Music to Your Ears
"The most important thing for me is that I make sure I am always in an uncomfortable place musically."
For anyone familiar with Michael Gira—the man or his music—this statement holds very little irony or surprise. When searching for a descriptive word for the near quarter-century of recorded material bearing his authorship—hundreds of songs from the now legendary Swans, Skin, The Body Lovers, as well as our current century's Angels of Light —comfort doesn't come to mind. Innovative? Yes. Challenging? Certainly. Frightening, angry, beautiful, stark? Definitely, yes. Comfortable? Not by a sight.
Angels of Light is less a band than one man's songwriting project. Since 1999 an ever-shifting cast of musicians and friends have written, recorded and toured with Gira under the Angels moniker. None of their four albums sound terribly alike, none quite so different as this year's Sing 'Other People.' At once intimate and shimmering, claustrophobic and tedious, Gira, in his own words, has come "as close as I'll ever get to making ’pop' songs, though I, of course, realize my definition is probably a little different than yours!"
Perhaps, but try selling "Michael's White Hands"—a haunting and acoustically violent ode to the pixilated monstrosity of a Michael Jackson/Saddam Hussein amalgam, the bogeyman living in our media-drenched collective consciousness—as pop. That's not to say that there aren't moments of cheeriness and nicety that were noticeably absent from previous works. Songs like "My Friend Thor" and the album's opening "Lena's Song" show grace, humor and aplomb, blending the deadpan honesty of Leonard Cohen with the madcap instrumentation of Brian Wilson just before he really lost it. The powerdrills and end-time pummeling that served as rhythm for early Swans records, blueprints for everyone from Big Black to Napalm Death, have been, over the course of a good many years, replaced by a largely percussionless arrangement of guitars, banjos, harmonicas and glockenspiels. Still not quite pop, but probably a bit closer than ever before.
It's not only the music that's changed. While many of Gira's songs have been devotional or spiritual in their lyrical content, earlier themes leaned more toward society's ugliest facets, man's most base and violent nature. Sing ’Other People' instead celebrates humanness and praises Gira's friends.
"I felt that they deserved to live in a larger context," he says, "so I wrote them songs as a way of paying tribute and saying thank you. I have to confess that I'm completely ignorant to how it takes place. I sit down with the guitar, play a few random things, and wait for words to arrive. I'm unable to force the words out anymore. They come from somewhere else. I don't feel like it's me that writes the songs."
At 51, having put out records for 24 years, Gira's reputation as a de facto misanthropist and rock-deconstructionist militant tends to precede him. The Michael Gira of New York's early downtown noise scene bears little resemblance to the man today.
"I was pretty much a 24-hour raging beast back then, just lashing out at everything. It's natural for people to focus on the extreme, though, so I understand the tendency to view me in that way, even if I don't like it. It is a problem. I'm sometimes flabbergasted by reviews recently that view my work through the prism of past preconceptions, and it's frustrating. My own fault, in the end. Seems like my punishment/prison sentence should have expired by now, though!"
For most the extremity of his past is simply too sexy to brush under the rug. Even for people who've followed the many stylistic turns that Gira and Co. have taken, the image of a young maniac infamously body-slamming a fan for "getting too into it" at an early show, set to a soundtrack of utter industrial terror amidst a wholly new, leftfield music scene pioneered in tandem with heavyweights like Sonic Youth and Glenn Branca—well, it still holds its mystique.
"I have very little connection to the person I was back in 1981. I can't even remember most of it!"
Not only has he had to live down the past from rock journalists, The Swans laid groundwork of influence for dozens of bands and artists—some, in Gira's eyes, who duly missed the point.
"It gives me the creeps. Most of the music or people that have been influenced by what I've done seem to misinterpret the intentions entirely, and instead focus in on the minor stylistic facets of it. It's one of the reasons I forced myself to start making simple music that doesn't depend on sonic hyperbole. The sonic context I use these days is fairly ordinary and instantly digestible. The real challenge is in using a familiar form in an individual and compelling way."
Some might find the capacious instrumentation and varied lo-fi tempos of Sing ’Other People' a bit less than ordinary and instantly digestible. Still, the music stands on its own without any requirement of a past precedent. The specter of Johnny Cash looms heavy, not only in the eulogizing "On The Mountain," but in Gira's sincere baritone throughout the album. An entirely new backing band, Brooklyn's odd and wonderful Akron/Family, who've recently signed to Gira's Young God label, breathe an entirely fresh air into his compositions. Outrageous layers of sound, many utterly unrecognizable, weave in and out of the songs. Sunny vocal harmonies pop up unexpectedly. Casio sounds creep in and out through saxophone and cello sections. Double bass, piano and organs envelop one another. And at the front of it all is a defiantly uncomfortable Michael Gira, at times still a bit angry, but mostly grateful and calm, singing about his friends.
The Angels of Light will play with Akron/Family at the Launchpad on May 7.