Light A Match, Start A Fire: Michael Gira Talks To George Skafidas
By George Skafidas
Slow-moving and punitive; visceral and crushing; dour and blatant; repetitive and atonal; never played the same way twice; constantly trans- forming into whatever is next; a process of discovery for its creators as well as its audience: the music of Michael Gira, and in particular his creative output with Swans—the band he birthed, bore, buried and brought back to life over the course of three decades—is disorienting and destabilising. With themes that plumb the depths of human depravity, it even touches on the horrifying. Yet for those who imagine music as a redemptive, transformative, epiphanic experience, Swans occupies a sort of holy space in the artistic cosmos.
“I like being naïve about music because it keeps it visceral, it keeps it clear, it keeps it direct,” the famously recalcitrant 59-year-old says. “The music, to me, is never about a single musician. It’s about trying to create an atmosphere. I am more interested in being inside the tidal waves of sound and trying to force them into a state where they elevate us.”
He is speaking over the phone from upstate New York. I am in downtown Athens, 4,900 miles and seven time zones away. I am living on the verge of a national economic default, while his state, still bruised by Hurricane Sandy, is attempting to revive the elusive Obama dream. I ask if current socio-enviro-political circumstances inspire his music as they did in the dark days of the 1980s, when he wrote songs with titles like “Greed”, “A Screw (Holy Money)” and “Time is Money (Bastard)”.
“Not really,” he answers, in a tone befitting a man who must have been asked the question thousands of times. “I don’t know what inspires me. The work inspires me. It’s a living creature that I just try to wrangle into different shapes. It’s not that I am trying to translate a feeling—music itself is the feeling. I gather musicians, particularly my friends in Swans, and we develop the sounds according to intuition. In a live situation we create spontaneously as well. I wouldn’t call it improvising. It’s more like we push the sound in different directions, or more accurately, the sound pushes us.”
Gira has been letting sound push him into interesting places for most of his life. Born in the Los Angeles suburbs to what he describes as “a classic American post-war optimist family that quickly degenerated into alcoholism”, he lived first with his mother after his parents divorced, then with his father, who took him to Europe on business trips. Young Michael, an enthusiastic fan of LSD from the age of 12, was clearly a handful. Whilst in Germany with his father in 1969, he ran away and hitchhiked around Europe before ending up in an Israeli jail for selling hashish. Although he was only 15, he was sequestered in an adult prison. After a year, he was released. Homeless for a time, he was taken in by a local woman who eventually contacted his father. A plane ticket arrived in the post, and Michael flew home.
Back in LA, Gira revived his passion for drawing and painting, and enrolled in art college. The nascent discipline of body art appealed to him, and he developed a piece in which, blindfolded, he had sex with anonymous, acquiescing strangers in front of an audience. He started a fanzine called No, which covered punk (the Go-Gos, the Germs, the Bags, X), performance art (Gina Pane, Kim Jones) and pornography. One issue featured dissected corpses on the cover. He also started his first band, the Little Cripples. One day, after seeing New York’s most infamous proto-industrial sons, Suicide, open for the Cars, he packed up and moved east. It was 1979.
By 1982, Gira was immersed in New York’s no-wave scene, where avant-garde figures like Glenn Branca and Hermann Nitsch were more influential than anyone from the world of rock’n’roll. He had formed a new band, Swans, which for a time included two drummers, two bassists and a guitarist, alongside tape loops and Gira’s own tortured scream, and they released an album, Filth. Over the next 15 years, four more records, multiple EPs and countless, brutal live shows, Gira remained the only constant, a demanding task- master presiding over an ever-mutating collective. Slowly, Swans’ reputation grew. Then it released a relatively melodic pair of covers of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. Astonishingly, one charted, and the band was picked up by a major label, MCA, for its sixth album, which Gira has gone on record to say that he abhors. It did not meet MCA’s commercial expectations and the band was swiftly and unceremoniously dropped.
Ever defiant, Gira started his own label, Young God Records. It reissued all the early Swans records and released their next four, as well as projects from Gira-led ensembles such as Body Lovers/Body Haters and Angels of Light, and, later, pioneering albums by young artists including Akron/Family, Devendra Banhart and James Blackshaw. But persistent logistical and financial troubles dogged the label and exhausted Gira. In 1997 he disbanded Swans, and eventually, the demands he placed on his artists as a producer and label boss exhausted them, too. One by one, they left the label.
Then, in 2010, Gira announced that he was bringing Swans back from the dead. The name may have been the same but the musicians behind it were almost all new to the group, and whilst come- back records are often yawners, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky was an uncompromising kick in the guts. In reducing rock to its bare essentials, Gira allowed something dizzyingly elemental to blossom forth, with post-apocalyptic grooves, cracked country melodies and primitive blues flowing into an awesome delta of sound. Last year brought an even darker, grander album, The Seer, which Gira describes as “a monumental undertaking”. It is a two-hour epic that includes appearances from Banhart and Akron/Family, as well as Gira’s ex-partner and ex-co-vocalist in Swans, Jarboe. The album credits may feel reassuringly like bridges being rebuilt, but it is also a record in which a listener can easily lose his body as well as his mind. “I tried to listen to [The Seer] the other day and I can’t stand it,” Gira laughs. “I never look at an album or a song as being finished. To me, it’s more about the process. Usually, I am so inside the work that I am not looking at it from an aesthetic point of view. It’s more about trying to force it into a shape. And when it reaches a point where it stands on its own, where it has its own undeniable qualities, then I just abandon it and move on. Usually, the thing that determines the end is when I run out of money and time. Once something is recorded in the studio, I look at that as the beginning. The songs we are playing live now, from The Seer, are changed completely. They don’t sound like what’s on the record. I mean, they do a little, but they’re constantly transforming. Otherwise, we are playing new songs which haven’t been recorded. They develop in front of the audience, almost with the audience’s participation.”
Even after all these years, audiences are some- times unprepared for precisely how much will be asked of them. In the pursuit of transcendence, Gira remains uncompromising. “I really admire Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Fela Kuti,” he says. “There are certain moments when they reach the highest possible state musically. To me that’s a kind of guidepost to try to emulate. Not their sound, obviously, but to try to reach this state is, to me, what it’s all about. Something like that is absolutely a gift from God. I would like to be in that place as a musician, to create music that has a sense of urgency like that. I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve it.”
In fact, the word “urgent” hardly does justice to Swans’ live performances. They may no longer feature Gira throwing himself onto the floor with enough force to break ribs and teeth, but at Athens’ Gagarin 205, in 2011, several people walked out of the show, covering their ears. It requires a sturdier listener to brave the decibels and Gira’s wrath to not just stick it out for the duration, but to record fragments of the performance on their mobiles. “Sometimes I just stop the show and tell the audience to put their cell phones down,” Gira sighs. “It doesn’t make me very popular, I suppose. I feel it makes them experience the live show like they’re watching it on TV rather than being in the moment. The live experience to me is like going to church, while as a producer I try to make a world that people can fall into, which to me is what the best cinema does. You can escape into this environment for a specific period of time.” Startlingly for a band whose shows have caused their audiences to vomit and faint, and for a record whose artwork features a close-up of a wolf-like creature’s anus, The Seer has been enthusiastically received the mainstream press. The reliably middlebrow newsmagazine Time placed it sixth on its year-end list. The international music press also showered it with universal and unqualified praise. “It’s encouraging,” Gira says of the recognition. “But if you start to pay too much attention to that, I think you can become a cartoon. You start to imitate yourself in order to receive positive reinforcement, and I think that’s a very dangerous place for an artist to be, because it cuts off your sense of helplessness. I think you really need a sense of vulnerability and helplessness to be able to do good work.”
He doesn’t use the word lightly: for Gira, making music has always been a demanding occupation rather than a pleasurable pursuit. He is no stranger to graft, having worked on construction sites and in factories and a copper mine. He has sold his blood to pay for food. “It’s what I was put on earth to do,” he says of his music- making. “It’s not something that’s grandiose— it’s like being a very good carpenter. I’ve learned my trade and it’s what challenges me the most as a human being. For that I am grateful. It’s what I was made to do, but also how I make my money. In order to feed my children, I have to tour and I have to make records, and that takes up huge amounts of my time. My father was a businessman and I recall him working 16 hours a day. Some people have to work two jobs, both the mother and the father, especially now, in this economy. So I do what I can.
“Right now, it’s just our moment, for some reason. I don’t expect it or not expect it to continue. I am not unfamiliar with failure, so it doesn’t shock or scare me. I am more concerned about the moment when I am sitting with my acoustic guitar and trying to write and still being able to come up with something that lights a match, that can start a fire.”