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A Quietus Interview

We're Really Not That Positive: Cathedral Interviewed
Toby Cook , March 31st, 2010 08:26

Toby Cook sups beer with Cathedral singer Lee Dorrian and discusses anarchism, jolliness and what could have been for Napalm Death...

You can tell a lot about a person, they say, by what he or she drinks. Someone often seen supping a pint of the guest ale is probably from the countryside, chews a stalk of corn and wears a lot of tweed [or is Quietus Ed Luke Turner]. Can of Stella? Football hooligan with personal hygiene issues. Those who enjoy methylated spirits, filtered through a loaf of stale bread and drunk from a shoe are, erm, well, mentally deranged [or was until recently Quietus Ed, John Doran] and people that drink WKD are fucking morons.

Lee Dorrian though...well, on the evidence of The Quietus’ most recent meeting with the 41-year-old Cathedral vocalist and head of Rise Above records, he drinks Hoegaarden. Quite what Hoegaarden says about a person we’re not sure, but you can bet that whatever is says, when applied to Lee, it would be completely insufficient and inaccurate.

From humble beginnings producing a punk fanzine called Committed Suicide in his native Coventry as a teen, it was almost purely by chance that he was invited to perform vocal duties for one of his then favourite bands, the little known Napalm Death. Although possessing little desire to actually be in a band, Lee’s unique and brutal vocal delivery helped propel Napalm to their now legendary underground status, before departing to form the doom/stoner band Cathedral – who have arguably had an equally significant impact on the doom scene, one which they look set to solidify with new LP The Guessing Game.

A rare example of a man who derives as much joy from the acquisition and discovery of new and diverse music as he does from performing it, pulling up a barstool and actually talking to him is often little short of an education... although, he’s not as into Miles Davis as you might have heard.

Alright Lee, how the bloody hell are you?

Lee Dorrian: At the moment, really good. It seems that the album is getting a good response, which is obviously great!

It’s been a while since the last Cathedral album, what prompted a return to the studio?

LD: Well, after we did the last one [The Garden Of Unearthly Delights] we weren’t even sure that we were going to do another one, for various reasons; mainly having been together for so long – we’re not teenagers anymore – everyone’s got their own lives and commitments. And the last album we did, we thought would be a good one to go out on; the last track is like a 28 minute track that encompassed everything that we’re about and we thought, well, fuck, what do we do after that? So we did all the touring to back up the album and then just took a year off to think about what we were going to do. After a year or so, I got in touch with Gaz [Jennings – Guitar] and said: “How are you feeling about stuff? Let’s get together and see what we come up with before we decide what we’re going to do”. So he came down to London with his guitar and we started jamming on a few ideas. He only came down about three times over the space of a year, and we wrote quite a bit of stuff, which we’d record each time, and listen back to it and try to get our heads around where we were going.

We came up with a load of stuff that was very much like the first album – very slow, heavy doom stuff – which is ironic because the last few albums we’ve done have started off that way, because that’s been the intention. But eventually you get to the stage when you think, well, if we are going to do this let’s do the album that we’ve always wanted to do - rather than skirting around or being shy of certain ideas, let’s just go for it this time and just make a good Cathedral album. Once we got over that hurdle of trying to work out which direction we were going to go with it, we just got on with it. We had a bunch of songs that we presented to the band about a year ago, started rehearsing a little later, and then recorded in November. That’s it in a nut shell!

So it’s fair to say that you’re pretty pleased with the results then?

LD: Yeah! There have been times, admittedly, in the past where we’ve recorded records when we weren’t ready to. It kind of worked on a couple of albums like The Ethereal Mirror and The Carnival Bizarre, but it didn’t work on some others, and after all, what you record is what you leave behind, so we just wanted to make sure that we did it right. Like I said, we’re not teenagers anymore so there’s no reason to rush records out in the same way that we might have had to – or record companies wanted us to – in the past. I think we’re all really pleased with the performances and the diversity of it all.

So was it ultimately your idea to start work on a new record?

LD: Well really, it was both of ours [his and Gaz’s]. The thing is, as soon as I sit down with him and he comes up with some riffs, it’s like, aww fuck, here we go again, because he comes out with such killer riffs every time! Until his arms fall off or something, it’s probably always going to be that way! But I think that with this album we sort of broke a few moulds within ourselves. I think that we had become trapped in certain characteristics, and had become caricatures of our own little selves within the band and hopefully we’ve managed to break out of those moulds this time, which should make it easier for us to go on from here.

There’s some interesting instrumentation on The Guessing Game – glockenspiels, sitars etc – which is nothing new for Cathedral, but there seems to be more emphasis on them this time around. Was that something that you planed from the beginning?

LD: Certainly since the second album we’ve always had elements of different instruments – I mean, we’ve been using a mellotron since ’93 – but it’s always been like, Wow! We’ve got to hire a mellotron, get it in the studio, play a few notes ourselves and mess around on it, so there’s always been a bit in the background. I thought this time though that if we’re going to use it then let’s fucking do it properly, and make it part of the song as opposed to just a little subliminal part – make it more up-front and orchestrated. I guess that goes for a lot of the other instrumentation that’s on there too. If you look at the album overall, I would say that it’s not that radically different to what we’ve done in recent years. It’s more the approach which was slightly more varied; there’s not a wall of noise guitar all the way through, Gaz experimented with lots of different sounds and amps and peddles this time, whereas before it would be just full on guitar where even the mellow parts sounded heavy, even though they weren’t distorted. We just paid a lot more attention to detail this time I suppose.

What were the inspirations for this record? I don’t want to say that your more recent albums have seemed to be ‘concept based’ or anything, but there always seems to be strong themes, and a sense of narrative. Is that true of The Guessing Game too?

LD: In the past I think that I’ve tried, almost to the point of banging my head against a wall, to come up with ideas that are more out-there than the ideas that I came up with on the immediately previous album, and it gets to the stage where you’re thinking, well, how far can I go with that approach really? So this time I made a conscious decision just to do what came naturally, so a lot of the songs and the lyrics weren’t forced out, they came out almost the way that I would have written them before I was in Cathedral.

There isn’t really a concept that runs all the way through the album, but I suppose The Guessing Game isn’t far removed from what we’ve written about before. It’s basically the whole kind of confusion that people have about their existence and their motivations to try and justify it, whether it’s through religion, through decadence, wealth or material things; it’s the ‘where do we come from, why are we here, where do we go?’ questions and the way that they control peoples lives, that need to find out their reason for existence. If people just stopped being controlled by materialistic thoughts or religion I think the world would be a lot better place. There are people who really can’t deal with their own reality so they have to think of this life as being some sort of in-between before the next life, where it’s going to be a hell of a lot better; they think that they have to take all this shit in this life, or subscribe to some kind of nonsense. Those kinds of people get in the way of me, and other like-minded people, who don’t really believe in any kind of authority over the mind, shall we say.

Even if there’s no specific concept to the album its self, Dave Patchett’s art work is...well, it’s epic isn’t it?! Do you give him specific instructions, or images that you want included, or does he have carte blanche to do as he pleases?

LD: It’s a mix really. I always have an idea way in advance, before I’ve even sat down and wrote anything! I have, like, visions, impromptu things that come into my head, and I think, yeah, I can imagine Dave doing something like this or interpreting this in that kind of way. Mainly, they’re against religion and organised ideas and establishment and authority, but done in a way that is – I don’t like to use the word metaphorical – but that is metaphorical.

So it’s always my ideas; I usually just go down to Brighton and have a few beers with him, spend an afternoon just to get a scratch point to start working from; he’ll start coming up with sketches, which he’ll then send to me, and we’ll go from there really. The art work for the new album I’ve had since May last year – in fact, he’s already started on the next one... God knows when we might record it, if we ever do! But it’s always good to have the art, it helps solidify the songs a bit more when I’ve got something to look at that represents it all.

There’s a rather odd sample appearing before the track ‘Painting In The Dark’, which sounds like someone’s it someone’s mother? What’s the story there?

LD: Ha! Yeah, it’s my girlfriend’s Gran! I don’t know if you’ve ever heard and album by The End called Introspection? [It’s a Bill Wyman produced record]. On that there’s loads of narration between the tracks – I think the band are talking to some guy in a café – but I got the idea from there really. As opposed to the easy way of just nicking things from films I thought I’d do it myself, and because she is an older lady, I’ll make her sound quite jovial about it – as if to say, y’know, she’s seen a lot of things in her life, but she’s just like: "Aw, well, fuck it, I’m just going to get in with it and just enjoy my life, as opposed to just sitting around and fucking moaning about it all the time."

Actually, this has ended up sounding like a positive Cathedral interview, but we’re really not that positive! I don’t want it to appear that we’ve become ‘jolly’ all of a sudden!

I don’t think anyone would ever accuse Cathedral of being particularly ‘jolly’!

LD: Well, what I mean is that a lot of it goes back to the old anarchist beliefs that I used to have when I was younger, and that are still kind of there. I’ve read a few books recently, like a Hakim Bey book, T.A.Z – Temporary Autonomous Zone. It’s only a short book, but reading that helped me to come to terms with a lot of things about the concept of anarchism instead of being tortured by the fact that anarchism is more of a philosophy than a reality – which it never will be. When I was like 15, 16, I used to think that it had the potential to become a reality in 20, 30 years time; eventually though you realise that it’s never going to become a reality, but as a philosophy, I think it’s a very good one.

In this book he kind of teaches you that you’ll never be 100 % free in this life and this society, but you can find pockets when you are completely autonomous. Whether it’s two minutes, three minutes, five days, a week or a year even, in solitude you can find those opportunities where you do have pockets of freedom. I found it to be quite inspiring, so in many respects it is a bit more positive than usual!

Last summer you were briefly reunited with Napalm Death at Hellfest in France. How was that?

LD: Well, for two songs – about 20 seconds or something! Shane [Embury, bass guitar] has been asking me to do that for so many years and I’ve always kind of gone aww-umm, alright then, and conveniently walked off when it was time to do it. But this time I just thought, fuck it, let’s just do it. It was fine though. If anything it’s just showing that I’ve still got respect for what they do, because even though I’m not in the band and there’s no one from the first album either – there’s no original members as such – it’s not about that with Napalm Death, it’s more about what the band stand for, and what it says to younger kids who might listen to that kind of music and realise there’s more to a band like that than just speed. Aesthetically and politically, or whatever you might say, they’re a very significant band, still, in many respects. And we’re still good friends!

Politically, they seem to have shifted positions since your day though. Barney’s lyrics certainly seem less concerned with Anarchism than yours.

LD: Yeah, he’s a bit more left wing. That’s one thing that isn’t really my thing, but still, at least the message is still a good one. I remember the first time we [Cathedral] went to America, and we toured with Napalm, and fair play to Barney, there were a few gigs where these Nazi twats would turn up – these bone-heads with fucking KKK tattoos and shit – and there would be like four or five of them, and he’d go up to them by himself, and say: "Fuck off. I don’t want you at this gig, get out" and they’d go! I take my hat of to that sort of thing. And he’s a very sincere guy, y’know. He’s just very down to earth - they all are - and yeah, he might have a slightly different outlook to me, but it’s still in the same area.

Now, obviously, being that Napalm was you first musical experience...

LD: Ha ha! If you can call it that!

Ha! But do you ever strike a wry smile at the fact that, as a member of both Napalm and Cathedral, you have been in two such revered and genre defining bands?

LD: Well, it’s not like any of that was deliberate, that’s just what happened [with Napalm Death]. It gets defined that way now, but at the time it wasn’t considered that way at all, because it was still new. But how do I feel about it? I don’t really know. Although people say it, I don’t think that we [Cathedral] get praised that much, because we are still very much an underground band. We still struggle to get by, it’s not like everyone gives us a big, big up every time we do something. Maybe nowadays it seems like that because the longer in the distance it is the easier it is to reflect on what we’ve done, in terms of what we’ve achieved musically; as time goes on you seem to get a bit more respect. It’s great that people feel that way but you just carry on, you still want to continue making the music you make.

Obviously, there is quite a stylistic difference between Napalm and Cathedral. Justin Broadrick has commented several times that a major factor in his departure from Napalm was that, musically, it was just getting too fast. Was that a factor in your departure too?

LD: Yeah, to an extent. By the time we did Mentally Murdered, the band wanted to go in the death metal direction – that’s where I really didn’t want to go – and also, I thought that that EP was so extreme that I couldn’t really see a) how it could get any faster and b) where we could go after that. My idea would have been to keep the fast parts, but add more mid-paced parts and then add some extremely slow parts – in the way that Cathedral went on to do. If Napalm had experimented more, and added some really slow, slow parts – like early Swans type parts – then I probably would have been more interested in sticking around. But there were loads of other reasons as well, and I had pretty much become tired of fast music.

Actually, hearing that, I’m pretty gutted. A Napalm Death meets Swans sound would have been truly brutal!

LD: Well that’s what I wanted to do. At least it would have kept the band interesting, as opposed to going down the death metal road, which to me seemed the most obvious thing to do. They also wanted me to sing like Chuck from Death, or the singer from Obituary [John Tardy] and that just wasn’t for me. The one thing that Napalm Death had was its own identity, and then all of a sudden they wanted to start copying other bands. I just thought that that was a bad move.

My editor reliably informs me that your a bit of a Miles Davis fan...

LD: Oh, really?

Yeah. Got a favourite Miles Album?

LD: Well the first one [First Miles] would probably be my favourite, but I’m not like a massive miles fan... I don’t know where he’s got that from! I do love Louis Bellson, the drummer. I love a load of his records, and everything that he did really. He was an amazing talent.

Cathedral’s new album The Guessing Game is out now via Nuclear Blast.