February 18, 2007

The Parts Left Out of the Michael Gira Interview


With rare exceptions, I don’t meet or talk to people much. I usually find it exhausting and depressing. But working as a journalist (or in my case, “journalist”), it was a regular part of the business. It didn’t really make anything easier, but at least I got some practice.

     One thing it did give me, however, was the opportunity to meet some of the people I most admired. So I had the chance to talk with Harry Crews, Hubert Selby, Jr. and Werner Herzog among others. In some cases these people actually became friends and we’ve stayed in touch. In other cases, I left the interview without much interest in what they did anymore. In still other cases, it was clear when I left that they would never remember the encounter, no matter how much it meant to me.

     Not too long ago, I set up an interview with Michael Gira for a Brooklyn-based arts magazine. He fell into that category of people whose work I’d admired for years. I’d been a huge fan of his dark and punishing music since the early ‘80s, when he fronted the seminal New York no wave band, SWANS—and later, too, after he formed Angels of Light. The music had become gentler, more complex, more varied than it had been with SWANS—but in a way, it made sense. It was as if we’d evolved along the same path. SWANS spoke to me when I was in my twenties, and Angels of Light spoke to me in my forties.

     Mr. Gira and I knew some people in common, and had even shared the same bar for a few years. I never spoke to him there, however, figuring the last thing a man needs when he’s having a quiet drink is some damn fanboy tugging at his sleeve. Meeting him under the auspices of an interview for publication made things, I dunno, more legitimate.

     One thing that worried me, though. Gira had a reputation as a man who not only hated interviews (and justifiably so, I’d say), but who could also be, to put it mildly, sort of cranky. But his notes to me had been nothing but pleasant, and on his record label’s website, he could be downright chatty, so I hoped for the best.

     We agreed to meet at a bar at six o’clock on what turned out to be a rainy Wednesday night. I had a beer at home to settle my nerves then headed out, leaving myself plenty of time to tap through the puddles and the wet leaves.

     As I approached the bar, I was concentrating on my tapping and my line of questioning, so I didn’t know that he was looming directly in front of me.

     “Jim?” he asked, as I drew within a few feet.

     “Ahhh!” I said.

      “Can you see anything at all?”


     I was still trying to catch my breath again when he let me take his arm and led me inside. He was a very large fellow. We took a table, and he went to buy some beers. It was a quiet place.

     Apparently that reputation of his had been left out in the rain someplace. He was a kind and open man, literate, well-read and well-spoken. He seemed comfortable.

     Normally, interviews with artists—musicians especially—are disastrous. It’s been my feeling that if they’re good at what they do, artists say what they feel needs to be said in their work, and any further talk about it is superfluous. What’s more, quite a few artists I’ve interviewed over the years have had serious trouble expressing themselves in words.

     I knew Gira didn’t care much for people analyzing his music. Besides, I felt it was unnecessary to ask him about what his lyrics “really meant” or “where they came from.” So in terms of the interview I stuck with straightforward technical questions about his music and his label, which he answered not only straight and without pretension—he also answered in complete, coherent sentences. He made my job very easy.

     It should be noted here that I am an absolutely miserable interviewer. God, I’m bad. I stammer and make strange noises in my throat and tend to pause a painfully long time between questions. But he let all that slide.

     Now, it’s almost a given with any interview that the really interesting things take place around the edges—out on the sidewalk afterwards, or before the tape starts rolling. That was the case here, too.

     Apart from the technical questions about the label and the evolution of his music, the conversation drifted to all corners. We talked about books (he cites Selby’s The Room as one of his favorites, and is anxious to read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). We talked about people we knew, politics, and aging.

     “A lot of people our age are looking pretty bad,” he said. “I guess that comes from living the life of servitude.”

     We talked about the struggles of trying to make a go of it nowadays in most any creative endeavor—the music business, publishing—even after you’ve been at it for a very long time. We talked about Genesis P-Orridge (founder of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV), blindness and hospitals.

     He talked about his early days in New York and his time with Jarboe (who was with him in SWANS).

     At one point, apropos of nothing, I asked if he was a fan of the ‘70s German electronic band, Popol Vuh. It was a shot in the dark—I just thought I’d been hearing hints of Popol Vuh in his music for years. He seemed surprised by the question.

     “Yes—very much,” he said. “But on account of the films of Werner Herzog.” Popol Vuh, see, had done a number of Herzog’s soundtracks.

     Well that was that. We started talking about Herzog and his films, and Gira bought another round for us.

     I of course—I always do this—made the mistake of posing my Grizzly Man joke.

     “How long into the movie,” I asked, “before you started rooting for the bears?” Normally I get answers like “ten minutes” or “about six seconds.”

     “I never rooted for the bears,” he said. “He was another of Herzog’s quixotic heroes, going up against nature. He was a visionary. Like Aguirre or Fitzarraldo.”


     Well, anyway. I was sure I’d blown it. I always blow it. But we rolled on.

     Here are a few snippets of things he had to say that had to be cut from the final interview, but which I thought were interesting.

On meeting famous people:

     “I had a chance when I was in Morocco to meet Paul Bowles, but I didn’t. I thought, ‘What can I say to this guy?’ I mean it’s great, I’d meet him and be his acolyte or whatever. But I don’t really need that. What do I have to offer him? Nothing. So I didn’t go.”

On inescapable advertising:

     “By controlling the information people see, you control who they are and what they think. It’s Madison Avenue lesson 101. They’re breeding a race of dutiful consumers. Hopefully a lot of people who were once professionals with dignity will end up working at Wal-Mart and start questioning what they’re doing.”

On Manhattan then and now:

     “I don’t go to Manhattan much anymore. I don’t really care about it. I’ll go to a museum every so often. I made the mistake of going to the East Village—where I used to live—recently, and was just horrified. It was a Friday night, and it was just like a frat party everywhere.

     “I don’t have nostalgic feelings for the early ‘80s; it was so dangerous and awful. Tompkins Square was littered of needles and stupid harmless punks and homeless encampments. That was horrible because working Puerto Rican families couldn’t use the park. It was ridiculous, and that whole ‘riot’ thing was just stupid. I don’t have any nostalgia for that era because I got mugged there and there was gunfire every night. It was a really scary place.

     “But there was a certain era, as it just started to gentrify a little bit, it was transitional—before the real estate boom—when it was really nice. And I guess the creative climate was nice, though I spent most of my time locked up in my bunker of a studio.”

On Devendra Banhart (who released his first several albums on Young God before moving to XL Recordings):

     “He’s doing really well. I always thought he was going to be a huge success, though he’s done it in a way I didn’t expect. Now he’s got Neil Young’s manager, so he’s going. He’s different from the kid I discovered, who was just a frail, shaking, lit surrealist. Wandering around, having no idea where he was living or staying, just erupting with music constantly. Really magic. Now he’s become more of a pop rock personality. That’s okay, because he’s got a lot of talent.”

On Kill Your Idols (a recent documentary about the no-wave scene in which he appears):

     “It was okay. I wish I had a little more time in it (laughs). I look like a corpse.

     “I thought Glenn Branca was really good. He’s a true artist—it’s a shame he hasn’t been more recognized.

     “Last time I saw him was in the early ‘90s, and he certainly delivered the goods. It was an epiphany—he really went for the high, high moments, and I really admire that. It was a big inspiration for me in early SWANS—not like Sonic Youth, where they took his shtick and added it onto their rock stuff. It was more like an overwhelming saturation of sound. I guess it’s Wagnerian—or like Mozart in the Requiem with its surges. The beautiful sound just overwhelms you. That was a real inspiration. Sound—just pure sound—being able to accomplish that. I guess it’s very romantic, but it works. I don’t really care about the rock elements in it—just when he’d reach these overwhelming crescendos.

     “Lydia [Lunch} was great in {Kill Your Idols} too—she’s just a smart ass. I guess they couldn’t get James Chance. I think he should’ve been much more prominently featured . . . As far as the new bands that were featured {Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Black Dice and others}, I think they were laughable.

     “I guess the director was drawing some kind of comparison between my generation and the new generation. People who came to NY in the mid-to-late ‘70s for the post punk, no wave stuff were very much about personal risk, do or die, It had an uncompromising inner violence to it. As opposed to this new generation, where it’s more of a career move. But you could certainly add some noise to it, and, you know, have a band.

On his reputation

     “I could be up on stage cracking jokes and singing songs about blue skies and flowers, and people will still say, ‘It was another terrifying performance from the dark mind of Michael Gira!’“

     When we set up the interview he’d said he could only stick around for 45 minutes or an hour. That was fine with me. But we’d been at the bar three times that long now, and were still talking.

     Michael Gira was funny, and laughed easily. His intelligence stretched far beyond music. He was at times contradictory—but I think all intelligent people are. The world’s too complex for absolute consistency. Hobgoblin of little minds, don’t you know.

     More than anything else, this man, who was for so long considered a nihilistic, demonic figure in the New York music scene, was a gentleman. He even insisted on walking me home to make sure I got there okay.

     As we were leaving the bar, a man who’d left at the same time stopped us.

     “Hey—I’m going to be filming a scene for a movie here on Thursday night,” he said, “and it would be great if you guys were in it. Free beer and free food.”

     “What’s the scene?” Michael asked.

     “Well,” the guy said “it’s a couple having an argument in a small cafe, and it’s really crowded, and everyone’s listening. It’s really uncomfortable.”

     “That sounds a little too familiar,” Michael said, and laughed.

     “It would be a lot of fun—”

     “No, I don’t think so,” Michael said. “But good luck.”


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(And if I may offer a suggestion, Angels of Light Sing Other People has fast become one of my favorite albums.)


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