Text by Adam Lehrer
The 62-year-old musician, writer, artist, and producer Michael Gira doesn’t need introduction. He is of course the mastermind of Swans, one of the ‘80s post-No Wave NYC Noise Rock scene’s most punishing bands, one of the ‘90s experimental rock world’s most confounding bands, and currently one of the modern day’s most singularly intense, sonically adventurous, and spiritually inward bands. Swans, in their current incarnation, are truly without peers. The band’s last three records are all classics: they are extreme in a way that is incomparable to any other heavy bands. Swans’ music is highly composed, but it almost sounds like the diverse array of instrumental (Swans use everything from 12-string guitars to trombones to keyboards to mandolins and everything in between) sounds and noises are at war with one another, colliding and collapsing and creating a viciously elegant choreographed sonic dance. If you’ve ever seen Swans live, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. If the best gigs are akin to religious experiences, then Swans are the best band in the world. They sometimes play for two hours at full volume, always seeming to veer on the edge of chaos but always managing to sound utterly cohesive. It’s brain blisteringly heavy but also spiritually beautiful, like your soul is being blasted towards the cosmos but something is also pulling it down towards hell. And there’s Gira, clad in a cowboy hat and boots and a loose fitting black shirt, sweating profusely and leading his audience like a preacher would a sermon.
Gira must know that that feeling is at the essence of what we love about music, and that religious element plays a massive role in his record production work in Swans, his work with his band Angels of Lights, his solo records, and with the many bands he’s championed and often released records of via his label Young God Records. Fans that are newer to Swans and Gira probably often don’t know anything about Gira’s production work and promotion of strange and unusual music. But Gira has been producing ever since Swans’ violently heavy debut Noise Rock album, Filth (1983), and has served as primary producer on most of the band’s music ever since, including their last three masterpieces: My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky (2010), The Seer (2012), and To Be Kind (2014). And even though the Swans catalog casts a long shadow over Gira’s production work outside the band, his production jobs can’t be underestimated in their importance towards his legacy. Though known for heavy and experimental Rock music, Gira has lent his distinctive sonic religiosity to a variety of genres, from freaky Folk music to Ambient Drone.
Gira produced most of his own projects outside Swans. His band Angels of Light was almost a straight up Alternative Country band, but with a psychedelic bent more in line Six Organs of Admittance than Uncle Tupelo. Gira used a revolving door of backing musicians in the band, a notion lending credos to Gira’s compositional control. In a completely different direction, Gira’s project The Body Lovers/The Body Haters falls under the genre of Dark Ambient: a drone-filled atmospheric sound art with dark undertones pioneered by artists like the Welsh sound artist Lustmord. Collaborating with the likes of producer and former Khanate member James Plotkin and longtime friend and collaborator Jarboe, the project serves as an example of Gira’s ability to cook up truly transcendental sound using a stripped and minimal approach (even in Swans, Gira always circles the compositions around a single hypnotic rhythm).
Back when music nerds read magazines like Arthur and started growing ironically long beards in the early ‘00s, Gira was already championing the so-called “Freak-Folk” music coming out of the scene. As a producer however, there was never anything gimmicky about his work with these bands, but instead they seemed to all have sounds that made sense within Gira’s musical approach. Gira discovered Venezuelan-American singer-songwriter and artist Devendra Banhart, producing and releasing the young musician’s early records on the Young God label. Though Banhart got pigeonholed into that very brief movement (he has since reinvented himself of course, making beautiful visual art and writing songs, emancipating himself from the caricature-ish Freak Folk scene) with the Hippie Commune vibe of his (then) look and performances. But Banhart’s Gira-produced records are minimal and beautiful: just guitar and voice and near-silent background noise. The more exuberant Freak Folk band Akron-Family, based out of Brooklyn, was given a sonic boost by Gira’s penchant for finding the trance-like qualities in Rock n’ Roll.
Perhaps more expectedly, Gira has produced a number of Experimental Rock bands. New York-based Calla released their best album, produced by Gira, in 1999. Gira noted that the band sounded much better live, letting their music breathe in the mix. Gira also gave European bands a chance to hit American audiences, such as the Italian avant weirdos Larsen and French experimentalists Ulan Bator.
Gira has been in the news recently after Nashille-based singer-songwriter Larkin Grimm (whose music Gira has produced) accused him of a rape from 2008. The veracity of the allegations have been refuted by Gira, Gira’s wife, and even Larkin’s female former bandmate Margaret Morris (Larkin also accused three of their male bandmates of similar crimes). I’m not going to weigh in on these claims, but I’d be incompetent to not mention them, especially considering Gira’s substantial championing of female artists. The most notable of these being Jarboe, who assisted ever since the New York-based singer-wongwriter appeared on Swans’ album, Cop. Gira has a fascination with the female voice, and Jarboe’s vocals are used to haunting effect on Swans albums and take center stage on the singer’s Gira-produced solo albums.
With Swans about to release what is to be their final record on June 17th entitled The Glowing Man, the only comfort I have is that Gira will still be applying his grand sonic vision to other bands and projects. Gira strives to make music that alters the listener’s awareness of their body, mind and soul. It can be brutal and it can be beautiful, but Gira always manages to guide his listeners up a rope to the sky.