It's a good tension… the commercial thing. I mean where would the Beatles have been? I mean they became very, very creative in the studio as they went on, but if the commercial aspect wasn't so forcibly there they maybe would have gone in to the studio and masturbated.
Incendiary chat to the legendary Michael Gira
This month we were lucky to get the chance to sit down with ex-Swans leader and Major Domo of Young God Records, Michael Gira. Michael was charm personified, despite being chronically deprived of sleep...
IN: May I congratulate you on your new LP, We Are Him? I think it's a fantastic LP. I was going to ask you about your work with Akron/Family. You've made a couple of LPs with them now and I was reading something about you which said that you don't like working with a band for too long...
MG: Right, this is the last one. It didn't get stale but it (the making of the LP We Are Him) was a much different experience from the making of the last one. Because in the meantime, between (the last collaboration) Other People and where they (Akron/Family) are now, they've achieved a lot more success. They've come into their own and they've toured a lot and so they came to my project, they really had less to give in a way. So they supplied the basics of the album; bass, drums, guitars, but it didn't satisfy me as a finished record, initially I thought it might be good, because of the great experience of the first, "split" LP... so I started calling in the artillery, calling in my friends to work on it. And that was good, because it became a crisis for a while and forced me to think in a different way...
IN: That's really interesting you say that, because my first impressions on hearing the new LP were that it sounded incredibly organic, very structured and I thought that was a real change because the last one felt more like a case of each artist doing their own thing, swapping ideas rather than trying to pull together to create something.
MG: I definitely spent a lot of time "quote" composing. Yes it is organic in that we spent a lot of time playing the initial songs I wrote, but it needed more... orientation. So I worked on it. A lot. I guess I'm glad it sounds organic.
IN: I see you've brought Bill Rieflin in on it as well.
MG: Yeah! Bill's a tremendous person and maybe I would have to call him in the studio anyway as he's such a great person to be around. The fact that he happens to play about twenty instruments... The first song, Black River Song, that's him playing that bass line
IN: I saw him recently playing with Robyn Hitchcock...
MG: Yeah he's playing with Robyn and REM. That's his day job, basically, playing the drums, a brilliant, fantastic drummer. He also plays synthesizer. He has this little pocket synthesizer he carries around with him with little finger-press keyboard pads. He played a lot of guitar, and sang on the LP. He's a natural. There's a song on the LP, My Brother's Man, his playing changed that song in a really good way.
IN: Is this the definitive LP for this project then? Are you looking to...
MG: Upset another lot of musicians? (Raucous laughter) Well, I was thinking that for the next record; I haven't written anything yet, but I really think I might do something very, very heavy...
IN: Like Swans?
MG: Sort of, but erm... more abstract. I have some stray colours in my head that I've been thinking about for a while, but that would be a major life-change for me because I would have to go back to the city... and working with the musicians would be different, I couldn't just write it down and ask them to follow...
IN: Is it the case when you want to have a big sound you have to create it in an abstract way?
MG: Yeah. Almost all the early Swans songs were written on bass guitar and they'd (the band) start building things up and I'd have a route I could pilot, to create the song. And the later Swans songs (which were much softer –ed) were written on guitar.
IN: You mentioned colours just now, and this gives me the chance to ask you about painting, because I'd read that you'd given up painting. But your approach to creating music seems very painterly.
MG: Well I don't think about it musically because I'm not trained in music at all... It's hard to describe how I think about it oftentimes I will say that this song needs Bill, or Christoph (Hahn) or Eszter (Balint); or I will think that a song needs a kind of drum... then I show them what I want and they create it, basically. So yeah it's kind of intuitive in that it's straight out of me; in the sense of dynamics and the dramatic sweeps I'm looking for in the music that can be done in the instrument.
IN: Painters also have a very arbitrary way of working. They can arrange things on the canvas in quite a cold, deliberate way, and when it's done, they leave it and move on. That's the reason I thought you created music like a painter. You seem to move on and not tinker with something you've created whereas (other) musicians seem to want to play with it.
MG: I play with it on subsequent records? Oh yeah, boy, I'd say. Right from the first Swans record I'd hear some thing in the finished record that would give me the ideas for the next one. There would be something floating around that had escaped, or been created from the record I'd just done. Then I'd want to nail that. And that's the same with this record.
IN: You've been nomadic in your creative career, but now you run a record label... Isn't there a friction between the iron-willed creative artist that you set out to be and shifting units?
MG: Yeah I mean I wouldn't release something that I thought wouldn't sell because I wouldn't survive if I did. But I kind of like that tension, I mean I think it's good money's involved because it's a good incentive to make something as good as it can be. It's a good tension... the commercial thing. I mean where would the Beatles have been? I mean they became very, very creative in the studio as they went on, but if the commercial aspect wasn't so forcibly there they maybe would have gone in to the studio and masturbated. They wrote catchy songs, always, that's why you remember those songs because they are very catchy.
IN: You've got a tremendous stable on Young God Records. Why did you pick these acts? (Devendra Banhart, Lisa Germano, Akron/Family) They all seem to have something to say.
MG: That's an important factor. I picked them for different reasons. Devendra is a magical person, someone who just needed a chance. His songs are so unique, I guess you could compare him to early Marc Bolan, but really once you listen to them you realise they're not like that at all. There was nothing like that around. I played his tape to people who liked different sorts of music, heavy or folk or alternative, and they all liked it, they all said, "wow this is really interesting" so I just had to release it, and the songs were fantastic; I mean, that's really rare, the fact that the songs were also really great. Lisa I just been a big fan since her second album I tried to negotiate with her manager at the time to release Lullaby for Liquid Pig, but it went out on a separate label. And the label went broke straight away! (laughs) but, no I signed Lisa because I'm such a big fan, basically...
And Akron/Family, they were sending me demos for a while, and I found them really interesting, especially the voices and the words, which I thought were really good... but I thought their first demo was too much like Radiohead which was fine but I didn't really want to release anything like that. So I sent suggestions, there were these notes passing back and forth, and I suggested they ditched the Radiohead bit and concentrated on the voices. And things got more interesting. And then I saw them live, and I was like, "Wow. These kids are really, really talented". There would be long improve session that would change into a song once in a while. I heard them singing harmonies and I told them to push the harmonies. And they have developed a tremendous amount and created something really special. And I think they are one of the best live bands I have ever seen.
IN: One question about Swans; are you concerned by Swans' reputation as a band? What do you think about Swans looking back?
MG: I am really happy that it's over! (Laughs) It's a tremendous relief and every year I get further away from it I feel better. It was 15 years of really intense concentration and struggle. Lots of highs and lots of valuable moments, but killing that was the best thing that I ever did.
IN: To be an artist you have to destroy and create.
MG: As to it's legacy or some bullshit like that erm.. yeah well I hope, no, I know that young people still find out about the back catalogue. I'm lucky that when I play live it's not just old Swans fans who come. I'm really lucky about that. No if it was just some old guy with a straggly beard and a Swans T-shirt I'd be outta here!
Words: Richard Foster