In Search of the Real Michael Gira, From Prison Stays and Madonna Sightings to Swans’ Second Coming

August 22, 2014 Long Reads, ST022

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Words ZACHARY LIPEZ Photography DANIEL SHEA

When I was young and wild—i.e.: using hard drugs regularly and being aggressively unkind to everyone around me—a friend and I used to play a game called “Bill Bronson.” Named after Swans’ bassist from 1995 to 1997, it consisted of getting a point for every ex-Swan you saw on any given night. If you spotted Bill Bronson, you won. If a musician outside Swans’ orbit walked by, like Jon Spencer or a random Railroad Jerk, you lost.

How many ex-Swans can you fit on the head of a pin? How many stars are in the sky, etc…

“Michael Gira has changed.”

“I’ve changed.”

“Michael’s manager called me and said, ‘Michael’s changed.’ ”

“You know, I have a reputation of being a real jerk…but I’m not like that anymore.”

Nearly every interview I conduct around Swans’ ecstatic 2104 album, To Be Kind, seems to uncover the same initial story: Michael Gira is never as difficult as he was 10 years prior, going back to the early ’80s, when the post-punk icon was a wild-eyed duke of existential despair. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t there to experience them first hand, but I’ve always considered Swans’ early records a joyful exploration of certain universal truths. Hell, even cantankerous rock critic Robert Christigau called the misanthropic blues melodies of 1983’s Filth “fun.”

To get a clearer sense of where Gira’s legacy will ultimately land on the underground-rock spectrum, I’m spending a few hours drinking beer on his porch in an undisclosed location north of New York City. His fiancé, fellow musician Jennifer Church (they’ve since married), offers us cheese and crackers while I poke around his past. When I apologize for retreading such familiar ground he says, “That’s okay; it’s my job,” though he’ll later add, “I hate my fucking life, so ask what you want.”

As it turns out, Gira—despite tedious stories of sound guys being hurled from the highest bridge—is a charmer. He’s warm, laughs easily and is open to both philosophical disagreements and longwinded digressions about your own life. It’s easy to imagine an interviewer glowing every time Gira says, “Good question.” I’m not judging; I’m doing it, too. As multiple Swans members tell me, getting praise from Michael Gira is like having Nick Cave compliment your hair.

It’s only after the interview that you realize he’s told the same stories—construction, prison, room clearings, more construction—since 1986. So what? These stories are the man’s life; what’s he supposed to talk about?

It doesn’t hurt to ask around.

Michael Gira

 

DREAM BABY DREAM

Michael Gira was born in Los Angeles in 1954. His childhood was, by all accounts, awful. His mother was an alcoholic, and several sources claim he often took care of a younger brother. While we discuss the parallels between the never-ending crescendos of Neil Diamond and Swans, I ask if his parents listened to much music. He simply says, “No… They weren’t around much.”

After getting arrested in California for petty crimes and risking being placed in a juvenile hall, Gira was taken by his father to Germany, where he worked in a tool factory. When his father insisted he go to school instead, Gira hitchhiked across Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey and Israel. He had already run away once, when he was 15, and went to Belgium to watch the Woodstock-like Actuel Festival. There, Gira saw—besides Yes, “who were actually pretty great”—Frank Zappa’s infamous sit-in with Pink Floyd.

“He played some awful blues solos over ‘Careful With That Axe Eugene,’ ” explains Gira. “I also recall the Chicago Art Ensemble. I was sitting in the dirt with the other hippies and listening to this skronk. Then I heard this bigger noise slowly growing, and it was the sound of 20,000 people booing. It was really horrible! I loved it.”

“Now, being a parent myself, I can’t imagine the hell I put my parents through”

Gira’s second time away from home was the one that took. He ended up in Israel, the one place you could go with no money. Then…jail. Adult jail. For selling bricks of hash. A British prison in Jerusalem for a few months, until he was let out and inexplicably sent back in.

“I was almost raped once,” he says, “but luckily there were older hippies there to look out for me… One thing I did was read a whole fucking lot.”

He saw tortured Palestinians (“a doctor, a really nice guy”) come and go. Finally one cellmate contacted a lawyer, who got him released, and Gira went to work shoveling dust in a copper mine.

“I was sleeping on the beach, and a wonderful Persian Jewish lady took me in,” he explains. “She was a mother figure I desperately needed. And she contacted my father. He brought me to California and said, ‘You’re on your own.’ Of course now, being a parent myself, I can’t imagine the hell I put my parents through.”

Gira didn’t speak to his father for another 15 years. He got his GED in California, went to junior college, got an Otis Art scholarship and began pursuing an art career. Gira dropped out with one semester left. Then, punk happened: the Screamers, the Germs, X, Suicide opening for the Cars in LA, taking on the saliva of an entire disgusted crowd.

Gira was sold. He had to move to New York.

THE BLANK GENERATION

New York in the ’80s is routinely romanticized, yet no one from Swans seems to miss it terribly. Every band member seems to remember hanging out at a different bar, though: Holiday Lounge on St. Marks (where the owner would drunkenly neglect to give you change with gusto), the International Bar (now under new owners, so you know, what’s the point?), TR3, Blue Ribbon, Mudd Club, Lucy’s, the Pyramid… So New York was crazy; junkies scaled the walls while Mayor Ed Koch shouted, “How. Am. I. Doin’?”

“I remember lying in bed once with Jarboe,” says Gira of the former Swans band member. “We had a portal where an air conditioner used to be so we could hear what was going on outside. It was like 2 in the morning, and I heard this [makes saw noise] and I was like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ So I opened the door, and it was a kid riding his tricycle. By himself. With broken glass everywhere!”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Right now we’re still in the early ’80s, when Gira moved from LA to New York to “make it.”

“We came out here thinking we’d be a big success—psychedelic goth new wave,” he says. “So embarrassing. The words were good, though! I can listen to a few seconds of [the music I was making] now without being mortified.”

Dan Braun—who formed Circus Mort with his brother Josh, Gira and Rick Oller—remembers things a bit differently, beginning with the band’s first rehearsal: “[Gira and Oller] had a tight-knit relationship…. They played us their songs and we both really liked the material. It was unlike anything that was going on in NY then—elements of Kurt Weil, highly influenced by the Screamers and other LA bands.”

Braun also remembers when Gira’s future necking partner Madonna knocked on their door: “She asked if any of us had a cigarette. We all rushed to be the first to give her one. She said she was rehearsing down the hall and that we should stop in some time. When she left we all started making lewd gestures and touching ourselves. That was the moment Madonna and Mike Gira met.”

It was also the beginning of the end for Circus Mort, which imploded in 1981, the same year its debut EP dropped.

“After that I met Rhys Chatham,” explains Gira. “He gave me his bass…. I didn’t really know how to play, but bass is simple enough that you can fake it if you don’t care about being a real musician. Rhys also taught me how to tune.”

“I don’t want to focus on the spiritual aspects too much. That’s fucking corny. It’s rock music for god’s sake!”

Guitarist Norman Westberg—who, aside from lap steel player Christoph Hahn, has played with Gira the longest—shares a similar story of the original Swans lineup. He joined after meeting bassist Harry Crosby at a house party on St. Marks and auditioning at Michael’s space on 6th Street and Avenue B. “It was a new thing,” he explains, “make this noise but make it make sense. Seemed like a good idea. Bluesy drone.”

Michael Gira as Rock ’n’ Roller; it’s not the consensus view. Gira toggles back and forth, depending on what sip of beer he’s on. He’ll expound on the initial anti-rock impulses of Swans—”I wanted it to be more violent than rock”—but when pestered about the perceived religiosity running through their music, he’ll reasonably say, “I don’t want to focus on the spiritual aspects too much. That’s fucking corny. It’s rock music for god’s sake!”

Was Swans simply a reflection of New York City then? “I think the environment had some impact,” says Gira, “but really, one of the main motivators in our sound was an intense lack of traditional musical skills. I decided I could make this [makes bomb explosion sound] with a bass…and we had two bass players, so we would just sort of trade off, making chunks of sound with rhythm. Totally rudimentary.”

“I never considered it a reflection of what New York was,” adds Westberg. “We weren’t a junkie band. New York was a junkie city. I just considered it music.”

The stories precede them regardless: Capacity crowds reduced to a single person. Gira hurling himself upon monitors and the unsuspecting. Playing Maxwell’s to two people. Clearing Danceteria. Clearing CBGB. Clearing Pyramid. Clearing Sin Club. Westberg even claims bartenders used Swans to clear out bars at closing time. (As a bartender, I can attest to this working very well.)

But of course, Swans doesn’t exist outside history. Though Gira is not a fan of the notion, schools of art exist, and one needn’t look further than the Speed Trials compilation—with the Fall and early examples of Swans, Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys—to see that even in the beginning, some people got it. Gira’s longtime peer and friend JG Thirlwell perhaps puts it best: “When I saw them, it felt like it was just me. But I’m sure there were people there…. They knew a lot of people.”

Even Westberg concedes that occasionally—like the time they played Sin Club with the Hood (a disco-esque project of John Prossa, who briefly did percussion for Swans)—“there was a couple hundred people, and I was like, ‘Wow. This could be something.’ ”

Michael Gira

 

HAPPINESS IN SLAVERY

Let’s take a moment to address Susan Martin, who released the Circus Mort EP and first Swans EP on Labor Records. If the Swans were as despised as legend purports, then god bless her. Because who else would have released such room-cleaners? Yet if you Google “Susan Martin Michael Gira,” you get…very little.

Though they lived together (“Please don’t use that term ‘dating,’ ” Martin says. “We were fucking”) on East 10th Street between Avenues A and B for $500 a month, she’s been effectively written out of Swans history. Not by Gira himself, but he’s done little to correct the narrative. While telling a story of being a blood scrubber in a Hermann Nitsch performance in California, Gira neglects to mention that the production was put on by Martin. In fact, that was when they first met; she saw him nude, stripped down to keep blood off his clothes.

This is not an accusation. While he’s never shied away from his scene’s hyper-masculinity, Gira has long worked with women—Jarboe for a majority of Swans’ first phase (from 1984 to 1997), and in their newest incarnation, Gira has asked St. Vincent, Karen O, Cold Specks and many other female musicians to guest on Swans records, providing a much-needed balance to the brute force of his work.

“A few years ago, I covered ‘Reeling the LiarsIn’ and Michael heard and enjoyed it,” says Cold Specks singer Al Spx. “While recording my second album, Neuroplasticity, I realized I wanted a warm but menacing male vocal on two songs. Michael was more than happy to contribute. He then asked me to layer vocals on his song ‘Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture.’ His songwriting has been a tremendous influence on me.”

“I dare say Michael is a bit of an artist’s artist,” adds Karen O, who contributed some lead vocals to “Song for a Warrior,” a spare ballad on The Seer. “He is the unknown—in a class of his own—and his art makes you feel something in the recesses of your soul, whether you like it or not. Those attributes are the Holy Grail of artistry for me.

“I believe [‘Warrior’ was] written for his young daughter,” she continues. “It’s a stunner. I went in to the session wanting to serve. I was nervous at first; who wouldn’t be? But it’s really wonderful when you work with someone like that and they’re super supportive of what you’re doing, which Michael was. In fact, he was a perfect gentleman.”

As for Martin’s noticeable absence in Swans’ mythology, Gira insists, “It’s very distasteful to talk about personal stuff in interviews.”

Martin doesn’t bear a grudge, either: “As a boyfriend he was terribly sweet. All I have to say about anything outside of that is we all have demons. We all suffer. I don’t trust people who don’t understand suffering.”

Returning to his early work, I ask Gira about provocation and the “Theater of Transgression” he was loosely affiliated with alongside Lydia Lunch and Nick Zedd (who slept on Gira’s floor until he was expected to chip in on rent).

Gira interrupts, “First of all, transgression? That means you’re a slave. Because you have to transgress against something that has power over you. Why would you need to transgress? I’m pretty much a solipsist as far as that goes. People’s lives are up to them…. I didn’t want to shock or transgress or teach anyone. I wanted to make a good object or block of sound.”

Michael Gira

BURDEN OF DREAMS

The one truth everyone seems to agree on is Michael Gira’s will. Whether it’s current bassist Christopher Pravdica or alums from Gira’s Young God label—like Tristan Bechet of Flux Information Sciences, or Calla frontman Aurelio Valle—everyone emphasizes the stark presence of Gira’s perseverance. As Bechet puts it, referencing the film Fitzcarraldo and one of Gira’s favorite directors, “He’s like [Werner] Herzog; he’s got to carry the ship over the mountain.”

For Gira, art is work and unbridled devotion is required from everyone involved. Pravdica met Gira when he lived with Jarboe in Atlanta and Pravdica’s then band, Gunga Din, opened up for Jonathan Fire*Eater in town. “I have a picture of Michael and I at [notorious Atlanta strip club] Clermont Lounge,” he says. “[It’s] me, on cocaine for the first time, trying to teach him to use a Jew’s harp.”

When asked about his Swans tenure, Pravdica calls it “good, honest, hard work.” Understandable given that Swans rehearsals are six hours long and shows are often three. Gira himself famously doesn’t use earplugs. The band can’t hear the drums or the bass, so they watch each other and feel their way through. Pravdica explains their shared expectations as “no pantomime… What difference does it make what enjoyment you feel as long as you do what you’re supposed to do?”

“Michael is the boss,” adds Westberg, rather matter-of-factly, “When you’re young, you want to be the boss. In reality, you’re not that important. You can either accept that, or you can get angry and walk away.”

TALES OF ORDINARY MADNESS

“I saw Swans for the first time live at the Pyramid,” recalls JG Thirlwell, perhaps Gira’s oldest acquaintance not affiliated with Swans. “It was brain melting—so intense, so fully formed. There was a lot of mucus, a lot of snot. In the apartment he shared with Susan Martin, there was a wall of drawings. I don’t think they’ve ever been published, which is a shame. The drawings

mirrored the lyrics on [Filth]—self-hatred and the degradation of working for someone…. One recurring image was—and these people [in the drawings] were very troll-like—a tube coming out his asshole and going into his mouth. Really intense. Along with this self-loathing and drudgery…there’s a humor about it. Not funny ha-ha but not afraid to laugh at himself.

“He’s a generous guy, but he’s full on,” Thirlwell continues. “He can be charming, and he can be brilliant. And he can be other things as well.”

Gira deserves more than a redemption narrative. For one thing, life is not a straight line and to expect a person to follow one is ludicrous. More importantly, he remains unsaved and is not particularly looking to be. That, at 60, he is making some of the most sublime art of his career and enjoying an unforeseen renaissance in popularity (to his credit, he doesn’t seem to need it or pretend that it’s not real nice) renders any second-act salvation entirely beside the point.

When I ask him where the line is drawn between his life story and what can be construed or consumed by his fans, admirers and/or enemies, he says, “A sense of decorum, respect for my dead parents. [My songs] are certainly not autobiographical. They’re an amalgamation of my experience that I try to shape into a body of work, but they aren’t just about me. I find that selfish, trite. I’m not the Charles Bukowski of music. The words aren’t about me. I’m trying to make something bigger than myself.” //

Zachary Lipez is the author of Please Take Me Off the Guest List, a collaboration with Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner. The former Freshkills frontman also recently formed the band Publicist UK, with members of Revocation, Goes Cube and Municipal Waste.