these songs, I became a bit underwhelmed by that prospect; it didn’t really excite me. I’d been thinking about wanting to make something more compelling sonically, a bit more overwhelming. I decided to take the songs and make a Swans album. I extended parts in those songs, and the band got together for 12 hours a day in the studio. We work for at least 12 hours on each song. We would just start playing. I had concepts I would bring to the band, and they would either make use of those ideas, add new things, or we would abandon the concept and move elsewhere. After 12 hours it became vivified by these six people working on it, and felt more like Swans to me than Angels, thankfully. The song “No Words, No Thoughts” was the one song written specifically to be a Swans song. I think “Eden Prison” comes off really well as a Swans song. The other ones, I don’t know. In all honesty, I can call it whatever I want really because they are both my projects [laughs]. This was just a way to get my toe wet and move into the water, and now I have some pretty specific ideas about how Swans is going to go on. It’s what I’m going to be doing for the next five years.
I always admired the minimal, brutal nature of your lyrics for Swans. What appeals to you about that kind of anti-metaphorical reductionism?
The early material was minimal, but when you talk about a song like “God Damn The Sun” or “Failure,” those songs are poetic in a certain way. It’s really just me. I’m lucky to write a song these days. What comes out is what you get. I can’t really tailor it towards a particular point of view. I have always resisted the idea of treacly personal poetry as lyrics. That’s not ever going to happen with me. When I write lyrics, I use my experience and things I’ve read, my own attitudes and opinions, but I try to remove myself from it completely, because I don’t think it’s right for me to inflict my personality or problems on the world. I just want to make something that’s bigger than me.
In the early days, my biggest influence was television and print advertising. Advertising slogans tend to be concise and aggressive, but also multifarious, with lots of entendre within them. I like bold statements meant to worm their way into your brain to create anxiety and make you want to buy shit. I thought that was a modern poetry in itself. I modeled the words after that notion. Political sloganeering — fascist or communist slogans — also interested me as a way of working. As I grew and changed, inevitably things opened up. I might write a song after having read a book. I don’t know because I don’t really have a particular, consistent point of view with the lyrics I write. Some of them are just homages or little poems. The song “Little Mouth” on the new album is a pretty straightforward love song.
“I finally managed to get hold of one guy’s hair, and I pulled him up on stage and screamed in his face.”
Swans music has always struck me as being ecstatic or joyful, even though much of the music and lyrical content could be quite aggressive and even sinister. How do you explain that paradox?
The sinister part I would not agree with. More like sexy [laughs]. I think it’s that, particularly live, there is a certain inescapable physicality to the music. It’s like being in the room with four church gospel choirs singing different songs simultaneously; a massive sound that is swelling and crescendoing. It’s like the end of The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life.” That’s where I want to go. It has the potential to be uplifting. After I read a particularly harrowing book, I often feel very moved and inspired. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. It really is quite an undertaking to read it, but afterwards you feel your brain synapses sparkling.
Good art should not be sentimental. Maybe I’m in the wrong business, because pop music often is sentimental, and I suppose I’ve been guilty of that sometimes, but not often. However, I’m not trying to write “dark” material either. I don’t care about that shit. I’m just trying to write about something that seems necessary and digs into something uncomfortable, because it needs to be voiced.
Your delivery in “Sex God Sex” is reminiscent of a fire-and-brimstone preacher.
That song, and a lot of Children Of God, was inspired by — and I mean inspired, it was not a cynical or ironic comment upon — the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. He was Jerry Lee Lewis’ cousin and an amazing entertainer who was using all of his oratorical power to lift his congregation up to heaven. He eventually got arrested for getting a blowjob by a prostitute in a hotel, but he was a great performer and he really interested me. I channeled him, and used that particular notion of religion for a lot of the songs on the record. Not in an ironic way; I wanted to embrace it more than anything. That character comes out when I do that song. It seems to make sense. And when I’m calling for Jesus to come down in that song, I really mean it.
Reading some of your writings and lyrics, one could get the idea that you are cynical or nihilistic. How do you reconcile this with your religious aspirations?
I’m not cynical or nihilistic. If I was nihilistic or cynical, I would have stopped working years ago. I am willfully naïve and open to experience. I am very careful not to accept beliefs just because it feels good to believe them. But I am always open to experience and to new things, so I would disagree about the cynicism.
Why do you return repeatedly to Christian imagery?
I grew up Catholic. I’ve gone to Catholic church a couple times recently, too. But it’s not that I’m accepting the dogma at face value. We all aspire to losing ourselves in the universe, or in something bigger than ourselves. To dissolving, dissipating, atomizing. It’s like when you have extended sex with someone you truly love, where you just completely lose yourself in the act.
It’s not the brutal kind of act where you are just satisfying yourself, but more of an interplay, and it goes on for a long time and the tension builds. I guess it’s like tantric sex. You reach a point where your body disappears into the other person, into the present moment. I think all of us have that aspiration. I think that’s one of the attractions of religion. You give up anxiety and you give up yourself to something bigger. The downside of that is that people become incurious and dogmatic and judgmental, as you can see in our current political climate. That’s a negative side of it, but I think that religious aspiration is really beautiful as well.
I recently re-listened to Soundtracks For The Blind, and it strikes me that this is one of the best albums of the 1990s, and certainly one of the best Swans albums, even if it was not recognized as such at the time.
That record was the sum total of everything Swans had done for 15 years, in a literal, physical sense. I had trunks full of cassette tapes from as far back as 1981 where I was messing around with synthesizers makings sounds and drones. I also had trunks full of floppy disks used by early samplers with different samples and weird patches. I also had half-mixed versions of songs that never got used on any albums. I had multi-tracks for studio recordings with all kinds of sounds on them that had never been used. I also recorded a contemporary band for that record on 24-track. I put all those things into a computer using a rudimentary program which was called Sonic Solutions, a mastering program that was super-high fidelity for the time. I took those sounds, I just chose them, the ones that I thought would work, put them into the computer, and then started trying to piece it together somehow. At a random point there would be something from 1981, a piece from 1987, and a bit from 1996 playing all at the same time and somehow they would be in tune and work together perfectly. It was a way of taking sonic material and not having a prejudice whether it was a recording of a song, or it was a found tape loop, and figuring out how it all worked as one composition, as an album. It took a huge amount of time and effort and hair-pulling. Finally it came together, and when it was done, I threw away all of that material. I went to the garbage dump and threw it away.
” I just wanted to play songs that we could feel authentic playing, that didn’t feel like some kind of “reunion” thing.”
Would you ever consider working in that way again?
I did a special edition of the new album with an extra disc. For the companion disc, I took the instrumental sections of the performances on the album and used them as raw fodder to make something else. I recorded other things for it — strings, a lot more guitar and horns, and voices — and I made a 45-minute piece of music out of it. That was a similar way of working.
Maybe the next Swans album will have an element of that. Maybe I’ll take the live performances from the band and spend a lot of time reconfiguring them. That interests me as a working method, but I can’t try to imitate what I did in the past either.
For more than two decades, you have been running your own record label. How is Young God weathering the recession and flagging music sales?
After I got home from the first leg of the tour, I slept one day, and then I dug right into trying to pack up orders for the new record. We made the record available and right away we got 600 orders in a day and a half. Normally, I fill all the orders myself, but I’ve been touring, so my wife has been trying to fill them, and it became necessary to shut down orders on the website so we could deal with the backlog. I’ve been working for 12 hours a day packing CDs, trying to get these orders out.
There are also custom forms to fill out. It’s an incredible amount of tedious work, all of which I do myself right now. I can’t afford to hire anyone else. As soon as I hire someone, it’s not worth it anymore. That’s the problem.
The record industry is not exactly booming, as you mention. As far as the label continuing, I’m very ambivalent about that. I have a couple fellows whose music I’ve committed to, and those I want to follow through with. Those two are James Blackshaw and Wooden Wand. Going forward, I’m not really certain that I want to actively bring people into the label anymore, simply because there is such an investment of time and money involved, and nowadays people don’t feel it’s necessary to actually buy music; it’s kind of a no-win situation. I love producing records and working with people whose music I admire and love, but it’s becoming obvious that it’s not going to work anymore.
It’s an economic reality. Talk to your constituency, the people that go to Tiny Mix Tapes. They should really think about it when they steal music off the web. It really has consequences. It has made me pretty much unable to continue the label. People talk about vinyl being the big savior, but vinyl costs a fortune to make and a fortune to ship. Also, not everyone who used to buy CDs is buying vinyl. It’s a tiny percentage of the previous sales base, and it’s disappearing. If people want to keep doing that, I guess people will just make records at home by themselves using ProTools and it will sound like shit, and that’s all you’ll get.
Was there some amount of trepidation when you were preparing to start something again that you had put aside 15 years ago, presumably for your own sanity?
You’re right: I did put Swans aside for my own sanity. But also, in a sense, I was denying my true self. As much as I’ve enjoyed Angels of Light, enjoyed the different working method, and as much as it was essential that I work that way, my true potential, or my true “spirit,” is Swans. In embracing it, I’m embracing all the horrible things about it, as well as the good things. But I really don’t have a choice. This is what I have to do right now in order to stay viable as a human being and as an artist.