Music & clubs

Early Days: Michael Gira of Swans

INTERVIEW: Michael Gira gives us a tour of his younger days, from work to hitchhiking to prison, and a taste of the wild times of Swans during stays in Berlin. He may be dark, but he's not scum!

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Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Generally lumped with Sonic Youth and Pussy Galore in the Lower East Side art-acknowledging post-punk movement, Michael Gira’s Swans exhibited a totalising power and aural insistence that was often mistaken as a vehicle for assaultive nihilism.

Though dark and reflective, this was hardly the case. Heading in a more acoustic direction into the 1990s, at the end of the decade Gira split with his girlfriend/collaborator Jarboe and burnt out on the band, recording with Angels of Light among others, running the Young God label (which launched Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family) and, evidently, readying himself for the return of Swans, whose new album My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, combines the strengths of the band’s previous iterations with the insight of a man approaching his sixties.

Gira is an artist much deserving of rediscovery, and you’ll get your chance Monday, December 13, when Swans perform at Volksbühne.

Swans had a pretty strong Berlin following. Their approach seemed to fit right in with the Cold War hangover.

Yes, I have great memories of Berlin. I remember on the first tour in 1983, ‘84, we stayed – that is, Jarboe and I stayed – with Blixa Bargeld [of Einstürzende Neubauten fame] for some time, and Blixa was a bartender at a bar – I think it was called the Risiko – and, um, he used to give us free drinks. Which was, of course, a disaster for everyone involved.

But perhaps also an inspiration.

Yeah [laughs]. I don’t know – he gave the whole band free drinks, and we had this deal that we’d have free drinks for ten days, and then we’d play to pay for the drinks. But, for some reason, before the promoter could get a PA together for us we had to leave town, so we left him thousands of dollars on a drink tab. We were not welcome in Berlin for some time after that.

Blixa was already a national hero by then.

Yeah. And then we came back, I don’t know, after a couple of years or something – we played The Loft a couple of times. I remember pretty much the most of it. Surprising, considering my taste for alcohol at the time…

It seems like there was a lot of shared ideas between the Ingenious Dilettantes of Kreuzberg and the no wave thing that was going on in NYC.

I wouldn’t really consider Swans to be no wave; we came to New York after no wave. We took some of the ideas – I was definitely inspired by the raw use of sound rather than trying to make music out of the usual three-chord punk rock, but we, and Sonic Youth, took it in a different direction. As far as having an affinity for groups there, I guess I knew the people in Malaria vaguely and Einstürzende Neubauten, of course: they were friends for quite some time.

You spent some time in Germany when you were younger.

My father lived here with his second wife, from the late 1960s up through the ‘80s and he had three German children, and I lived in Solingen, when I was, like, 14 years old, for a year. I was a drug-addled hippie, basically: a young one.

I had been running away from my father, and he put me in this factory that had some connection to his wife’s aunt. And he said, “Okay, you’re going to work in this factory, or else you’re going to straighten up and you’re going to go to this school.” He was a business executive and his company would pay for me to go to this school in the Swiss Alps. So, being stupid at that time, I worked in the factory [laughs]. I worked there for a year making tools: hammers and pliers and things.

Finally he said, “This is ridiculous, you’re going to school.” And then I ran away. I hitchhiked through Germany down through Austria to Yugoslavia, and into Greece and across to Turkey and eventually took a plane from Turkey to Israel and stayed in Israel for a year.

That’s pretty precocious.

I guess I was ‘precociously rebellious’; I don’t know how precocious I was. My first experience with reading, or actually trying to exercise my mind in any other way besides inundating it with drugs, was in jail in Israel – I got arrested for selling hash. I started reading because there was a library there that other itinerant, vagrant hippies had left of some really good books. So that’s my first experience with reading seriously and starting to think about things in a way that was larger than myself.

What were the first books you were reading there?

I remember reading [Sade’s] 120 Days of Sodom.

In the prison? That’s appropriate, I guess, as it was written in one.

Grove Press editions were coming out around that time, you know. I think I read Miracle of the Rose, another prison book, in there, by Genet. And I remember they had a bunch of Oscar Wilde. It was just what hippies were travelling with; they’d leave it there when they got released or something.

Did you generally identify with the rebellious hippie left?

Of course, everybody did. I mean, most people who were young did. The Vietnam War was going on and American society was just in complete turmoil, and the hippies were like the punks of the day. What people think of now as the Love-and-Peace people were an outrage to consumer society.

The scum-rock scene Swans are associated with seemed pretty anti-hippie.

Scum rock? That has definitely nothing to do with me: Yuck!