Be sure to check out the first part of SOT staff writer Jordan Blum's exclusive interview with Anathema frontman, Vincent Cavanagh here.
Read on for part two!
SoT: Going back to the idea that every Anathema album sounds significantly different, A Natural Disaster is quite a change from A Fine Day to Exit. It reminds of me the jump Radiohead made from OK Computer to Kid A, because both are more electronica influenced. Where did that new direction come from?
Vincent: I guess it came from playing keyboards more. These days, I compose on a keyboard. I don't even an electric guitar at home at this point because it's all with the rest of the band, as is the rest of the equipment. All I have at home is a keyboard and you should hear what I'm composing now. It's totally different – far beyond Anathema, or what you might consider to be Anathema. When you a new sound it can lead to down a different path (more so than with just the melody). You can come up with the melody on acoustic guitar and maybe still follow similar structures that you used to and similar patterns of playing, but when you find yourself with a completely new sound that you've never heard before or tried to play before, then it leads you somewhere else. That's what happened with "Balance" and "Closer," and that's what's happening right now with our music.
SoT: That's very exciting.
Vincent: It's all about discovery, you know? And it's about evolution. We don't let anything out that's not pure – we don't do things for the sake of doing it. It's got to have that meaning to it.
SoT: I think it's remarkable how different "Closer" sounds to, say, "Pressure."
Vincent: Oh, you should hear how different what we're doing now sounds compared to "Closer" (laughs).
SoT: There are so many bands today, including some of my favorites, that always stick to a certain style, however great it is. You guys actually remind me of the Beatles in that every release really goes somewhere new.
Vincent: We're one of those bands, like the Beatles or Pink Floyd, where every time it's different and we'll continue to evolve. It's the only way we know. It's all about the process of going through it in the same way that it's all about the process for you to get up for work every day or speak to your loved ones. Like having going to funeral or a wedding. Everything you do affects you in some way and music is part of our daily lives. It's part of our nightly lives – sometimes it doesn't let us to go sleep. We can't stop it.
SoT: Sounds like the lives of true artists.
Vincent: I don't know about that. "Artist" is a bold word and it can be misconceived. I guess we are but I'm less concerned with definition than I am with experience.
SoT: Well I mean you guys don't go make a record because you're contractually obligated; you do it for the love of it.
Vincent: I don't think it'd make any difference if we were contracted or not. We're still motivated to do things. At the moment we're completely free of a contract which is exactly where we want to be. We don't want to be under a contract with anybody. We're free to do as we want. All that we hope is that whatever mechanism the industry chooses to use on is, they do a good job of it. We're musicians, not businessmen, so we have our manager to look after those things and we have to put our trust in our manager and our trust in people in the so called "industry" to do a good job for us. If all that happens, we'll be all right – we just have to make the right decisions and be on the same page. If everybody recognizes what this band is about, no one should have any problems. It should be easy. I think we're one of the easiest bands to manage and sell, anyway. We're constantly creating and coming up with new and exciting stuff all the time. That's just the way we are. What more do you want, really? You want some hit records? Well, they might come along now and then, or a hit single now and then. We couldn't replicate something that we've done in the past.
Vincent: I totally agree. Now jumping to the new record, We're Here Because We're Here, there's that beautiful harmony break in the middle of "Thin Air." It reminds me of a similar section in Opeth's "Master's Apprentice" from Deliverance. Since Steven Wilson produced both albums, I'm wondering what his involvement was with that bit.
Vincent: It was already recorded before Steven did anything with the album. People thought the same about "Get Off, Get Out," and it's a big misconception that he had an influence on those tracks. They were already done by the time he even mixed it. He did a great job mixing it and he did a great job bringing together some vocal effects and some things that you might call production, but on the whole, most of it was our work, especially the songwriting. He wasn't there for any of that so we did it ourselves. He doesn't sing on the album at all.
SoT: So is the album about anything conceptually? To me, it seems like the themes of death, anger and sorrow that Anathema has always dealt with are finally resolved— it's almost like the closure of entering Heaven.
Vincent: Yeah, I guess there's a certain amount of coming to terms with things that we've had to do. There are also extremely different emotive philosophies between us, like with me and my brother. Even though we agree on most things and we share a similar mindset a lot of the time, we have our own opinions on those subjects. It's always interesting to have those debates and I guess with lyrics, I never want to get in the way of anyone else's interpretations. I'm sorry if you wanted more detail, but that's how I am. I prefer for people to make their own interpretations. Mortality has always been a fascinating question to me, especially after my mother died. I swung from one way to the other on that one. Now I kind of found a happy medium.
SoT: Well as you've been telling me, the guys in the band weren't really getting along until this album. Now there's more harmony between you all.
Vincent: Yeah, that's true. Obviously, that would reflect on everything and I think the internal relationships between us have been right for a long time now. Probably since A Natural Disaster finished or shortly after that. We've written a long of songs in the meantime, from then to now, and things have obviously changed. I don't know if I want to get into really personal specifics.
SoT: Okay, that's fine.
Vincent: There is a lot more positivity between the people in the band and just in general, anyway. About life and their own lives and about how we're living, so I guess that's all reflected. Still, we do have our dark moments and we question everything. We couldn't stop – it's always there. This album was a kind of necessary purging of those kinds of feelings and I guess the next thing will be different. It depends on what the next thing is. I think it'll be an EP and it'll be a certain type of EP done in a certain way. I already know what it's called and what it'll be like, but I don't really want to say.
SoT: That's totally understandable, Vincent. No problem.
Vincent: If the album comes first, then that's gonna be completely different from the EP, and from We're Here Because We're Here. I think it's gonna be a lot darker. Human beings are incredibly complex in that just because you've come out of a bad period in your life, it doesn't mean you don't philosophize about and experience those types of things in your own mind. It's very hard to be happy all the time, but I can promise that whatever we do will be accurate.
SoT: Sounds like you're determined to stay true to your mindset, which is great. Now, the centerpiece of the new album is "Angels Walk Among Us" and "Presence." One segues into the other. How did you arrange that and what are they about?
Vincent: Again, I don't really want to get too personal explaining "Angels Walk Among Us." Let's put it in a different perspective — of somebody else. Let's say somebody has lost a relative and they're going through the grieving process. They've gone through a hell of a lot even before that process started so they need even more than just to grieve. They meet somebody who can put things in perspective, it could be anybody. Just someone on the street who puts it all in perspective for them and they realize how much they'd let their emotions guide their actions and they learn how to love again. How to just breathe again, completely, without any thoughts of the past. "Presence" I can talk about more because it doesn't come from us. There's a man named Stan Ambrose, who is about 80 years old, and he has a radio show on the BBC. He lives in Liverpool and he's a wise old owl and he's a friend of ours and really everyone in the music scene. When I lived there, Danny and I would have tea with him and talk about all sorts of things. He used to be a kind of bereavement counselor and he realized half way through his experience that he didn't have his own peace with mortality either.
SoT: That's ironic.
Vincent: Yeah. He decided that if he was going to help other people with questions of mortality, he shouldn't have any of his own. And he started to do some research and he found this quote in a book which said that "death is not the opposite of life; death is the opposite of birth." Life has no opposite, and he found that to be really profound. Birth and death are equal, and life is something separate. Now, he doesn't believe in an afterlife or anything religious at all. He's completely against that but he's finally at peace with death and life because of his experiences and of this book. It was a great little interview that Danny recorded at a cathedral in Liverpool. He just wanted to interview the guy and he spoke about it and it was so much tied into what Danny was already feeling with "Angels Walk Among Us" anyway. They're really two parts of the same song, with "Presence" being the end of "Angels…" It goes into "A Simple Mistake" which, again, asks further questions about trying to deal with all of that.
SoT: The whole album is very emotional and moving.
Vincent: There are a lot of different emotions in there. I think my favorite song on there is "Universal." It's my baby.
SoT: I think of it all as one piece so it's hard for me to pick a favorite. It all flows so nicely as a whole.
Vincent: Cool. It's a very delicate balance when you create an album. You have to consider so many different variables, like song key and segue between songs and emotions and tempos. All these things that create such long albums.
SoT: Going back to Steven Wilson, how did he become involved?
Vincent: Um, well again, we recorded everything ourselves. He was very busy so we basically produced everything ourselves before he even got to hear it. What happened at the very end of all that was that we took our equipment to his house and gave him two weeks with out notes. He did a lot of work during those first two weeks to bring it more shape and then he gave us the results and we compared it with out notes and he did a second run through. For the final third time, me and John joined him at his house to finish the thing. Don't get me wrong – he did an incredible job at mixing – and a lot of mixing is producing anyway. You only have the sounds that you're given; you can change certain things about a drum sound but you can't change, say, a vocal take or a guitar take. A producer's job isn't just about getting the right sound – it's also about getting the right moment and just so many things combined. Steven was the objective ear that we needed right at the end of the process. We're so grateful to have used him and just to have him as a friend, really. This was our baby and he treated it with so much respect and care and attention to detail. He did a fantastic job and it makes me really happy that we made the right decision using him.
SoT: So it was your idea to use him.
Vincent: Well, all of us. It was obvious very early on that he wouldn't be able to come to the studio so we had to self record and engineer. He was busy anyway so it was best to just ask him to mix it at the end. And even then, because he tried so many different things, it made me think about not recording so much stuff next time. When he saw how much we gave him, he was like "no…what?" (laughs). It was so ambitious and he did a fantastic job. I'm certainly thankful for what he's done with the record.
SoT: He did a great job for sure. Now, moving on to the album cover, besides just being a beautiful image in and of itself, it really complements the music. It's a perfect visual representation.
Vincent: You know, the guy on the cover is not even there. The landscape that you see is only the representation of what he's feeling. It's an internal landscape, if you will. That's the way I see it. In fact, that photograph was taken in Liverpool. All the photos on the record were taken in Liverpool.
SoT: Oh, really?
Vincent: It was very important to us, actually. Our angle was to take these photographs in significant locations from our lives in Liverpool. I guess from our former lives – I don't live there anymore. It's like a childhood scrapbook in a way. That shot on the beach on the cover came about because when we were fifteen years old we'd go to that beach every weekend in the summer. We'd take what you'd call a "ghetto blaster." I'm sure you know what that is (laughs). And we'd play all kinds of music and do summersaults off the sand dunes. Like forty feet sand dunes. In those days as well, we never really drank any alcohol or did any drugs. We were quite clean as teenagers as really up until we started music and formed a band. After that things got a bit weird.
SoT: That's like the old cliché about Rock 'n' Roll going hand in hand with those things.
Vincent: It wasn't really that, though. It was just reaching a certain age and joining a new circle of friends. I guess I was about sixteen or seventeen when I took my first trip, which was actually pretty late for someone in Liverpool (laughs). It's strange. It's really nothing to do with rock 'n' roll; it's the least Rock 'n' Roll thing you can think of if you're born in Liverpool. I grew up around heroin addicts and the least glamorous thing I've ever seen are these f--king addicts. They're from my f--king childhood and they were friends of friends and things like that. They were everywhere and it's not glamorous. Consequently, it hasn't been in our music. There's nothing rock 'n' roll about your cousin stealing your stereo just for a bag.
SoT: Well I just meant that there's a cliché that people start experimenting once they're in the music business.
Vincent: Oh, I know. I didn't mean you were wrong. People in general just think that heroin is sheik, which is just stupid. People that think that must be clinically depressed.
SoT: But on the other hand, it's arguable that without psychedelic drugs, some of the most innovative and best music of the 1960s wouldn't have existed.
Vincent: Yeah. There's a great quote Thom Yorke once said that basically says that if Radiohead ever took acid, they'd probably end up sounding like Brian Adams (laughs). They'd be too scared to play anything different and it's kind of true in a way that you can't play when you're high. Hardly anybody ever could. Not anything that's worth anything. Ken Kesey said it best, even about himself, when he talked about being a guinea pig for the CIA for years before he even thought about writing his first book. And then he wrote One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest about his experiences after all of that when he was working in a mental hospital. People thought he was writing a report about all the great work there but he was really writing a book about his night shifts at a mental hospital. He said himself that you can never write when you're high. Hunter S. Thompson is a perfect example as well. He said the same thing. It's just BS most of the time. Go up the mountain when you need to, when you've got nothing else to do and nobody needs you and you'll not be missed. Then, go up the mountain by all means, and when you come back down, do work with your family and in your community. Do everything that's important first and when you have that all sorted and you're heart's in the right place and you have your head in gear, then you can start to create. By all means do these kinds of things but you need to have your heart together and you need to do it in the right kind of way. I truly believe that.
SoT: You're definitely on the right track there, Vincent. So that last area I want to cover is about your influences. Who influenced you growing up and who do you listen to now? Who would you play with today if you had your pick?
Vincent: Oh, that's a fantastic question. Okay, first one. The first band I ever listened to was the Beatles when I was very young, at my grandmother's house, with her hand on my wrist placing, very carefully, the stylus on the "I Want to Hold Your Hand" seven inch. It's the first song I ever danced to. They've always been my first love, the Beatles. Since then, what am I listening to now? Johan Johansson and Clint Mansell. It's kind of epic and beautiful new classical music suitable for soundtracks. It's really inspiring.
SoT: I guess you've heard the score to Requiem For A Dream?
Vincent: Well, yeah that's amazing, but it's actually not one of my favorites. I know it's the most popular but it's not my favorite at all. I like his other stuff as well.
SoT: Did you ever listen to Pop Will Eat Itself?
Vincent: I didn't know them back then. I knew the band name but not them. It'd be quite interesting to hear it now.
SoT: It's like how Danny Elfman went from Oingo Boingo to becoming a very successful composer.
Vincent: Yeah. I guess sometimes it's just down to connections. You're in the right place at the right time and you meet the right people. Things happen if you've got talent. That's just the way it goes. Also, while we're still talking about classical music, my favorite piece of music is probably Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." I love that. Let's see, what else these days? There's a lot of obscure stuff that's amazing as well. One of my favorite albums of the last, say, six years is from an act that's not well known called Frankie Sparo. It's called Welcome Crummy Mystics. I think it was released around 2003 on a label called Constellation Records. They had Godspeed You! Black Emperor and other great artists. Anyway this album is only about thirty-eight minutes long, and it's eight songs and it's perfect. I can't think of anything that's wrong with it. They just possess a different kind of voice and different kinds of lyrics and chord structures. Sometimes it's very simple but other times, it's very obtuse and evocative of lonely, cold nights with red wine and the wind blowing through the windows. Ash and forlorn relationships. I love it. There are people that I know, personally, who are doing things just as good as anything else. Oh, and there's Petter Carlsen. This guy is really unknown, especially in America, but he's like the new Jeff Buckley. And I'm not kidding, either – he's got the songs to back it up. He's got an amazing new album out called Clocks Don't Count. You should hear. It's just awesome.
SoT: I definitely want to. I'm always open to new music.
Vincent: Yeah, that's what I am, man. I listen to a lot of strange stuff that the rest of my band doesn't even know exists. All kinds of stuff.
SoT: Awesome. So who would you play with today if you could pick anyone?
Vincent: Oh, yeah. Forgot about that one (laughs). Well, these days, I'd play with the Kronos Quartet. It's a string quartet and they're probably the best in the world. I'd I guess the best feeling would be to play with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra because I've been out of Liverpool for years now and I'd like to go back there and play with the full orchestra. That's an ambition of mine. If you're looking for bands, anyone that's doing anything new and good. Radiohead are an obvious choice. I'd rather play with Radiohead than most bands but it's not really an ambition of mine like playing with the other ones are. They have to have that kind of depth and talent.
SoT: It'd be interesting to hear orchestral accompaniment to some of your songs live.
Vincent: Yeah but that'd change the way we play. I've played a bit of keyboard when I needed to but it wouldn't be a rock gig at all. It would be us adapted the music to fit the orchestra and not the other way around. That's a challenge I'd be willing to take up. We'll see about that in the future. I think it's a possibility. Maybe not in Liverpool but somewhere.
SoT: The music would be very open to that I think.
Vincent: It'd have to be. It's the orchestra that's leading. The most important things are the rhythm, the orchestra and the voice. Everything else is secondary.
SoT: True. Well I'll let you go get back to work on your music now.
Vincent: Yeah I probably should (laughs). It'd be great to meet one day though. Where do you live?
SoT: Oh, Philadelphia. So, you know, if you ever play around here…
Vincent: Yeah, cool. What's Philadelphia like? I tell you what I know about it. There are a few good hip-hop artists who consider themselves, like, proper gangsters. I guess I'm a secret fan of that. I've been checking out these street battles. These hip-hop battles are great and Philadelphia's a big spot for that.
SoT: Ha, true. On the other hand, I'd love to move to London.
Vincent: It's great. Well, if you're ever in Paris, look me up. You've got my email address. I'll be living in Paris for the next year or couple of years.
SoT: Sounds good.
Vincent: Alright. It's been great, Jordan. You've got a lot of great insights. I'm looking forward to reading this.
SoT: I'll let you know when it's published. It was truly an honor to speak with you. Take it easy, Vincent.
Vincent: You too, man.