Photo by Eric Hurtado/Etante Donnes
On Monday, we received an email titled “Is that the Batlight I see?” from Agent Double Oh No (a.k.a. Jeff Wengrofsky), our intrepid correspondent in New York. “Hi. I noticed the rainbow puke signal on Coilhouse and thought, if there ever were a signal that could shine in the sky to invoke my powers, this would be it.” While we languish away in Issue 03 purgatory (it’s not really hell… yet), Jeff has kindly offered to let us run some interviews he did circa 2002 for a now-defunct site called in-nyc.com. For those just joining us, Jeff has conducted some of the most hard-hitting interviews that Coilhouse has yet featured, including conversations with Mark Mothersbaugh, Magenta Foundation and Sonny Vincent. We’re proud to present the first interview in a series by Agent Double Oh No that will run as we finish up the writing on Issue 03: Michael Gira. Enjoy! – Nadya
At first blush, his imposing frame, strong handshake, suspenders, and cowboy hat could well cast Michael Gira as a sharecropper cut from the pages of Steinbeck. Close up, his quick, blue eyes quietly mock fools, while his broad, rotting grin strives to put his prey at ease like a real-life Hannibal Lecter. As the principal behind Young God Records, Gira’s first two personas rub uneasy elbows, as he ambitiously peddles uncompromising music that demands attention. Taken together, Michael Gira is a living work of art, an exercise in American gothic, a true musical genius, a bit scary and quite unlike any other person that I will ever meet.
Over the past twenty years, Gira’s music has changed its face twice, but has maintained a taut focus on his lyrical thematic: the base and fragile elements at the core of the human condition. His is a dramaturgy of intimate horror and wakeful terror, exposed without a trace of moralism or even humanism. In his early years with Swans, Gira and his cohorts invented a musical idiom of striking immediacy, pairing his baritone’s sharp and nasty catalogue of human depravity with the heaviest dirges conceivable. Over their fifteen- year career, Swans’ music became more melodic, mysterious, and, at times, downright gothic. With Angels of Light, the name for Gira’s main musical output since the time of Swans, he methodically directs beautiful orchestrations over simple, repetitive motifs and his magnificent voice.
As the prime mover behind Young Gods Records, Gira has also brought Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family to the indie music world. In 1994, Gira further explored his aesthetic in The Consumer, a collection of short prose on Henry Rollins’s “1961” imprint. Michael Gira’s musical and written work can be yours after a visit to his site.
I nervously sat down to chew some words with Michael as the sun set over Brooklyn and I tried to not play the fool. This is how our conversation began.
As I understand it, you are originally from Los Angeles. In 1979, punk was dead. New York was suffering from fiscal woes, and, in many ways, was a city in deep decline. Why did you come here?
Maybe it was mean streets. I despised L.A. It’s such an alienating place. L.A. seems to embody the worst aspects of American culture. Even at that time, the primary ways of experiencing realty were watching television or driving in your enclosed car, or sitting at your cubicle, which are also sort of like television. It’s completely secondhand. I was involved, somewhat tangentially, in the L.A. punk scene. Most of it, with the exception of the Screamers, was just like rock music played faster, and held no attraction for me. I liked the extreme violence in the live shows. Musically, it was boring. New York was “No New York” at the time. I had heard some singles from the Theoretical Girls, Lydia Lunch, Suicide. I was a slavish, sweating, nervous, Suicide fan. I interviewed Alan Vega for my magazine, No Magazine. It was a proper magazine, made of newsprint, with art, pornography, and punk rock. Our second issue had autopsies on the cover. We had to get it printed in San Fransisco, because it was too obscene to have printed in Los Angeles. I was a fan of what was going on in New York and an art student at Otis Art Institute. I was friends then with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, who moved here and I moved six months later. I came because I thought that it was a more interesting musical environment. When I came here, all that stuff was dead, and the advent of English disco was starting to infect everything. The time wasn’t ripe, in the end. I came here with a hundred bucks and figured how to live.
If you were really interested in “mean streets” per se, even then there were tougher neighborhoods than Alphabet City, which already had a substantial artist community. When I think “mean streets,” I think Piri Thomas and Spanish Harlem, which was really wild in 1980.
Maybe it was “Taxi Driver,” then. I remember reading an article in the L.A. Times about a trash strike in New York. There were rats everywhere. I heard about rats leaping into people’s mouths while they walked down the street! There was some wino that fell through the grates on the street and half his body was eaten by rats. I just thought that it was an interesting place to be.
That’s an attraction that only you could understand! In the early 90s, you left New York for Atlanta and, when you returned, it was a very different city. Why did you return?
When I left New York, I was certain that I’d never set foot here, except to tour through. By the early 90s, I’d already been here for 13 years and made so many enemies and had disturbing memories and I’d been living with Jarboe, my mate at the time. She was sick of New York. She said, “I’m moving to Atlanta. Do you want to come?” That’s where she’s from. I said, “OK,” and we went down there. I found the place to be incredibly alienating. It was like L.A., but without the movies or anything else. We lived in a 50s style, suburban ranch house. It was her mother’s house. We’d go to the supermarket and there were puffy-haired people with perfect tans. I’d go to New York to do recording. When Jarboe and I split up, I couldn’t think of any other place to live. I thought of Chicago, San Fransisco, and I thought I’d go insane if I lived anywhere else. I’m a resigned New Yorker: I like the energy and the way that people are very abrupt and incredibly polite, usually. In the end, they are human. As far as the music pool, the caliber of musicians is a thousand percent better than anywhere I’ve ever worked. The competition is so great.
When I think competition, I think capitalism and Darwinism.
They’re one and the same.
Adam Smith predated Darwin by some 80 years. The association of them is emblematic of the sort of post-humanistic observations which are enduring elements in your work: life as decay.
When I write, I don’t have a program in mind. I write from intuition always. I don’t set out to elucidate an idea. I just start writing and disciplining it. Those observations may be true, but I’m not like Jean-Paul Sartre writing about existentialism in his novels.
I’ve noticed that many, if not all, of the musicians you’ve signed to your label are located in New York, if not Brooklyn.
Many, not all. It just has to do with the fact that I live here and come into contact with people here. I don’t have any particular love of New York music, per se. One of the records I’m putting out now is with Charlemagne Palestine, who was cohorts with La Monte Young and those kind of people.
Is this a good time to make art in New York, as opposed to back then?
I really don’t notice if the New York scene has anything vital. There are some good things going on. We have an artist on the label, Devandra Banhart, he just came here from L.A. and he lives here now in a squat. I guess that’s New York.
In an “old school” way.
There are certain things coming out of New York, like The Strokes, which I think is repulsive. It’s so jive-ass, so completely shallow, taking all the frills from New York music over the past twenty years and making it marketable. I don’t know what’s happening in New York, really.
The Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs are the next band to be signed.
They’re alright. One of them is a friend.
I can’t go to all these hard rock, kid concerts.
Why is there no reference to New York in The Consumer?
The last story is set in New York. [In] the first half of the book, which I wrote in 83-84, I consciously stayed away from New York. The experience was more distant, hence, kind of abstract.
I’ve noticed that there is a certain immediacy that your work is interested in finding. I noticed, in The Consumer, you write, “The only honest behavior is an immediate reaction to pain.”
That’s not me, Michael Gira, saying that. It’s the character saying that, although that is the way I felt when I was writing.
I’ve noticed that you generally write without reference to culture or history. Your characters can be in any place. They have no names.
I didn’t feel like I was the kind of person that could chronicle, or be a sociologist, or study character. There’s no character.
Almost no dialogue.
Yeah, I’m terrible at dialogue, so I just avoid it. I just want to create specific abstract situations that are self-reliant. There are a few things there that refer to specific memories or incidents. Usually, I just use them to extrapolate from. I look at it as a self-contained unit, without reference to a time or place.
This has also given your work an enduring quality and resonance. Back in the 80s, there were three major themes that would come up oftentimes in the work of East Village artists: gentrification, AIDS, and American foreign policy. You steered clear of them all. Would you like to share any reflections about what it means to be responsible as an artist?
Only to make it work. Not even to write from experience, necessarily – Kafka wrote about America. To write from a place that matters with something that is essential, irreducible. Those themes that I was attracted to: money, power, work. Especially work, I found myself at 35, I’d been working for over twenty years, supporting myself, it was important to me. How much of my time I was devoting to inane labor, working for someone else who demeaned me usually. I had no connection to the work, no satisfaction from it, yet one-third of my life was being spent on it. At a certain point, I said, “no more. I will not do this any more.” I willed myself into making money out of music with a huge amount of projects. Once the Swans got some interest, I grasped at it. I’d been hanging sheet rock, I’d worked in a plastics factory, in copper mines in Israel, and in demolition… every kind of horrible job.
Swans. Image by Eric Fischer.
I can hear the spinning of the wheels of industry in the early Swans work in particular. And your rebellion against the equation of money and blood and sex.
I was kind of a bull-headed young man. I belligerently tied those things together – work and sex and slavery – as if they were all the same thing.
Your work, even then, however, wasn’t particularly moralistic.
I would just take the things and recite them. This is what’s going on. This is the image of the situation. I didn’t want to preach or anything.
You dealt with the structural qualities of human interaction.
It was a kind of sado-masochism. I would take the things that were painful to me and elevate them and, through the mantra of music, make them into a release. I did the same thing with the [Swans] album, Children of God. I was really interested in televangelism. Jimmy Swaggart was just like a rock star. I stole his language not to denigrate him, which was common at the time, but to take on that attitude, those ideas, that yearning.
Image by Paule
Do you hold any religious beliefs?
Not of any organized fashion. I’m pretty much a naïf, awestruck by the strangeness of being alive. I have respect for people who are religious in a pure way.
You are not rebelling against the idea of God itself?
I think that it’s kind of ridiculous to anthropomorphize God. It’s a pure aspiration to believe in an underlying spiritual force of life.
It still doesn’t make people necessarily better, more decent to others.
There are people who have an organized view of religion that are good. My uncle is a Mormon and a really decent human being. Probably a lot of it has to do with his religious beliefs.
Turning now to “the body,” and the hatred and love thereof. Clearly, you have a cruel fascination with “the body.”
Just because I was obsessed with it in the past doesn’t mean that I still do. Have you heard the Angels of Light records? Are they obsessed with “the body”? God, I hope not. There’s a song called “New Mother” which is from the perspective of a fetus in a woman’s womb.
“Why am I so cruel?” is the refrain in that song! Whenever “the body” comes up, cruelty is quick to follow.
I’m not saying that this is bad or good.
I would hate to be only assigned that position. There are love songs and gentle songs.
Michael Gira. Portrait by Simon Henwood.
I think of the “Untitled Love Song,” which I think has a beautiful idea for a song: you are the one person I would like to have visit me when I’m dying. It’s a pure and original concept for a love song.
Thank you. (Laughs)
When it comes to this notion of “the body” as something which has hidden pleasures and hidden truths, a theme Michel Foucault, among others, interrogates to some profit.
I never could read Foucault. I find philosophy tedious. All of my knowledge comes from reading novels and some history. I read Being and Nothingness and realized that I remembered absolutely nothing when I finished it.
You were stuck with the being of the book itself, in itself, for itself.
I used to go to the library every day and read every day for eight hours. I’d dropped out of high school and had to teach myself. I read Sartre without any background. I just forced myself and I learned nothing.
Back to cruely, I’m so sorry. Perhaps you are influenced by Baudelaire? In his intimate journals, he writes, “Cruelty and sensual pleasure are identical, just like extreme heat and extreme cold.”
I like Sade. I’m re-reading Juliette. I skip the philosophy and read the salacious bits. His descriptive imagination is incredible. As far as cruelty, and alienation from the body, that was something more in my early years, having grown up with television and having experienced a sort of ersatz life, I had lost any connection to myself or to other people. Having taken huge quantities of LSD from the time I was twelve until I was eighteen. My body was like dough, without relation to anything.
Well, I know that you’ve dropped some acid and you’ve drank some alcohol. Which drugs do you think are best for making art?
None. I’ve never been able to do anything that way. I stopped taking drugs twenty years ago. In my early days, I did a lot of methadrine, unfortunately. In New York, there was a lot of methadrine going around. I used to get it from my friends in Flipper. There’s a part of The Consumer that’s about the last time I did methadrine. I lived on 6th street and Avenue B for fourteen years. I moved in there in 1981. It was a windowless storefront that only had a portal in the very back. It was a lightless environment. I couldn’t hear what was going on outside. It had a sense of unreality. Once I locked myself in with some quarts of Budwieser. Because of all the speed my teeth were rotting. I started looking at my gums, convinced that there was something in there. I spent forty-eight hours picking at my gums in the mirror. Before you knew it, the sink was full of toothpicks and my face was swollen.
That story was based in L.A., in a theatre.
Some of the stories were based on an image, like “The Young Man Who Hid His Body Inside a Horse.” I wanted to make the image credible, so I created a whole story around it. It was dedicated to B.K., Bruce Kalber, the fellow I published No Magazine with. He was doing performance art in Los Angeles in the late 70s. One of the things he wanted to do was get a horse and slaughter it, cut its belly open, and live inside it in a wet suit, in an oxygen tank. That image stuck with me. I wanted to make a story to justify the image of someone living in the body of a horse… The image took on resonance because I read a great, damning book by Daniel Jimenez, The History of Torture. It just lists the tortures of the world. In Rome, they would take a young Christian virgin, sew her into the body of a horse and leave her in the sun with her head exposed in the middle of the village with guards standing beside her. She would die by being eaten alive by maggots inside the body of the horse.
These are the things I learn from Michael Gira!