Those familiar with the music of Anathema, the post-progressive alternative rock band who have released, to date, eleven studio albums full of some of the most transformative music you’ll ever hear, will know that emotional tension and dramatic intensity are two of the most utilised tools of their trade.
But little did I expect such tension and drama to be in play when I rang Vincent Cavanagh, Anathema’s singer and multi-instrumentalist, late on a Friday night only to be met with a whispering reply to my introductory spiel informing me, on the eve of the band’s latest Australian tour, that he was at the doctor’s surgery awaiting treatment for an uncomfortable eye condition and we would have to reschedule our chat for another day.
It says a lot about the quality of the man that he was so polite, even in his discomfort and distress, and in the face of having his secret revealed – that rock gods are only human after all, subject to the frailties of we mere common folk!
Stoically, Vincent picked up the phone again, as promised, on Saturday, to fulfil his promotional obligations. With his eye a little better now after treatment, he chatted to The Upside News, openly and enthusiastically, about his philosophies on life and music. And his excitement about the band’s current stage show that they will be bringing to Australian shores in just a few days’ time was palpable.
Vincent Cavanagh: (Over a fierce industrial roar) Hello there mate, can you hear me OK?
The Upside News: Yeah I can – is that the vacuum cleaner?
VC: Yeah. (laughs) That’s me missus…
TUN: First of all, just let me apologise for ringing you last night at the doctor’s…
VC: Oh, that’s fine, man. It was alright in the end. I just spent most of the day in waiting rooms, you know. You know how it goes.
TUN: Everything OK?
VC: Yes. It’s all good, yeah. It got treated and it’s all fine. I just had a problem with me eye. I had a corneal abrasion, almost like a scratch which had caused me a dry eye. But it’ll be fine. I’ve got some drops and stuff to use. It was quite painful for a while, but it’s fine today.
TUN: I’ve had some eye issues myself, so I can empathise with you.
I’ve got a few questions to ask you if you don’t mind.
VC: No man, go ahead.
TUN: The first one would have to be the most obvious one. Three times to Australia now, in four years, after not making down here for twenty-five years. What keeps you coming back? What’s grabbed you about Australia?
VC: I think part of it is that you’ve got to give credit to our manager, Andy Farrow from Northern Music. I think he obviously had the connections over there. Obviously, John Howarth, our Australian guy as well. He’s been working with us for the last few years.
So it’s just been the last few pieces of the puzzle getting together really that’s enabled us to get over there [and return] quickly. So, hopefully now, it’s going to become a regular thing because obviously our tours keep evolving, the band as well, I mean we’re constantly progressing with different set lists, and doing the new album and putting all of those songs into it. Doing a new show and doing new visuals, and putting it all into a whole new production. So, yeah, for us it’s exciting really to have everything come together.
I think, in general, as well, we’ve been to Japan for the first time; been to America a couple of times, and we’re about to go back. And all of these things happen – good things happen -to people who work hard, you know…
TUN: And you certainly do…
VC: Yeah, it’s a combination of hard work, momentum and obviously people liking what you’re doing. I do like to put a lot of emphasis on how much you put into something the more you get out of it…
TUN: And obviously with your latest album, The Optimist, winning prizes and getting rave reviews that is testimony to all of your hard work.
VC: Well it was hard work to do, so yeah.
You know, it’s worth it, really worth it, in the end. I mean your ultimate reward is in the work itself – if the work is complete, and there’s nothing else that you would do to change it, or at least very little. And if you’ve left yourself with very little to regret it’s going to be something that you’re going to be able to stand by for the rest of your life.
These things are extremely important. It’s your output. You only do these things every couple of years, you know, so it’s got to be good. You’ve got to be able to stand by it for the rest of your life, and I definitely can with The Optimist.
It feels more of a complete picture really, because it’s got the whole visual story attached to it as well. And the artwork is amazing, and I really like the way the whole thing seems to be a bit more of a coherent whole rather than just a collection of songs.
TUN: Can you talk us through a little about the concept for the album for those who have not heard it yet?
VC: Well it goes all the way back to [Anathema’s 2001 album] A Fine Day To Exit. And the artwork on that album implied that someone had faked their own suicide – the classic scenario of leaving clothes on the beach and then disappearing, never to be found.
The idea there was that he had started a new life and we never once implied that he had actually gone through with it.
But then this new album, there’s different ways to take it. The events on this album, you could see them as being the events that led him on to the beach in the first place. You could also see it as what happened to him immediately afterwards, after the beach and sort of linear, or maybe something happened, and this is all like a flashback happening in an instant.
We don’t really say, because I think that all of those could be valid. But it certainly fleshes out more of the character’s back story, of the things that led up to this event and the consequences of it, really. And I suppose it’s a struggle, one person’s struggle, but at the same time there’s a conclusion to it which is not the one that he expected, but it is ultimately the right one for him.
So, I don’t like to be too literal about this kind of story because it’s not a concept album, it’s more like a visual story really, with artwork and songs and the parts in between are like scenes from a movie. It’s more that kind of thing really.
TUN: And was the San Diego beach [whose map co-ordinates provide the title for the first track of the album] chosen at random, or was there something specific about that particular location?
VC: Well that was where the original cover of A Fine Day To Exit was shot. A place called Silver Stone Beach in San Diego. Travis Smith is from San Diego – the guy who shot the artwork – and he still lives there. So, it made absolute sense for us to start there and then continue from there.
So this whole story about someone having a hallucinatory breakdown is shot in the sunshine state of California, where everybody is, you know, supposed to be happy and life’s supposed to be fantastic. There’s a kind of amusing irony in that.
TUN: I was going to say it was ironic and is the title – The Optimist – ironic too? Because ‘optimism’ is not usually a word I’ve heard associated with your music. I’ve heard, you know, ‘cathartic’…
VC: (Laughs) Yeah…
TUN: …’emotional’ and ‘intense’…
VC: Well it sounds better than The Pessimist!
Yes, it is ironic, but at the same time there is some scope for a light at the end of the tunnel with his story, so you know there’s two ways of looking at it.
TUN: You said The Optimist was based on an idea from an album released back in 2001. Are you finding, as you go through your career, and you change emotionally as you age, that you are looking back at your old material and reassessing it? Is that something that you do a lot? And is that one of the ways you now find new inspiration – by looking to build upon things that you have done before?
VC: I think that it is interesting to have connections with all of your work.
It is something that The Beatles used to do. They used to leave little clues, or write about a certain song, or a certain moment in their life from a different time, you know after a few years passed. And I think that’s interesting especially if you’re being, in some way, autobiographical with your work, because all music is connected – it’s connected to your story as a human being, and your life.
So, there are connections. And there are little clues in all of our work, especially in our most recent albums where you’ll hear a little lyric, or a little melody from something that we’ve done before. We won’t make it overt. It’ll be hidden in some way. I like those things. They’re like little secrets to discover. I enjoy that.
But we’re very much a forward-thinking group of people.
TUN: Does it make it easier because there is so much shared family experience invested in that, so that when you say you can bring in those little moments [from your past work and life experiences] it is because everybody is on the same wavelength, having maybe experienced these things with a similar emotional outlook at the time.
VC: Yeah, well the connection we have as a family [Vincent has two siblings in the band Daniel and Jamie, as well as brother and sister John & Lee Douglas being members as well], obviously runs extremely deep and having stayed together throughout our lives and expressing ourselves in this really honest way for so many years, we sort of know each other inside and out really. There are some times we don’t really have to communicate verbally at all.
TUN: Sort of genetic instinct?
VC: Yes. But there are some other times where we’ll actually put something very personal into a song, but it might not be something we’d talk about. All of these complexities of our personality are something we’ve silently grown to understand about each other.
I mean, when you think about it like that, objectively, its unnatural. It’s not a very common thing for families to be forced into this working environment which is so intense. It’s like some form of marriage, living on top of each other – I mean you’ve got to allow a little bit of breathing space, you know.
But we’ve found a happy way to do it. Everybody gets along.
TUN: So you’ve said there are some things you don’t need to verbalise, so there hasn’t been a moment where Daniel has put something in a song where you’ve gone, ‘No. We’re not going to go there.’ Has that happened at any time, where you’ve touched upon things that other band members don’t want to share?
VC: Where it’s too personal? Like it’s too close to the bone?
VC: Yeah, there have been some things. There might be a couple of little things whereby I think [Daniel] should protect himself a little bit more sometimes. Because more often than not Dan – all that Danny does is – wears his heart on his sleeve. It just pours out of him. And I’ll say to Danny, ‘You know this bit is fine as it is. You don’t really need to go that confessional at this point. You know what I mean? You’ve got to keep something back for yourself I think. Danny essentially is expressing everything about himself throughout his music, and always has done.
John, on the other hand, is one of those kind of people who will say something that is just as deep, but there will be a certain type of angular poetry to it, so it won’t be as…
TUN: It’s obscured a little bit, it’s not direct?
VC: Yeah, it’s obscured. It’s a little more fluid in its vocabulary. It’s less literal and contains more imagery. It might just be a strange sort of use of grammar as well. He’s got a very fluid mind, John. He doesn’t follow literary rules, you know, all of the time.
You’ll still find the same amount of confessional lyrics, and you’ll find his deepest concerns in there but, again, there could be something that he won’t actually verbally communicate the stuff to you. There could be something that he’s turning over in his head, and he’ll write about it in his poetry and in his music, but he never really talks about it.
And it could be things like the deepest things in his relationship. He recently had a break-up in a relationship that was very difficult and very, very hard to go through because he wanted it to work – they both did – but then, eventually, it didn’t. And he wrote Distant Satellites [from the 2014 album of the same name] about that. You know, the idea of two people being satellites in orbit around each other but…
TUN: It’s a fantastic metaphor…
VC: …but it just didn’t work out, you know.
TUN: And what is happening there is he’s tapping into something that can be seen as universal…
VC: Yeah. A lot of these things in our lyrics are the biggest things that happen in your life. You know, when you fall in love, when you break up with somebody, or when somebody dies who was close to you. You have a little mental breakdown. These things happen universally.
And we choose to put these things into music because it’s our best way of getting through it and expressing how we feel about it.
TUN: It’s like an exorcism?
VC: In a way. It is cathartic, without meaning, necessarily, that you’re healed. Or that you‘re free. It’s just a means of going through it, you know. Especially with certain mental health struggles. Most people will probably struggle with those things for the rest of their lives, if they have any severe issues. Then sometimes you find a way to function, but it doesn’t mean that you’re all better now just because you’ve written a fucking song about it.
TUN: It just releases the pressure briefly, that outlet…
VC: It can help you to understand things that little bit better, let’s put it that way. And I think, for the listener who might be from the other side of the world, from Australia, or from anywhere with a completely different background, different language, different culture, everything, there’ll be something in a song – not just our stuff – but in any song that makes you feel automatically connected to that song, and the person who wrote it, that makes you feel less alone. There’s somebody else going through something that you exactly feel. You feel as if these songs could be written about you, but they aren’t about your life. And you’ll never meet that person who wrote it, but their themes are so universal and so prevalent across all of the human condition…you know how they make you feel…
TUN: Yes, I do know how they make you feel…
VC: You feel less alone.
TUN: Yeah. I was playing Distant Satellites up fairly loud last night just before I rang you, and it is interesting hear you say that it was about relationship break-up because there is so clearly a sense of that level of emotion there.
I mean, your band does make really transportive music that just takes you into an emotional zone and affects you. It is a universal language that you use in that particular combination of chord changes, or of vocal melodies, where the language of the words is not so important because the emotion their delivery carries is so sincere…
VC: Yeah, you can express things like falling in love, breaking up with somebody, the death of somebody very close to you, or the contemplation of your own mortality, or the birth of your child, or all the things that are the biggest things that ever happen to you in your life. You can express all of these things without words. You can express these things with music. For example, I listen to a lot of instrumental music. I always have done. And there’s a sort of…I’m trying to find the right word here…’beauty’ in the non-verbal expression of an emotion that is very difficult to actually quantify and put into words afterwards. It’s almost like you’re trying to analyse something that doesn’t need to be analysed.
Erik Satie’s [20th century French avant garde composer] Gymnopedie Pt. 1. The minute you hear that piano refrain…well, I could imagine him being the very last person on Earth, and he’s resigned to that fate and he’s fine with it, and there’s an intense joy and there’s an intense melancholy in that music.
It’s a very complex thing and I don’t really think I’m able to communicate it properly, but if you were to write a lyric on top of that it wouldn’t improve it. If you were to add a cello part to that it wouldn’t improve it.
If you’re really trying to get to the core of an emotion, of what you’re trying to express – let’s remove the lyrics from the equation for a second and let’s just look at the music – you have to say, ‘Are you putting anything in the way of that emotion?’
Quite often, if you’ve got a full band with a couple of guitars and a keyboard player and a piano player and drums and three vocalists and orchestra and all this shit, right? You could be cluttering it up when all you really fucking need is just a piano and very little else.
So the trick of writing music to express an emotion is in what not to play – and to get out of the way of yourself, get out of the way of the music and to allow the music to really dictate what it is trying to say without your fucking ego on top of it trying to tell you ‘Hey, I need a guitar solo!’
Do you notice there are no guitar solos in Anathema’s music? Do you know why? Because they don’t make any fucking sense!
On a rare occasion you can find a space for something but not in the show-off way that is associated with a lot of rock music.
TUN: Particularly progressive rock music with its frequent changes…
VC: Especially progressive rock music. In progressive rock music you might have a song that is very heartfelt, you know, like a lot of progressive rock music lyrics, ironically, are about heartfelt subjects, and I don’t know progressive music very well but we went on this prog cruise and I was talking to some prog fans, and I said, ‘Listen, what is it about prog rock that you like so much?’ And they said it was the emotion behind music. I said, ‘Really?’ They said, ‘Yeah, yeah – it’s very emotional music.’
Fuck! That was the last thing I expected to hear! So apparently there are a lot of bands who write very emotional songs – but then they’ll go off into a fucking three and a half minute guitar solo, or keyboard solo! It doesn’t make any sense to me.
TUN: Whereas Anathema’s music builds the emotion in a sort of trance like way at times…
VC: It’s all very layered but it’s all very deliberate. We strip a lot away. We’re very brutal with our stuff. We’ll chop whole sections out and cut and splice things together. To make a full album we’re very conscious of stuff like, ‘How long’s this intro here? Does that fucking need to be a minute and a half before we hear the vocals? Nah. Ok, so now it’s thirty seconds, alright? Yeah, that’ll do’ You know, it’s things like that. And they don’t bother us at all. You’ve got to know when to kill your ego in music, kill some of things you thought were important, because quite often they’re not.
TUN: So is that the place that you’ll always aim for, that razor’s edge between joy and melancholy? Is that the target for most of your music?
VC: Somewhere around that, yes. Because there is a joy in melancholy in music. An intense joy. Practically all of the music I have listened to in my life has that. Think of some of John Lennon’s best work. The Beatles were known to be, from the time they first started out, great melodists, supreme songwriters – the best there’s ever been – but then as soon as John Lennon wrote In My Life things got a lot deeper. And that song, for the most part, is in a major key but there is a melancholy to it. And there’s a reflectiveness to it, and there’s memories and philosophy, and there’s all sorts in there that happens to be very moving.
And ultimately, it’s all about something that moves you in some way and it could be a melancholic joy or it could be a euphoric joy. It’s the same thing. As long as it moves you to that extent. Music has the power to do that and so that’s what it should do.
I don’t think music is for thinking. Do you know what I mean?
TUN: That’s an interesting thing to say…
VC: When I listen to the best music I listen to, I don’t put my chin in my hand and think, ‘Ooh, that’s clever.’
TUN: Music replaces thinking. It fills your head rather than your own convoluted ways of trying to read into it…
VC: Well I always come back to this one term. It’s a genre of music, but to me it means so much more than that – and it’s ‘soul’. I mean, does your music have soul? If it has soul…I mean, Oasis have soul. Do you know what I mean? Fucking AC/DC have got soul. There’s something real…it moves you. You get it, and it gets you.
There’s a certain thing about it. I mean certain electronic music can have soul. Jon Hopkins’ [British producer and musician, Eno collaborator] music is extremely moving. Max Richter, the contemporary classical composer, Aphex Twin, even Deadmau5…there is soul in synthesisers. And in drum machines. You can have that. It is possible, you know. It doesn’t have to be a guitar…
TUN: That’s right. If the performer is inhabiting the music, rather than, as you said before, just showing off their virtuosity…
VC: Exactly! ‘Inhabiting’ it is the word. Do you inhabit a human fucking being? I mean, you can spot it a mile off. You see a guitarist on stage, right? And he might be able to play the guitar way, way better than Dave Gilmour, for example, but he’ll never play a solo as good as Don’t Leave Me Now, off The Wall. Now, the Don’t Leave Me Now solo is a minute and a half long and there’s five notes in it. But it’s the way he holds these notes and he bends it and controls the feedback in such a way that it’s extremely moving. And in that place there is space for a guitar solo like that because it’s five notes and it’s a minute and a half and there’s more emotion in that than in most of these shredders whole careers. That’s because Dave Gilmour has soul, you know. And a lot of these other people are studying things mechanically and reading off the page, but they can’t play something with soul.
TUN: What’s the point of having the land speed record for fretwork when the punter just wants to go to the bar and not really be transported, or having the performer have them transcend the moment…
VC: Yeah exactly, transcendence that’s the thing.
I absolutely feel that that will always be there in music. And no matter how technologically advanced we get with our music, and no matter how easy we make things for ourselves with our technology, to have soul and have real human emotion that’s what it’s always been about. And that’s what it always will be about.
TUN: I could talk to you for ages about the power of music, but I must ask you a couple of questions about the Australian tour.
Those who have seen A Sort Of Homecoming, your most recent live DVD, have they seen the sort of show you are bringing to us this time? Or will it be The Optimist played in its entirety? How is the set going to look?
VC: It’s going to be different to both of those things. What it is, is that we have decided to bring in a few songs from A Fine Day To Exit because the two albums are artistically and conceptually linked. Some songs that we never usually play live like Pressure, Panic, Breaking Down The Barriers, Looking Outside Inside. These things are all cool songs but they were somewhat overlooked because we never played them that often. So what we decided to do is to break up the set list a bit. We’ll start off with some Optimist stuff, then go into Fine Day To Exit stuff, then into other parts of the catalogue, before coming back to some Optimist stuff. It’s quite a long show. There’s a visual side to it as well, it’s going to be cool, man! It is going to be cool!
We’re doing things in a slightly different way. We’ve got new equipment and instruments on stage we’ve never really used before and we’re using slightly more electronics and I’m playing synthesisers and vocoders and playing a bit of drums in a certain part. It’s really interesting for me to have my own little, new world of instruments to play on, rather than just being up the front with a microphone and a guitar.
For me personally, I’m really enjoying the shows. It’s great.
TUN: It sounds really cool. The last time you came to Adelaide, on the acoustic tour, the only time you’ve been to Adelaide before, I was out of the country, so I’m really looking forward to seeing you this time.
VC: That was good, man.
TUN: So just a quick tour of Australia and then you go to Turkey before you go home. That’s a very Christmassy thing to do – a bit of Turkey for Christmas…
VC: (Laughs) I see what you did there! Yeah, kebabs all round. Turkey kebabs all round! But I’m a vegetarian, so I don’t eat meat anymore.
TUN: But I had to work that line in there somewhere…
VC: Yeah. I’m sure we’ll have a couple of kebabs for the lads, but I’ll see what I can do. I’ll see if I can get some haloumi.
TUN: Well your tour starts in a couple of days, you must be leaving for Australia very soon?
VC: Yeah, I’m going tomorrow night.
TUN: I’m really looking forward to catching the show – and just keep making fantastic music.
VC: I’m going to bring me shorts and my fucking pasty arse over there and see what happens! It should be good!
TUN: So thanks for the chat Vincent, and I’ll see you next Saturday night.
VC: Awesome! Cheers, man.
Anathema play The Gov on Saturday December 9. Tickets from the usual outlets.