Interview: Anathema’s Vincent Cavanagh Talks Australian Tour

2014 marked Anathema’s hugely successful first tour of Australia and the band is set to return to our shores in October of this year for a set of acoustic performances. This time, Anathema will also be performing for their fans in Adelaide, Perth, and New Zealand. Nominated for Best Album of the Year at the 2014 Prog Music Awards for Distant Satellites, and winning Best Song of the Year for the beautiful Anathema, the band continues to push boundaries and reach greater creative heights than ever before. In this interview frontman Vincent Cavanagh talks to us about creating music, what inspires him, and some of his all-time favourite concert experiences. Oh, and for good measure he also keeps us in stitches with some very funny stories. So, settle in for a very candid and very entertaining ride, because… F*ck yeah, it’s Vincent Cavanagh!

SR: Congratulations on the well-deserved praise that Distant Satellites continues to enjoy. What was your goal when you first started work on this release, and how did it feel to hear the finished album for the first time?

anathema-distant-satellitesVC: The goal was to do something as good, if not better than, Weather Systems, which is pretty much the goal for every album, really. We just want to top ourselves, you know what I’m saying? When we first got together, it was about eight or nine months before the recording, and it was just a two-week session in Portugal. We were working with Daniel Cardoso for the first time, on drums at that point. We brought all of our ideas to the table, and we sorted through which songs we wanted to work on. But then, during that session we actually wrote three or four brand new pieces which became the centre point of the new album. A lot of that was down to Cardoso being there, because he was just physically able to do these intricate rhythms. John wasn’t actually in the studio at that point. It was just me, Danny, and Daniel.

So, a lot of it came from there and I think, musically, we knew we were on to something from then. And then we developed it over the course of the next few months. Then we went into the studio and laid it down. The one thing we did on Distant Satellites is we wrote all the vocals in the studio, just before they were being recorded.

SR: Oh, did you?

VC: Yes, we’ve done that a few times and I think it works for the most part. But, if I was to change anything on the next record, that would be the one thing that I’d change about our work. I’d like to have everything written before we go in. I’m not sure if that’s going to happen. I mean, I can say that now, but I don’t know if it’ll happen. And listening to it through for the first time? Yeah, I was massively into it, you know. I’m really into songs like Distant Satellites and Anathema. I think especially Distant Satellites, because that one’s kind of more my baby, really. It’s the culmination of a lot of the work that I’ve been doing at home on my stuff, which is more kind of electronic-based. It was just the right time to bring it in to Anathema, you know? It was originally John’s idea, those chord progressions and that, but I kind of finished it, you know?

SR: They are both beautiful tracks.

VC: Yeah, you know I’ve always been into electronica and that, since I was 17, or probably earlier than that. When I was a kid, I was into electronic beats and things. When I was about 17, I properly got into Aphex Twin and all that kind of acid/techno stuff, like Hardfloor, and I got into the Future Sound of London and Drug Free American and anything like acid/techno/tribal/trance. I started to go out to clubs as well, clubs and raves. I actually played a couple of raves when I was 17.

“…We had a record deal and we were still making songs that sounded like some kind of Monty Python skit…”

SR: Did you? At 17?

VC: Yeah, yeah, ‘cause I was working in this recording studio with these two guys who were in this electronic music project called Solenoid. Just through working in the studio, I got into programming beats and that. They liked what I was doing and asked me to program a few beats for their stuff, and then they asked me to play these raves up in Newcastle, in England, which I did. I think they liked that I had long hair. They wanted someone who’d play those…We were playing those electronic drum-pads, you know, like Simmons pads. And they wanted me to wear a headband because they thought it would be good for the image. And we had a couple of girls singing and all that kind of business, so it was pretty cheesy. (Laughs)

SR: What great fun for a 17-year-old!

VC: Yeah, it was good. So we’ve always been into that, you know? But I think only in the last few years I actually had the equipment and the hardware and software to produce it myself at home. And that’s kind of opened up a whole new world for me because, to be honest with you, before that I’d got bored with writing stuff on the guitar. So, this is how I write now. I write music and produce music at home with my own stuff. I use the guitar as an instrument. I don’t really write much on the guitar.

SR: What sort of equipment are you using?

VC: Well, I’ve got my own little home studio. So, I’m running everything through that. I’ve got a bunch of bits of hardware and a lot of software. I could start with anything. I could start with a synth tone, a simple wave table, and work from that. I could start with sampling something. You know, the same way a lot of electronic artists do. I could start with a beat or a kind of a texture or atmosphere – something that inspires me in a certain way. And then I fiddle my way around it from there, really. I do it every day because it’s my favourite way to pass any time, and the beauty of technology these days is I can take it with me, you know, when I’m tour or I’m travelling. If I’m on a long flight or whatever I can get my laptop out and I can work on stuff. I love that aspect of it.

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SR: I love that about 25 years ago, you were recording tunes on Fisher Price tape recorders and using the couch as a drum kit.

(Both laugh)

SR: It must’ve been quite a leap from there to forming the band in ’93. What was the catalyst?

VC: Buying a drum kit.

“Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was a huge influence on Danny…”

SR: Oh, it was that easy?

VC: Yeah, none of us had any money. I think John got a drum kit for Christmas or something. So it was that. And we got some guitars. I got a guitar – a shitty guitar – for Christmas. It was a simple as that. It was like, get some gear, get some equipment, and all of a sudden we’re a band now. (Laughs). And guess what? We had a record deal so quick as well. We had a record deal within 12 months of us just getting some gear. It was ridiculous.

SR: That’s amazing!

VC: It was hilarious, as well. We had a record deal and we were still making songs that sounded like some kind of Monty Python skit. We had the record deal and we said, ‘Okay, we’ll book some studio time. We’ll write these tunes and go in the studio and record a proper album.’ Like, we’re a proper band now and we’ll record a proper album. But we were still just kids arseing about. It was hilarious. Brilliant days. And even in those days, though, we did a 23-minute long ambient synth piece. We did acoustic stuff. We did some psychedelic weirdness, with reversed tapes and all of that kind of stuff. We did like classical intros and sections like this. So, I think we were always bound to experiment a little bit, and that came more to the fore as things progressed

SR: I’ve forgotten which band member is the Beethoven fan, but I know he’s an influence. Which classical musicians are you influenced by?

VC: Yeah, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was a huge influence on Danny. I think all of us were massively into classical music, through watching movies when we were kids. We used to get a lot of inspiration for all kinds of music. I didn’t know the names of the composers then. So, I’d be watching The Elephant Man and that scene at the end where he lies down and dies. I didn’t know it was Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, but I do now. When I was a kid, I’d have the hair standing up on the back of my neck not just because of how beautiful the scene was and how brilliant the movie was, but because this music was so intense. I remember hearing Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio for Strings when I was a kid and not knowing what the fuck it was doing to me. ‘It’s doing something to me!’ I remember watching some movies with Ennio Morricone’s music in them and feeling the same thing, like, ‘How amazing that it’s doing that!’ Actually, my Mum knew. She goes, ‘That’s Morricone. That’s Ennio Morricone.’ She knew about this guy. So I was like, ‘Ahhh, okay.’

SR: And of course your music is very cinematic. Is that what you’d put it down to – growing up being so entranced by those scores?

VC: Possibly, yeah. Possibly. Yeah, I think we’ve always been into not just movies but other artists as well who’ve made that kind of widescreen cinematic sound. You know, bands like Floyd and The Beatles’ later career. And obviously being into electronic music, there’s that whole soundscape thing attached to it as well. We were always into psychedelic music and that kind of thing. You can build up the song, certain sections of the song. You’ll do the intro, you’ll come into your first verse. You might do a chorus, you might not. You might do an instrumental section. You might fuck off in this direction, do a slowdown, breakdown, and build up again. And then you go into this whole midsection that’s a completely different thing to everything else you’ve just been doing. And the song just takes a direct left turn and goes into something weird at that point. We’ve always been into stuff like that. We were doing that on the earliest records. I guess that’s ‘progressive’ though, right?

“I saw Amy Winehouse once…Yeah, I saw her before she got big.”

It’s only now that people call us a ‘progressive’ band, but we never really grew up on quote unquote ‘prog rock.’ The only Genesis song I could tell you is fuckin’ I Can’t Dance. Do you know what I mean? That shit song with Phil Collins. I don’t know Genesis! I don’t at all. Yes? What do I know about Yes? Owner of a Lonely Heart and that’s it. I’m ashamed to say it, because I’m sure these artists are amazing, but I just don’t know it. It’s not my scene. It’s not what I grew up on. I grew up on blues and soul and that kind of stuff, so I don’t know. But nowadays, I accept the term ‘progressive’, but only as an ethos, really; because I think we’ve always had that as an ethos, as a mantra for ourselves – to never repeat ourselves and always evolve and look forward. So, in that sense, I accept it, but not as a genre. I don’t really know what the genre is, and I think most purists of the genre would agree with me, to be honest with you. Because Anathema isn’t really a prog rock band. We do choruses, for fuck’s sake. We do pop songs! Dreaming Light is not a prog song. It’s a fucking piano ballad. It’s a pop song. (Laughs). I’m not ashamed to say it, it fuckin’ is! It’s alright. That’s fine. We do whatever we want.

SR: Which is great.

VC: It’s a very fortunate position to be in, where it’s actually accepted to do that now. But from very early on, people knew we were going to be one of those bands that were just going to continue to change, regardless of what they wanted us to do. So, we’re in this position where if we actually did repeat ourselves, if we actually did go backwards, people would go, ‘What the fuck did you do that for? Why did you do that? Why didn’t you just keep going, doing what you were doing?’ So, that’s a perfect position for a band like us to be in.

SR: Yes, it is. I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing you play live yet, but I’ve read many descriptions of what a powerful experience it is. What are some gigs that you’ve gone to see that have moved you?

VC: Oh God, that’s a great question. Once, when I was about 21, I was walking through Brussels and in the distance, I heard a violin and I think it was a guitar accompaniment. I kept thinking, ‘What is that? What is that? I know that,’ and I ran towards this sound. I was actually with somebody at the time. I just left them there and I ran towards this sound, eventually found it and it was just one guy playing a violin and this guy playing an acoustic guitar. And he was playing Albinoni’s Adagio for Strings.

SR: Oh, it came back into your life!

VC: (Hums the tune). One of the best pieces of music I’ve ever heard in my life, and it brought me to tears. It’s one of those moments that will always stick with me and it was just some guy on a fucking street corner, two guys on a street corner, on a summer’s day in Brussels. It moved me no end. I’m trying to think of the best singer I’ve ever seen live. I saw Amy Winehouse once.

SR: Wow, did you?

VC: Yeah, I saw her before she got big. She was playing this small basement club in Liverpool. Her sound man had just done our tour – we had the same sound man. He said, ‘She’s playing next week, do you want to come down?’ I said, ‘Fuckin’ absolutely!’ There were about 50 people there. And she was fucking amazing! There was a whole band as well. There was a 7-piece band there. Everybody had that polished sort of sound, but she was really impressive, you know? She had an incredible voice and just a natural, effortless talent that very few people have.

I never got to see Jeff Buckley live, but I imagine it’d be akin to seeing somebody like that. Other experiences that have blown my head off… I once saw A Silver Mt. Zion. I’ve seen them a few times, but the very first time it was the Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra La La Band, to give them their full title. It’s another band from members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The guitarist from Godspeed– it’s kind of his band in a way, but it’s cool. He gets to sing in it and they do a lot of choir stuff and they do a lot of vocals. This was in 2004. I saw them in the Scala in London and that was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I remember Efrim was telling this story about how somebody in a factory somewhere is making a missile that’s going to rip open some kid on the other side of the world and how both of their lives evolved differently. And this guy isn’t really thinking about what he’s doing, making this missile. And this girl, on the other side of the world, this kid, is eating the most beautiful nectarine she’s ever eaten in her life. It’s the best thing she’s ever eaten, this piece of fruit. And as he’s telling this story, it’s taking about five minutes, and some of the crowd are getting a little big fidgety. Like, it’s getting a little bit awkward. I’m just holding on for the guy. I’m just going, ‘Oh please, come on. Bring this home, this is great. I’m with you.’ You know what I mean? And he just brought it right back around to how it made perfect sense with this other guy on the other side of the world. Then they started this song and my chin hit the fucking floor. It was like the best thing I’d ever seen.

SR: Wow!

VC: Another great concert I saw and had one of those moments was when I saw Roger Waters in about 2001. He played the whole of Shine On You Crazy Diamond. It was in the Birmingham NEC – this big, massive arena. Behind him, he had this projection of Syd Barrett on an enormous, almost 100-foot high screen – a massive screen of Syd Barrett’s face. And over the course of this 17-minute long song, or whatever it is, his face just started to slowly dissolve and pull apart at the seams. It was incredible. So yeah, I’ve seen a few. These are the ones that stick with me.

SR: And your audiences are famously moved by your performances. Can you tell us what it’s like to be up there and feel that energy?

VC: Well, we kind of get ourselves into the state where we’re moved as well, you know? It’s a lot easier if the crowd are responding like that. Sometimes you don’t need the crowd to be giving you massive feedback. Sometimes it just happens anyway. It just depends on where you’re playing, you know? But, I always prefer it when there’s something going on in the room. There’s kind of this unspoken thing going on between us and them and we’re all feeling the same thing. What I try to do… It’s a bizarre thing, because when I go onstage, I try to forget about the audience a little bit because I have to focus on what I’m singing. And in order to focus myself into the lyrics, I have to switch off from the room and from everything else. But just by the process of going through all of these songs and the lyrics, you can feel there’s something going on. So, then I have to open my eyes and acknowledge the fact that there’s something going on. At those points, it reaches a higher level. I don’t know what it’s like from other people’s perspective, I can only tell you mine. I actually prefer the acoustic concerts in some ways, because there’s just something more intimate about them, you know? There’s something more immediate about the connection. It’s more palpable. It’s easier to connect in the room.

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SR: Was that one of the reasons you wanted to bring an acoustic show to Australia?

VC: Yeah, but we’ve been doing these acoustic gigs in Europe for years now and it’s about time the Aussies got to see it as well. It sounds pretty full-on, you know? It’s not your standard unplugged show. We hammer out beats with the acoustic guitars and loop them with bass lines and riffs, rhythms, and arpeggios. There are synth-ish sounds and there are pianos. It sounds pretty full-on in itself, you know? There’s a lot of energy going on. And then occasionally there are intimate moments, which are just very quiet – it’s just a voice and a guitar. We get to improvise a little bit as well. It’s interesting for us as well, just seeing how you can try and find a new melody or phrase or line here or there that you haven’t played before. It’s just happening on the spot.

SR: And you’ve played in some stunning venues that must further enhance your audiences’ experience of seeing you live, including that incredible Roman amphitheatre in Bulgaria. If you could play in any setting on the planet, what would it be?

anathema poster australiaVC: I’d like to play somewhere like the Atacama Desert or in front of the pyramids. I love the idea of something happening in nature. But if we’re talking about actual venues, well there are a few very special venues that I’ve heard of. There’s the Royal Albert Hall in London. That’s a bit of an ambition. There’s a small theatre – a small, small theatre. It’s almost like a Shakespearean theatre. It’s mainly used for theatre and plays and things. It’s got no stage. And that’s in Paris. It’s called the Bouffes du Nord. I want to play there. It’s got like a 400 capacity, but I want to play there. I’d like to do Sydney Opera House.

SR: That would be nice! It would be a fantastic place for you.

VC: Do you reckon? If we did it, we’d go full-out orchestral.

SR: That would be magnificent to see. I hope you do that.

VC: Well, we can do it, you know? We can do it. We’re ready for that. We’ve done it before. It just takes planning, that’s all. It takes a few months of planning.

SR: Music for Nations are back now, with popular remasters including your earlier material. How do you feel about that, and what are your feelings about the evolution of the music industry, with iTunes, YouTube, self-publishing, and streaming and so forth? Does it put you under any additional pressure, or do you embrace these changes?

VC: No, I don’t care about it. We don’t feel any pressure as far as making music is concerned. We switch off from all of that. We don’t allow any external pressures or influences or expectations into what we’re doing. We just do what we’re doing. It’s very simple. We just do what we’ve always done. As far as the music industry’s concerned, it’s such an evolving, amorphous beast at the moment that I think it’s eventually going to find its feet. At the moment, I’m buying a lot of vinyl. Like for a lot of people, I think that’s a reaction against this kind of throwaway nature of the way music is consumed these days. I’ve got no problem if that’s the way people want to consume music, you know. That’s fine. But, for me, this is the way I do it. And the artwork that people put into making these iconic record covers…and not only that, but all the inner sleeve artwork, all of the booklets, all the lyrics, right down to the production information – all of that stuff is massively interesting to me. I love all of that. I love it when bands really go to town on all of that. I think it’s interesting as an artist to see how you can evolve that into the digital world, whereby you can create almost like a game or an app that people can interact with…and they can immerse themselves into the artwork and play with it – maybe even remix a couple of the tracks. I like those kinds of ideas. I think that’s as important to any artist – to stay on top of that.

So what I’m saying is that I very much disagree with this idea of streaming being…that all you get is the music and a little square image of a record cover. That’s all you get. There’s more to it than that. We’ve been making these things for years and that’s not what it is. There’s a lot more to it than that. Whether that’s actually physical or digital, both are fine by me. I think it’s important for artists to remember to keep doing that, you know? I mean, I don’t subscribe to any music streaming service and I doubt I ever will, because I don’t agree with it. I don’t object to anybody else using it, but as far as I’m concerned, I want to own the thing. I want to go out and buy it, or order it online – there are different ways you can do it. I go to Discogs these days. I’ve been going to Discogs and building up my vinyl collection and CD collection to actually own these things in physical space because that’s important to me. It might not be important to other people, but it’s important to me.

“… John’s the funniest on tour. John Douglas. He is a funny bastard. But he’s also mad. He’s calmed down a little bit in recent times, but still I’m just waiting for him to do the next thing…”

SR: It’s nice having the artefact. I agree.

VC: This debate is something that’s ongoing. I had this debate with some guy because he put loads of spam everywhere for his steaming service, and he basically hasn’t got a streaming service. He’s linking his own webpage to other streaming services, and he’s getting paid because advertisers are paying him because people are making hits on his page. And he’s spamming everybody that I know. He’s spamming all the personal pages on social media, just to promote his own thing so he can earn a coin. And I wrote to this guy and said, ‘Oi! What are you doing? This is fucking not cool, man.’ And he just said, ‘Okay, yes, well…’ And he tried to get me into this debate over his music streaming and which music streaming to use. And he said, ‘Well maybe we’ll all be grateful for Spotify in future, because Apple Music will take over.’ I’ve gone, ‘Whoa! Whoa! Fuckin’ shut up, mate!’ Arguing over which music streaming service is better is like arguing over which photocopier to use. Fuck off! But the fucking record if you want to buy it, you know? Yeah, just piss off. That’s just my take on it. It’s fine – do whatever you like. People will do anyway.

SR: Can you share a funny, or weird, fan request or tour story with us?

VC: We usually get wedding requests. We get people getting up on stage and proposing, which is weird. (Laughs). Because they’d better fucking say yes!

(Both laugh)

VC: Danny allows that. We had one once in Poland. I was like, ‘Oh, you’re kidding. You’re going to stop the show because some dude wants to propose to his girlfriend?’ Fucking hell. But it was his birthday. It was Danny’s birthday, so we said, ‘Okay, it’s your day. You can do what you like.’

SR: I’ve heard that your brothers are fun on tour. What’s the funniest thing they’ve done on tour and are you a prankster, yourself?

VC: On tour? John’s the funniest on tour. John Douglas. He is a funny bastard. But he’s also mad. He’s calmed down a little bit in recent times, but still I’m just waiting for him to do the next thing, you know? We used to call him Deathwish Douglas. On a tour bus, you’ve got two skylights – one at the back and one at the front. So he climbed out – this is while the bus is driving through Europe at 70 fucking miles an hour – he climbs out the back one and walks along the fucking bus in the pitch black! And he gets in the front one. That’s just for fuckin’ starters!

We’re in Slovenia and he climbs up the fucking Christmas tree – the Christmas tree in the main square – climbs up to the top and sits up there. The police get called and say, ‘Come on, lad, you’ve got to get down.’ So, he got down and he fell a little bit, so he did a Rambo: First Blood on the way down. He got arrested and got up in front of the judge, and the guy said, ‘Well, what did you do this for, you stupid arse?’ And he goes, ‘Well, because I’m half man, half monkey.’ He would climb cranes – that was his thing. You know when you see a building site with a big fuck-off crane? He’d climb up the crane, right? So, he’d go right up, 100 feet in the air, then shimmy along the bloody arm of the crane, where you’ve got the little nest where the work guy sits with his tools. And he gets in there and rearranges the guy’s tools into some kind of Blair Witch-style effigy. So, when the guy gets in there the next day, he just goes, ‘Shiiiiit!’

(Both laugh)

SR: That is mental.

VC: Other things involve hanging off the side of a ferry as it was on the high seas – I think on the Baltic Sea. So, it’s fucking cold up there in November, right? And he’s hanging off the bars off the side of the boat, and me and my mate have got hold of him, trying to… Oh, it goes on! Hanging off the side of hotel rooms that are, like, 11 storeys up…or off the roof of the fucking building by his fucking fingertips! He’s fucking mad! Going into a service station, right, wearing nothing but his underpants and a suit jacket over the top and nothing else. He walks straight in there, in Italy, and starts shoving baguettes down his underpants. The security guy starts marching him outside to kick him out and he goes, ‘When I was in the SAS, they never gave me any of this shit!’ He’s mad!

(Both laugh)

SR: He should be in Jackass. Maybe he’s missed his calling.

VC: John Douglas, yeah. Me and him used to egg each other on. We were doing some stunts, you know? We used to do those Jackass kind of stunts going through London. We were about 25, something like that. We’d do somersaults into shops, knocking stuff everywhere. A car would be pulled up at the traffic lights and we’d just get in. Just get in the back of the car like it’s a taxi and just go, ‘To Longmoor Lane, please mate! Just straight around the corner.’ And the guy would go, ‘It’s not a fucking cab, mate! Get the fuck out of the car!’ It goes on and on, you know. Yeah, I’m not proud of any of it. It’s a bit of a laugh, but I’m not proud.

SR: It’s a shame none of it was caught on camera. I must ask you – I discovered a blog entitled Fuck Yeah, Vincent Cavanagh! on Tumblr. Are you familiar with that?

VC: (Laughs) Yeah, I do it. It’s mine.

(Both laugh loudly)

VC: Yeah, any time I feel a bit down in the dumps, I just check myself out and go, (adopts sexy voice)‘Yeaaaaah. Fuck yeaaaaah!’

(More laughter)

SR: I haven’t laughed this hard in a while. Thank you. Okay, what can Aussie audiences expect from your setlists this October?

VC: The setlist itself? I don’t give away any of that. You just have to come and find out, because everybody tries to spoil the fucking surprise these days. There’s this and people going ‘expected setlist!’ (Puts on superior voice) ‘This is what we expect them to play.’ And you know what? If you’re going to do that, by sheer bloody mindedness, I’m going to play something else. You know what I mean? This is what you expect us to do?! Ohhhh, really? Oh well, let me fucking educate you, mister. We’re going to do something different. The way we do it is it can shift a little bit, but it’s kind of different every night anyway. It’s just the nature of doing these kinds of gigs. There are little changes every night – even in the songs. They can evolve a little bit with a bit of improvisation. A bit of room, a bit of elbow room to do a few things. So it’s good.

SR: Well, I’lI be seeing you in Brisbane on October 29th and I can’t wait. Thanks so much for your time.

VC: That’s fantastic. Can’t wait to be there! Great talking to you.

Anathema Acoustic Tour dates:

Friday, October 23 – Dux Live, Christchurch
Saturday, October 24 – The Kings Arms, Auckland
Tuesday, October 27 – The Governor Hindmarsh, Adelaide
Thursday, October 29 – The Triffid, Woolly Mammoth, Brisbane
Friday, October 30 – The Metro, Sydney
Saturday, October 31 – The Corner Hotel, Melbourne
Sunday, November 1 – Rosemount Hotel, Perth

Get your tickets here