Michael Gira From Uncompromising Swans to Ethereal Angels of Light
Published Oct 24, 2010Summing up Michael Gira's 30-year career (so far) isn't easy to do in a few words. The man behind the utterly uncompromising Swans and the more evocative Angels of Light may have started off in New York's No Wave underbelly of the early '80s, but he was always more extreme a personality than Thurston Moore, to whom his trajectory is often compared. The founder of Young God Records, Gira is first and foremost a presence, a true original who has earned a large and very devoted cult following while taking younger talents under his wing and nurturing their potential. Highly respected within the punk, goth, industrial, and indie rock communities, you could say that he's a Tom Waits for the un-gentrified, or a more brutal and unhinged Nick Cave. Either way, Michael Gira is a murder balladeer who has channelled some of the most severe impulses of religion, sex and confinement into some of the more transcendental and, in several instances, beautiful recordings of the modern rock underground.
1954 to 1978
Michael Rolfe Gira is born on February 9, 1954, to a well-heeled family then living in the thriving suburbs of Los Angeles. "My father was what they used to call a business executive," says Gira now. "He worked at an aircraft parts manufacturing company. My mother was a very beautiful woman who graduated from UCLA." But the affluent life is not meant to last. "When I was eight or nine, things descended and he lost all his money, and it all went downhill from there and went through various degrees of decadence." While in his early teens, Gira's parents divorce, and for a time he lives with his mother, who has slipped into alcoholism. Soon after, he is sent to live with his father, whose work takes him across the U.S. and Europe. A problem child who proved too rebellious for his preoccupied parents to handle, it is during these years that Gira first runs into trouble. In 1969, while in Germany with his father, Gira runs away and hitchhikes across Europe with a group of hippies. "I ended up in Israel, and spent a year there. Three-and-a-half months of that were in jail for selling hashish. They put me in an adult prison. I was the youngest person there by far, and I had long blonde hair, an obvious victim. I was 15 when I went in jail, and I might've turned 16 while I was there." Those overwhelming feelings of duress, isolation and claustrophobia will later appear in the distinctive Swans sound. "I spent a month and a half in jail before anyone even charged me, just by myself, being held on suspicion of terrorism. People would come and leave, come and leave, and I was still by myself. Finally a Westerner who was there got out and sought out a lawyer who took my case on, and got me out on bail right away. After that I was out in Jerusalem for another month, panhandling and selling my blood for food. Then I got sentenced and spent another month in jail."
Looking back on those early years, Gira now says, "I think that episode has a lot of connection to what happened later. Just the experience of being confined makes you realize the urgency of time, and how much life is about how you use your time, and how urgent it is that you use that time in something that is adamant, in something that feels powerful and real to you. That's been a credo ever since. I've had a lot of shit jobs throughout my life, but I never got tied down in something that was crushing me."
With prison finally behind him, Gira returns to California to pick up the pieces of his life and get going again. "I'd been drawing since I was a kid, and it was just what I always thought I would do, be an artist. It was what consumed me completely. In the early '70s, I went to junior college for a couple of years and then went to Otis College of Art and Design, where I studied painting and what was then the dawning genre of performance art." By his early 20s, his interests shift away from visual art and towards L.A.'s nascent punk scene. "On the radio, I'd been hearing Sex Pistols and things like that, and I went to this concert in L.A. at an Elks' Lodge, and it was the Screamers, X, Weirdos, all these L.A. punk bands. I was pretty affected by it. It was so immediate and raw and vital. Very soon after that, I began to get involved in the punk scene. I started a fanzine, called No Magazine, did that for a while and then got sick of it. Then I started my first band in L.A., the Little Cripples. I did that for a while and it didn't work out, and it was then that I moved to New York City."
1979 to 1981
"I moved to New York with a guitarist friend of mine, and we started the band there. That was the genesis, working out some songs with a friend of mine in L.A., and then moving to New York, where we got it together." The band is first called Metal Envelope and then Circus Mort, and they play no-wave punk rock similar to other New York bands like Teenage Jesus & The Jerks and the Contortions, whose drummer plays bass in Circus Mort. Circus Mort is, by Gira's own admission, "not a very consequential enterprise. We played the clubs like Danceteria and all those places, but it never really took off. We made an EP. It was kinda new wave or something. In any case, it wasn't very good." The group disband in 1981.
1982 to 1983
"I decided I had to do something after Circus Mort," Gira recalls. "I borrowed a bass and learned how to make sounds from it. I wouldn't say I learned how to play or make grooves, but I did learn how to make rhythm and sound with the bass. I had a drummer who also in Circus Mort; we got a guitarist and then another bass player. So we had two bass players and two drummers, as well as tape loops going at the same time. We created quite a racket. It was a pretty excellent time." That band is Swans, an undertaking that would last the next 15 years with Michael Gira as its only constant member, orchestrating a revolving door of musicians. From the beginning, Swans pursue a different breed of music that separates them from the no-wave and post-punk that is the defining sound of New York. "I'd been influenced by groups like Throbbing Gristle and the Stooges simultaneously, so somewhere in between those two points I managed to pull something together," Gira says of the blend of industrial-music aesthetics and no-wave art-school brutalism that drives Swans. "It all came about rather instinctively. The idea of making chunks of sounds and rhythm as the way to make music, instead of using melody or a groove. I guess we had a groove, but at the same time it was static music, more just about onslaughts of sounds. And then of course I had to scream my guts out for some reason or other, and I guess it made something unique."
The band record their first EP, a four-song set entitled Swans that bears strong no-wave roots. By the time they go back in the studio later that year to record their debut album, only Gira and Jonathan Kane (of Circus Mort) remain. "The first album was recorded in a week most likely. We didn't have any money. It was a problem putting it out, even back then. Everything turned into conflict, but that was just who I was at the time."
The resulting album – 1983's Filth – proves to be a completely different prospect than what Gira has created before it. With ferociously heavy and static rock buoyed by industrial drumming, Filth presupposes post-hardcore bands like Big Black, Killdozer and the early Touch & Go family of bands. It isn't a direction that sticks for long, as Gira's lyrics grow more tortured and embedded with religiosity, and as the band's membership evolves.
1984 to 1987
With Swans garnering critical attention and a growing cult audience for the unpredictable theatricality and spontaneous violence of the live shows, the mid-'80s are a deeply creative and prolific period for Gira. Sophomore album Cop is released in 1984; it's a highlight from the early catalogue that features the band slowing down the punk tempos of Filth to a slow and doomy sludge. The twin 1986 albums Greed and Holy Money, as well as the single "Screw," are all recorded in the same sessions and showcase Swans as a constantly evolving entity, eager to grow and never make the same album twice. "I saw it as a natural progression," Gira says of that period. "One thing led to the other, constantly. We'd find something we did on a record, and then decide to pursue that for the next one. Something would occur on one record, and I would think, 'That's a very good thread to move forward with.' And that's what happened."
A significant part of the band's evolution has to do with the arrival of singer Jarboe in 1986. "She was a fan we met in New York. We began corresponding and naturally she became part of the group. Early on, she didn't sing very much at all. She just played this early sampling device that basically looped chunks of sound, producing this roar from beginning to end. When she slammed down the keyboard, this wall of sound would erupt. She began to step out and sing live, on tours for albums like Greed. We didn't start using her melodic abilities until Children of God."
As the relationship between Gira and Jarboe moves into romance, Swans gravitate to more melodic territory and Jarboe begins to assume a role as co-leader, leading to a more gothic texture to the group's output. Beginning in 1987, the pair would record three albums together outside Swans, first as Skin and then as World of Skin. Those outings drop the wall-of-noise brutality of Swans in exchange for a Jarboe-led ethereal moodiness akin to bands like Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil. All this productivity leads to a fundamental shift in how Swans should sound. "We had recorded as World of Skin together, and we wanted to incorporate some of the elements from that into songs," says Gira."I just wanted some more dynamics, and we began thinking of music as more of a soundtrack than just a band in a room." The resulting creative breakthrough is the 1987 album Children of God, which tempers the resolute anger of Swans' sound with brooding melody and a more prevalent emphasis on tape loops. The record is received as the band's pinnacle at the time, confirming them at the forefront of avant-garde alternative music in Europe and finally and delivering the band to larger audiences in North America, where even a marginal commercial breakthrough had always been elusive. The single "New Mind" reaches #47 on the U.S. college radio charts.
1988 to 1990
With Swans' popularity at a peak and the Skin side-project drawing further interest, Gira and Jarboe record two cover versions of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart." Meant to be a quiet one-off EP as Swans, Gira records a version with his vocals, and Jarboe does another with her own. Improbably, it become the band's most successful single ever, reaching #2 on the U.S. college radio charts and #85 on the UK singles chart. Soon after, Gira disowns the song and refuses to reissue the version with his vocals for many years. Its unexpected popularity leads to another strange situation: Swans sign to major label MCA for their next album. The Burning World is released in 1989, and signals a stylistic shift in the band's sound, away from the wall-of-noise agitation and toward the more stripped-down gothic darkness of the Skin side project. Though the record receives a mixed critical reaction, it does produce the semi-successful single "Saved," which reaches #20 on the U.S. college radio charts and, for the first and only time, #28 on the U.S. modern rock charts. Yet according to Gira, the album is the centrepiece of "a horrible time. It was a huge disaster, artistically and otherwise. There were some good songs on that record, but artistically it was just a nightmare. I had an ambition in mind, but I didn't quite know how to do what I wanted to do, and allowed a producer to get involved, because they demanded it. It was Bill Laswell, who's a great producer, but not for me. I just lost focus." In 1990, Gira and Jarboe released the third World of Skin album, Ten Songs from Another World, but with momentum abating, the record isn't as successful as the first two.
1991 to 1995
After The Burning World doesn't sell well enough for MCA, Swans are freed from their contract, and in 1991 Gira creates of his own imprint, Young God Records. Its first release is the seventh Swans album, White Light from the Mouth of Infinity; it's considered a return to form by many and sees the band returning to moody soundtrack work with greater electronic processing. But the album and the new label quickly run into distribution problems. "We were going through Rough Trade for distribution at the time, and we shipped out a huge amount of that record, and then they went under. It was a huge disaster." Swans are able to rekindle themselves artistically, but distribution problems in the early to mid-'90s would continue to plague Gira and the band, leaving several strong albums floundering in obscurity and unable to counter the negative perception left by The Burning World. Along with White Light, 1992's Love of Life and 1993's live album, Omniscience, are released via the obscure German distributor Sky. Much of the band's powerhouse rhythm section from the mid- to late '80s had moved on, and so Gira and Jarboe advance in a quieter direction, building more melodious songs about depression and death. "The music recorded in the early to mid-'90s was an extension of the idea of music as a soundtrack, moving further and further in that direction," says Gira. "We also began moving into really extended long songs – 15- to 17-minute-long songs – slowly building grooves." Though they continue to tour regularly, Gira and Swans don't release any new music for three years after Love of Life, as legal complications with Sky lead to more obstacles with distribution. Once finally free of any obligations to Sky, Swans return in 1995 with The Great Annihilator, a gorgeously dark and pulsing record that in retrospect sets up their grand swan song perfectly. That year, Gira also releases his first proper solo album, Drainland, billed as a "Swans Related Project" companion record to Jarboe's Sacrificial Cake.
1996 to 1997
After 15 years of Swans and a wall of business-side complications seemingly always in the way, Gira, who is in his early 40s now, begins to wear out. "I just couldn't take it anymore, physically or mentally. I was completely exhausted, and just didn't have the audacity or the strength to continue anymore. It had never been easy. It was always a struggle. Music was often great and very elating, but the process itself was never easy. At a certain point it just felt easier to stop." Swans have effectively come to an end. Gira and Jarboe decide to release one last album under the name and follow it up with a farewell tour. Triumphantly, the resulting album – a massive, two-disc set entitled Soundtracks for the Blind – is the most ambitious and best-received album of their career. Quieter and more delicate, Soundtracks builds its epic-length tracks out of tape loops and field recordings to form a bristling and often coldly beautiful swan song for the wall of noise and depressive tendencies that preceded it. With their label troubles behind them, the album hits the kind of heights and their final tour is one of the biggest of Gira's career.
1998 to 2000
Michael Gira doesn't slow down, nor does he stop working with many of the same musicians. The primary reason for Swans' demise is to upend the creative obstacles that have grown out of a particular way of working, but post-Swans, Gira says, "I took less on my plate. The records were simpler. After being involved in so much overwhelming volume and masses of sound, the primary method of working had to be a song I could play and sing and have it be an effective performance just by myself. That guided what I would record, and then things would grow from that." The first post-Swans project is the Body Lovers' 1998 album, Number One of Three. Featuring Jarboe and a few other late-period Swans alumni, the wholly instrumental record showcases Gira indulging the more experimental fringes of his musical output, as well as collaborations with Pan Sonic's Mika Vaino and experimental guitarist James Plotkin. The Body Lovers is a one-off project, with only a second limited-edition companion disc by the Body Haters emerging in 1999. But the project does signal a strong relaunch for Young God, which grows exponentially in stature over the next years, as Gira's new projects emerge and as a series of posthumous Swans collections and reissues flesh out the label. The most significant of Gira's post-Swans outings is Angels of Light, a revolving door collective of musicians, many of whom had contributed to Swans. The first Angels of Light album is 1999's New Mother, and it introduces Gira's more melodic sensibilities, blending in elements of folk music with a taste for both murder ballads and dark soundscapes. Though the album is a logical progression from Swans' final records, Young God and Gira are seen as leading lights in the early 2000's neo-folk movement, which sees a younger generation looking back to the foreboding and moody catalogues of obscure acts like Current 93, Jandek and Swans.
2001 to 2004
Angels of Light's sophomore effort, How I Loved You, is another peak in a particularly creative and fruitful period in Gira's career, in which the constraints of style and industry are still loose enough for him to record as freely as he'd once managed back in the golden 1982 to '87 stretch. The Angels of Light tour continuously, producing 2002's stellar live album We Were Alive!!!, and 2003's equally impressive studio album, Everything is Good Here/Please Come Home. Young God is doing better than ever. Gira also releases a run of well-received solo albums under his own name, including 2000's Somniloquist, 2001's Solo Recordings at Home and What We Did, 2002's Living '02, and 2004's I Am Singing To You From My Room.
Gira also plays godfather to some leading lights in the neo-folk movement. "It felt like I was able to use all the things I'd learned on young victims," Gira says. Young God Records becomes home to several non-Gira projects, among them Devendra Banhart and later Akron/Family. "I was able to usher in nascent talent and help it realize itself, and that's what I think my role was with Devendra and Akron/Family," says Gira. "I tried to get them to realize their strengths and give them confidence. Of course I helped with the producing of the records and the way things were orchestrated and recorded, but it was more a way of ushering them into the world."
Between 2002 and 2004, Gira produces the three first Banhart albums, which establish the young singer as one of the most talented voices in new music. Oh Me Oh My… (2002), according to Gira, is composed of "recordings that were done sometimes on friends' answering machines and little hand-held recording devices. The idea at first was to try and record those in the studio, but the more I listened to those demos, they had such a magical quality. We decided to just release those." Gira takes Devendra Banhart on tour as well. "He opened for Angels of Light in Europe, but he also played guitar in the band. This was one of the ways I had to bring him to an audience, put him in front of the audience I had and then let it evolve and grow from there. He's immensely talented. He didn't need much. Just some confidence and some focus. By the end of the tour, he had a bigger audience than we did." 2004 sees the release of Banhart's second and third albums, a companion set entitled Rejoicing in the Hands (widely considered a creative peak) and Niño Rojo.
2005 to 2007
With Devendra Banhart's runaway success opening up unimaginable opportunities, tension grows between the rising protegé and his mentor. "I felt very protective of him," says Gira, "and I didn't want him to make the same horrible mistakes I'd made. As a result, I was probably very domineering and very threatening, and we fell out after a while." Banhart leaves Young God for indie label XL. But Banhart's exit from the Young God family is offset by the discovery of Akron/Family. Small-town Americans who'd moved to New York in search of music careers, Gira discovers the haggard troupe of young musicians plying their trade on stage. Soon after, Gira and Akron/Family begin playing music together. "They were my backing band and they also opened, which is a Herculean effort," he says. "It just went over great. To me, they were at that point in time the best rock band in the world. Stomping, wild, unpredictable vocal harmonies."
Between 2005 and 2007, Akron/Family record four albums with Gira producing. He developes his new protegés as studio musicians, and they in turn reinvigorate their mentor's spirits at a time when Gira is quietly approaching another creative dead end. Among the highlights of the Young God discography is 2005's Akron/Family and Angels of Light, a country-tinted collaborative album where Gira sings, backed by the band. That year, Gira releases The Angels of Light Sing Other People, which sees him indulging a more straightforward and haggardly country drawl, earning him comparisons to Johnny Cash. Once again, Gira's alienating protectiveness begins to push away Akron/Family, and 2007's Love Is Simple is their last record together.
2008 to 2010
I had written these songs over three or four years," says Gira of the material that eventually leads to the reformation of Swans in 2010. "It's embarrassing that it took that long, but I had a horrible case of writer's block. I guess I just wasn't interested in doing an Angels of Light record." No reunion for old fans, this is a continuation of the journey into more abstract and minimal soundtrack aggression. For a person so principled about not looking back, he is confident about which elements from the past ae worthy of re-ignition. "It is a new project," he says. "I'm just calling it Swans. A lot of elements from that band, threads of that, bleed through into what we're doing, and I don't see any reason not to use that name. I built it." As has been the case throughout his career, the new Swans is an amalgamation of longtime musician friends who've all played together in the past. "Because everybody lives in different places around the country," he says, "we couldn't rehearse three or four days a week, so we had to get together and work intensely. So we were in the studio for ten to 12 days total, and we would take one song per day and play it for about 12 hours straight. It would open up and become fresh and interesting in the way only this whole group together could make it grow and expand. And then we'd record that and move on to the next one the next day. Everybody knew who everyone else was, and so there was no getting to know personalities. It couldn't have worked out better." The resulting album, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, is definitely of its time and, as always, a bold push forward for Michael Gira's creativity. Jarboe hasn't returned to the group, but there are some of the stronger melodic elements that bled into Angels of Light. Even Devendra Banhart makes an appearance, and the two are back on good terms. In 2010, Gira's authenticity, his uncompromising history and visceral music, sound more necessary than ever in a world of mostly disposable music for the internet. He is that increasingly rare breed of career musician that fans can believe in. Swans have just hit the road, and their live show establishes them without doubt as one of the most intense performers currently on tour. "Look at the attention we're getting," Gira muses. "I think it's great. If it was some kind of reunion record, where we played some old style, then that would just be really embarrassing and horrible. But we're really pushing things forward, I think." That's all he's ever wanted.
Essential Michael Gira
Swans Filth (Young God, 1983)
The violent and sludgy beginnings of a band that would later veer into more ethereal landscapes. But Filth is equal parts Throbbing Gristle and the Stooges, and 27 years after its release it holds up remarkably well, given how much bands like Big Black and Melvins have upheld that particular sound.
Swans Soundtracks for the Blind (Young God, 1997)
At two discs and two-and-a-half hours, Soundtracks for the Blind is about as epic as Swans would ever get. Michael Gira produced this more as a collage of field recordings, tape loops, and session music, weaving it into an incredibly complex structure that would exhaust him completely of what Swans had become. It's a masterpiece.
Angels of Light How I Loved You (Young God, 2001)
One of many impressive recordings from the very prolific 2001 to 2005 period, in which Gira had broken free from the creative dead ends of Swans and reinvented himself as a songwriter not afraid of melody. This record especially establishes him as a musician who is going to age very well, still bristling with new ideas.