MICHAEL GIRA, THE INVENTOR AND DRIVING FORCE OF THE LEGENDARY SWANS, TALKS US THROUGH HIS BAND’S ANTAGONISTIC PAST AND BOUNDARY DESTROYING PRESENT
Does Michael Gira do autographs? It was a pressing question as this interview with the Swans progenitor, conducted on the day of their ‘comeback’ show at Koko, was in twenty minutes and my friend wanted to go back to his and get a copy of 1983’s ‘Filth’ to have it signed. I needed to get a move on and left for Camden, he went back to get the record. Once he got home, he decided not to bring it (the thought of rejection and hauling an unsigned LP around all night was too much) and I turned up in the green room at Koko where, leaning over a table-football table, Michael Gira was signing what looked like a thousand posters. “I do this first,” he says, pointing to his signature, “then go down to the merch stand at the end of the show and personalise it, write ‘Hello… whoever.’”
Yep, he does autographs. It was surprising and, if you read the current round of Gira interviews, you’ll find a similar sense of surprise, almost always expressed as, ‘I was terrified he’d be mean because of his rep and his music, but then he was really nice but I still think he was laughing at me a bit.’ That’s exactly how you feel as a Gira interviewer, but it gives the impression that this is a balanced, normal kinda guy that’s perhaps made these records (these huge records that hollow-out your insides, then burn them) as an intellectual exercise in sounding mean-as-fuck. Listen to the records, look at that man in the photo – this can’t be true.
He definitely presents himself as being nothing special, liking to project the image of a craftsman. Vociferously anti-file sharing, he compares his music-making to a trade (one that should be rightfully remunerated) and there’s audible pride when he tells me about ‘I am not Insane’.
“That was a CD/DVD double thing,” he says. “I made a woodblock and printed that myself in full colour prints and I made 1000 of them myself to raise some money for the recording of the Swans album.”
The album in question, ‘My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky’, is the first fruit of Swans’ recent ‘re-activation’ after their dissolution in 1997 and, though it’s too early to say, it could be their best – no time to qualify that statement here, just go and buy it, it’s great. Copies of the new double disc edition are piled-up on the table-football table, waiting to be signed when the posters are done.
A picture is coming together of, not an insane person, but an obsessive. It’s the character type you’d expect for any artist as prolific as Gira and a prerequisite for anyone wanting to achieve the musical density of ‘My Father…’, its textures pulled-up out of painstaking methods and many patient hours in the studio. And coupled with that obsessive streak is a longing for and relishing of independence. An example of this trait from early on in Gira’s life springs out of nowhere while we’re discussing his 2006 solo compilation ‘Songs for a Dog’.
“Oh, you’re talking about ‘The Song for Lena’, that song has a very specific genesis,” says Gira. “That’s on my Angels of Light album called ‘Angels of Light Sing Other People’, and there’s also an acoustic version on the LP you’re talking about. That was a woman, her name was Lena, she was a Persian Jew from Iran who emigrated to Israel. She was very poor but had a Western husband lately, who was dead and she had a son in the copper mines where I was working in Eilat, Israel at the time. The son introduced me to her and she took me in, cause I was a runaway at that point. I was a runaway child in Israel, taking drugs and you know, bumming about in 1969. That was a time when one would just hitchhike around Europe and end up wherever they did and I ended up in Israel somehow, panhandling, selling my blood for money.”
How old were you?
“I was uh… fifteen. Anyway, she took me under her wing. She was an elderly lady then and gave me a place to stay and talked to me and advised me and, finally, um, contacted my parents – my father – and told them where I was. It was just a tribute to her. I was thinking about her and she needed some kind of signature on the world ‘cause she was a good soul, so I wrote her a song.”
A contradictory account on Wikipedia (sorry) has him found, imprisoned for selling drugs and eventually flown back to the US by Interpol. However he got there, once back in America, he went to art college, flirted with the LA punk scene and ended up in downtown New York just in time to catch the tail end of No Wave in 1979. The legacy of strident (and extremely loud) independence left by the likes of Glenn Branca, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and Suicide must’ve fit Gira like a glove. Swans was the medium with which he could realize his own thoroughly independent vision and even for New York gig-goers, accustomed by now to having Lydia Lunch scream at them, it was too much. The go-to word for critics describing Swans’ gigs in the ‘80s was antagonistic.
“It certainly was yes, it was antagonistic,” confirms Gira. “I think actually the reason was that from the very early days we were roundly and decidedly rejected by the audience. People would throw shit and then leave. What we were doing, people hadn’t heard or experienced much like it, usually. Suicide was more pulsing, and it was almost like cabaret, you know? But they got pelted generally as well, they weren’t popular back then. They opened for the Clash and people threw showers of beer bottles at them, they booed them off the stage.”
Rather than turn down the volume or give up and return to art, Gira merely allowed the confusion, disgust and anger to permeate his artistic psyche.
“Once you get into a relationship like that with an audience,” he explains, “it’s kind of hard to let it go because in a way it’s nice. You can take out your aggressions on strangers and it becomes a mode you fall into constantly. Initially, we would play and, at best, there’d be maybe fifty people in the audience and an optimistic outcome would be ten people left when we’d finished. That was for four or five years. And so you just kind of interiorize and you withdraw and you say, ‘Fuck them, I’m going to do it no matter what – if they don’t like it, fuck them!’ So, we started locking the doors and not letting them out.” He lets out a long, nostalgic laugh. “We’d turn off the lights so they had to experience it really intensely. You just decide you’re going to take charge.”
Once he’d fully gripped this idea and ran with it –playing fascistic imprisonment sound explosions to terrified and trapped audiences; the context around him slipped and it was again necessary to drive off down his own course.
“Gradually people came to expect what we were doing and our audiences grew. We got this sensationalist press about being this ‘loud’ band etc. and then you saw a bunch of idiot lunk-heads who just wanted to bang their heads and that was even worse. So then I started adding quieter moments and different textures and then they hated it, so it always changed, there was never an audience that was really on our side until the very end.”
What’s it like now then, playing these shows?
“It’s an unusual experience ‘cause people are pretty much ok with what we’re doing; so it’s an entirely different experience from the early days in which it was very confrontational.”
While there might not be the kind of conflict Gira remembers at Koko that night (I did hear about a “shouting match” between some girls at the front – crikey!), the music was pumped with the emotionally-draining, momentous and world-collapsing panic you get from watching war footage or getting beaten-the-shit-out-of. Though there’s some earlier, heavily reworked material, most of the (nearly) two hour set is comprised of extended versions of songs from the latest record. ‘No words/No thoughts’, the insane, propulsive opener on the album, is the opener here – only with a disembodied soundscape and tubular bells intro (played by a solitary, shirtless, Viking-like guy) that lasts for at least ten minutes before the rest of the band come on and the song ‘begins’. The confrontational aspect is still very much present, though, only it’s more consentingly realised as some kind of sonic group sadomasochism. Group sadomasochism? It fits rather neatly with another theme that Swans’ output is soaked in, religion.
Feeling particularly astute and articulate, I ask: “Where does all the religious stuff come from?”
“Same place as it comes from for you,” says Gira. “Everybody’s got that stuff in them. It’s not really premeditated, it’s not a program or a dogma or an agenda, it’s just I write about what strikes me as interesting at the time. There is a sort of quasi-religious ambition in the music, it’s not spiritual in the normal sense of the word but I do want the music to lead to a higher place. And maybe it’s a little bit of hyperbole but I say I want the music to destroy your body, so your body atomizes and dissipates. Sort of like a spray, if you took a mouthful of water and – Ssph! – spat it out in the air, that’s what I’d like to happen to your body when we play. That’s a metaphor, mostly.”
He winks without winking.
“It’s like having intense sex for several hours at a time and eventually you loose the whole concept of who you are and where you are.”
Is the ambition to make the music atomizing like that, the reason it sounds so scary?
“Scary? I’d not say scary. I want it to be joyful and ecstatic. That’s the ambition of a lot of rock music, even like The Stooges, it’s probably a similar ambition, they just didn’t talk about it. Horror? I don’t really go with that, I’m not horrified. I’m all for the religious impulse, I just don’t like organised religion. But I understand the impulse, I like the hidden impulse toward religion, which is to find something bigger than yourself; to lose yourself in something. I think we all want to do that and we do that in different ways.
People who were communists during the early days of communism did the same thing – they lost themselves in Stalin, you know? I think it’s a human ambition to dissolve yourself into something unknowable. That’s what music helps along, really. Like Wagner or something, the whole crescendo-ing thing. Maybe if you’re shit-faced at the same time it might be really perfect, I dunno, or maybe if you’re on LSD? It’s like an ordeal you know, like a ritual ordeal, it kind of just makes you lose your boundaries and I think everybody wants that, they should want that, ‘cause we’re pretty temporary.”
You feel that an ‘ordeal’ for him is not quite what an ‘ordeal’ is for us; his threshold for pain and self-obliteration is stratospheric. Often people generalize Swans’ music as ‘dark’; something Gira usually refutes gently by pointing to its sweeter aspects. Dark doesn’t do it justice; it’s cataclysmic, disturbing, unpleasant, funny, beautiful-sounding and so on. Where there’s sweetness (his three-year-old daughter singing on ‘You Fucking People Make Me Sick’), it’s stitched so tightly to something decidedly not sweet (the paedophilic undertone of that song) that categories of ‘dark’ and ‘light’ fail to make sense. Gira’s music goes beyond where most music stops to come up for air and, while his easy manner and complete lack of pretension veil it, Gira himself has gone somewhere very strange indeed.
By Edgar Smith
Originally published in issue 23 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. November 2010