“Most anything Michael Gira is involved in immobilizes me with despair,” Slackjaw columnist / author Jim Knipfel said in a 1999 review of New Mother, Gira’s first album under the moniker The Angels of Light. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he concluded, summing up pretty much how any one who interacts with Gira’s music feels. Listening to anything Gira has released – either as part of the seminal post-punk / proto-goth group Swans, or his more recent work as the leader of the more personal, mostly acoustic ensemble Angels of Light – is eviscerating in the most endurable of manners. Sure, like any great singer / songwriter, his softer moments vibrate sympathetically with the frequency of an utterly wrecked heart. And yeah, occasionally he just reaches in and does the wrecking himself. He does it with such grace, though, such empathy and such reflective human-ness that you don’t mind. You invite him in. Let him stay long enough, and he will mirror you.
In 1999, following the dismissal of Swans (which had grown creatively stifling) and the dissolution of his longtime partnership with keyboardist / vocalist Jarboe, Gira began running his Young God Records enterprise in earnest, amassing a stable of forward-thinking underground bands with which to further the aesthetic Gira and Swans pioneered. He’s turned to producing now as well, turning in credits on recent albums by U.S. Maple, Calla and Flux Information Sciences. He’s also creating some of the most interesting music of his career; his “psycho-ambient” project, Body Lovers, drew rave reviews for its debut, Number One of Three, while its sonic doppleganger, Body Haters, showed flashes of Gira’s savagely noisy past. Most notably, his more formally arranged group, Angels of Light, has put out two stunningly intimate albums: 1999’s New Mother, and the just-release How I Loved You. It was the occasion of the latter’s release, and the launch of the Young God Records Web site, that found Choler’s editor Sean Flinn connecting with a gracious and newly techno-savvy Gira for an e-mail interview.
Sean Flinn: Let’s talk a bit about the new Young God Records Web site. For a few years, the only online resource available to your label and fans has been the Swans site (that I gather is run by Jarboe). It seems like you’ve resisted somewhat jumping into the online space with both feet. What finally motivated you to break away from that and establish your own online resource for your music and the bands whose work you produce and release on the Young God label?
Michael Gira: I suppose I just finally realized how self-defeating my technophobia was, that I was denying myself and the other people I work with through Young God Records access to a large amount of people that might be interested in our music. This was no easy feat, for me. I didn’t even have a credit card until a few months ago (in fact I didn’t open my first bank account until the age of 35!). I have just always had a disdain or suspicion of getting involved in systems which might ultimately lead to someone else having control over my life. But, with the options available to interesting, non-commercial music steadily shrinking, it became obvious that the net is/will be one of the most important ways to reach people around the world who might care about the music we release. As I say, now that there’s several other groups on the label aside from myself and my own work with Angels of Light, I felt a responsibility to do the best for them that I could. So I took the plunge, got the credit card, maxed it out of course, got the computer, and soon made contact with Ted Matson, who’s the Webmaster at http://www.younggodrecords.com and we’ve been working furiously together to make the site as comprehensive as possible.
Our guiding principal in terms of design has been simplicity and clarity, and to make the site as user-friendly (for fools like me) as possible. I’m also not a fan of flashy effects and gizmos and sputtering graphics etc, typical to a lot of websites. It reminds me of the first days of sampling, when everyone was so infatuated with the technology – the stuttering sampled vocal etc – like some kind of shiny new toy in the greasy hands of a giggling infant. To me, it’s just information. So we tried to make the site like a textbook might look – clear and simple …
What are your plans and hopes for the site? What sort of impact has it had on you and the label in the short time that it’s been up?
Aside from compiling as much information relevant to the music we release as possible, our links section (still not up yet) will be extensive – regardless of reciprocation, and I also want pages/sections devoted to the work of artists – visual and otherwise – I admire, with a “gallery” of their work, brief statements of intent they supply, and of course links back to them personally. I also want to have a section devoted to conversations/ dialog with people I admire – artists, writers, musicians etc. This will hopefully lead to some interesting connections and cross-references along the way. In addition, I’ll be doing special projects – limited edition CDs etc – available exclusively at the site … It’s already having a very positive effect, in that our tendrils are creeping ever outward, with the additional corollary effect of making me so busy I sometimes forget who or what I am – but that’s a good thing!
There’s a statement on the Young God site to the effect it’s the only site officially overseen and affiliated with you and your work, implying that other sites are making this claim, and doing so erroneously. What’s the back-story here?
In the interest of cooling down conflict with someone I will always hold in the deepest, highest regard, all I can say is that I have absolutely zero input or involvement with any other website claiming to represent me or my work, past or present. However, I wish that “someone” the best in all things, as always. My hope was to be mutually supportive allies, but …
Anymore, bringing a label or band’s presence to the Web begs questions about a larger online music strategy and the online music environment in general. Have you formed an opinion of file swapping technologies like Napster, Gnutella, etc.? Do you see them as threatening you and your label’s roster, or as providing a new avenue for promotion / communication with fans?
As for the “strategy” reference, the only strategy I have that I can think of is to make the music available to people that might be interested in it. I don’t want to convince or seduce anybody into an opinion, one way or another, about what we do, just make what we do available to those with similar tastes.
The act of making something … is ultimately an act of control, or will. It’s saying, ‘This is what I think, how I view things, these are my ideas or feelings,’ not ‘Here’s a bunch of vague notions, now it’s your turn.’ “
As for the MP3 issue, it’s generally anathema to me. What, are we all supposed to be hippies or anarchists with rich parents or something? I work extremely hard at what I do, with considerable financial and personal risk involved in the making of the music, and the same scenario applies to just about everyone else I know that’s made the disastrous decision to make music a career, so we deserve to be paid for our efforts. You wouldn’t expect a book by an author you admire to be free, nor would you expect an electrician to come into your house and rewire it for free. How are we any different? This is our work, what we do for a living (of sorts), and if you like the final results, buy it, you spoiled brat. Also, from an artistic point of view, it’s very important to me that an album be heard in its entirety, with all its juxtapositions and contrasts intact. I spend a huge amount of time and put a great deal of thought into that aspect of the final album. I don’t want some ninny, irony infected post modernist getting their fingers into it, rearranging it to suit their taste. It’s about control, I guess. The act of making something – a painting, a piece of music, a piece of fiction – is ultimately an act of control, or will. It’s saying, “This is what I think, how I view things, these are my ideas or feelings,” not, “Here’s a bunch of vague notions, now it’s your turn.” So, in addition to the potentially devastating financial consequences of the music being downloaded for free at random, there’s the issue of dissipation, aesthetically. Also, I like packaging. I like the way the visual sensibility, the images used, the general feel of the packaging, affects the perception of the music …
So, we have soundbites of all the music at the site, but never the whole song. If you like what you hear, buy it, if not, don’t. That seems quite fair to me.
However, it might be that we’ll make one entire song from each CD available as mp3 download, like a single, I guess. In the long run though, it really doesn’t matter what I have to say about this, because if people want to share mp3 files they’re going to do it anyway. I don’t know, maybe in the long run it’ll just mean we’ll be forced economically to find more lucrative careers!
Moving on to the music: let’s talk a little about the new Angels of Light album, How I Loved You. How did making this album differ from making New Mother? Was there again a process of begging, borrowing and stealing involved in getting it completed? Did it flow any easier for you?
New Mother, for the most part was built up from initial takes of just myself with an acoustic guitar, sometimes recording the vocal simultaneously, then orchestrated on top of that. How I Loved You was rehearsed as a band, then most of the songs played live in the studio, with some overdubbed orchestration added later. So the latter has more of an “organic” feel, and the sounds are less separated. I don’t really see one process as being more valid than another. In the end, it’s all just sound to me. But the songs on HILY had been played a great deal live too, so they’d expanded in many cases into the beastly and lengthy versions that exist now by the time they were recorded, which I guess makes the material more “emotional” in a certain way.
Yeah, the usual tortuous problems of financing this kind of recording apply, but in the end I think it was worth it. But it did lead me to the decision to record my music from now on at home, in protocols, just getting a friend or two over from time to time, adding ideas. My ears have been bigger than my wallet for far too long, and it’s time to get simple. That way of working will necessarily force a change in the sound of what I do, but that’s not such a bad thing in itself. I’m sure the learning curve will be monumental though …
You’ve called the album “a collection of love songs.” First off: why that particular form? What attracted you to the concept of the “love song”?
I never, never work from a concept outward. I wake up in the morning, pick up a guitar, and start writing. Whatever is occupying my mind at the time is what I write about. So really, as “love” has been pretty much my primary personal preoccupation for the last few years, that’s what ended up being the subject matter of the songs. Not to say they’re all typical love songs though. One song is an homage to Nico, with whom I was obsessed for a while. I went through a period where I listened to The Marble Index and Desert
Shore constantly, over and over, and I was just consumed, seduced, with an overwhelming need to, well, FUCK NICO, to be frank. ‘course she’s dead, so that saved her the ordeal …
Another song, “My True Body,” is based on a memory from when I was in prison in Israel as a runaway kid. I used to see (and hear) this one Arab boy raped repeatedly every night. We were in an old army barracks, so there were about 100 prisoners in one large room – Arabs at one end, American and other foreigners arrested for drugs or whatever at the other end. The lights would be out, the moonlight entering through the metal grills that covered the windows. There’d be their undulating, dim shapes at the end of the barracks, emitting a kind of muffled, distant, suction sound, along with his whimpers, of course. Then when they were finished with him I’d hear him shuffling across the concrete floor on his way to the sink, where he’d throw up for a while, then brush his teeth. Then he’d shuffle back in the dark to his end of the barracks. Anyway, since it was a pretty formative experience for me (I was 15/16 at the time), I often thought about him, wondered what happened to him, so I wrote it as an idealized or romanticized homage, where “the singer” – myself – sings in the first person, as him, or my version of him, as his memory exists in me…
Another song, “New York Girls,” is a tribute to a particular breed of young women you’ll find at pretty much any rock or rock-related show in NYC (and would have also been there at say, CBGB in 1979 when I moved to NYC) – tough, cynical, smart, but with a very desirable soft white underbelly… Other songs are very specifically love songs sung for/to particular women – very openly sentimental…
It seems like you’re really playing around with the format here (the only comparable works I can come up with are Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call and Diamanda Galas & John Paul Jones’s The Sporting Life); there are some sweet Jeff Buckley-esque moments that start off the album, but also some more raw, almost abrasive pieces that crop up as the album progresses. What are you getting at here? Is there a “medium is the message” commentary running through the album?
I have to say that I’m not “getting at” anything. Really, I just write about what interests me. I’m not trying to make some point about music or “The Song”. I don’t care at all about that kind of thing. I just do my work, then try to forget about it and move on to the next thing.
Putting pictures of your parents on the album’s cover and calling the album a “collection of love songs” suggests a sort of Freudian bent to the work; (insert thick German accent here) So, tell me about your mother. Tell me about your father. Are some (Or all? Or any?) of the songs on How I Loved You love songs to your parents? You’ve mentioned that some of the songs on New Mother were more hagiographical – do any similar songs crop up on How I Loved You?
I was just consumed, seduced, with an overwhelming need to, well, FUCK NICO, to be frank. ‘course she’s dead, so that saved her the ordeal … “
My parent’s photos have been taped to the walls of the various places I’ve lived over the years, always there. I just instinctively thought their images fit with the music, in this instance. I guess you could say that since their “love relationship”, and who they were and what they became as a result of their relationship, played a large role in deciding what I would become as a person, and how I would ultimately view “love”, I thought it appropriate to use their images for this album. No, there aren’t any songs to or about them on this album, though. But they’re there, since they continue to live inside me.
It seems as though you’ve used your different post-Swans projects to pursue to a further extent, but separately, certain musical ideas that were somewhat jammed together in Swans, perhaps confined and kept from growing to their fruition by the baggage of the Swans legacy: Angels of Light presents your formal songs and lyrical ideas; Body Lovers mines the more “psycho-ambient” areas that began to crop up on Soundtracks for the Blind; and the Body Haters brought back some of the real visceral, abrasive feel of the early Swans projects. Would you agree with this assessment? Why or why not?
I guess I just don’t want to mess up my songs with a bunch of artsy-fartsy ideas!
Your songwriting has become gradually more lyrical as time as gone by; the two Angels of Light albums are very strong on melody and extremely easy to listen to (which is not to say that the music has in any way been compromised) in many spots. How and why did you begin changing your songwriting style?
I just try to keep myself interested in what I’m doing. Things move along in the usual haphazard way, and I try to follow the flow … I’m really not premeditated at all in that sense, though once I discover where I’m going, I then hack away at it (and everyone around me) until the work achieves an internal logic.
How is the next Body Lovers album coming along? When and what came we expect from it?
I don’t know when it’s coming. I have some ideas, but as usual, they’re expensive. I adamantly don’t want to just generate sounds from artificial / computer sources. It’s important to me to make the initial sounds for Body Lovers with people playing instruments together, to generate a feel, first. Then that would lead to conjunctions with other sound sources, which would then be manipulated further.
What’s up next for you? More production duties? An Angels of Light tour?
I don’t have any production work lined up at the moment. An AOL tour will probably happen some time soon, but honestly, I haven’t picked up a guitar or sung a note in months, because I’ve been grappling with the label, trying to get it stabilized and moving forward. So the first step will be to just sing by myself here at home, probably for a few months, to find the connection with that part of myself again, and to get my voice back in shape. Then I’ll start to gather the musicians. So it’ll take a while. Could be I’ll do a little solo-acoustic tour though, just because the thought terrifies me! Also working presently with Dan Matz of Windsor [for the Derby, another band on the Young God roster] on an album called Ourselves: What We Did. It’s songs Dan and I have done at his house, by ourselves. In our minds, it’s a “pop” record, but whenever we play the material for someone, they always look at us kind of dumbfounded we’d say that.