Innately Optimistic, Willfully Naïve, and Completely Mega Maniacal
Starting in the late 1970s, Michael Gira made some of those most abrasive, visceral and violently beautiful music imaginable, his shows with a shifting cast of Swans now legendarily loud and brutal, his artistic collaboration with Jarboe one of the oddest and most compelling mixes of energies that the rock world has ever seen. Swans recorded dozens of albums from 1982 to 1998, closing their career with the monolithic two-cd live album Swans Are Dead. Gira and Jarboe went separate ways, and Gira almost immediately began working on an entirely different kind of project, rooted in traditional folk, blues and country; more lyrical, less ritual. He called it Angels of Light.
Many people have been part of Angels of Light over the years, Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family most famously, but dozens of others have contributed voices, instruments, personalities and ideas. Even so, it’s Gira’s project, as strange and joyful and confrontational and intelligent as the man himself. The project has changed over time, incorporating massive, celebratory anthems at one stage of Gira’s creative process (check out “Rose of Los Angeles” from Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home), and tamping down to the musical equivalent of line drawings in the mostly acoustic The Angels of Light Sing ‘Other People’. For the last three albums, Gira has drawn on the giddy exuberance of Akron/Family to flesh out his songs. They are the latest in an impressive series of artists—Calla, Devendra Banhart, Mi and Lau—whose music Gira has discovered, helped to shape and released on his own Young God record label.
Gira’s latest album We Are Him represents a high point in the Angels of Light catalogue, denser and more largely drawn than his last several albums, drawing on the talents of people from every part of Gira’s career from Swans to the present. It also may stand as a turning point, as Gira’s collaboration with Akron/Family winds down and he considers ending the Angels of Light project. Gira talked to PopMatters recently via email about his new work, his evolving bond with Akron/Family, the muse (or demon?) Joseph who takes over when he writes, the process of creating music out of chaos, and his relationship with his musical past and fans. Gira’s words are unusually revealing and artfully written, so rather than editing it down as usual, we’re offering it to you as it came to us, intact and in total.
I really like We Are Him...it’s got such a grand scale to it. Was it your intent to do something bigger and more dramatic than Sing Other People...or just the way it turned out?
Thanks, I’m glad you find something to enjoy in my music…There was a moment on the last tour that I did with Akron/Family—where they opened as Akron then played as Angels of Light with me singing—it was in Italy I believe. As is usual, I was sick with bronchitis/pneumonia (who knows why, I always get sick on tour), so we’d started doing a lot of extended instrumental passages, since I could barely sing—just croak and wheeze. We were playing the song “The Provider,” and we entered this sort of droning/mantra section, and it just kept going and going and going, and I realized—laughed out loud actually, that it sounded exactly like Swans. I don’t think Akron’s even vaguely familiar with Swans, so it was a shock. Seth’s guitar in particular was this howling, rising and falling open chord, slamming down on the one, choking on itself, then erupting and expanding again until the next downbeat, then repeating the process, each time getting bigger and somehow more symphonic.
It was pretty elating. I thought, “Well, maybe Swans wasn’t such a bad thing after all” and I sort of tucked that moment away in my mind. I think that was the germ of this record. But then, when we started to rehearse for We Are Him, I tried to push things in that direction, and it was just lame and awkward. Whatever wandering spirit had entered Akron that night in Italy was gone. You can’t go backwards. So we struggled along, and things eventually took their own shape, and that’s how it should be anyway. After we’d recorded all the basic tracks, I spent a month listening to them, and realized I had to really dig into the songs and bring in orchestrations to make them live, to find their sonic place. Akron did a great job of course, my fault entirely, but it wasn’t cutting it. Slowly, through adding, subtracting, adding and subtracting, things took shape. It really is my favorite thing, to confront complete disaster and chaos, then force it into a form that makes sense and might even be a pleasurable listening experience.
What were you listening to/reading/thinking about while you were working on this album? Was there a different set of influences than in the past?
As usual, it was random at first, then somehow things coalesced. There have been times in my ridiculous and long career where I’ve actually been able to sit down and decide I’m going to write a song about a particular subject, and actually accomplish that. But rarely. Usually—I have no other way to describe it—I’m in a sort of vacant state, fooling around on my guitar, and suddenly images start flowing through me. It starts with a phrase or two, then just grows like Kudzu on a tree, feeding on hapless me, the unwitting host.
I’ve used the conceit of calling the person or entity that inhabits me at these moments Joseph—even wrote a song for “him” on the record – but in truth I don’t understand the process at all. I’m more than a little frightened of it actually and don’t really want to know what goes on there.
I certainly don’t mean to imply the songs are just random words though. They do end up with a fairly particular subject matter. It’s just that I discover what that is along the way. “Promise Of Water,” for instance, became a sort of “chanelling” of the images that flooded the media during the national disgrace and horror of Katrina, and of the usual carnage and disaster of Iraq, but more than that, the song is about being inhabited internally by the media, realizing that my thoughts aren’t my own.
On a completely different note, “Sunflower’s Here To Stay” came from a vision I had of the lovely Devendra and Genesis P-Orridge conjoined as one creature, like a Satyr, leading his/her children into the flames. If you look at the famous Goya painting Saturn Devouring His Children, that’s sort of what I saw, except with the morphed face of Gen and Devendra, devouring the world. Why? I have no idea. I love ‘em both!
You’ve said that this might be your last album as Angels of Light. Why?
Well, let’s be frank. How long does it make sense for someone to slam their head against the wall, before they realize maybe it’s best to just step back and walk around the other side?
Not being morose here, just have realized I’m at an impasse, and it’s time for a change. Still not certain I’m going to end it, but seems likely. I don’t suppose it would make much difference commercially whether I release music under my own name or Angels, and artistically it’ll go in whatever direction I want regardless. I have absolutely NO new songs though, so the point’s moot.
I get the sense that your collaboration with Akron/Family has changed since the last full-length and the split…is that the case? Is that relationship winding down now?
Akron were completely different people when we first started working together. They had virtually no “professional” musical experience, had barely been in a recording studio, had never made an album, never toured, were all working the usual shit jobs to get by. Just kids really (to me anyway)—very, very smart and precocious, erupting with ideas and talent, no sense of boundaries or obstacles. They were exploding with optimism and enthusiasm, thrilled to be able to make a record, and this enthusiasm was infectious. After we’d worked together on their first album, I felt sort of revivified by it myself and it naturally made sense for them to play in Angels of Light.
Now, we’ve toured together several times, they’ve recorded with me several times, they’ve toured on their own countless times of course, they’ve released four varied recordings and have received a fair amount of acclaim and have garnered a significant live audience for themselves (when I first saw them play, only 3 ½ years ago, there were perhaps 15 people in the audience), thanks in no small part to their spectacular live shows. How could they not be different people?
Necessarily, they’re immersed in their own musical trajectory, which has taken on an immense energy and life of its own, and all that implies in terms of their available time and what they choose to focus on. So, they’re leaving their old “Uncle Mike” behind and going their own way! That’s how it should be…
Akron/Family has a very positive, sort of hippy-ish peace-and-love vibe…which seems very different from where you’re coming from, which is darker and more complicated…why do you think those two kinds of energies have worked so well together? Is it an unstable combination? (Like, baking soda and vinegar, maybe?)
I guess you’re right, they are hippies, in a way, in that they’re expansive and they seem to be after a total experience in their music. That’s not so much different than what I’m after though, through different means, and maybe using different language/signifiers. And they’re smart as hell, and they’ve been generous and open hearted enough to adjust their personal inclinations to work within the world of my aesthetic when they’ve participated in my music, so it hasn’t really been a problem. We’ve sort of used each other up in that regard though, so it’s time to move on…
You also brought in a couple of people you’d worked with in Swans—Bill Rieflin and Christopher Hahn. How was it working with them again…and on very different material?
Both Bill and Christoph have worked in Angels at various times actually. Just hasn’t worked out that they could be on one of my records for a while. Christoph’s way the hell over in Berlin and Bill’s touring and recording with big shots like REM and Robyn Hitchcock all the time.
Their participation marked the point when the record started to cohere. Really intense sessions. Each had two 12-hour days—no breaks—to play on the songs, and neither had heard the songs before entering the studio. Christoph just trounced the songs, really strangled his guitar and came out with some great psychotic—weirdly American-sounding, for a German—and muscular lines. He can also play very sensitively of course, and did so in several places, particularly when using his open-tuned lap steel guitar.
Bill played bass, guitar, organ, piano, synthesizer, drums, sang here and there and more—I can’t remember what else. The great thing about him, no matter what instrument he’s playing, is that he makes a performance out of it, there’s always a dramatic flourish. Anyway, I just love being around those two gentlemen, two of my favorite people in the world. Once their parts were on this record, everything else started to fall into place.
I love the density of sounds on this album…you never feel like you’re hearing everything there is to hear, no matter how hard you concentrate. Were there any songs where you felt you’d put too much stuff on, and you had to pare back?
Oh, most of them! An impossible amount of tracks. I double almost everything, for a start, aside from other numerous flourishes, jabs, and smears of sound everywhere. Even the DRUMS are doubled on this record—one set is close mic-ed, the other played in a room with a natural ambient sound and just one or two mics, then mixed together. (Dana from Akron did a great job at this, by the way…) ...
But yes, that’s what I mean about fighting my way out of the mess. I make the mess myself, then figure out the ultimate form by cutting things away. It’s a terrible, terrible way to work, since it’s a nightmare to sort out in the end, but since my conception of things is always changing and adjusting along the way, it’s the only way to do it… but yeah, you’re right, it is hard to tell what’s playing what. I realized the other day while listening to one of the songs that I was primarily hearing one of David Garland’s flutes in a particular part when I’d assumed it was a guitar. Ha ha!
I know you made some rules for yourself in the last album—no drums, no extended instrumental breaks. Were there any similar parameters for this one?
None really, except for the first misguided notions of what it should be, mentioned above. I guess I just got in there with the rubble and shards and fought it out until it sounded like music.
Tell me about writing “Black River Song” which is, I think, my favorite on the new album. Is black river a metaphor for something? (Rivers are always metaphors, it seems like, even in real life.)
It has a really quotidian beginning, actually (maybe a pretty banal end too!). I was leafing through a book of poetry, instantly passing out, since poetry has always bored the shit out of me, and I came across Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” and there’s a line about a black river in there. It sent me dreaming, since I’d quickly fallen asleep anyway. I suppose it has something to do with the “collective unconscious,” but with a much different interpretation than Jung or whomever might have implied. We’re all sharing thoughts and images now, like teenage lovers swishing their spit back and forth in their mouths. No one in places in the world where media has infested everything can claim their thoughts are their own.
“We Are Him” is the other one that kills me—it’s just sort of overwhelming and fantastic. I understand it’s about the madness of crowds?
I have no idea where this song came from. One of those songs that just appeared suddenly, finished before I knew it. But yes, it is a paean to our human tendency to subsume ourselves in belief systems or the hysteria of a shared spectacle or ritual. I LIKE this though, I applaud it. It really can lead to transcendence, even if delusional. This is one song that would be great to perform live with 20 people on stage. I suppose they’d have to be naked and covered in honey for the proper effect though.
“The Man We Left Behind”...who have you left behind?
Some old drunk guy in a bar! No, it’s a love song, pretty sappy actually, wherein the character is thanking a woman for saving him from his despicable ways.
Who is Mary Lou and what did she do to you?
She is every God Damn woman that has ever wronged me, all of them, the bitches. ha ha! Quite puerile and unfair, actually, but I see nothing wrong with being a snide and bitter asshole in a song.
Are you surprised at how your life and your music has turned out?
If I look at that question with the eyes of the person I was 25 years ago, well yes, I certainly would be surprised. Strange thing, but back in those days I had the arrogance of someone that always assumed huge amounts of money (i.e. magic) would just come my way some day, that I’d float through the world on a cloud, tasting the joys of whatever exotic experience I’d come across. I’m not kidding. I didn’t realize it at the time of course, but looking back, that’s how I thought, even though my life then was an extreme, maybe even an abject, struggle. Well, essentially nothing’s changed, though the circumstances of my life might be different. I’m innately optimistic, willfully naïve, and completely mega maniacal. I’m like Steve McQueen in Papillon—though certainly less good looking and rugged—floating off to sea in my pathetic raft, shouting “I’m still here ya Bastids, I’m still here!”—ha ha!
You’re in this position where some of your music has taken on a life of its own and means things to people that, probably, you never thought about or intended and possibly even object to. How do you deal with all that baggage…or do you?
What I enjoy the most is when I meet someone after a show and they’re polite and well spoken, and they might mention how much the music has meant to them, possibly at a particular moment in time. That’s great. It really feels then like I might have done something worthwhile. But when people seem to be looking at me as some sort of persona or figure, I’m repelled. It’s just silly, and a result of media bullshit/damage. As far as the music possibly influencing other people’s music, that’s a whole other issue, and usually I’m incredibly embarrassed to think that what I’ve done would be used in such a way. It feels foul, rotten, false—or often, and even worse, stupid.
What are you working on now?
I’m hacking away at a bare bones idea for a new song and getting ready for a solo tour of Europe. I love playing solo. It’s a complete life or death challenge to me. It’s like that Vigo Morgenstein scene in Eastern Promises where he fights the knife-wielding thugs naked, or something like that, or maybe like watching an epileptic in mid fit trying to work things out for himself. I’m playing several shows in Europe opening for The Boredoms. It should be an interesting feat. Just me and my dead piece of wood and my voice.
Your track record of discovering new bands is pretty great—Calla, Devendra, Akron/Family—got anybody new you want to talk about?
I’m working with a fantastic group of singers/players called Fire On Fire now. They used to be the art-punk-prog-chaos collective Cerberus Shoal, but they ditched their electric instruments, went into hiding for a while, and now play all acoustic—stand up bass, mandolin, banjo, harmonium, accordion, acoustic guitar, dobro etc, and they all sing and harmonize on the songs. Live, they do it “old school” and just use two mics placed in front of them on the stage, like a bluegrass band. They all live in the same house up in Maine. They’re like a backwoods, fierce, psychedelic Mamas And The Papas or something. They’re great people and I love their music.
It’s all acoustic, but it’s not in the least folky. More old-timey American music with truly excellent words and performed with the honed violence of intent that truly great music requires. They’re a total blast. They just recently played my back porch actually and it was one of the best live music experiences I’ve had in years. We’ll be putting out a limited edition, hand made 5 song EP, available only through the Young God website and at their live shows, in early November, then an album in early spring of next year.
The other person I’m working with is a real piece of work. Her name is Larkin Grimm. We’ve been in contact for a few years now. She’s been sending me music randomly from where ever she finds herself on the road, and we both decided it was time for her to do some music on Young God. She calls herself a shaman and she travels around throwing spells at people, I guess!
She’s got a voice that’s a force of God, and writes very eccentric and magical songs, and tours around by herself, sleeping on floors, whatever. She’s a fearless person, which is something that sold me on her as much as her music. She’s always sending me these emails wherein she gets into some impossible adventure or other and somehow comes out of it OK. At this moment she’s traveling around with her guitar on the back of a motorcycle of some guy she just met and they’re playing shows, god knows how or where.
Anyway, if I have my way, we’re going to make a record where her inner Sarah Carter and Nina Simone come to the fore and her North Georgia mountain roots are going to conjoin with her hippy ways! But that’s only my notion. I’m sure she’ll kick my ass, and we’ll make something better anyway… we’re going to record her album at Fire On Fire’s house and they’re going to be her backing band. That record will also come out in early spring, and we’re all going to tour together as some kind of Young God circus act…
A bunch of people have asked me to ask you if YGR is going to reissue any more Swans records? And also, is there anything else in the pipeline at your label that you want to tell people about?
The bones of Swans have been picked clean.