Young God, the debut novel by Katherine Faw Morris, is a dirty book. It’s full of the the kind of grit you can only pick up in the South, and it sticks in your teeth no matter how hard you try and get it out, with its lightning-quick paragraphs that sometimes take up entire pages. It’s a book with this crazy energy and angst, the type that has always made the South (where Morris is originally from) the region that produces some of America’s most intriguing fiction. The book follows 13-year-old Nikki, who navigates her way through places children shouldn’t wander, seeing things they shouldn’t see, and learning that “smoking heroin’s harder than it looks.” It’s at times a waking nightmare the likes of which David Lynch or Bruno Schulz could have contrived if they lived in North Carolina, combined with that eerie and exciting feeling writers like Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews — or contemporary author Scott McClanahan — conjure up.
And, as I noticed the second I looked at the cover, the book takes its title from a song and EP by the band Swans. That, I should point out, made me even more curious than the synopsis itself, because anybody who has spent any significant amount of time listening to the band understands that there has never been anything casual about them throughout the years. When you listen to Swans, you are actively looking for an experience, you are looking to have your head blown off. I expected, and was rewarded with, something similar reading Young God, which truly earns a name borrowed from one of the most intense bands I’ve ever known.
Then it hit me: Swans have a new album about to come out, To Be Kind (which you can listen to at NPR right now), around the same time as the release of Young God. A conversation between Morris and Swans leader Michael Gira needed to happen — not just because this was a chance to get one younger artist who has obviously been influenced buy Gira’s work to speak with him, but also because Gira the artist, the creator, the writer, and, as Morris points out, the dictator, is just as fascinating as any of the music he has made. The resulting conversation between Katherine Faw Morris and Michael Gira was even more fascinating than I’d imagined. — Jason Diamond
Katherine Faw Morris: I think you know that I stole “Young God” from you as the title of my book.
Michael Gira: That’s OK. You’re not the first person. A band called them that themselves as well.
So you’re not mad?
Of course not. I wanted to thank you. How’s your book?
It’s coming out next week, so I’m excited that it’s my first book.
Yeah, this is your debut, it must be quite a feeling. I don’t recall that feeling. How old are you, may I ask?
I’m 30. I’m not actually 13 like the girl in my book. But I think it’s such a great title and is also the name of your record label. How did you come up with the title Young God?
Oh, it was very perverse actually, not something of which I’m proud. It is a good name, but it came after reading a lot of books in the early ’80s about various gruesome serial killers. There’s one in particular that I viewed — even though he’s a moron — I viewed him as sort of a Nietzschean God figure in that he viewed the world completely solipsistically and decided that reality was just an extension of his imagination. That person, of course, is Ed Gein, who was the charming fellow who disinterred women’s corpses and would take their body and wear parts of it, decorate his head with their flesh. And he would dress up in their skins and he’d dance around in the moonlight outside his farm. I just thought that was an amazingly poetic image. But at the end of the day, I think my fascination with that was puerile and execrable, so I had the name hung about anyway. But that was the genesis of that song, which then I decided to use the name of for the record label.
Right. But did he ever refer to himself as a Young God?
That was me just imposing my childish dreams on him.
Semantically, it’s so interesting to think about God when he was young, like a teenage God and what an asshole he probably was at that age.
The imperious Jesus.
Yeah, exactly. But now God is older and the new album is To Be Kind, which is a little different. So I want to ask you about your writing process, because it seems like a lot of your songs, you actually write onstage, collaboratively. Is that true?
Yes and no. Half of the album is written in the way I’ve always worked, which is sitting here at this desk with my acoustic guitar and coming up with the basic part and then figuring out how I’m going to sing to it, and then I present that to the band. That happened with a great many songs on this record. I present it to the band, and then orchestrate it. And some of the songs live started in a more protean way, in that I had rhythm and no words. And we would start to work it up in the sound shack and then we’d play it live when it’s not even finished, and see where it goes. Those things then morphed into some of the pieces — I don’t think they are worthy of being songs necessarily — but some of the pieces that are on the record, like “She Loves Us”and “Bring the Sun”/ “Toussaint L’Ouverture”… Those just kind of grew organically out playing them night after night and just letting them shape themselves, really. I believe the word is improvisation, but I’m not sure that’s correct. It’s more like the music is kind of using us as its marionettes.
How important are the lyrics to you, at this point?
They’re very important. It’s a quandary when you have music that’s sort of cascading or escalating sounds. When the little insect singer attempts to impose himself upon the music, it could be a distraction. So I think it’s an important that the words work in the way that a repeating phrase in a gospel song would work. A “Take me higher, take me higher” kind of thing, where it’s just that one sentiment or simple images that help usher the music forward, rather than distract and become about the singer. And there’s other songs I write that are narrative or they’re more complicated when it’s appropriate. But the words are very important to me, the voice is very important to me. They don’t come easily anymore.
Did they ever?
The words do not come easily to me. No, they’re very difficult now for me.
Did they used to come more easily to you?
On occasion, yeah. I’ve always been someone who’s making a piece of sculpture with an icepick on a slab of marble — it takes me a long time to make things — but yeah, it gets more and more difficult.
Yeah, they don’t come easily to me either.
The cursed land! Wait ’til you get to my age.
I know, it’s only going to get worse, can’t wait… To go back to the gospel thing, it seems like you kind of — not that you do a call-and-response with your audience — but you seem so invested in the audience and you’ve said that ecstasy is a big part of your live shows, and that when you achieve that, you know why you were put on Earth. And that seems like such worthwhile calling to me, to bring people to ecstasy for a living. I’m jealous.
Yeah, I mean. It’s verging on total pretentiousness to say that. You know, we’re a rock band. We try to rock. But there’s an ecstasy in that, I suppose. I like it when the music takes over and it’s really bigger than all of us, including the audience and us. And I guess that’s the goal, live. A record is a different thing, of course. Yeah, so that is sort of a goal. I guess it has to do with doing too many drugs as a teenager.
You said of your last album that it was a culmination of all the music — not only that you’ve ever made, but that you’ve ever imagined. Is this new album, did you come up with a new way of imagining? If so, that sounds amazing. Because I would love to come up with a new way of imagining.
That statement was partially facetious, of course. But that record sort of did use a lot of the techniques and ways of shaping sound that I’ve used in various projects, from Angels of Light to Swans. And it reminds me of this thing I did, the album by Swans, Soundtracks for Blind and just you use my kind of whole vocabulary as a producer. And this one… I’ve been letting the musicians more shape the thing, rather than craft these soundscapes and things like that. There’s a lot of dynamics in the record, of course, I hope. But I realized later that it’s good the songs are more played, rather than layered, you know, these manipulated soundscape kind of things.
So you feel like you’re collaborating more with the band on this one?
Yeah, I guess so. I mean collaborating… I always want them to start playing something and I always want them to do something that satisfies them and surprises me. But if it doesn’t, then I can of course get them to change it. So it is sort of collaboration, I guess, but it’s sort of with me as the guide impresario. But we have been very connected as six gentlemen playing in a room now, because we’ve been doing it for four years, pretty much constantly. So it seems to have an organic quality.
But you’re still the dictator?
The dictator? Yeah, I’m sort of half the dictator.
I mean, I always want to be the dictator, which is why I only write. I can’t imagine. It’s very hard for me to creatively collaborate with other people, so I admire that.
It’s good that you stuck to your guns. I realized in life that I had chosen the wrong path for that very reason. Because I always was a visual artist as well as someone who wrote. And that is entirely more suited to my personality, someone who just kind of withdraws and works. But unfortunately, I’ve got myself in the situation where in order to make anything happen, I have to gather all these forces, you know. So I guess I’ve just learned, or maybe by blunt force over the years, my personality has been whittled away, so that I’m a little more meek and compliant.
Yeah, I guess that happens as we get older. But you also wrote a short story, “The Consumer,” which I haven’t read because it’s like $300 on Amazon, it’s a collector’s item. But I hear it’s really fucked up. Do you ever write fiction still?
No, I don’t have time. As you know, it’s kind of a monastic pursuit. And I’m so involved in everything — running the record label, touring, writing songs, producing — that I don’t have time. And the worst thing, the worst travesty is that I really don’t have time to read, and of course that’s crucial to writing. So I haven’t written any kind of fiction, really, since the ’90s. I could send you one piece.
So you’re not really reading now?
I’m reading, the last couple of days I’ve been able to read, I’ve been reading a tremendous book called Gulag, and it’s a history of the Soviet camps by this great American writer, Anne Applebaum. She also wrote the cheerful book, Iron Curtain.
So it seems like you read a lot of history now, more than fiction.
It’s weird, it’s a thread that began because I was interested in what my father did. He was a ranger in the Second World War. He was the second wave at Normandy and experienced the true essence of combat, etc. And he was a tough motherfucker. So I just read a book about D-Day. And then for some reason, I read a book about Stalingrad, and then I decided I’d read about Stalin and started reading about Hilter. So I let these kind of momentous figures and this apocalypse of the 20th Century start fascinating me, and I keep getting drawn into it.
Do you find any of this infects your music?
Does it affect my music? I don’t really think so. I mean, I did write a song after reading about the Battle of Stalingrad, sort of a tribute to the heroic suffering of soldiers on both sides of that conflict.
One thing we definitely have in common is that you said when you’re done with something, you’re just sort of done with it. You never want to hear it again, you rarely play old songs, if ever, right?
Every once in a while we’ll play an old song, but we’ll revamp it. But yeah, in general, we try to move forward, yes.
I find it’s a weird feeling because when you’re making it, it feels so alive. And then as soon as you’re done with it, it’s this inert, dead thing. Is that how you feel about your old stuff?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s like 1s and 0s. Once it’s done, it’s just like…it’s amazing because when you’re making — at least, when I’m making a record — for an extended period, I’m in this kind of state of agitation. Occasionally ecstatic, occasionally plummeting down into the depths of failure. Working this thing, trying to figure out how to make this thing. And it just seems so enthralling and invigorating and then it’s also, of course, frustrating. And then it’s done and it’s mastered and finished and it’s like, “Ugh, I can’t stand this piece of shit.”
I know. But is that hard? I guess people who go to your shows realize that, but do your fans ever get mad at you for not playing their old favorites?
Well, fuck them. I appreciate that we have supporters, but I think the kind of people who care about our music care about it for the reasons we can provide, which is… I don’t know what we could provide — surprise, some kind of elevating experience. And I don’t think they’re coming to hear their own favorites. Or if people did come initially when we re-formed, for that reason, then they’re gone by now. Fortunately, we’ve been able to attract young people who interested in it for it is now, and that’s encouraging.
Yeah, that’s what makes it so vital because a lot of bands re-form and never even try to make new music and then what’s the point of that?
Yeah, it’s pathetic. But lacking a decent health care and social security [system] in our country, I can understand the reasons.
Right, obviously. So St. Vincent’s on the new album, right? Like, on several tracks?
Yeah, she’s singing on four tracks, I think.
How did that come about?
She’s a real pro, she’s great to work with.
How did you hook up with her?
Through John, the engineer on this record. He’s been her producer or co-producer, I’m not sure which, since her first record. And I guess he had made her familiar with the music three or four years ago. She became something of a [Liars] aficionado, and she would come to concerts. Since I like to use the female voice sensibly on the recordings, she seemed like a perfect vixen. [Laughs] But I contacted her and she came to the studio and just was really polite and wonderful. She’s a stellar musician, her singing is the perfect pitch. The only problem I had is I had her recording sometimes 30 tracks at the same note, with different kind of feels in the note, and her voice got a little tired out. Otherwise, she’s great.
You are a dictator, you’re like Stanley Kubrick. Like, make them do a million takes.
Making a record is like making a film. It’s not anywhere near as complicated, but for me that’s the sort of undertaking, that’s the way I do it. Whatever it takes to make it happen. If some innocent victims to get steamrolled along the way, that’s the way it goes.
How do you keep everybody else interested the whole time, as much as you are? How do you keep all the victims, you know, bamboozled the whole time?
I respect everyone’s input, and it’s not as if I’m writing out music for people to play. It’s all intuition with me. It’s a back-and-forth process, constantly.
So you said writing has never come easily for you. Is that true also when you were doing the short stories or were those easier to write somehow?
No, those were.
It’s the hardest fucking thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’m looking forward to doing it again. I hope at some point to be able to put music on the back burner and sit down and read for a year solid and then start maybe writing and see what I come up with. I think I did an okay job with the stories in the past, but I think at this junction I probably have the wherewithal to make something worthwhile.
Do you start from an autobiographical point of view? Where does the seed for a song or story come from?
I don’t know, where do you start from? From a memory, maybe, or an incident or something I’ve read and it just starts growing. I read this story — it’s preposterous and I think it’s kind of bad — but it started out with just an image, sort of this dual image. I read this book by Daniel P. Mannix called The History of Torture. And one of the horrible tortures in our catalogue of human atrocities was what the Romans would do to Christians. They’d come to village and if the village hadn’t converted, they would get the most beautiful virgin and they would kill a horse and then they would cut open its carcass and insert the virgin in, sew the carcass up. And her head would be left exposed, and put it in the sun, in the dirt. The horse would decompose, and of course then she’d be eaten alive by the maggots.
That is truly disgusting. But it reminds me, Matthew Barney has some new film out called River of Fundament. And one of the scenes is that someone cuts open a cow and climbs inside its belly. Reminds me of that.
Human history is replete with such wonders. And this friend of mine, in art school, he had this concept for a performance. He was going to do a similar thing, not even knowing about that story from the history books. So I wrote, I started out, I called this story “The Young Man Who Hid HIs Body Inside a Horse,” and I just started writing from that. I developed this thirty page story based on that. Again, it’s pretty awful, but that’s how the impetus for that story came about.
Why do you think you’re always writing such awful things?
I don’t just write awful things. I beg to differ. I do write some awful things, but I think I write some very helpful and generous things as well. I certainly hope so.
Just to look at the evolution from Young God to the new record, it feels like there’s a lot more hope. Do you feel like you’re getting more hopeful as you get older, or no?
I think that hope is an overvalued commodity. I’m always — not always, but at my best — in the thrall of the vibrations and magics of reality. And that kind of strangeness of just existing keeps me going, just open, doe-eyed, naive, innocent experience of raw existence that keeps me going. As far as hope? I don’t know.
So it’s more like what could happen than…
No, I think it’s like… If you’ve ever meditated, it’s that moment when you lose a sense of yourself and gain total awareness. Things are just quivering.
The ecstasy again. So you say that’s what keeps you interested in being alive?
Yeah, I mean, plus tangentially, the love for my children.
Yeah, that too. [Laughs] Is there anything else you want to say about the new album or about your tour? I know you’re going on tour soon.
Yes, in fact today, I’m getting set to drive upstate, where we’re going to ensconce ourselves in a cabin in the woods. It’s a rehearsal space and we’re going to rehearse for almost three weeks everyday, and then we go out on tour.
The last thing I want to ask is, it seems like hard work is very intrinsic to who you are, like you’re always working. You make me feel lazy as an artist because I feel like you’re always doing something, right?
Trying. A lot of doing something is sitting here with my guitar in my hand, staring at the computer screen and just like, I’m going, “[makes grunting sounds],” waiting for something to happen. I don’t know if that’s work or not, so much as an exercise in futility. But I’m sure you know what that’s like. And it’s kind of like the thing that you feel that you were made to do and when it’s painful like that, you avoid it at all costs. I guess it’s kind of a contradiction in terms.