Anathema formed in Liverpool in 1990 as a death metal act, but since their third album, Eternity, they've consistently been moving towards more melodic and progressive rock. Their newest album, We're Here Because We're Here, has received outstanding acclaim from critics and fans. Lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Vincent Cavanagh recently spoke with Jordan Blum about the music, the philosophy and the family that make up Anathema.
SoT: So how do reviews and critical/fan response affect you?
Vincent: You know, I'm one of those people who are so heavily involved in making the music in the first place that I find reviews kind of after the fact, really. I appreciate them and I always appreciate when people get into our stuff, but I don't really seek out reviews or interviews or any press that we've ever done. I'm just not that type of person.
SoT: Oh, well that's okay. That makes sense.
Vincent: I mean, I think it's way cool but I'm kind of too close to it all. It's how I stay objective, I guess.
SoT: Well I think you've definitely made your best album with We're Here Because We're Here.
Vincent: That's great, thanks. I have to agree, actually. The funny thing is it took longer to do this album than to do all the others. There was a longer gap between them and I think people were sort of wondering what's happened.
SoT: Yeah it was six years since A Natural Disaster.
Vincent: Imagine what it was like for us behind the scenes, knowing what this music is like. It's a strange feeling. It's one of the major reasons why we didn't want to rush into signing a record contract or anything like that. We knew we had our best record on our hands.
SoT: It's good that you guys were so confident.
Vincent: Oh, absolutely, man. We definitely knew. Listen, there are no fiercer critics of our music than us, and I think especially me. I think you have to be.
SoT: It's easy to hear how much work you guys put into it. It really sounds perfected.
Vincent: It's also the first time we've engineered ourselves in the studio. From scratch, from the start. I'm really happy that we got the best production we've ever had. That's usually the trouble with the whole process. On previous albums, whether we used to produce it or not, you know, it's them on the controls. The producer or the engineer. But with you on the controls, it's a whole other story. You can make each tiny piece of the jigsaw exactly as you want it.
Vincent: I think we'll continue to improve, too. There was a big learning curve doing this album. I learned a hell of a lot using our format, Logic Pro. Now I have the tools to write and record music at home, and it's not just demos anymore. I can do music that will make it to the next album. I do that every day now and it's kind of taken over my life, but in a good way, of course. All my spare time is spent doing that now, really, and writing new music. Especially now when I have, like, two weeks at home between tours, and every day I need to write my new stuff. I need to keep recording. It's so fantastic to have had those tools and knowledge at your fingertips. You can create the kind of sounds that you think should be out there, which is really what we're always trying to do.
SoT: That's awesome.
Vincent: Yeah, I mean I think this album is the first album of ours that I can comfortably put alongside all the great albums in my own collection. I couldn't have said that before. And with a certain amount of caution, I will say that the next one will be even better. But that's obvious.
SoT: Wow, that's a big promise. That's very ambitious.
Vincent: There's only one way to go, and that's up.
SoT: Very True.
SoT: One of the best aspects about the band is that every Anathema album truly has a different style. You guys never repeat yourselves.
Vincent: Yeah, we try (laughs).
SoT: So the first couple albums you guys did were quite different from where you are now. They were more doom metal and death metal oriented, and then with Eternity, you moved away from that.
Vincent: Well, even when we were writing the first album, we were listening to music that wasn't metal. Sure, we liked some of that kind of stuff, but it wasn't just that. The purest things on those first albums were things like "Crestfallen," "They (Will Always) Die," and "The Silent Enigma." And certain passages here and there where we realized that we had a talent for stringing together harmonies, like guitar harmonies, specifically, which sounded more like a classical string quartet than your typical guitar harmony at that time. They were all moving at different times. A lot of the harmonies, if you played them separately, they were unrelated to each other, but when you brought them together, they sounded like they were made to fit together. We felt that that kind of stuff was the honest side of us. As for the heavy stuff, I mean, we were sixteen years old and into that kind of thing. At the same time, I remember going on our first tour and speaking to Cannibal Corpse about The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin.
SoT: Oh, really?
Vincent: Yeah, all those kind of bands. That's what we were really into then, but at sixteen, you kind of go into the most extreme things you can. Also, that's back when our original singer, Darren [White], was there and, by his own admission, is a different kind of singer. He does that growl stuff. It was quite evident that with the first album, we'd done that kind of stuff, and by the time we had to record the second, you know, he came to do his vocals but we knew we'd already moved on. He was still doing those same kinds of vocals and we said "we're sorry but we need to try something different."
SoT: Well it's good that you guys were evolving.
Vincent: Actually, I continued in the same vein because I was thrown into the job. I didn't really know what I was doing and I had no choice, really. We were in the studio and we needed to record vocals. We had to redo everything so I just tried what I could, and then with Eternity, I tried to sing a bit, but it wasn't until Alternative 4 that I discovered that I actually could sing.
SoT: Really? You have a great voice.
Vincent: Oh, well thank you very much. I think that's where the band found its feet. The first three albums are great and I still, for nostalgic purposes, appreciate parts of them, but only certain parts of them. I think Alternative 4 is the beginning of this band, really.
SoT: A lot of people sort of dismiss the first two and regard Eternity as the first album. You say Alternative 4 is. What do you think of that, though?
Vincent: It's funny – Eternity was where we tried to do the more rocking element and have some real singing, but I know that some people, to this day, think that's their favorite album. When I listen to it, I hear a band that's trying to find its sound. We were trying to find something but we were actually trying too hard. We had too many things on the table; too many guitars, too many effects. And it all sounded muddy because it was still down tuned to "B," which is how we started. On Alternative 4, we went to concert pitch and we found that it suited us. I think that may be one of the reasons why I discovered that I could sing properly. We tuned up to normal concert pitch, which was my natural pitch and voice. That was a big changing point, tuning up to "E." At the point, I think we found our voice. We were still very melancholic, extremely so, really. There are moments of real anger and intensity, and maybe even joy, but it's very hard to find. Alternative 4, I think, was one of the darkest periods in the band - personally, musically, in every way.
SoT: I'm sorry to hear that.
Vincent: Well, that's around when our mother had died and Danny [Cavanagh] and Duncan [Patterson] weren't really talking at all. They didn't even play on each other's songs and John [Douglas] had sort of gone crazy from taking too many drugs. We brought Shaun [Taylor-Steels] in and to his benefit, he did the best he could at that time, but everyone was in a bad way. It was me and Shaun in between the warring sides, which were Danny and Duncan. We had to hold it all together. And then our mother died just after the album, and that changed everything. Duncan left the band and we had to get John back in because, I mean, we needed to get back home. Danny and I needed to get back home and John was the link back home. It was nothing against Shaun at the time, or anyone else. We just needed to find our way home again.
SoT: Oh, absolutely.
Vincent: What you have to realize is we're brothers. Including John. He's my brother as well. And his sister, Lee, is my sister as well, you know? We're two families that grew up together since childhood and you can't separate us. We're inseparable, and that's where the music comes from. Our experiences together and from the lives we've lead together. See, that's why we can't split up ever, and no one can leave that band. That's why Jamie, my twin brother, is in the band now. It's a very intense relationship that we have with each other and that we've always had with each other.
SoT: That's fantastic, Vincent.
Vincent: Yeah. It's not the case where, like, you advertise for a bassist or drummer or guitarist. We have grown up together and this is what we do. Sometimes you have really bad times, you know, but I wouldn't change any of that because it teaches you so much. It teaches you to appreciate the good side of life and people. I love everybody in this band more than anything. They're part of my soul; they're part of who I am. I'll go to my grave feeling exactly the same way, and I just hope that we all make it. I hope we don't, like, die before we're forty. I want to keep making great music.
SoT: I certainly hope so too.
Vincent: As you can imagine, for a band like us, it's an afterthought. You strike me as the type of guy who actually gets what we're about. You understand it from your own perspective, but you get it.
SoT: Well, thanks. I actually think that the new album is kind of a commentary on all the themes you've had before, but…
Vincent: Oh, yeah, you're right.
SoT: So back to Alternative 4, and Judgement as well, they don't really sound like the albums they come between, Eternity and A Fine Day To Exit. However, they kind of sound like two halves of the same whole. They share a similar aesthetic. Was that intentional?
Vincent: Not really. It was the opposite intention, to be honest with you. Again, on Alternative 4, Danny didn't play on Duncan's songs and Duncan didn't play on Danny's. I said to Danny, "you've got to play more lead guitar. It's one of your most expressive ways of playing. It's the most expressive way for you to say anything. You can write songs and say lyrics, but to hear you play lead guitar... it's you. No one plays like you." So I reminded him of that on Judgement, and it ended up being a more electric guitar based album, rather than piano or acoustic guitar. There are more leads and more rock. It was a difference, really. I think the thread that you're finding is that it's the same people coming out of the same experience. And just after Judgement we went onto even more strange times.
SoT: On A Fine Day To Exit?
Vincent: Yeah. It was disjointed because we were still unhappy. Really, we were unhappy right up until this new album (laughs). We'll talk about that more later I suppose, but it's very accurate. It's only taken me a few years to actually reflect on how it is that our music comes about. It's only after the fact because when you're in that kind of self hypnosis mode of creating something, even just a couple of chords, you kind of hypnotize yourself. It's more connected to the subconscious than the conscious, right? It's more of an accurate reflection of how you're feeling. Sometimes you can do that with a voice or with a pen, but it's easier to say with music - with a couple of chords and a melody, or you add a piano or a guitar, and you can put how you're feeling into music easier than you can into words. It's more accurate.
Vincent: You can hear on those albums, you know, what we were going through. Exactly, really. I know that that's kind of a cliché but I don't care. We have to do this. We have no choice. You have no choice about how you feel and how your experiences make you feel. Ours come out in music, in certain melodies and chords and all that. And again, all the kind words and reviews of what everyone else thinks about it afterward is very nice, but it doesn't affect me in any way at all because I'm only concerned with how pure each piece of music is. I don't care if nobody likes it; if I think it's right and it's perfect, it will always work for me. Usually we get thinks pretty much right anyway, you know?
SoT: I think that's what people mean when they talk about artistic integrity and not selling out.
Vincent: Yeah but even that's an afterthought. It's more like an impulse or intuition. It's more connected to intuition than it is cognitive thought. And I'm not saying that this is how music should be written or how everyone else should think about it. It doesn't work like that for everybody. I still like bands that play music for entertainment, you know? AC/DC are always gonna be AC/DC and Queens of the Stone Age are always gonna make music that makes people dance. The same goes for electronic music and any time artists do something for other people. It's like yes, we do that but only when it's left us crossed that line where it stops being ours and starts becoming everybody else's. Only then do we give it to other people and even think about what other people want.
SoT: You have to make sure you're happy with what you've made before you can even worry what other people think of it.
Vincent: I guess so, yeah. That's one of the arcs, really, and one of the learning curves about your art. You have a lot of time to kind of have trial and error and find your way. Now our music is much better because we found who we are and how we want to do it. It's easy now.
SoT: I've actually seen a lot of people who don't like the new album because they don't appreciate how Anathema has evolved. They just want the really heavy stuff again.
Vincent: It would've been the same if we'd been a punk band in the beginning, or a techno band. It doesn't matter at all. The fact of the matter is that we're one of those bands that will continue to evolve. I bet you the Beatles got the same criticism when they decided to do more artsy stuff, or Pink Floyd when they felt like they had to carry on in the same vein after Syd Barrett left. It was only with Meddle and Dark Side of the Moon that they found their feet. I remember the story of Syd going into the studio when they were doing Wish You Were Here, which to a lot of people is their peak. He said "Well, you sound a bit old" (laughs). There's always going to be someone to knock you down when you get successful. That's just how it goes, and that's why it's important to not pay attention to stuff like that.
SoT: That's a great point, Vincent.
Vincent: I was reading an interview with Steven Wilson from Porcupine Tree recently.
SoT: He helped produce your album.
Vincent: Yeah. Anyway he was talking about a kind of decline in music journalism, and to some extent he does have a point. The area where I disconnect from him is that not everybody that creates music is that sensitive to what people think of it. Personally, I'm not. I take a bad review like "I don't give a sh-t at all," really. I know what I think of our stuff and that's important to me. I know that I'm as close and objective as I can be with our music and that's enough for me. If other people are more into heavy metal or techno or punk, well that's fine, it doesn't bother me. Why should it bother me?
SoT: No, it shouldn't. As long as you make yourself happy and you know that some people love it…
Vincent: Exactly. Listen, I would love to reach a massive audience and I think our music does have the potential to do that, but I have to stand by the fact that that's not why we're writing it or why we do what we do. Still, after we've finished it and I'm listening to something like "Dreaming Light," I think "ninety percent of the Coldplay fans would really dig this."
SoT: Well it's better than any Coldplay song, but I can see your connection.
Vincent: We should be given the opportunity to reach that amount of people. Millions of people. Why not? I think "Dreaming Light" is right up there with the best stuff going on these days.
SoT: I'm always on a kind of crusade to promote truly good music and denounce the commercial garbage, and I always champion for you guys.
Vincent: I really appreciate that, Jordan. It's rare that I've come across somebody that gets it like you do. It's quite good. And your opinion is just as valid as some guy who hates it. I mean for God's sake we're only alive once, right? We have to like what we like, haven't we? Let's just live and let live. Life is intensely colorful and there are so many people with so many opinions. Does any of it really matter? I don't think so. The important thing is that the artists who create it all are serving some purpose. There's a lot of music these days that just so manufactured. It's in today and out tomorrow, in today and our tomorrow. There's less and less of that these days, thankfully, because there's less record company control, but there are still those reality shows and bad songs on the charts. It's important for people like me and you to champion good music, and it's not limited to just music, of course. It's important to recognize the fact that in the digital age there are more interactive and multimedia ways of pure expression. You can make a short film for your album for virtually no money. An entirely interactive experience on their computers and IPod for your album, and Okay, it's not the physical package, but it's something new and creative and exciting. I think bands should be encouraged to try this stuff.
SoT: It's taking the idea of an album into the 21st century.
Vincent: Certainly. And people will always buy the physical package. I'll always buy vinyl or whatever it is. I love reading and looking at the artwork and having it in my collection. It means something to have that. Plus it's great quality. There's that argument going on today about "will people download music in the future or buy it?" They'll do both, and they'll always do both. That's the way it works. People are complicated and you can't categorize them like that. They'll always be into buying the package and seeing the gigs and having the merchandise. If you're in Iran, for example, where there are no record shops or any chance of getting anything besides a bootleg, well then the internet is your savior because at least you can hear what you want to hear. It's fantastic.
SoT: That's a great way to look at it.
Vincent: Iran, believe it or not, is one of the places where we get the most hits on our website. That's something to think about, right? Iran is actually progressive. You don't see that on the news.
SoT: No, you definitely don't. So going back to A Fine Day to Exit, which you said was still kind of melancholic, I actually think it's more poppy and optimistic than A Natural Disaster. It reminds me of the new album a lot.
Vincent: It was a transitional phase at that point, and it lasted right through A Natural Disaster as well. Judgement was a kind of reaction and A Fine Day to Exit was much more complicated, and so was A Natural Disaster. They're both very complicated parts of our history. The thing that reflects in the music is that Judgement was like a gut reaction and A Fine Day to Exit reflected how Danny and I weren't getting along that well. That showed in A Natural Disaster too, which couldn't have helped anybody. Dave Pybus played on A Fine Day to Exit but then he left afterward. It was a bit weird and it was a weird time for the band. To be honest with you, I don't think this band has ever recovered from anything we've ever been through until after A Natural Disaster. You want to know what it was?
SoT: Sure, if you feel comfortable discussing it.
Vincent: It was me and Danny. We needed to form a meaningful relationship as brothers because we never had one in the past. It happened after A Natural Disaster. We went on quite a few acoustic tours. Just the two of us and acoustic guitars, and we never could've done that in the past. During A Natural Disaster, we both split up from our long term girlfriends. We were single again and we realized that a lot of the baggage we'd be carrying around was from those relationships. We decided to just be brothers again afterward, and it was on those acoustic gigs that the cement and foundation for Anathema started to form. After A Natural Disaster and after seven albums. Can you believe that (laughs)?
SoT: That's amazing, Vincent.
Vincent: It feels great to have done this album, you know? And I don't think it should've taken this long but we had some personal injuries and all kinds of things. Money problems and stuff that kept us from getting to this stage. But I'm glad to say that now, finally, we're totally autonomous. We have our own studio equipment so we can record whenever we like. At the moment we're touring the album, but in January Me, Danny, and John, as sort of the main songwriters of the band, are going to get together and see what we've all done. We'll plan the next two releases because we have at least enough for that ready.
SoT: Do you mean full studio albums or EPs or…
Vincent: It depends, really. There's one that's about forty minutes or a bit less. I don't know what I'd add to that, you know? I don't want to add to it just to make it longer. If it feels complete as is, then it's done.
SoT: I think that because you can fit eighty minutes onto a CD, some artists feel obligated to do that. But really, it's not necessary.
Vincent: It's really not. The fact is that we could do an eighty minute album right now but it would contain thirty minutes, or twenty-five minutes, that don't fit. I have three or four songs in mind now that fit together as a separate entity, you see? It wouldn't gel with the rest of the songs. What I'd do is take those twenty-five minutes and I'd have them stand on their own, and then I'd try to write more songs that fit in the same way with them. And then after that, come to the serious business of a full eighty minute album. And I'm not saying one's more important than the other. They're just different; they have different identities. If you're going to create eighty, or seventy or sixty, minutes of an album, then you better make sure it's absolutely coherent from start to finish. There can't be any breaks in the mood, and I think this new album is the first time we've accomplished that. We're actually playing it from start to finish on tour for that reason, and if we ever make it to America, we'll do the same.
SoT: Well, on that note, do you have any plans of coming over to the States soon?
Vincent: Well, you'd have to speak to our manager about that. He's got some plans – I haven't heard them yet, but I know he's got them (laughs). Americans are so receptive to rock in general. A band like us has a lot of potential to be discovered in America. I think a lot of people there that need to discover what we do. I truly believe that. I used to live in New York, actually, for six months earlier this year. I got to see first hand the music scene and the art scene. I honestly believe that if we come over there with the new album, it's gonna do well. It'll turn people's heads.
SoT: I'd love to see that happen, Vincent. I'm sure it would be very high in the charts. At least, I'd hope so…
Vincent: Oh, me too. Our manager is negotiating a deal with an American company now. We'll see how that goes. I just hope we get over there sometime soon. Hopefully next year I guess. We're definitely ready now. We can go over there with the best music we've ever done. In fact, by the time we get over there, we'll already have new songs beyond We're Here Because We're Here. We'll play them too.
SoT: Now one of the more curious things about your music is the track "Temporary Peace." Rather than be a standard epic track (which is sort of a prog rock cliché), it has a song in the beginning and then that weird middle part in there, about the dogs and cats, etc. Where'd that come from?
Vincent: Oh, that bit (laughs)! I forgot we put that in there, actually. After the song "Temporary Peace," John wanted to record some of his own poetry, so he took a recorder out in the snow and walked along the English countryside, on the south coast. He walked across cliffs reciting his own poetry to himself, into the recorder, and he'd recall memories of going out to the club at 3 a.m., out of his mind in a way. All of that wound up being a composite at the end of the album just for humor. To make us laugh, to make him laugh, and to realize that there was no serious point to it at all. A lot of John's lyrics, even though he has a dark sense of humor about himself, he's very serious inside. He'll never let it show though. He's one of the funniest and laid back people you would ever meet, but he also has a serious side. The only time you'd ever see that is in his music.
SoT: Oh, so the actual song is separate? I thought it was all intended to be part of the same concept.
Vincent: Yeah, it's separate. The song is the song and then the album finishes with that bit. You hear the sound of a beach and the way we tied it in is that there's the guy who's gone completely mad in the artwork – that's John. It's like he's come back from faking his own death and instead of walking into the water, he leaves all of stuff behind and wonders off for a new life. He's rambling on because he's completely crazy.
SoT: Well it helps to know the full context now.
Vincent: We were going to do a short film about that too actually. A guy who leaves his entire life behind because he's messed up so much but instead of killing himself, he fakes his own suicide and then starts a new life. This stuff does happen, you know? He's a novel guy and we proposed a fifteen minute film to the record company and they, well, politely told us "no.' Then they made the video for "Pressure," which was basically our idea but done in a really bad way. It's just some guy driving around in a car (laughs). It was awful to be under those constraints. If you're going to make a piece of art and you have those ideas, like something like The Wall, you have to have a really big budget to do it. You have to have people involved nearby that can do it for you and do it for a small budget. If you're with a record company like we were in the past, they ended up using people that they know. And it's not to say that they did a bad job; they did an adequate job and an adequate video, but I can't watch that now because it reminds me of what could have been. It reminds me of how clunky and rough it is. We have incredible ideas for visuals that I guess we'll have to do ourselves.
SoT: I'd love to see them so good luck with that.
Vincent: Thank you.
Check back soon for the second part of Jordan Blum's exclusive interview with Vincent Cavanagh.