“It’s never a chore to play a concert. Travelling can be a chore, being tired can be a chore, but playing concerts is not a chore.”
Interview By Paul Quinton
Within the last few years, Anathema have travelled from being a metal band to a point where they’ve become one of the most admired and respected outfits on the current Progressive Rock scene, having made a sequence of superb albums and released a mesmerising live DVD/CD, ‘Universal’, that featured the band performing with an orchestra. Now with another brilliant album, ‘Distant Satellites,’ released, after an appearance at Download and in advance of a lengthy series of dates that included a trip to Australia and a UK tour, guitarist Danny Cavanagh spoke to Paul Quinton about playing Download, the recording of the new album and the creative process.
Before we talk about the new album, I’d like to ask you about your Download appearance. I was there on the Friday, and to be honest, your set was one of those I was most looking forward to. Sadly, (fan hat on!) while you played brilliantly, the sound wasn’t the best out front, and from what I saw, you weren’t having the best of things onstage, either. Is that a fair assessment?
I suppose it is a fair assessment. What can I say, you can’t control these things, you know? It was the first gig we’d done in a while, it was just tricky, and we learned a couple of quick lessons there. But we did make up for it by doing a blinding acoustic set the next day, which was banging, it really was, so that was good.
Are festivals like that something you enjoy? Are you able to see something of the other bands?
It depends on the line-up. It can be, but there’s so muchmusic out there now, and I get so bored. If I really love a band, I will be very, very happy to hear their melodies. . we played recently in Spain, and Antimatter and Alcest were both on the bill. I really am quite a fan of both of those bands and in that respect, yes, I do enjoy to see other bands, but I have to love them to do it, or, at least, absolutely love what’s happening at that moment. For example, Status Quo at Donnington was great fun, because of the company I was with and the music they were playing.
I’d also like to ask you about the ‘Universal’ DVD and live album. It’s a great, great show, and the setting is spectacular. What are your memories of the night?
My memories of that night are very positive. Everybody worked very, very hard to make that happen, and the band were actually fairly nervous, so I made a conscious decision, in the second song, to enjoy it and that’s what I did. I had time on my hands, I wasn’t playing piano then, and I had time to enjoy the experience and take it all in. So that’s what I did from song No. 2, which meant that for the rest of the show it was great, and I honestly think it was the best gig of the whole tour, and it was the first one!
How did you get on with the orchestra itself? At the start of the DVD, I have to say one or two of them look a little apprehensive about what’s to come.
Don’t worry about that, you can read too much into these things. I’m sure they enjoyed it very much.
So, I have to ask, why Bulgaria? Was it just the setting of the amphitheatre?
Actually the Bulgaria idea was set up before the idea of the DVD came, so the show was set up, and the DVD idea came after that, not the other way around.
Turning, then, to ‘Distant Satellites’, you must have been thrilled with the response to the album, even national newspaper reviewers, like The Guardian and Independent, have raved about it. (Without sucking up in any way, I have to say the reviews are entirely justified. ‘Distant Satellites’ is a brilliant piece of work). How much notice do you take of reviews, good or bad?
I’m taking less and less notice of reviews these days. I suppose I’m a bit less caught up in the opinions of others than I may have been over ‘Weather Systems’. I’m more interested, really, in the opinions of my very close circle of friends and the band. The band’s opinions obviously come first, I’m happy enough with how that goes, but it’s my opinion that counts most at the end of the day, and if I really, really believe in something, or think I could not have done that better, then that is the bottom line for me.
One thing I’m always interested in is the creative process. When it comes to putting an album together, do you tend to accumulate ideas and material over a period of time, or do you schedule writing sessions, actively sit down to begin writing for a new album?
We tend to accumulate ideas, melodies, themes, chords, over a period of time, then we get together and look at them all, put them in a computer, write them on a white board, and from there start to listen and feel, particularly between myself, Vincent and John, and our producer Christer, which ones are the absolute best and which ones we can let go or do another time.
I’ve read other interviews in which you, Danny, and Vince have described various aspects of the band’s writing process, but I’d be interested to know how much input the rest of the band have when the songs are being put together and recorded.
John Douglas is really the other creative head in the band, and so it’s myself, and John and Vinnie in the middle of that, and Christer at the head, making sense od everything. There isn’t much space in my brain for any more members than that in the creative process, I start to get confused when different opinions start flying about, because there’s so many millions of different combinations of the ways music can go, that I struggle to work outside of that group. It’s because our heritage and history are so common, that there’s a genuine musical trust there, built up over decades, and so I struggle to work with anything outside of that.
Do you have a firm idea of how you want the songs to sound when you go into the studio, or are you tempted to work on them and change them around when you’re actually recording them?
Oh yeah, we always change them in the studio. These things are very fluid, in fact they can change up until the last day of recording. But often, the ideas are quite strong behind them, and there is usually, from the writer, a strong idea of which way it will go. But other people can influence that way, and other people can suggest a difference that makes something better. The writer can agree with them and say ‘yeah, you’re right, we’ll do it your way’. That happens a lot.
One of the most impressive things about the album is the orchestral arrangements. Is this something that evolved from working with an orchestra live or is it something you’d planned for a while? Had you identified Dave Stewart as a possible arranger, or was that something that came about through Steven Wilson’s involvement?
If you look at the history of the band, the orchestra started with ‘Dreaming Light’ and ‘Universal’ on the ‘We’re Because We’re Here’ album, then the ‘Falling Deeper’ album which is almost entirely orchestral, then the next one was ‘weather systems’, which has orchestra on and so on, then the DVD came after that, and then ‘Distant Satellites’ came after, so it’s actually been happening since 2010. Dave Stewart came through Steve Wilson’s management as a possible arranger, and that came through ‘Dreaming Light’ and ‘Universal’s mixing process, in which Steven was absolutely sure that we could not replace the orchestra with keyboards, it had to be a real orchestra, and he was right about that.
Another interesting feature on the album is your venture into electronic and ambient territory. It’s nowhere near as radical as, say, a band like Pure Reason Revolution, but I was still surprised and pleased at how well this fitted in with the rest of the album. Was this something that happened naturally or did you make a conscious decision to experiment in this way?
It happened naturally. In fact the songs, particularly ‘Distant Satellites’ and ‘Take Shelter’ are among the oldest of all the material on the record. The origin of ‘Distant Satellites’ goes back 15 years at least. The song that it is now is a relatively recent version of it. That song germ, that idea, the embryo of that song goes back many years. So the electronica is always something that’s been there for us in the background, it’s been more important to us as music fans than perhaps to the Anathema music listening fan base has been aware of and it’s been waiting a long time to come out, and now was the right time.
As far as playing live goes, you’re going to be pretty busy between now and Christmas. Is playing live still a pleasure for you, or do you reach the moment when it becomes a chore, even when you get to play somewhere like Australia for the first time? How often do you start thinking, ‘Oh God, I want to go home’?
Playing live is a pleasure for me. It’s never a chore to play a concert. Travelling can be a chore, being tired can be a chore, but playing concerts is not a chore. But, like I say, the travel can be tough.
What will the live line-up be, as I noticed at Donington, and again from what I’ve seen of the set you did at Loreley, that you’ve added a percussionist?
Yes, we’ve got a percussionist and a drummer. In fact the percussionist in the band has been there from the beginning, John Douglas, who wrote the title track of the album, as well as ‘Storm Before The Calm’ and ‘Universal’. So he’s an accomplished writer and he’s also part of the creative heart. Daniel Cardoso’s been brought in as a drummer, able to adapt to the much more complex and challenging rhythms that are happening now, and John is playing a role in which he supports that and writes songs.
I won’t ask about spoilers for the likely set list for the tour (as long as you play ‘Closer’ and ‘Thin Air’!), but do you approach putting together a set list for a festival differently to your own headlining show?
A Set list can change depending on where you’re playing and who you’re playing to. For example, touring America for the first time, with HIM, as a support band playing largely to an audience who didn’t know who we were, meant that I kind of guided the set list towards intensity, to grabbing their attention and not letting it go, and not losing the audience at any point during that 40 minute concert. That’s one way of approaching it. To play a headlining show in front of people that love you, and love the recent material, is really about playing all the songs we love the most, and to play a festival is a different thing again, because you’re talking about intensity and tempos and balancing things, so it really depends on the situation.
Finally, as I said, you’re touring almost up to Christmas now. Will you be looking forward to a break in 2015, or will you be back on the road? I’d love to see you do some more of those acoustic shows in settings like the cathedrals etc, especially as I wasn’t able to get to one of the shows!
We won’t have much of a break in 2015. There’ll be much more touring, possibly solo records and another Anathema album to plan, so it’s all good, and there will be acoustic shows in cathedrals too, so look out for those in the early part of next year.
Anathema’s sumptuous new album ‘Distant Satellites’ is available now on K-Scope Records. The band will be on tour in the UK during September, including a show at the Slade Rooms in Wolverhampton on September 25th