Angels of Light
Interview by Billy HellFor five fine albums, Michael Gira has led a changing cast of musical Angels through light and dark realizations of songs merging dream visions and imaginative reality abstractions. This time round he started out backed by his young protégés Akron/Family, trying to keep things simple. Then an urge to embellish took hold and more musicians laid down parts, most strikingly Eszter Balint's droning violin. As a result, We Are Him has a much fuller and more forceful sound than the preceding Angels of Light albums, and it serves the songs well. This is one reason I was reminded of later albums by his previous band, Swans, especially Love of Light, but to his credit Gira obviously wants to avoid repeating himself.
We Are Him has a more apocalyptic aspect than previous Angels of Light albums. Swans' final release, a live double album, was called Swans Are Dead, and Gira's explanations of the new songs "Star Chaser" and "The Man We Left Behind" make clear that he considers the man he was in Swans to be dead now and that he's on a new journey. His humility in regarding the album as a failure to keep things simple is perhaps a little misplaced, however. Younger musicians continue to be inspired by his work and to lavish praise on it, and the 52-year-old Gira keeps making music as good as, or even better than, anything he has done before.
PSF: Why is the album called We Are Him?
Lately I've been thinking it's a good idea to just give up, let go, disappear, not to have an identity. I wrote the song thinking about something like the Nuremburg rallies, except not with Hitler at the podium, but instead maybe an old fat naked clown covered in chocolate and flies, gesticulating madly, pink foam bubbling out of his ears. The crowd was comprised of people of all ages, all in a mad fervor, naked except for the soiled diapers they wore, reaching into their poop sacks and smearing each other's faces and bodies with the contents, stomping their feet in a communal tantrum, aping the words and gestures of their leader. They're chanting "We Are Him."
PSF: Do you see it as a return in some ways to the sound you had with Swans around Love of Life, as there seem to be reasonable parallels?
Oh God, no! I can't even remember those days. I've worked really hard on forgetting all about Swans. I have nothing to do with it. It was someone else. I killed that worthless piece of shit of a human being a long time ago. The records still exist, I guess, but they're artifacts, leavings, like unsightly growths that were surgically removed from my body, left to dry and shrivel in the sun, then scattered in the wind. In a way, Angels of Light is a religious undertaking—I'm doing penance for all my years of selfishness and sin.
PSF: For example, the backing vocals are often reminiscent of Jarboe and the album cover is in a similar style... The title track especially would fit well on Love of Life.
The cover is by the same artist, the magical British painter Deryk Thomas, who to me is the rightful heir to Hieronymus Bosch, Francis Bacon, and Walt Disney. But that's about it as far as similarities to Swans go, I'm afraid—the fact that Deryk did the art. I completely and adamantly disagree that any song on this record would fit on a Swans album. Then, when I wrote those songs, I was a fairly intelligent ape. Now, in fairness, I think I could accurately be described as a fairly (more) intelligent, but infinitely more handsome, chimp. So, I write songs accordingly... All my Angels records have had what I call "chick" vocals on 'em. I think it's important that a male singer with a gravelly, less than mellifluous voice, associate himself with beautiful women, and cloak himself in their voices. I guess it's the old Serge Gainsbourg syndrome. Ya know, if you look and sound like a human toad, surround yourself with glamorous women—in this case, I was blessed with the seductive charms of Ms. Larkin Grimm and Ms. Siobhan Duffy. You might also be hearing Akron/Family as "female" vocals, though, since they often sing like castrati....
PSF: Do you feel Angels of Light could be fairly described as a folk band?
Sheesh, I don't know. You mean like Cat Stevens and James Taylor? Or Pete Seeger? I don't think so. I always viewed Swans as a "folk" band, though, especially in the early days, since I was singing "the people's" music, just from a different perspective. Angels of Light, on the other hand, I guess the name sounds folk. The music doesn't sound anything like folk and the words don't relate at all to folk, but sure, let's call it folk. I live in the mountains near Woodstock. I shoot the trout in my stream, and I scream drunk at the stars at night, so yeah, I'm a "folk-rocker" after all these years!
PSF: One lyric that jumped out was, "When you open your mouth you're too stupid to scream" from "Promise of Water." Was that inspired by a particular person or incident?
Well, we're all just too stupid to scream, considering the predicament we've allowed ourselves to slip into. That song is about being infected. Thoughts, images, desires, ideas injected directly into your head and blood, where George Bush is equal to Paris Hilton is equal to an internet stalker with a hard-on beneath a towel caught on camera naked in the kitchen of his intended victim is equal to some stupid rock band in their video is equal to a poor African kid with flies in his eyes is equal to an American boy getting his legs blown off in Iraq as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis themselves are displaced or murdered or erupt in an orgy of willing slaughter and public gore and revenge is equal to a slick car commercial with ironic contemporary music is equal to myspace.com or The New York Times. I'm just taking it all in, it's a phantasmagoria of wonder and possibility, more real than any thoughts or reality I might come up with on my own. We're in a new age, for sure. The only reality is pain, or possibly orgasm. Everything else is on the news. But it's also a sort of heaven—at least our ancestors might have thought so.
PSF: This song seems almost prophetic of this summer in Britain, as much of the country is flooding!
I'm sorry to hear of your troubles. Count your blessings, though. At least you have a government with a sense of social responsibility, sure at least to do their (flawed) human best to bring people to safety and clean up the mess. In our case, over two years later, New Orleans is still a disaster zone, just muck and mold. A short time ago, bloated corpses floated down its streets while dogs howled, quickly revisiting their bestial ways, rooting for nourishment in the ripe intestines of the proud citizens of one of the greatest and most historically rich cities in America.... A disgrace! But I'm as complicit in this crime as the next person....
PSF: "The Visitor" hints at a belief in reincarnation. Do you think you've lived before?
Good Gawd, no, I'm not even sure I'm alive now.
PSF: Is "The Visitor" about the death of a friend?
No, it's about the death of "me" (thank God! I think!) or the "me" I might imagine myself to be, if I were to find myself in a song written by "me." ... It's also a fairly jejune but earnest wish to die in my lover's arms....
PSF: "Star Chaser" is a very moving song. Is it a remembrance of all those you've known who have died?
Thanks! It's an homage to a person that once lived inside me. He's left a hole in my chest, and I miss him.... But for heaven's sakes—no offense—where does all the Death stuff come from? Anyway, no matter, this song is a longing for the past, which at the time was not there, and now is even less so, and only a few artifacts remain to hint at what never was.
PSF: Is there a theme of mutation in the song "Sunflower's Here to Stay"?
First I saw my beloved Genesis P-Orridge leading a troupe of He/She child-creatures through a maze of Mylar, metallic glitter snowflakes clouding the air, then I saw my beloved Devendra Banhart leading a horde of hairy feral children towards a phallic rock formation in the woods, then I saw a half-goat / half-pig beast leading human rats to a chasm filled with flames. He chugged wine and belched lightning, and his erection was truly frightening. The human rats turned on him and were about to swarm him and eat him when I woke up. Thank God! I wanted the music to sound like The Beatles or The Turtles or the early hippy era of Pink Floyd, but of course it didn't turn out that way.
PSF: We seem to be living in times of rapid change. Where do you think the human race is heading?
Oh my God. I can't believe I was just asked that question. Please consult someone with wisdom for an answer. I'm as naïve as the day I was born, thank you.
PSF: Have you heard of the black hole generator, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, that is going to be activated in November? Could it finally mean Armageddon?
I sure hope so!!!!! Armageddon is good. It means we're all going to heaven—at least I think I am.
Also see 2012 Gira interview and this 2006 Gira interview and this Swans article. Also see the Young God Records website
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