photo by Cheslav Merk
interview by Billy Hell
"Waste is obscene!" bellowed Michael Gira on Swans' ear splitting reflection of brutality Cop, an album still unsurpassed in its utter desolation. It could be a manifesto of sorts for Gira's own mission - he's always cut out the waste and moved on, refining the elements of his music still of interest to him whilst discarding the played out aspects. It also neatly sums up the sheer quality of the artists who've recorded for his ever-vital Young God label, including the sparse desolate beauty of New York's Calla, the quirky inventive Akron/Family, and two of Europe's greatest bands, Ulan Bator and Larsen. Most recently he's discovered Mi and L'Au, a charming couple who live in a Finnish forest, refracting the ice melting grandeur of prime Nico into their own delicate shapes. He's particularly proud of Devendra Banhart; "I see his success as a sort of vindication for the way we do things - no hype, hard work, honesty, no music biz games. We released his first three albums and an EP, and it has been very gratifying to see his rise from absolute poverty and obscurity to what he is now. We put a lot of work into it around here."
Gira now records as the Angels of Light, and the current incarnation simply utilizes the entire Akron/Family to fire his muse. He says this is the best band he's ever played with, and to anyone who's familiar with his past, that is a massive compliment.
Michael Gira: We've agreed that we'll do one more album together, and then it will be time to move on. There's still a lot to explore with them. It's tremendously exhilarating to work with them, and they truly have a handle on some kind of weird magic right now, but I don't want it to become a habit. After the next album I'll need to throw myself into the fire again.
PSF: On the recent Angels of Light & Akron/Family split album, Angels of Light cover I Pity the Poor Immigrant by Bob Dylan. How big an influence has Bob Dylan been on you?
MG: I listened to the album John Wesley Harding so many times when it came out (I was 13 or 14 years old, something like that) that I soon didn't need to listen to it anymore - I'd just run it through my mind. The album Blood On The Tracks received similar treatment too. Dylan's always been someone that lives inside me. It's hard to say he's an influence though. He's unapproachable. He's said himself recently in his autobiography that he was, in those days, a sort of medium through which the music and words passed, and he's ceased to be that person. That's how I look at him too. I don't venerate him as a person. The music flowed through him, and he just happened to be there as a vehicle for it. Anyway, I go through periods - years long - where I don't listen to him, but I always return. He's a source of great joy, but also can be, if I'm in the process of writing songs, a source of incredible, crushing frustration. I feel like I'm an insect by comparison, so I avoid thinking about him or listening to him when I'm writing.
PSF: What bands are the other former Angels of Light now playing in?
MG: Well, dozens of people have come and gone, too many to mention, but Bill Rieflin is now the drummer for R.E.M.. Thor Harris plays drums and vibes etc with Smog and with Shearwater. Larry Mullins lives in Berlin and produces other people's music and also plays with huge French rock stars, whose names I can't remember! Dana Schechter lives there too, and has a band called Bee and Flower. Christoph Hahn also lives in Berlin and has a Rockabilly-Noir band called Les Hommes Sauvages. Uh, Devendra Banhart played guitar in Angels on a tour and contributed to some recordings - I guess he's doing OK now... The list goes on...
PSF: Childhood is a constantly reoccurring theme in your songwriting. What is it that so intrigues you about childhood?
MG: By Western standards, I had a terrible, just horrible childhood, though I think it's probably a little self indulgent to even think about it, if you compare it to say, the average childhood in the Sudan or Haiti. Still, it's my history, and I mine it as a writer from time to time, for both its sense of possibility and loss.
PSF: Would you like to father children?
MG: Oh yes, of course. Working on it now in fact.
PSF: There are several characters in the songs from the Angels of Light sing "Other People" album - are these based on real people or are they fictional?
MG: Most are based on real people, yes, but of course in the end the songs are fictional. A few songs came after reading books that touched me in some way. Another came from watching the media spectacle of Michael Jackson and Saddam Hussein - ha ha! That's too convoluted a story to go into here...
PSF: "Lena's Song" - who is Lena?
MG: Lena was an elderly Persian Jewish lady who took me into her home when I was a runaway homeless hippie kid in Israel. I was working in the Timna copper mines near Eilat at the time, and sleeping on the beach. One day I was thinking back on that time, and I realized that through her act of generosity and kindness, she saved my life, so I wrote a tribute to her.
PSF: "Jackie's Spine" - who is Jackie?
MG: That song is an ode to a couple, who are friends of mine. They're very openly sexual, spectacularly so in fact, and I pictured her (Jackie's) spine coursing with cosmic energy as her husband caressed her. Rather intrusive of me I guess!
PSF: "Simon is Stronger Than Us" - is the Francis mentioned in that song the artist Francis Bacon? Who is Simon?
MG: Well yes, I am referring to Francis Bacon there, very astute of you. Simon is a good friend of mine, an artist whose work I love, and the song is a tribute to him, now a perhaps partially reformed rake.
PSF: Is "My Friend Thor" about the Norse god of war or another Thor?
MG: Ha ha ha!!! Sheesh, no. Thor is the name of a friend of mine. He lives in Texas. It's funny, there's a line in the song "Your dogs smell like dead things," and of course it's been interpreted as being somehow morose on my part. But actually, he has two old scruffy dogs that have a penchant, as dogs do, for rolling around in road kill, so his dogs DO smell like dead things. Ha ha! The song's just a gift to him, my good friend.
PSF: Do you despise pretension?
MG: Certainly. Though in retrospect I realize I have been extremely guilty of possessing that attribute on more occasions than I care to remember.
PSF: Is "Destroyer" a song for the goddess Kali?
MG: Not really. The song was written during the build up to the war in Iraq, and it just struck me that the world was again, inevitably, convulsing with violence. I'm not passive, but it's inevitable. It's in all of us.
PSF: Is there any plan to continue with Body Haters/Lovers?
MG: No, I've lost interest in sonic experimentation, per se. it's a much greater challenge, and more satisfying to me, to try to write worthwhile songs on the acoustic guitar, and perform them well.
PSF: Are there any more old Swans songs which you might rework in future?
MG: Maybe. It is interesting to go back and look at some of that material as if somebody else wrote it, and work on it from that perspective. Actually, I'm so far removed from the person I was then that I feel very little personal connection to it.
PSF: "God Loves America" seems a particularly appropriate one for these times, with Dubya hearing voices he brleives are from God...
MG: That song was well intentioned I suppose, but I think it's a TERRIBLE song, way overstated lyrically, almost comical. I'm very embarrassed by it. It's proof that when you get too specifically topical in a song, it's almost always doomed to failure. The huge exception to this rule would of course be Woody Guthrie. Also the song Strange Fruit. Anyway, it's a talent I don't possess...
PSF: When you sang, "The end of history is now," what did you mean by that?
MG: See, there's an example. What an incredibly PRETENTIOUS line that is. How awful! Anyway, I guess it just seemed to me that once again, the world was coming to an end. Seems to happen about every ten or ywenty years, but we persist.
PSF: Do you think the USA will be destroyed in your lifetime?
MG: I certainly hope not, though I suppose there's a looming scenario where it could be. At least it might change beyond recognition. But I love America, many things about it, especially the people. I despise the current power elite, and especially the cancerous corporate media culture that feeds it, but that culture is everywhere now, not just in the USA, or at least it is steadily spreading everywhere. Still, beneath it, under the radar, there's a lot of good things...
PSF: Would you ever consider reforming Swans?
MG: Absolutely not, never. Dead and gone. I have more interesting things to do.
PSF: Would you and Jarboe consider working together again?
MG: I would never consider it, no.
PSF: Would you like to work with Larsen or Ulan Bator again?
MG: Sure. I don't know if the circumstance will ever arrive though. I'm happy that working with them has allowed us to become good friends. Maybe that's enough.
PSF: Are there any artists out there who you'd like to record for Young God who you haven't yet worked with?
MG: Many. But I'm so incredibly overworked now that I can't realistically think about it.
Young God Records
Also see articles about Gira's Angels of Light and this 2012 Gira interview and this Swans article.
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