"I'm happy to put Swans behind me."
It's practically the first sentence out of the mouth of the iconoclastic Michael Gira as he shakes off the weariness of his recent trip overseas. Happy? It's hard to believe. The image of the angry young man ripping himself apart at the seams as the rest of the Swans slave away at their instruments is so deeply burned into the mind that it's hard to imagine Mr. Gira being jubilant about anything. Yet with the release of his latest record, New Mother by his new project, dubbed Angels of Light (on his own Young God Records no less) it's easy to see that the albatross of his former band has been fully loosed from his neck. Quite successfully, one might add.
Sure, since the demise of Swans in 1997 he's released a couple of formidable discs under his Body Lovers/Body Haters umbrella. But those were obviously projects; sounds & textures endlessly looped & manipulated via the trusty computer. Angels of Light is the reemergence the legions have been waiting for. It is, for lack of a better term, a band, albeit one of a dramatically different nature. Michael, guitar in hand, is up front where he belongs a la "Failure" from Swans' White Light From the Mouth of Infinity. Accompanying him is a trove of musicians - including Julia Kent of Rasputina, longtime Swans producer Martin Bisi, & Atlanta's own Chris Griffin - playing an endless list of uncommon instruments. Mandolin, flugelhorn, numerous organs, glockenspiel, hammer dulcimer, Irish harp, & many more help create the exotic, pastoral sound. It's sure to please later-period Swans fans - particularly those fond of discs like 'White Light...' & The Burning World. "It's very unusual instrumentation. Very organic," says Gira. "I think it's equally intense but in a different way than Swans."
The artistic path has always been a murky hike for Gira. The well-documented early years of Swans were, to put it lightly, a psychic war. The band's transformation around the turn of the decade was no easier. "When I started to change the sound of Swans I was learning to write songs & make music in a different way & it was a hard thing to do. I think I succeeded in a lot of instances but in a lot I didn't." Yet it's obvious New Mother couldn't have happened without those various turning points. In fact, the record almost didn't happen. "We ran out money," says Gira. "I went into the studio & recorded most of the songs on my acoustic guitar with my vocal. Then I started to think about how I could orchestrate them - started calling musicians or people that I like & had them play on it. I'd get to a certain stage & run out of money & beg, borrow, or steal for it. In fact a lot of the money came from fans on the web site."
What you get for his troubles is over 70 minutes of floral dementia on a grand scale. It's much more subtly unsettling than Swans, due in part to it's complete lack of, among other things, his former group's heavy percussion. The rich, upfront vocals put it in the singer/songwriter category, while the music, by turns serene & bizarre, push the proceedings into worlds beyond. "Writing songs these days I sit down with my acoustic guitar when I wake up & am kind of connected to my subconscious from just waking up from dreams. I just have a memory or an image or a notion & just start chipping away at it. It takes a really long time; words never come easy for me. Nothing ever just flows."
Judging by some of the lyrical content found on 'New Mother', these dreams are the type which make most people toss, turn, & sweat at night. "A lot of the songs are hagiographies," he explains. ""The Man With the Silver Tongue" is about Viennese performance artist Rudolph Schwartzkoggler & Herman Nitche, his buddy, who crucified animals & released their intestines on young boys. It's just this beautiful pagan/catholic imagery. "The Garden Hides the Jewel" is about Marcel Duchamp - this construction he built for the last 20 years of his life. Then there're some songs where I glorify some women I've known, especially the most violent & vengeful ones. & then there's the unfortunate drunken confessions as well (laughs). I tried to deal with what I guess you could call the inherent evil I've discovered in myself, excise that, use it as a material." When pushed to further illuminate the nature of this "evil" he remains elusive, offering, "It's just a kind of horrible behavior one might be capable of."
Given the nature of his work & the general air of mystery surrounding its creator, I have to ask him about a recent interview in which he proclaimed that he had no soul. "Did I really say that?" he replies with a laugh. "God these interviews I've been doing are way too personal! I'm actually not a completely morose or introverted person. I try to enjoy life a bit."