The DenverThread Interview: Michael Gira

The DenverThread Interview: Michael Gira

March 20, 2012 Off By Billy Thieme
Michael Gira appears this weekend at the Oriental Theater. (Photo: Carlos Melgoza)

Michael Gira appears this weekend at the Oriental Theater. (Photo: Carlos Melgoza)

Gira discusses SWANS and more, before an upcoming gig with Wovenhand, The Howling Hex, March 24 at the Oriental Theater

When I discovered SWANS at a 1986 punk show at the Eagle’s Lodge (they played cuts from their then-current LP “Greed,” with two bombastic drummers, thundering bass and bulldozing guitar, Jarboe screaming and Michael Gira – barefoot, shirtless, drenched and suffocating himself with a mic chord and self-loathing howls of terror – or pain – or disgust) it was one of the shows that changed my life, and cemented my lifelong involvement in the interpretation of music – especially live music. And it wasn’t just because I was one of two people that I know actually enjoyed the show (my date being the other – and we still talk about that day).

It was because I knew I’d seen something musically that, in my young 20-year-old mind, made no sense. In the context of destroying buildings with sonic explosions, or of torture, or of avalanches of rock and mud tearing through entire villages – sure, in that context what I’d experienced made sense. But not as music. My body, though, felt otherwise, and that gut feeling has remained with me since then.

“It’s like a monk vomiting, somewhere off in the distant Himalayas.”

– Michael Gira, describing his and SWANS unique sound

Fast forward 26 years, and SWANS remains one of the most intriguing and influential musical artforms in my life. And they’ve gone through a world of evolution – from that aggressive, sonically crushing noise in the ’80s, through a terrifyingly beautiful and complex oeuvre of sonic sculpture as the ’90s progressed, to a recently reformed, fully formed and mature modern prometheus the likes of which would likely make Mary Shelley quiver with delight upon discovering – so complete a match for something so human, so man-made, horrifyingly misshapen – and perfectly sublime.

Suffice to say that, if you haven’t seen or experienced SWANS – even on record – do it. The visionary leader behind the seminal noise and eardrum-crunching band, Michael Gira (pronounced gear-AH, I now know), is beginning a tour of the western side of the US and Europe, and is stopping here at our beloved Oriental Theater this Saturday night, March 24th, for a solo opening spot to “warm up” for David Eugene Edwards’ local behemoth Wovenhand, and featuring The Howling Hex.

It’s a pairing not destined to happen again – to miss it would be a huge mistake. Gira was gracious enough to take some time to talk with me about SWANS, his views on illegal downloading, his music, David Eugene Edwards and more. Read on to see what we talked about….Gira, a fiercely independent and visionary talent, also runs Young God Records – a label on which he produces all of his own work, and archives all of SWANS’ material. Up until recently, he also supported many, many other bands and performers on Young God – a few of whom have gone on to do even greater things. Devendra Banhart, Akron/Family, Windsor for the Derby/Dan Matz, Wooden Wand, Larkin Grimm, even the legendary Lisa Germano are all denizens of Young God. Now, Gira only supports his own music and SWANS on the label – largely, he says, as a result of “… the double-edged sword of the internet.”

SWANS latest tour was recorded and compiled for a double-CD that was released in very limited edition by Young God, specifically to fund the creation, recording, mastering and now distribution of the restarted (NOT reunited) band’s second record, “The Seer.” That double live collection sold out online in less than 24 hours, and many of those sold were purchased with up to $500 donations attached (for which the proud purchasers will receive a song written and recorded by Gira – and some secret gifts as well, as yet to be determined). Not to worry, though, as the same material is due for release in digipack form (which is to say not handmade, signed and packaged by Gira himself) sometime in the next three weeks (maybe sooner as of publishing date). Look for it on Young God Records VERY SOON. Gira will also have physical CD copies of previously unreleased and collectable recordings available for sale at the Oriental show – and all of the shows on this tour.

The Seer is a huge project – three LPs or 2 CDs – and it’s currently being mastered for release sometime around June of this year. some of the songs are up to 30 minutes long. There are more than a few familiar contributors included on the record, and it promises to be a pretty damned big thing. Again – keep your eyes open – it should drop around June.

Enjoy this piece of recent Gira performance as you read on:


Gira as the Steston-wearing noisemonger. (Photo: Beowulf Sheehan)

Gira as the Steston-wearing noisemonger. (Photo: Beowulf Sheehan)

DenverThread: First. let me complement you and SWANS on the recent tour. It was, as expected, unmatched, and well-deserving of all of the accolades in the press. It was as strong, easily (in my opinion) as the tour for “The Great Annihilator.” What are your thoughts?”

GIRA: “Well thank you, and I agree. I think this is one of – if not the – best lineup of SWANS tha there’s ever been.

DT: “The new live double album sold out in less than 24 hours. So fast, in fact, that I didn’t  – many people didn’t know it existed before it was gone!”

GIRA: “It’s coming out now in digipack form – so it’ll be available. It’ll be out in digitpack – not the handmade ones – about six weeks, probably.”

DT:  “Is this tour in support of SWANS’ new record? Or why are you doing it now?”

GIRA: “It’s something I like to do, but I also have to eat. But no. I like to perform solo, but it’s my job, too, y’know?. It’s better than a construction job – or most construction jobs that I can think of that I’ve ever had”

DT: “And it certainly does us more good”

GIRA: – “I don’t know about that…”

DT: “Well, perhaps a different kind of good….”

DT: “So – I lived  in Europe shortly after I discovered SWANS in the Early ‘80s – it’s always seemed to me that Europe embraces – and has always embraced – your music and SWANS’ music much more emphatically than fans in the US. Is that something you’d agree with – that you find, too?”

GIRA: “At a certain point, that was true. However, it certainly wasn’t the case for this last tour. Nor in the last couple of SWANS tours, in the late 90s. We did really well in the United  States – in some cases more, I think.”

GIRA: “I think we did one with, like, 2000 people in Brooklyn, the first show, and then we did another show that same weekend with about 700 people, I think, in another place.”

DT: “Wow – I actually knew it was bigger now –and I was going to ask, along those same lines: The popularity of this new SWANS tour – do you feel like it’s more of a genuine NEW or OLD interest, or is this a chance for people to finally see “the legendary SWANS,” or does that even apply to you?”

GIRA: ”I don’t really think like that. I think that the audience over time, through the double-edged sword of the internet, discovered the music. And fortunately a lot of young people discovered the music, y’know, people who were interested in music for its own sake, rather than for fashion or trend or something. And that was really heartening, y’know? I think if the show was, and if the kind of audience that attended were there for nostalgic reasons or for something like that, it would’ve been really depressing. That’s why, when I decided to restart the band, I wanted to make sure it was new material, pushing in a new direction. Y’know – using some of the same methods and things, but trying to push things forward. ‘Cos I didn’t want to be one of these bands that gets back together and capitalizes on their name and just makes some money and disappears. To me, it’s an ongoing career thing.”

DT: “Yeah – and that kind of reunion is the special kind of kiss of death in my opinion, actually”.

GIRA: “Yeah – I can’t even bear the thought of it. So, to me it was like, I mean, that project was I thought dead , but it just seemed right at the time to restart it. And I’m glad I did – it gave me a new lease on life in a lot of ways. Creatively, y’know, was not the least of which.”

DT: “Absolutely – and for all of us!”

GIRA: “Thanks – always appreciated.”

“I think that the audience over time, through the double-edged sword of the internet, discovered the music. And fortunately a lot of young people discovered the music, y’know, people who were interested in music for its own sake, rather than for fashion or trend or something. And that was really heartening….”

DT: “I’ve always been impressed with your ability to compose music that’s intricately beautiful – often from what would normally seem to be huge, wrought chunks of sound – without compromising its basic nature. It’s akin, in my mind, to a form os sculpture. Do you see your process in that way?”

GIRA: “I don’t really qualify it or think about what it is while I’m doing it, but yeah, being not a trained musician, it is more like “sonic chunks,” but there’s a lot of melody and things in the music now as well. But – at its sort of … experiential apex? (Laughs) … it’s about sonic overload, or about being subsumed in sound that just takes you into this bigger place. And that’s what I go for, but I also want to make gentle things as well.”

DT: “To me it seems to have started it’s almost sort of a parable of crawling towards enlightenment… still really beautiful (though aggressive) but was always beautiful”

GIRA: “Yeah that’s true. It didn’t make sense for me to incorporate the kind of sounds I wanted to experience again into Angles of Light – which is why I called it SWANS when I started that new project. It just felt right.”

DT: “Maintaining your unique sound – as varied as it’s been, as much as it’s evolved… you’ve been really good at keeping that. Is that a part of your personality, or something you’ve had to work to keep?”

GIRA: “It’s like a monk vomiting, somewhere off in the distant Himalayas.”

DT (laughing): “THAT is a wonderful image. I hope you don’t mind if I use it.”

GIRA (also laughing): “I just thought of that…”

“…there’s been a lot of nuance in the music throughout the years and it certainly hasn’t all been gloom and doom.  Some of it’s been, I guess, pretty … I wouldn’t even use the word “dark,” but some of it’s been kind of searing, I suppose. But there have been a lot of love songs…”

DT: “So… Tiny Mix said, in their announcement about the tour: “…This spring, Stetson-wearing noisemonger Michael Gira is returning to the land of Bergman, Genet, and a freakin’ ton of dungeons. That’s right: America’s favorite vacation destination, Europe! Gira’s going the solo route this time, bringing little more than his trusty guitar, a Chinese lacquered box full of self-loathing…” etc., etc. Does this type of … “branding” bother you nowadays?”

GIRA: “TinyMixTapes is really funny! – They’re tongue in cheek.”

DT: “Sure – they’re hilarious, which is why I chose their quote. My question is, does it bother you that many pigeonhole you in those ways?”

GIRA: “Of course it bothers me. People go for the most salient, obvious characteristic, which is the extreme nature of some of the music – SOME of the music. They go for that because it seems easier or more cartoon-like or something. But – as you mentioned – there’s been a lot of nuance in the music throughout the years and it certainly hasn’t all been gloom and doom.  Some of it’s been, I guess, pretty … I wouldn’t even use the word “dark,” but some of it’s been kind of searing, I suppose. But there have been a lot of love songs, and I don’t even have to say it – all kinds of variation in the music. And on this new record we’re making right now, that I’m actually mastering now, there’s a lot of variation. For instance, the album starts with the song “Lunacy,” with Al and Mimi from the band Low singing with me.”

DT: “That’s awesome!”

GIRA: “Yeah, y’know, it’s kind of a grandiose song, but it’s not by any means negative, or aggressive, or anything like that. There’s all kinds of variation.”

DT: “I’d actually say that the negativity, in my opinion was lost – well, dealt with, put aside a logn time ago. I mean, “Song for Nico” is one of the most beautiful love songs that I can remember from y’know, maybe, the last couple decades. Maybe not that long…”

GIRA: “Huh – Thanks. Yeah, i was really in love with her for a long time.”

DT: “There are many who have been.”

GIRA: “All you have to do is look at some videos of her performing in the mid ‘80s and then you’ll lose the love.”

DT: “I haven’t seen those…”

GIRA: “Oh, God, Don’t! And the you read about addicting her son to heroin. And… well, I won’t discuss what else she did with her son.”

DT:  “So – the album you’re mastering – that’s SWANS’ new record “The Seer”?”

GIRA: “Yeah.”

DT: “What’s the schedule on that record? Will it be out later this year, next year?”

GIRA: “I hope it’s in three months. We still have to finish the mastering – it’s been quite an ordeal, the whole record. Just one of those things where there’s so much going on, there’s so much material – two hours of music. And, uh, so little time, and so little money. But, y’know, I keep finding the money, y;know? One of the ways I got it was by doing the fundraiser [double live] CD of course.”

DT: Right

GIRA: “It’s just constant working, and then I’m totally embroiled in it and then its – I don’t consider it finished, but it is, because, I don’t have anything left in me to give….”

DT: “Until next time, I hope.”

GIRA: “Yeah, yeah. It’s just that, I’m so exhausted, and it has to be what it is, and … there’s all kinds of things I could imagine doing, but at some point you just have to say: ‘It’s done.’”

DT: “And then move on, and then take a world tour, by the way, and maybe take your mind off of it for a bit while you make money to eat, as you said earlier….”

GIRA:  “Yeah.”

“It doesn’t make sense to split, y’know, what little money comes in 50-50 and to give artists the work and devotion that they deserve, and not get paid anything, or get paid very little for the amount of effort….”

DT: “ So you alluded to, and we were talking about your process and your reputation. I see your label, Young God Records (and I don’t think I’m alone in saying this)  it tends to be a sort of weather vane of up-and-coming bands. It’s almost like, uh, you seem to discover them, and they then become something bigger. Examples are Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family, for instance. I love Akron/Family and what they did with Angels Of Light, but they’re on their own journey now, and I would even say that a lot of what you hear coming out of Brooklyn right now seems to follow a “mold” set by Young God Records. Is that something you would agree with, or is that too grandiose in your opinion?”

GIRA: “ I don’t pay attention, to be honest.”

DT: “OK. Do you see Young God in that way ever?”

GIRA: “I don’t really see it at all anymore, because it’s basically defunct.”

DT: “Oh?”

GIRA: “Well – except for my own music.”

DT: “Ok. So there are no new bands on the label at this point.”

GIRA: “I don’t have the time nor the money. There’s no way. I’m so busy with SWANS and trying to keep that all together…”

DT: “That’s a brilliant problem to have.”

GIRA: “I guess so. Y’know, the whole, uh, illegal downloading, and illegal sharing thing has really damaged the label. It doesn’t make sense to split, y’know, what little money comes in 50-50 and to give artists the work and devotion that they deserve, and not get paid anything, or get paid very little for the amount of effort, so…”

DT: “and then to essentially have it stolen…”

GIRA: “Yeah – y’know, in this  handmade CD, in the artwork I say ‘Please, Please do not upload this. Please, please do not share this!’ Even on the record I SAY THAT. ‘Cos, I have these songs that – these acoustic songs on the record, on the handmade version – that are appearing on the new album, and I talk about them. And at the end I say ‘Please, please do not upload these!’ and I swear to God, like three days later it’s all over the fucking internet.”

DT: “Wow. It’s amazing how quick it is, and it’s amazing how little people seem to think about it.”

GIRA: “Yeah, because, y’know, I’m putting out this other version, and I really need to do that – I need income. I work really hard and I spend everything on my music, and it’s just, y’know, it’ll probably really damage the sales of that. I mean, the packaging’s really beautiful and I guess, y’know, really dedicated fans will want to buy it because they want to be supportive, but … yeah, the whole rug’s been pulled out. It’s really a shame.

But – it’s no use going on about it. I stopped tearing my hair out about it a couple of years ago.”

DT: “I do appreciate how vocal and consistent you’ve been about it. You almost wish – I almost wish – that record companies would be as blunt and as to the point as you are, rather than – ….”

GIRA: “Y’know, I worked for many years – I think I mentioned – in construction. And I got paid – I probably didn’t get paid enough, but I worked really hard. And it’s just like, if I’d done all that and someone said ‘Oh, I’m not paying you.’ Y’know – what is the difference? I mean – art is work!”

DT: “Agreed. and the whole thing is incredibly frustrating….”

DT: “Anyway – another thing I saw on the internet: When you did the double, handmade CD, you were fundraising – which is a great entrepreneurial endeavor, and I think more than a few people could take some lessons from what you did with this. But you offered to record a song personally for anyone who bought a CD with a $500 donation. Brilliant. Did that actually happen?”

GIRA: “Yeah I got a lot of takers on that – I still have to record the songs. I just haven’t had a moment – I need to send them all emails, actually. Yeah – and I have to do drawings for a lot of people, too.”

DT: “This was found on, where they said you would also give them [patrons] a secret gift. hoped it would be “… dead policeman, a sodomized slave, or something else that references classic Swans…” blah, blah…. Can you even reveal what the secret gift was – or…”

GIRA: “No – Y’know, I don’t even know what it is yet. I have to come up with it! (laughs)”

DT: “I thought that was a brilliant promotion – and I hope it was very successful for you. I mean, obviously the record is going to come out, and hopefully it’ll break even more ground and give you enough income to continue running Young God as you are – and maybe even expand it….”

GIRA: “Well, there’s no way – for the foreseeable future – that I could be involved with other peoples’ music. I’d have to hire someone, and, once you hire someone, you don’t make money….”

DT: “Exactly…”

GIRA: “The only way I’ve survived over the years is by doing things myself, basically. Not everything, of course, but, y’know, doing the lion’s share of the work myself and … I have my limitations.”

DT: “We all do – and you’ve done a fantastic job at it all. Moving onto this weekend’s show: Do you have any association with David Eugene Edwards from before? Do you share a history at all?”

GIRA: “No, not at all – we just met for the first time when he played with us in Brooklyn.”

DT: “Was that about the time this tour was set up, and did you begin discussing it then, or did you just happen to make this date another way?”

GIRA: “No -well, I actually liked him as a person, and as a performer I thought he was great, and  I guess our booking agent contacted him because I was going to play Denver, and I think he has some affinity as well, so…”

DT: “Yeah.”

GIRA: “I’m happy to do it.”

DT: “I think you two have a similar view of music. He seems to be where – if you will – SWANS used to be a while ago, still in the heavier, sort of more dour space, and you seem to have risen – not to make comparisons – you seem to have moved on into the beauty, but both of you seem to have a similar deal. Do you feel that way?”

GIRA: “Musically? No – not really. He has a sort of a Pentecostal vibe…. “ (Laughs)

DT: “True, true…”

GIRA: “Which I guess may be a little relevant – but he’s certainly a great performer.”

DT: “He certainly is. And i guess when I say similar musically, I mean in terms if the, as you said before, the sonic overload. Sometimes, especially live, Edwards has tended to push things that way. I recently got a chance to see him perform a Joy Division cover – which song it was escapes me right now (Ed: That song was “Heart and Soul,” and the show was at Denver’s Marquis, on January 15, 2012), but I’d never seen anyone cover that song before – and it did kind of remind me of that sonic overload that you often bring, and I maybe too often relate that “Giant”-ness to SWANS work.”

GIRA: “That’s interesting.”

DT: “Thank you so much for your time – this has been a fantastic experience for me, and I’m really looking forward to seeing you in Denver.”

GIRA: “Thanks a lot… ”

Be sure not to miss Gira at the Oriental Theater this Saturday, March 24th at 8:30PM, with The Howling Hex and Wovenhand. TICKETS.


  • Billy Thieme

    Aging punk rocker with a deep of all things musical and artistic, enough to remain constantly young and perpetually mystified. Billy has journalistic dreams, but of a decidedly pastoral, Scottish nature.