Tag Archive: Michael Gira

eMusic Q&A: Michael Gira

by Andrew Perry

Across three ear-ruining decades, Michael Gira has been one of American rock’s most uncompromising and unrelenting artists. For 15 years, he led the grinding post-hardcorists, Swans, with an iron fist, along the way virtually creating the sound of “industrial” music, and earning a deserved rep as the world’s loudest band. He was a contemporary of Sonic Youth in post-No Wave New York, but chose the road of dark experimentalism over selling out to the grunge masses, penning agonizing songs about the psychology of exploitation and self-loathing in corporate America and the Christian church.

Though Gira abandoned Swans in ’97 to pursue a less-punishing band called Angels of Light and to shepherd other acts on his Young God label — among them James BlackshawLisa GermanoAkron/Family and Devendra Banhart — he recently “re-activated” the band, whose legend has only grown in the years they’ve laid dormant. In 2010, at 56 years of age, they released My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, the first Swans album in 14 years, to justifiably rapturous acclaim.

Gira, avowedly in the independent sector but for one ill-fated album, has left in his wake hundreds of mind-blowing tracks, many of which have reached only a small cult audience. The time for an extensive investigation is nigh.

In the advance publicity for My Father…, you talked of “re-activating Swans,” and “revivifying the idea of Swans.” You were obviously strenuously avoiding a certain other ‘re-‘ word, right?

Yeah, it’s not one of those reunion act things, I don’t think I could live with myself doing that. In a way, this band has been like my entire life. Something I want to do now, and am ready to do, is pursue this avenue again for the next five years or so. After that, by that age, I figure, physically, it’s gonna be ridiculous for me to be doing what I do. It was sort of latent in me. I seriously started to think about it for the last four years or so, and finally accepted that I want to do that again. It opened up a lot for me. I have a lot of concepts for a new album already.

You chose to make My Father… first, before playing live, which is where the money is these days. Why?

Of course! I’d sent everybody the demos of the songs, but just getting together in the room, I had no idea what was gonna happen, because this band had not played together as a band before. We just started with the first song on the record, “No Words, No Thoughts”: I had a concept of how it should go. We sat around in a semi-circle in a large basement space, with 20-ft ceilings, a very resonant, concrete room, and we played at generous volume levels, and [laughs] slowly the thing took shape, and the repetition made sense, and the song was transmuted, and it grew and felt right.

We played each song 12 hours a day in the studio. It was the best way we could get the primary force necessary into the material, without rehearsing for weeks, which wasn’t possible, since we all live in different places. In a word, the whole experience was elating, and playing live this last month or so has been a highpoint in my life.

I read a recent interview where you said, “It’s a joy to sing abject lyrics again.” Is Swans about plumbing the dark depths of the human soul?

[Laughs] It is, kinda. It’s like the deep blues. I’m not sure how much of that there is on this new record, though. There are actually a couple of sentimental songs on this record. “Inside Madeline” is a tribute to the open imagination and spiritual possibilities of childhood — and of my own child, particularly. The last song, ‘Little Mouth’ is a love song, or a love prayer.

“Jim,” by contrast, was inspired by Jim “Foetus” Thirwell, right?

A couple of years ago, maybe three, I was going through a pretty hard period, and I wasn’t quite certain if I was going to carry on. The song lyrics don’t necessarily reflect that, but I decided to write with Jim in my mind, and my memories about him. He’d sent me some of his music, a compilation of pre-vocal-era Foetus, which is so great — really experimental, and advanced, just a joy to listen to, and this soundtrack thing he does, “Steroid Maximus”. He was having incredible troubles not too long ago, and it was inspirational to me that my old friend had reached such heights at such a low point. That really encouraged me, and gave me a little competitive edge as well.

A certain portion of Swans’ legend has always focused on the volume levels you choose to play at, which you’ve already alluded to. What is your reasoning for it?

It’s accepting the urge to annihilate through sound. I don’t mean that in a negative way. If you can imagine yourself in a church, and there are four or five different church choirs singing at once, and they’re all singing the apex of the hymn, the epiphany…It’s like, John Cage had this idea once that he would have 50 pop records playing all at once in a room. It really is that kind of ambition — sort of like a psychedelic ambition in a way. Having seen Pink Floyd in 1969 on LSD, I can verify [laughs] — that was the ambition then as well.

But do you ever think about the receiver, that maybe they see it as unnecessary, or just the same as some numbskull heavy metal band?

But I’m receiving it, too. In fact, I set up intentionally in the middle with all the amps facing at me, so I’m receiving it the most of anyone. If it doesn’t feel right to people, that’s fine, they can leave. Of course it’s severe, but it’s ecstatic, too. The transcendent thing is in everybody, everybody wants it. That’s why they join the church or the communist party. They want something larger than themselves, a purpose. The sensation of transcendance is wonderful, powerful, liberating. It also implies the existence of a spirit of god, it certainly feels that way.

What kind of music actually fed into the early Swans aesthetic? There were obvious things like Glenn Branca, the Stooges and Throbbing Gristle. Is it true that early blues was an influence?

Not consciously, but I did listen to the blues, particularly Howlin’ Wolf. We maybe took that rhythm, and made it swing less. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf are giants — true geniuses who changed world culture. In the case of Muddy Waters, he grew up in a sharecropping community with no indoor plumbing, no money, no education, couldn’t read or write till the end of his life — and he changed world history! What kind of giant did it take to do that?

Howlin’ Wolf is a big personal hero. I love his voice, I see a lot of joy in that music. I also like the fact that even in his latter years he was on his hands and knees bellowing like a wolf, wigglin’ his butt in the air, sticking the microphone down his pants.

I remember seeing Swans back in the late ’80s, and you would sometimes end up naked, screaming…

I used to stick a microphone in my mouth, and basically just bellow and scream in time with the music. It got to where I was so vitamin-deprived, and dehydrated from sweating so much — my jaw would seize up, like this dried-up skeleton jaw. I’d have to hit myself in the face to get my muscles to loosen up again.

You started out touring with the fledgling Sonic Youth, post-No Wave, but your music quickly evolved towards what became known as “industrial” — the pounding, mechanical, relentless sound of 1986’s “Greed” and “Holy Money.” What was the thinking behind it?

I didn’t wanna get stuck in the only-guitar-oriented sound of [1984’s] Cop. I started looking at music as sound and rhythm, and organized it that way. We were all working in jobs — construction, plumbing, shit like that. In the lyrics, it was just looking at what it means to be a cog in the commerce machine. I was also thinking a lot about the media, the way it affects your consciousness and desires and anxieties — years later, we’re completely media creations now.

I wanted things to be very severe, and clear, and iconic. The whole dollar thing on the sleeves had to do with, all the songs were about work, equating work and consumer society with slavery in quite a simplistic way.

As Swans got louder and bigger, did you get violent reactions off the crowd?

People used to throw shit at Jarboe [keyboard player, vocalist and Gira’s girlfriend up to ’97], because they were such closed-minded idiots. These fucking lunkheads would spit at her, yell at her. What a saint she was. One time — I wasn’t actually there when it happened — a fan actually slapped her. When I found him, I kicked him down, and booted him around a bit. She, unfortunately, bore the brunt of most of that. A lot of times, it had to do with people being angry because we blew up their PA. But Jarboe was a courageous woman for undergoing what she did. In the kind of maelstrom that we were creating, then to have her coming out singing gentle songs — it was more punk rock than those idiots knew.

When you look at the band mugshots on the sleeves at the time, you looked like a bunch of heavy dudes, glaring out…

No! We were saying, come on in, have a good time! There was no image. Swans was all I did, 24 hours a day for 15 years — making the next record, being inside it, making it happen, getting the fucking money to do it again, and figuring it all out. That left a lot of damaged goods along the way, because that’s all I thought about. There was no separation, that’s just who I was, 24 hours a day.

My personality was less than convivial in those days, that’s for sure. I screamed a lot. I can’t really explain at this point what the fuss was all about, but I was pretty much in rage mode most of the time. I get obsessed, and I lose my manners. I just want sound to happen, and I lose myself in it, and I guess I don’t treat people with respect. I think I do now, or I’m much better than I used to be. But, the whole thing was constant, constant, and I seem to have thrived on it.

It’s always said that you’re a dictator, but presumably people like Norman Westberg and Christoph Hahn, who’ve been in the band on and off for 20 years or more, must get something out of it.

I don’t want to discount the contributions of Norman, Jarboe and everybody else, but Swans has always been my thing. I’m not being grandiose, it’s almost like a film-maker, an auteur, he has a crew of people he works with, and he wants them to express themelves within the context of what he’s doing. That’s how I’ve always been. I look at people maybe in a utilitarian way, as raw material. Like Norman’s got this sound, how can I use that? That’s how I arrange things, and I arrange oftentimes thinking about people, not necessarily instruments.

You’d been on a number of indie labels through the ’80s, but then you released The Burning World through a major, MCA, in 1989. How come?

There wasn’t really much alternative for us, it was always going from one disaster to another. We’d work at one record company, they would lose money, or they wouldn’t be honest, and we would leave, or we’d get dropped and go on somewhere else. It was just that constant process, the whole time.

But Children of God [1987] was very successful, or it got a lot of attention anyway. It probably didn’t sell that much, I have no idea, because I never got paid, it never broke even. Then I made this regrettable decision to cover [Joy Division’s] “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” I think we made a horrible job of it, though I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time. It was sort of a success in the States on college radio. The feeding frenzy time for alternative rock was just beginning, and we got signed.

I wanted to change our sound anyway, but I failed miserably with The Burning World. There were a couple of really good songs, but my voice just sounds horrible. I wish the label would’ve let me produce it, but that was part of the deal — one of the regrettable compromises I made. But I’m glad it happened now, because then I started my own label after that, just to release Swans.

It must’ve been a struggle, initially?

It was looking really great. We re-released Filth [1983’s debut], and put out 1990’s White Light At The Mouth Of Infinity [see Various Failures compilation]. We shipped out all these copies, sold a lot of records, and then Rough Trade went bankrupt and we lost all that money. So then I started licensing to other companies, and they had to put Young God Records on the artwork. It wasn’t until the mid ’90s, that I found a good distributor, and started up as a proper label again. It never got easier. One disaster after another.

Was it the pressure from all of that, which made you give up on Swans?

It had been 15 years, and I was just sick of the struggle of trying to gather all these different forces together, sick of the whole game. So I decided to keep things very simple, and write songs on the acoustic guitar, but not like a folky thing, just orchestrate based on this discreet song. That was the idea of Angels of Light, which is what I did for the next 10 years. I didn’t even want to hire a publicist, because I didn’t want anything to do with that breed of human. I wanted to work in a completely different way, and I figured I’d left all that baggage behind.

You also put a lot of energy into finding and producing other artists for your label. Does anything bind the different artists together?

Not really, other than it’s my sensibility. I don’t look for any particular genre or style of music, although certain things would obviously be out, like rap or heavy metal. I just look for a kind of unique quality in the person or group I sign, and also an authenticity, and I guess it’s also defined by what I’m not interested in, which is: someone looking for a glamorous career in rock, or instant success. I want people that are obviously dedicated artists, and have genuine gumption and individuality. Usually I gravitate towards droney music, much darker than the mainstream. But I don’t view James Blackshaw’s music as dark, I think it’s quite beautiful and has a quality that is kind of seductive.

Then, we have Wooden Wand, because I think the songwriting’s fantastic. He’s just a really great American songwriter, very contemporary, and his ability with words is tremendous — I wish I had that ability. Great narrative songs, with characters that really stand out, with lots of irony. Sad songs that are really bitter at the same time.

But it was during an Angels of Light gig, where another of your charges, Akron/Family, were serving as your backing band, that the “baggage” of Swans came round on your inner carousel. Within a few months, you’d started the band up again. Did you expect that to happen?

There was a song we were playing, “The Provider,” which was more electric than a lot of the songs in that incarnation. It has a particular slave-ship sway to it, and it was getting pretty loud — not as loud as Swans, that’s for sure, but pretty loud. I just found myself hypnotized by it, and that really brought back memories, and that’s when I started thinking, Would it be such a bad thing to do again?

In a way, [Akron/Family] sort of remind me of Led Zeppelin — a real forward-leaning rock band, with high-end musicianship, but still completely wild and eruptive. When I first started working with them, they were a little Radiohead-y, and I kind of steered them away from that. Each song had 20 parts, so I tried to get it down to eight parts. They have a real experimental edge, using odd tunings and weird sounds, toy instruments, beautiful harmonies, all kinds of psychedelic influences.

So it was Akron/Family who tempted you back into Swans World?

Yes. The whole physical experience of making that music, it’s sort of what I’m going after again now, but in a less masochistic way. I’m not saying I take my shirt off like Iggy Pop and jump around onstage. It’s just really demanding physically, this music. We’ll see what happens: maybe I’ll continue to play, it just seems like it would be a little absurd somehow at 62 to be doing what we’re doing now. But maybe not.



Ruddy ‘ell, it’s the Swans!

Swans closed the festival and I confess I didn’t see the entire set due to be being completely knackered from the day’s proceedings. They opened with “No Words / No Thoughts” from the new album (which is superb), except they extended the chimes at the beginning for a good twenty minutes. Gira prowled around looking sour and determined. He made a crack “Good evening ladies…you English guys are so damn effeminate” which was a slightly inaccurate observation based on the proportion of Brian Blessed impersonators in the venue. At times Gira was genuinally sphincter clenchingly scary – “JESUS!JESUS CHRIST! SAY HIS NAME! SAY IT!” he roared at one point. Swans were as expected, brutal, powerful, ugly, beautiful, dirty and pure. I would have liked Jarboe to have been part of the reformation (she performed Supersonic last year and was mesmerising) just to temper some of the hypermasculinity but that is only a small niggle.
If you haven’t listened to the album I’ve linked some tasters below. If you like Gira’s unforgiving worldview try and get hold of a copy of his collection of short stories “The Consumer”, highly recommended.
All in all, this years Supersonic was the best as far as varied acts were concerned, minor quibbles was The Old Library venue, timetable clashes (to be expected really) and the bitter cold (the Stage 2 venue was actually colder inside than outside during the Master Musicians of Bukkake. Personal faves – Nisennenmondai, Factory Floor, Hallogallo, King Midas Sound, and Pika Pika Supercurry . Not so fave experiences – aching calves, tinnitus (it was hard getting to sleep on Sunday with an improvised noise jam going on in my brain pan) and accidently crashing a skin head night at a local pub inbetween acts. Next stop ATP in Minehead to see Throbbing Gristle, Godspeed!You Black Emperor and Nomeansno 🙂 😉 🙂

Little Mouth

Reeling the Liars in

You Fucking People Make Me SIck