Anyone who's seen Michael Gira live knows his reputation for intense, visceral performances is well-deserved. Eyes closed, brow furrowed, he delivers his lyrics with an inimitable, resonant baritone, through full-throated bellows and quavering crooning. Live or on recordings, there's never any doubt he's committed to the material he writes and sings.
From 1982 to 1997, Gira fronted the legendary underground band Swans, known for their often brutal, epically loud live performances. Though his next long-term project, Angels of Light, didn't pack quite the punch in volume or mania as Swans, Gira and his revolving cast of musicians could still be counted on to deliver an intense experience.
Many of Gira's fans count as one of his greatest virtues his unguarded, emotionally direct songs. He sings of loss, love, pain, and the physical and psychic damage we do to one another.
In the realms of underground rock, he's a moderately intimidating, austere presence, so it's a bit of a surprise and relief when he replies, in an e-mail while on tour in Australia, to a question about his reputation and relationship with his audience: "I'm a performer, an entertainer. Tom Jones is my idol." Who knows just how tongue-in-cheek this response is meant to be, but it's clear over the past few years that Gira has grown more comfortable as a performer, and has of late taken to playing live shows exclusively solo.
Though the pummeling rhythms and noisy guitars that defined early Swans became less abrasive toward the end of that band's run, and Gira has released a number of quieter solo albums, it is through Angels of Light that he found the most durable project for a more stripped-down, largely acoustic-based music. He's quick to note, "Angels of Light has always been the group of people I choose to assemble for a particular record—it's not a ‘band.'"
Since its 1999 debut recording, the Angels roster has included an impressive array of musicians, including percussionist and former Knoxvillian Larry Mullins and, most notably, Brooklyn prog-hippies Akron/Family. Following 2007's We Are Him, a sort of past-decade assessment that featured Akron/Family and a number of past associates, Gira has said in interviews he may be ready to shed the Angels moniker. But though he's been performing solo for the past few years, it doesn't mean he's ready to abandon augmenting his songs in the studio with musicians he admires.
"I'll probably continue making records that are orchestrated," he says. "I only want to play live by myself. It's the biggest challenge of my life."
It may at one time have seemed unlikely to some Swans fan—or Gira himself—that the man guiding the punishing music found on early Swans releases Filth and Cop would one day hold the stage alone with an electro-acoustic guitar. But it's an altogether fitting setting for his often-confessional lyrics. It also speaks to the musical ability he's gained over the years.
"I had no technical skills whatsoever when I started Swans," he says. "I might as well have been playing with boxing gloves on. But I wasn't interested in nuance, and the music was more about sound and rhythm and some insane fellow shouting on top of it so it didn't matter. Since then, I've learned to play the guitar a little out of necessity, but it's mainly as a way of providing a context for my voice and words."
Don't let this new approach lead you to expect a kinder, gentler Gira, though.
"My solo performances are not light," he stresses. "I suppose it's tender in places, but it's also visceral. I enjoy ripping my lungs out in front of people."