The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

A Quietus Interview

As Wide As The Universe: Dead Can Dance Interviewed
jonny mugwump , September 4th, 2012 06:37

We were offered a very brief phone conversation with Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance recently. There was nothing for it but to activate our many teeted, lizard agent from Interzone, Jonny Mugwump, whose feverish brain and forked tongue work in double time...

A solemn synth line stretching out to an eternal horizon... A soft, slightly militaristic drum beat emerges as exploratory see-sawing strings fade out of the cavernous space. And then, a calm, resonant vast baritone intones: “We are ancient /as ancient as the sun/ we came from the ocean / once our ancestral home / so that one day / we could all return / to our birth right / the great celestial dawn / we are the children of the sun / our journey’s just begun / sunflowers in our hair…”

There’s no hurry, (well, we’re dealing with centuries of human experience here) and the whole experience is akin to having ancient knowledge alchemicised into silk and draped slowly across your mind’s eye. This is luscious, melodramatic, profound, ambitious, ever so slightly camp and genuinely quite bloody strange, despite the warmth and accessibility of the sound. If this wasn’t on a website with a picture and a title and if you were listening to music from any point of the mid 80s then there really is only one band that this could be. That’s right. Dead Can Dance have returned.

Originally formed in Melbourne by then couple Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard, the duo de-camped to London in 1982, signed to 4AD and briefly worked as a five-piece creating some of the most goth music you are ever likely to hear on their 1984 self-titled debut. At this point, things started to get stranger and Gerrard and Perry became the core nucleus of the band supported by an ever-expanding cast of guest musicians. Across a range of exquisitely fantastic albums, Dead Can Dance mutated into what can only be described stylistically (I promise you I tried a million different combinations and none of them look good on paper) as a mystical world chamber music group (see, I told you).

Alongside Vaughan Oliver’s singular artwork, it was Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins that came to both define the identity of 4AD and a certain kind of indescribable ethereality. If we can forget about Justin Lee Collins for a moment, the 80s actually did chuck out some remarkably odd stuff and in retrospect this was pretty fucking weird music. Dead Can Dance more than anybody voyaged really far out conceptually, drifting through centuries of culture, obsessing over philosophies both Western and Eastern.

Both were (are) remarkable vocalists (Perry’s baritone, Gerrard’s… I don’t know what… like Liz Frazer singing across a temporal space as wide as the universe) although they rarely dueted. Two subsequently strange things happened. First, in 1991, Gerrard’s stratosphere-scraping vocal from Dawn of the Iconoclast was filched for Future Sound of London’s ecstatically era-defining future-shock anthem 'Papua New Guinea'. Secondly, in 1993, Dead Can Dance got… MASSIVE, selling over 500,000 copies of Into The Labyrinth. The duo had ceased to become lovers four years earlier and by this point both had returned to their ancestral homes – Perry to Ireland and Gerrard to Australia. There were two further albums but the duo eventually called it a day in 1998. Both went on to other work and collaborations (Perry on solo albums and Gerrard on a string of movie works including her collaborative soundtrack with Hans Zimmer for Gladiator). A reunion and world tour was announced in 2005 but then nothing.

Fast forward to 2012 and here is Anastasis (meaning rebirth or resurrection but more on that later) a brand new album on Play It Again Sam. The album is simply beautiful and just seems to pick up exactly where Spiritchaser left off. There are no great stylistic shocks although the emotional depth and production is more sophisticated than ever. And whilst calmly drawing upon centuries of influences the album seems to belong as firmly to now (as much as any album that draws heavily on ancient Greek philosophies and rhythms could) as to any other time. It’s exquisite in fact and 'Opium' and 'Return Of The She King' are two of their finest songs and even though I’ve only lived with it for a month or so it strikes me that this might be one of their best albums to date.

SO, I was hyper-excited to get the chance to interview Lisa Gerrard by phone a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, we were only given 15 minutes to do so. Now, Lisa has a few ideas about things so quarter of an hour with her is probably the equivalent of a month with anybody else but considering the subject matter, it was barely time to even make a chink in this most fascinating of projects. I did send some supplementary questions afterwards and incorporated them into the relevant parts of the interview but otherwise what follows is the whole thing exactly as it played out with just a little grammatical editing.

Hi Lisa – how are you?

Lisa Gerrard: I’m fine darling? How are you?

I’m fine thank you and it’s a real honour to be speaking to you. Can I just say that the new album is just incredible and already it feels like one of your best – it’s incredibly mesmerising…

LG: Well thank you daaaarling, that’s very kind.

You’ve probably been asked this a million times but it’s the only place to start. Why is this the right time for you and Brendan to resurrect Dead Can Dance?

LG: Well it’s a very interesting question but we have to turn the dial back, because we started working together when we were 17 years old and we basically went through a lot of cathartic experiences and came through the trenches... Our art was a guider on our foreheads, it was like a crown, it was the most important thing we possessed and it represented everything of who we were and where we were going. When I work with Brendan there’s a lot of literature and painting and philosophy and discovery, you know? It’s not just music - it evolves into that but there are a lot of things on the palette before we arrive at a finished work and before it can become that so sometimes it can take two to three years…

So basically what happened for us was that we got to a point on the concert tour [2005] that we came back together but we didn’t realise what the dynamic was that was needed for us to do this work together. We didn’t have that understanding at that stage, we just thought that we’d be able to do it. But, when it came to it and we did that particular tour (and before that had a go at doing an album together), well… we didn’t really connect and the reason we didn’t connect is because we hadn’t been living together in the same house for 12 months or 2 years beforehand discovering things together.

The thing is, we never even thought about this before and when we came back from the 2005 tour, well we knew that we could revisit these old pieces and redo them but when it came to doing a new album together we found ourselves… Well where was the tissue, where was the fundament, where was the point that things organically grow from? In the past we have always had this beautiful canvas and colours and palette and various philosophies and cultural references and a joy of discovering works and rhythms from instruments and emotional fabrics. The things is we didn’t really realise what was going wrong and we asked this question a thousand times after we parted, you know, what happened and why couldn’t we get that visceral connection going and that’s probably why, because we were living in different countries.

I mean you don’t just dial that stuff in, you know, this is [pronounced very strongly] ART! This is not just, “Ok, I’m going to get some guys to do some dance rhythms and we’ll get this guy to arrange it and I’m going to get another guy to write some words and it’s going to be all about the currency of what’s interesting at the moment in the most mediocre sense.”

This might sound strange but this is almost about our cultural heritage, not only as Australians or as Antipodeans, but as human beings. We’re connected to everything culturally and the thing is there’s this discovery that we make through music that voyages into another culture. When you live in a place like Australia – if you’re REALLY tuning into the frequencies that are coming out of the ground - then you’re taking on the responsibility of the maybe six or seven different nationalities.

It is the artist's responsibility to be the oracle, to abstract where you are – that is our responsibility – we’re not there to look glamorous, you know? We’re there to tune into the frequency of the Earth and the connective tissues of those things that we are responding to – language, colour, costume, literature, poetry, cuisine, perfume – these are the things that make up the desire to throw paint on a canvas, these are the things that create the excitement for building a new language! And that was what was missing when we separated ourselves from each other for a period of time because we went on to do other things but now we realise the subtlety of that reality. So now we’ve realised we’re going to do seven months of concerts together and if something comes out of that naturally organically those things ignite then they do and we’ll be able to make another album.

Patience. This puts me in mind of how Scott Walker has been working up to and beyond Climate Of Hunter. These things can’t be forced.

LG: Brendan would completely identify with that as he has a very similar of structuring things like Scott Walker but that is something you would have to speak to him about that.

The new album is called Anastasis.

LG: It’s the Greek word for resurrection and when Brendan decided on the artwork [a gorgeous forbidding photograph of blackened Sunflowers] for the album it wasn’t about Dead Can Dance and some egocentric thing, oh you know “Lisa and Brendan are coming back out of the ground, and being reborn” - it’s not that at all – it’s to do with impermanence and the repetition of life and when you see the dead sunflowers they’re still alive because the seeds are inside them and in the ground and they’ll still carry on so it’s the fragile context of renewal…

I always interpreted Nietzsche’s Theory Of The Eternal Return as being something more than an eternity loop and more of a point of collapse or breakthrough where time becomes vertical as opposed to horizontal and this is something that Dead Can Dance seem to effortlessly do – to collapse centuries into a single point, much like Coil although there’s was almost a literal and demented collapse…

LG: That’s absolutely beautiful and I will have to communicate that to Brendan. Thank you.

Sorry to interrupt, anyway, back to Anastasis

LG: There’s definitely a mythological poetry in the work. It’s not like it’s this genius which just comes up with this stuff out of the earth, it comes from lots of exposure to other artists like Baudelaire and Mallarme. It is influenced by thousands of poets via Brendan through his literary context. He has come to this visceral connection with the absolute, by trying to unlock the absolute, and his words on this album are the strongest they’ve ever been. And yes the colours and the music are vital and of course it’s about the architecture of the sound and the chariots and the configurations that lead you to these thoughts, but there’s something so genuine and something so sincere and unravelling in his words on this album. Well I just think they’re stunning. And for me, 'Opium' is my favourite song on this album.

Do you feel isolated as Dead Can Dance in the today’s musical climate or do you feel a particular affinity with any current artists / musicians / groups? Also, looking back, have you ever felt part of a cultural ‘scene’? What I’m getting at really is that you are such a unique entity – strange in the most beautiful of ways and have simultaneously had huge success whilst only seeming to have the vaguest affinity to your contemporaries…

LG: Firstly I never think outside our immediate connection with those individuals that are touched by our work. I feel connected to every other creative element because I have a creative soul. My isolation is not through the work it's through not being able to connect with mediocrity. When I was younger I was a punk and then when I got married and had children I became a mother. They are the only two memberships to any clan-like cultures that I have ever embraced.

I was wondering if you had compositional routines at all - for example do you prefer to write and or record at night or during the day?

LG: Sadly it depends on the project, if you're writing for cinema it's generally both, sleep deprivation is a mandatory condition as deadlines are never realistic. As far as Dead Can Dance goes, Brendan & I prefer to work in the daytime although we have been known to go through the night.

Do you compose from the bottom up or do you begin with an over-arching vision?

LG: Well it’s not like he says this and then she does that and then he does and she says and it’s all about picking… up... the... thread. It doesn’t work like that – I won’t even TOUCH or DARE to go near a piece of Brendan's. I can love the words and I can love the music – it’s like when you meet someone and they can be really unattractive but you just want to get right into bed with them and that’s what it’s like with music. I am allowed to explore the body of that work – it’s my license and I’m inspired to and that’s what allows me to go forward. I’m inspired to go forward – it’s the fact that I can’t resist it [that can be a problem]. There are many times when Brendan is working on something and I mustn’t touch it. I must understand that it’s his territory, that it’s his area. Even when he invites me to work in that area I can sometimes feel uncomfortable approaching it. It’s like walking in on two people in bed together – you don’t want to be there – it’s THAT intimate. People don’t realise that the connection with the work is that strong and I mean I could be really vulgar about these things, with my descriptions and I’m not going to be – I’m trying to be really sincere and subtle without being vulgar. Are you getting me?

I think so...

LG: [laughing] Are you alright daaarling, are you surviving me?

I am. I think I am... At what point of the process then is the instrumentation dictated – when do you decide what you’re going to use to realise a particular song or piece?

LG: You can’t answer that and that’s like saying well there’s a piece of sting in my pocket and how long is it. Well these things aren’t calculated – nothing is done with pen and paper. Brendan usually starts with bass and drums to anchor the work down. When I start writing I usually start with strings as I connect more with that area but then sometimes it’s not like that at all either. There’s not much point in talking about it as it’s just far too elusive. The reason why we have always used a very broad palette of times, sounds & musical instruments is because music is born if the imagination & these things have woken ours up. The relationship we have with our work is intimate and very simple. If we are inspired by something we respond by creating something else it's a cause and effect.

When you recorded the new album, did you isolate yourselves from all external influences or were there specific pieces of art, music and literature that you turned to for inspiration or focus?

LG: Mediterranean music played a big part especially Greek rhythms. 'The She King' was inspired by the story of Grace O'Malley the she king of Ireland.

You are about to embark on a mammoth tour – I assume that for you to engage in this at this point of your career that you must take something positive from the experience. What can be expected from the new shows, and what are you looking for out of the experience?

LG: The second and sometimes most important part of the creative process is performing it live, so that the work can evolve to a different level and it is also important to make that connection with your audience as they are the reason why you make this work in the first place. We see these works as a chariot towards a place of safety something organic & alive that breaks through the suffocating membrane of mediocrity.

You’ve always retained electronic and acoustic sonic elements and you’ve always kept them blended. You’ve never been attempted to move in any one particular direction – like a wholly acoustic direction for example?

LG: No that would be too calculated and why would you deny yourself the colour yellow so why restrict yourself and besides, show me an artist that doesn’t want to explore everything?

[Voice comes on phone and says time’s up] OK, we have to go. Thanks ever so much Lisa – best of luck with the tour and the album.

LG: Thank you darling. Bye-bye.