Michael Gira is not known for making tepid, lightweight albums. From the slo-mo bludgeoning of 1984's Cop to the stentorian beauty of 1987's Children of God to the near-symphonic collages of 1996's Soundtracks for the Blind, his work fronting Swans exudes a superhuman intensity. Even the band's recent reunion has transcended expectations. Nostalgia gets obliterated by daring new material that flaunts amp-smoking crescendos, extended percussive acrobatics, and weary, hallucinatory grace.
But a glaring aberration sullies Gira's largely impeccable canon: Released in 1989, The Burning World was Swans' first and last waltz with a corporate major label. Produced by Bill Laswell and cloaked in ill-fitting ethno-pop frippery (bring in the tabla player!), the maudlin contents lack the group's signature rhythmic wallop and droop beneath affected, ponderous vocals. It's as if a boardroom of Michelob-swilling execs repackaged one of America's boldest musical forces as some slick hybrid of Leonard Cohen and Dead Can Dance. Only instead of seducing the masses, the disc promptly flopped when Uni, the MCA-related imprint behind the project, abruptly folded. To boot, Swans' detour into flat melancholia alienated longtime fans but bewitched countless goth kids, and Gira was saddled with an audience that couldn't quite comprehend him. Having licked his wounds and denounced the whole debacle, he soon formed his own record company, Young God, and staged a remarkable artistic recovery.
Still, The Burning World's dubious legacy persists. Gira was humble enough to recap his folly while gearing up for his most ambitious undertaking yet, Swans' triple-LP milestone, The Seer.
Michael Gira: I'm ready for my dental appointment.
VICE: I'll be gentle. The Burning World was just reissued on CD. You weren't involved with that, right?
I didn't even know until a fan told me about it. [Water Records] got the rights from MCA, I guess. They own the record, for better or worse. Actually 10 years ago, I tried to get the rights back and [MCA-Universal] wanted so much money that it was preposterous. So fuck it. I'm not, as you know, a huge fan of the record, anyway. It's a colossal failure; it was a complete marriage made in hell.
What happened? The live versions of some of those songs sounded totally different, even great.
Thanks. I'm not sure I agree. There are maybe three good songs on it. There were innumerable, insurmountable problems. I was just learning to write on acoustic guitar; I had started to do that a little before Children of God, but I was still figuring out how to be really authentic and good at it. The main problem was that I was thrust into this situation where that [approach] was the crux of it, and I don't think I was ready. I do like “God Damn the Sun,” though. It's an epigram, so to speak, an iconic little moment. It's a bit morose, but it's a nice piece of Americana songwriting. It just sounds so pompous and overstated on that record. I'm mortified when I hear that mix. The vocal is beyond horrible; my voice is so low! I was so intimidated that I sang from my throat, and I didn't really let loose at all. Now when I play it solo, I'm more relaxed with it.
Why does the album sound so neutered?
That has to do with the way it was recorded—piecemeal, with no communication between musicians. Instead of contributing to it in any meaningful way, the band were almost like session people. I have to say that it was the old carrot dangled in front of the starving horse. I'd been working in construction for years, always struggling, never having any money. Getting signed to a major label was a huge deal. I thought, Jesus Christ, I'm finally gonna make a decent living in music. So I somehow allowed myself to be bamboozled and fell into this situation that I never should have entered.
You were locked out of the mixes?
I can't verify that I was specifically locked out. I was allowed to give input, but then they just remixed it anyway. I would emphasize that I still like him and I don't think he's a bad producer, but Bill Laswell probably had his own vision and didn't want interference from the bothersome artist. One of the provisions for making the record was that I wasn't allowed to produce it. But to be honest, I'm not sure I would have done a good job. It's an idiotic thing. It's not [Laswell's] fault; it's my fault for being kind of desperate to have some food.
The goth kids were into it, though.
[laughs] I have nothing to do with that. It's just because I have a low voice and I used too much reverb on some records! But I do like the way the females dress in that scene and I appreciate their penchant for adventurous sex.
Gradually, you started making excellent music again.
I didn't have a choice! I'm in it for the long term. The only thing I know how to do and that makes me feel alive, aside from the love of a woman and my children, is making music. I guess one good thing was that The Burning World forced me to take responsibility and exit the music [industry] and do things myself. Suddenly I had all this money, which went away because the business aspect of it was just fucking awful. The record tanked and I took the advance and publishing money and paid publicists and radio people on my own. I did all this really stupid shit and ended up with nothing. For years, I borrowed money and figured out how to make [my own label] Young God happen. So in a way, it was a big lesson. My whole career has been a learning process. It's been a long, humiliating ride. I was just walking along the road, heading on my way, and I saw an outhouse. Then I took a shit.
Previously: Bringing in the String Section with Dan Bejar