By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
The Swans album Cop (1984) was one of the most crushing and intense albums not only of the '80s but of all time. Musically and lyrically, it is a dark and punishing ride. I don't know how many times I have played it. Live, their concerts still register as some of the most forceful and sonically devastating experiences I have ever witnessed. A few years later, Swans morphed into something totally different — no less intense, just different. That's the story of the band's prolific leader, Michael Gira. He's always working on something, and it's always different. That he's come back around to another Swans project is very interesting. It's obviously time. Fascinating man, really good records. —Henry Rollins
L.A. WEEKLY: What's the farthest you ever hitchhiked from home?
MICHAEL GIRA: I hitchhiked across the United States twice. Each time, I left with $20. This was different then! Mostly hippies would pick you up — it was the tail end of the hippie era. It wasn't that hard, though I had a couple scary experiences. I slept on the side of the road and got jobs — worked surveying in Utah. I lived in a tent for six weeks in the desert for $3 an hour! And I got second-degree burns on my shoulders from taking my shirt off like an idiot California boy. I'd paint people's houses in exchange for food. I was in Europe with my father when I was young and ran away — when I was 14 — from Germany down to Austria, Yugoslavia and Greece and Turkey, and then took a plane to Israel and bummed around Israel for a year. I was kind of a vagabond kid!
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Did people think you were a spy?
I had older hippie friends that took care of me. And when I was 10 or 11, I ran away from the South Bay, where I grew up — all the way to Santa Barbara, and this girl and I got caught there. I can't imagine I was any older than that, because after that I started taking drugs.
You're very precocious.
It was a different age!
What childhood from fiction did you most relate to? Who was your fictional role model? Who were your imaginary friends?
Jean Genet in Miracle of the Rose. And Walt Disney. My earliest memory of music as describing a cinematic space in your mind were the Burl Ives–narrated Disney records. I remember Brer Rabbit the most, and the kind of sense of wonder — people didn't waste time in front of the computer or TV then. You'd put on a record, and it opens up this whole vista in your mind. That's remained a constant reference point, that sense of escapism. Of opening up a magic box — that's how a record should be.
What would a Michael Gira children's record be like? What would you like to communicate to a tiny child's mind?
I have written some songs for children. For friends' children. I just let my imagination run wild and don't put anything too icky in there. Well, a little bit. But I wouldn't know how to impart wisdom on them because I don't have any.
What kind of wisdom did you get from Dylan's Chronicles?
It didn't illuminate much! I was disappointed. It was more anecdotal than I would have preferred.
What do you wish someone had asked?
There's nothing to ask him. It's like talking to Jesus, man. To me [Dylan] is such an awesome human creature. He made a lot of really crummy work, but he made some of the best work ever in popular music. What do you say to someone like that?
I appreciated how fearlessly he admitted that he didn't know how to write Bob Dylan songs anymore — how he couldn't live up to what people wanted. I wouldn't say I wrote a corollary to "Gates of Eden," but the only way for me to write songs now is to get rid of expectations in my mind of trying to match anything I've done or trying to live up to anybody. You have to be completely humble and open and kind of take what you can get. I realized in the first 20 years of making music, it was just erupting out of me. And then I don't know if you run out of steam, but if you have any sense of self-editing, you realize when you're repeating yourself and you strive not to do that. I've had really intense writer's block for the last two or three years as a result.
You joked — or maybe not — that your inspiration comes from without. From what you've called your demon brother Joseph. Do you still feel that way?
I don't know. I'm trying to find him as we speak. I have a certain atmosphere in my mind for a piece of music and the words are completely not happening.
What do you do in that situation?
Scream. Put my fist in the wall.
Where's the best place to scream?
With 1,000 people in front of me and a very large P.A. and a very loud band. You get your own mini Hitler-at-Nuremberg moment.