Michael Gira on Performing Solo and the Time He Wanted to Murder Some Hipsters
Since reestablishing Swans in 2010 with the release of My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, Michael Gira has been exploring a stylistic middle ground between the sonic abrasiveness of early Swans recordings and his acoustic-based, crypto-folk collective, Angels of Light. There is a tendency to focus on the older work of prolific artists who've been active for decades, but Gira is an exceptional case in that his newest output has a staggering impact independent of his prior career. With a recently released collection of home recordings entitled The Milk of M. Gira, the indelible "cinematic auteur" endeavor of My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky still lodged in our psyches, and the next Swans album, The Seer, slated for release this summer, we engaged Gira in a discussion of his most recent activity. Michael Gira performs this Thursday, March 15, at Great American Music Hall, with Sir Richard Bishop as support.
I definitely want to talk about the digital album of home recordings, The Milk of M. Gira, which you've released. The home recordings seem like a surprising step, because production seems to be nearly as important to you as songwriting. Do the raw recordings make you feel uncomfortable or exposed?
Not really, because I don't look at anything as ever being finished. It surprises people that most Swans songs since the mid-'80s have had their genesis on acoustic guitar. They of course get stretched out and changed, maybe sometimes completely, by the band that I'm working with, but that's just one version of the song, it's one way the song exists. It also exists in the studio and a different way live. I like having things stripped down completely and unadorned.
One song I particularly enjoyed in its demo version was "Reeling the Liars In." Can you tell me about the vivid imagery in that song, or what inspired it?
[Laughs] I think that was written at the tail end of the infamous Bush era and I started with him in mind in particular. [I was] thinking about having to burn him and his cohorts in a pile. I was simultaneously reading a book about the Third Reich and that imagery came to mind. I also inverted that imagery on the narrator as well, since he is also subject to scrutiny.
It seems like you get a lot of inspiration from the media, either tidbits or larger news pieces. What can you say about that technique, and have you always utilized it?
Yes. Actually, I've never thought about it, but even in the early days of Swans, the lyrics were directly inspired by television, because I liked the simultaneous bluntness and entendre of the language, or meaning several things at once. The initial language would grab your consciousness and there was another thing which contained the worms which burrowed away into your psyche to hopefully change your behavior. I like that kind of language; it's of course very similar to propaganda.
I wanted to ask a couple things about the last Swans record. I read in an interview that you said the song "You Fucking People Make Me Sick" was written from the perspective of a murderer or a rapist. How often do you write from fictional points of view and why?
Well, I think that might be an oversimplification. I wrote the song when I was just surfing the net as people tend to do these days, looking at music sites, and a side of me was looking at these fashionable hipster young people and I just kind of wanted to murder them or kill them. [Laughs] So I started writing the song from the point of view of someone thinking about that, but it's not to say that I want to do that. This persona emerged and then those words came out, and then I had Devendra sing it because it seemed better for him. Considering the way the song was written, the tone, the register of the vocals seemed better for him. I thought I would remove it from being me, Michael Gira, singing it and make it more of a song in and of itself. So, that's how it evolved.
When you proposed to Devendra that he should sing it, did you tell him about what inspired it?
I don't recall, but he's a pretty open guy. I don't think that would bother him.
I read an interview where you were discussing reaching a certain point where the sounds become so powerful as to propel you in to a higher, altered consciousness, and I thought that was really interesting. Can you elaborate on that?
Sure. I'm old enough to have been at a festival in 1969 and saw Pink Floyd play during their Ummagumma period. That stayed in my consciousness, and that was what I consider their best era, aside from the early stuff with Syd Barrett. It was constant waves of sound reaching up to heaven. I was on LSD, of course, but that was a pivotal moment in my development as a person and deciding to be a musician.
When you perform live, is that the sort of environment you're trying to create for the audience?
Yeah, it's a positive thing. Most people in the past have assumed with Swans that it was an aggressive or macho thing, but it has more to do with ascension, a desire to release yourself and find yourself in something that's overwhelming. It's wonderful to be inside of it, and from what I hear it's been a pretty positive experience for audiences of this most recent tour. Of course, playing with my acoustic guitar won't achieve the same thing, but I aim to take people to a similar place through different means.
Did you release the home recordings collection in conjunction with an acoustic tour deliberately, to focus on that aspect of your style?
No. I play live all of the time solo. It's just something I do and it was time to do it. There was a hiatus and I wanted to get out on the road, so I'm just doing it. It wasn't thought out in an aesthetic way. I'll be doing songs that haven't been recorded yet. There will be some Swans songs, some Angels of Light songs, and it's just me performing my music, doing the best I can.
I've read that you intend the Swans revival to last five years. Is that still the plan?
After this tour, I'm convinced that I'm going to do this until I collapse. That doesn't mean that Swans is going to stay the same -- it always changes. To me, it's like I've found my savior again. I've found my religion again. Once I started Swans again I felt 20 years younger and felt like this is what I'm on Earth for, so I'm just going to carry it on. I don't like the term revival, but I understand why you used it. To me, I've been working on Angels of Light for many years, so it felt right to reestablish Swans again, push forth my musical ideas, and work with the people I want to work with.