Bring Out Your Dead: Cathedral’s Lee Dorrian Interviewed

Toby Cook speaks to Lee Dorrian and mourns the passing of the mighty Cathedral

To slightly rehash a famous quote: If you consider yourself a fan of doom metal, stoner rock, sludge, or even prog and you don’t have time for Cathedral then do me a favour – take all your albums, tapes and CDs and burn them. Because you know what? The musicians that made that great music that has enhanced your lives throughout the years? They all owe a huge debt to the dedication and perseverance of Cathedral.

Consider this: in the same month as the release of the very last Cathedral album ever, two of the most highly regarded underground festivals on the metal calendar – Roadburn in the Netherlands and Desertfest here in London – both had line-ups awash with the likes of Electric Wizard, Pentagram, Bongripper, Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats, Pallbearer, Moss, Conan and UFOmammut to name a mere few. Doom metal, stoner rock – however you may choose to label it – is arguably as popular and important now as it has ever been. And just as arguably no other band has done quite so much to keep those sonorous, Sabbath-ian waves resonating through the ether than Cathedral. In fact, perhaps their true legacy is in the fact that all of these bands and festivals actually exist.

Cathedral lurched into existence in 1989 after vocalist and Rise Above records founder Lee Dorrian departed Napalm Death. This was in an era when doom was not simply unpopular or ignored, but barely even registered in the collective underground psyche. This was at a time when death metal and heavy psychedelic rock ruled supreme. This was at a time when bands like Saint Vitus were more familiar to Black Flag fans and German biker gangs than they were to the metal community. But this was when Cathedral released their now legendary debut record Forest Of Equilibrium.

Combining riffs of truly Iommian stature with the same sort of oozing, viscous pressure and darkness that found its inspiration in the likes of Winter and Swans, Forest Of Equilibrium kicked off a 24 year, 10 album career that, whilst it contained numerous ups and downs and included flirtations with Mellotron-augmented prog and sun-parched stoner grooves, finally – after nearly two years of farewell shows across the globe – came to a close with arguably their finest out-and-out doom record in over a decade, The Last Spire. And it’s a career that came to a close with doom being, unbelievably, one of the most passionately supported of all metal sub-genres.

Before they ride their Gibson SGs and bell-bottoms over the foggy horizon then, we thought we’d catch up with Lee for one last conversation about the band…

So Lee I have to ask: To all intents and purposes Cathedral are finished – how does it feel now that it’s all over?

Lee Dorrian: It feels weird; I suppose with the album being released now this is it, there’s no more, apart from doing a couple of interviews, it’s all completely over. But it feels as much of a relief as it does weird. When I say "weird" I don’t mean bad or regretful, I certainly don’t regret it, but I do feel relieved that we left on a high note. I think the album is something that we’re all really pleased with – which is a total bonus! – but we wouldn’t have released the album anyway until we were absolutely sure that it was how it was supposed to be. And I mean it could’ve taken another year or so for all we knew – we had made a decision and that decision was final, but we didn’t want to leave on a bum note.

The last couple of years have been really enjoyable actually. As a band we’ve been through times in the past where it’s just been so up and down and so frustrating that we just haven’t functioned. So when we did finally make the decision to call it a day and we were doing the final gigs, we just made sure that we enjoyed it really. It wasn’t like we suddenly decided to break up because we fucking hated each other because we gave ourselves a couple of years before it was over we just enjoyed every last minute of it really; touring around the world again one last time – going to Japan and Australia again; South America; doing a few European shows and the States as well, and the London show of course – we’ve just really enjoyed it really. So to have gone through all that and then to have a final burial with the album finally coming out seemed to be quite a fitting way to end it all really.

It’s quite an unusual step to announce that a band will be finishing before the final album is even written let alone recorded. Presumably you feel that that decision has turned out for the best, rather than just keeping it to yourselves and announcing the end when the album came out?

LD: Well to me that was really the only way we could have done it, because if you make that very clear before you start then there’s no turning back from it – and we wanted to make everyone aware that it was a definite decision. We didn’t want to fall into the trap of recording the album and then going out promoting it again and going through the same old bloody routine that we probably would have had to do. We wanted to draw a line under everything really, to say, "That’s it, we’re never going to play live again and this is the last album that we’re ever going to make." If we’d have released the album and then done the farewell shows I think it would have all gotten a bit too drawn out; we just wanted to make sure that everything was final.

So knowing that it was going to be the last ever album and obviously having announced the splitting up of the band before it was even recorded, how much did that affect the creation of it? Certainly that, “Bring out your dead” dialogue in the opening track seems eerily appropriate; did that all add to the pressure?

LD: Well we certainly set ourselves a challenge! But like I said earlier on, there was no way we would have let the album out until we felt that it was ready to be put out – as much as it was, like, putting pressure on ourselves by saying we’re only going to do one more album, it’s not even written yet and will be our last ever one, I suppose that in many ways that just made us more determined to make it the best it could possibly be, and the most final sounding that it could possibly be. Those last couple of years when we were planning the LP we were literally all thinking about the death of the band and what it all meant to us too, so all the energy and all the anxiety as well as all the positive points – well, not that it’s a positive sounding record! – but all of those kind of things, in terms of how we wanted it to sound and what kind of atmosphere we wanted it to have all came through in the recording. It just made us more focussed. First we decided on a direction – we wanted it to be the heaviest, most uncompromising doom metal record we could make this far down the line – we didn’t want to go off in a million different directions and do something completely eclectic and all over the place, we wanted this to be a real summary of everything and a final nail in the coffin. Once we had that in our minds it was easy to write. Not simple, it wasn’t the easiest thing to write, more that it just felt really natural. I mean, we did record a bunch of other songs that didn’t really seem to fit with the flow of the moroseness of the record so there are five or six songs that we left off actually, we just wanted it to be as uncompromising as possible really.

So that was a conscious decision from the start then? Because it does feel much more like a straight up doom record that the more prog heavy last couple of LPs.

LD: Exactly, we wanted to come full circle really and end almost where we began. Over the years we’ve strayed from the main path on many occasions, gone down different roads and come back onto the main road again. As we’ve grown as a band and as individuals we’ve discovered more things that we’re into and we always tried to incorporate as much as we can into the band that originates outside of the area that we’re most well known for. But the main emphasis of the band has been riffs. They’ve always been the key ingredient. It’s always been about heavy riffs no matter what we’ve done. Keep in mind that, yeah, there’s some folk-y songs, there’s some proggy songs but that was just us trying to explore different things and expand on our sound really. With this one we just wanted it to be the end – the end isn’t a pleasant thing, that’s why I hate happy endings, and we just wanted this to be like our funeral, and to me funerals aren’t happy events so we wanted it to be as solemn, as convincing and as honest as we could possibly make it.

Given what you’ve just said about the pressure being taken off a little bit do you see any parallels with when you went to record Forest…?

LD: Well it’s the beginning and the end isn’t it? When you do your first one you channel so much energy into it because you’ve had a couple of years to work on it, it’s not like you just come out of the blue and just make a record without being a band – well, a lot of people probably do these days – but when you make your first one you’ve had a lot more time to think about it, you’ve had a lot more time to just take in every kind of aspect about how you want to be presented because it’s your first statement. And your opening statement is almost the same as your closing one because I think the amount of desire to make it right is almost the same.

Taking a bit of trip back in time now, back to days when Cathedral first started – obviously now Cathedral have grown into a hugely respected and influential band…

LD: Have we!? Really?

Well I mean, for what little it’s worth I’d certainly say so!

LD: I don’t know, I think people are maybe starting to realise the fact that we did things a certain time before other people and maybe people are starting to realise that now because it’s only years after the event you can put things into better perspective. Certainly without us doing certain things other bands wouldn’t have done other things… I suppose you could say. But it’s never really been something that we’ve ever sat down and got worried about or thought about too much because when we started the band we were all fan boys, we were fans of all the bands that we were influenced by. All we tried to do was to spread the word about all the other bands that we were really into. So the kind of music we play is not really about ego or hierarchies or any of that kind of stuff – sure it can turn into that, any form of music does this, but it was never about that in the first place because it was so under acknowledged. I mean, Cathedral seemed to get a lot more recognition than some of the bands that we were inspired by, like Revelation or The Obsessed or Solitude or bands like that, but it’s always been a mutual respect thing really.

Are you surprised that Cathedral lasted as long as you did? What is it about 22 years?

LD: Oh yeah, completely! I mean, people ask you that question one minute and then they say, "Well why are you breaking up?" I mean 23 years is more than half of the time I’ve spent on Earth, it’s been pretty much my life. I mean to kept it going… and I hate to use the words "sacrifice certain things", but we have, throughout our time in the band, we’ve all put Cathedral first. And it’s never been an easy ride, there have been ups and downs like you wouldn’t believe, and it has been an absolute challenge to try and keep it together most of the time. So with all of those things in mind, and more, yeah, I’m amazed that it lasted 23 odd years, it was certainly not the intention, or even an ambition. When I left Napalm [Death] I certainly didn’t think that I’d be in a band that would last for more than a couple of years, or even beyond doing a demo if I’m honest. That’s all we kind of aspired to do really. When we started Cathedral we literally got together because we met each other through mutual friends. We were doing Metal Fanatics, that was literally it, we got introduced by people who were friends, who knew that we were into this kind of music, because not many people were back then. I mean let’s face it, back in ’89 I knew literally a couple of people who were into doom metal really – I met Griff [Mark Griffiths, bass] through Jeff Walker from Carcass and then I met Gaz [Garry Jennings, guitar] through Dan Lilker from Nuclear Assault, and both of those people introduced us to each other because they knew that we were fanatical about Pentagram, Trouble, Witchfinder General and all those kinds of bands. So that’s how the band started and when we initially first got together for a jam it was just us being self indulgent and thinking, "Ah fucking hell, yeah, this is cool we can make some music that sounds a little bit like Saint Vitus but more extreme." I mean that was it! We honestly had no ambitions to go beyond that really, we just did it for fun – we hired out a rehearsal room a couple of times and just thought that we’d have a jam. Then it lead to doing a demo, we just put that out there and here we are 23 years later – it’s over now, but I mean, the intention was never for it to last this long. And so many weird things happened, things that we could never have predicted, I mean, after doing Forest Of Equilibrium we were on fucking Columbia record in the States! I mean, how the hell did that happen? The whole thing has been an adventure, but certainly not one that we ever predicted.

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It’s interesting that you mention how few people you knew who were into doom in the late 80s/early 90s – was it tough, then, to get taken seriously when you started Cathedral? I mean, it was unreal just how unpopular doom was back then, right?

LD: Unpopular, ignored, I think it was more the case that it just wasn’t known about, it wasn’t even acknowledged – Candlemass were probably the most commonly known doom band back then because they were around at the time that thrash was taking off they got acknowledged by thrash bands. They weren’t huge, but in terms of doom they were probably the most common name, and then second to them was probably Trouble. But bands like Saint Vitus, I mean, fucking hell, no one really gave a toss about them – I mean the thing about Saint Vitus was that a few punk kids knew that they were the band that used to play with Black Flag and saw their name on old flyers – I think they used to do alright out in Germany, in biker bars in the late 80s. And they had some kind of alternative core following out in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and around there. But for the stuff that we were doing, nah, nothing. There was Winter, obviously, and Autopsy were playing slower stuff – I mean they’re obviously a death metal band but they had a lot of slower doom influences in their sound.

I wouldn’t want to use the term "got away with it" but how we managed to not be ridiculed was probably down to the fact that we were so heavy I suppose. If we’d have been playing slow but not heavy then of course it would have got fucking nowhere, but the fact that we were still quite extreme with it meant that it wasn’t too far off the radar for all of the other extreme stuff that was going on at the time.

Who do you consider were your kindred spirits at the time and what are some of your memories of the heavier psychedelic scene back then? Because I think I’m right in saying that you played some shows with the likes of My Bloody Valentine and the Telescopes, right?

LD: We never actually played with My Bloody Valentine – I was a big fan of them, but never got to play with them unfortunately. I do actually know Kevin [Shields] though. I used to love all those bands like Loop, Spacemen 3, Thee Hypnotics, The Telescopes… around about the late 80s I think it was a brilliant time, round about 87 to 89/90 that scene in the UK was brilliant. I loved those bands and used to go and see them, and even got friendly with a couple of them. I don’t know what it was, I think it was like ‘noise’ y’know, because you had Blast First Records and Big Black and Rapeman and all that kind of stuff it just seemed to be some kind of time where noise and independent music struck a chord in so many different areas and you could go and see Thee Hypnotics one night and Slab the next, Swans the next and a Napalm Death gig the night after that – they were just really cool times, y’know, I really enjoyed that late 80s period. I think it was a very eclectic period and I think it led to a lot of bands being a bit more individual and spinning off into different areas.

In the UK, when we started, Cathedral didn’t really have any comrades so to speak, I mean we had friends in bands like Anathema and Paradise Lost and to an extent My Dying Bride, but they were always a bit more gothic than we were, I mean, we never denied our Sabbath influences whereas bands like that seemed to kind of deny Black Sabbath – they acknowledged Candlemass but they wouldn’t really say that they were into Sabbath. And to us, yeah Forest Of Equilibrium is a very dark record, but that was just a starting point for us really. Our fanaticism for Sabbath was so big that we started digging deeper and deeper into the vault of bands that were around at the same time as them in the late 60s and early 70s, especially bands that were on the Vertigo label. We used to look up old copies of Melody Maker and Sounds from like 1969 and 1970 just to see what other sorts of bands were around at the time and started hunting out their music and hunting down their records, and in turn that lead to us expanding our sound because we got really inspired by those late 60s and early 70s bands and that kind of broke us out of the one dimensional doom that’s on Forest…. Really, it just kind of helped us expand and move further forward. And I suppose our 70s influence’s became stronger and stronger by the time we did The Carnival Bizarre and then it just all went from there really. At the time, I think I mentioned them earlier, there was a band called Winter from New Jersey – they were like the most apocalyptic doom band imaginable really, like, if I had unwanted guests round the flat at like six o’clock in the morning or something I’d put on Into Darkness full blast and literally they’d be gone within ten minutes, that was the kind of record that was. So when we did ‘In Memoriam’ on the first demo I suppose the main band that you would’ve said were similar to us at around at that time were Winter I suppose.

I’ve always been curious, after leaving Napalm and the very politically conscious outlook of the band and moving into almost romantic doom revivalism and fantasy with Cathedral, how much was that simply down to a personal change in tastes and to what extent was a sort of retreat or an escape from the rather grim realities of Thatcherism?

LD: It wasn’t at all really, I mean, I don’t think Cathedral was a completely escapist band, especially the first album which is very nihilistic really; I wouldn’t say it was romantic. I mean, there are poetical lyrics and stuff but they’re more influenced by Baudelaire than they are by Mills and Boon, y’know what I mean – it’s pretty dark stuff. On the first album I was very much influenced by Michael Gira as well at that time, although you wouldn’t really notice it obviously, but Nick Blinko from Rudimentary Peni as well was still a big influence. And the whole thing about Napalm Death is that that scene was around, or brewing, a long time before it actually exploded – it was new to everybody else but it wasn’t new to the people in the band and by the time it had become a popular thing in the UK and in the music press and stuff it had already been bubbling under for a fair few years. I understand why people wouldn’t see it this way but by the time it was 1989 we’d seen the build up to that thing happening and we’d been in the middle of it actually happening so to me it was almost done by that time in 1989, I’d just had enough of it really.

Even before I was in Napalm, I used to listen to bands like Trouble and Pentagram. I used to write to Bobby Liebling from Pentagram back in 1985 before I’d even thought about joining Napalm Death. I never actually wanted to join the band anyway, I was just a friend of theirs and I’d never been in a real band before. I used to promote their gigs and follow them around and thought they were just the most amazing band. Then one day Mick Harris asked me if I wanted to join and I said yeah. Then I just started getting more and more into slower stuff and more and more into bands that sounded like Sabbath or were influenced by Sabbath and by the time Cathedral were formed I pretty much stopped listening to fast music altogether really. Not because I went off it, I just didn’t understand why everything had to be fast, it just got to the point where it’d been done – I think by the time we did the Mentally Murdered EP with Napalm Death I thought, well, maybe you could get it a little bit faster, maybe you could get it a little bit more extreme, maybe you could get the vocals a little bit more aggressive or a little bit more growling and a bit more this that and the other but really you can’t go much further than that and I just didn’t see the point of spending the next 10 years just to try and get a little bit more extreme than it already was really. I just thought that by that point it’d been done.

And at that time I actually wanted Napalm to incorporate some doom elements into their sound, but they wanted to go in a more death metal direction and to me death metal had by that point lost all of its originality anyway – I just wanted to do something different. I mean, if you’re going to make music that is in the vein of the first Cathedral album then I suppose you can’t really sing outright political lyrics and I suppose I didn’t want to sing outright political lyrics. I never really wanted to sing outright political lyrics in Napalm Death either to be honest, they were always kind of personal reflections really. There were a few that were obviously very outspoken about certain things like vivisection or ecology or whatever, but generally they were personal reflections. I never tried to look down on people. I always tried to first put myself in the firing line as a way of criticising myself. The intention was that people could hopefully then understand more about where I was coming from, because I wasn’t making personal attacks on other people I was also making personal attacks on myself, whether it be regarding apathy or general complacency or whatever it might have been. And to a certain extent that’s the same way that Cathedral’s lyrics have evolved as well, they’re obviously not so outspoken in the way that they’re written, there’s a million more metaphors used in Cathedral lyrics than there ever was in Napalm Death lyrics obviously, but essentially the underlying theme is still the same and essentially I suppose my main philosophy is one of anarchism, but I also realised that anarchism is purely a philosophy and nothing else, it can never be a reality. And besides, people’s concept of what anarchy is, is not anarchy so it’s kind of flawed anyway. But I still think it’s a good philosophy to have.

And in terms of anything else that happens in this world, tell me something that does actually work because any kind of organised politics or organised religion or whatever you choose to think of, what actually works? Nothing. I mean anarchism might only be a philosophy but to me it’s a plausible one.

Just to end then what are some of your best memories from your time in Cathedral? What are some of the events or things that, when you’re collecting your bus pass, you can see yourself looking back on and thinking, fuck, I remember when…?

LD: Well I think the overall things is that against adversity we survived, we did things as much as we could in our own way, we never really paid attention to what was going on around us and we wanted the band to be timeless, not like something that was current or was going to be outdated in a couple of years. We literally just did what we felt like doing at the time in every instance. I mean, ok, like I said Forest… and the new album were very specific in the way we wanted them to sound but they certainly weren’t written in regards to things that were going on around us, it was more about how we wanted to be presented or how we felt. So the overall thing is that hopefully we were an uncompromising band and we weren’t afraid to try different things – that’s one of the main things I’ll take away from it.

In terms of individual things that happened, I suppose it’s obvious – things like having Tony Iommi playing on one of our records is a pretty cool thing to have happened!

Yeah, I should bloody well say that it is!

LD: Well yeah, if you can imagine when we started the band we were and still are Black Sabbath fanatics and to imagine that one day that we’d be recording a record that he’d play on, I mean, I could never have imagined that that would be possible. I suppose the day that we got finished copies of Forest Of Equilibrium in our hands, that was a pretty cool day – again, that was something we never thought we’d achieve, we never thought we’d actually have an album out like that in the way that it was finished with the artwork and everything – that was a pretty cool time. And then I suppose these last couple of years have been fucking brilliant, we really have enjoyed these last couple of years. Going to a place like Japan where we were so welcomed every time and we went down really well. It’s like, whenever we were depressed it was always like, "Oh well, at least we’ll go to Japan." We’ve always had such a blast over there, the people are so cool and it’s just a great country to go and visit. So to go there the final time, and at a time when things were really hard for the people over there as well with the tsunami – a lot of bands were actually cancelling and not going over and we were one of the only bands that did, so we’re really glad that we got to do that. I think people over there couldn’t actually believe that we’d gone over because it was literally only a week and a half after the tsunami had happened, loads of people didn’t buy tickets thinking we weren’t going to play and then on the day of the gig they found out that we were in the country and the gig sold out on the day – that was amazing. Things like that you know. God, touring in Colombia, that was something else back in 96, and we were one of the first ever bands to do a proper tour over there! I mean, fucking hell, it’s one of the scariest times I’ve ever had but it was also one of the best – the people in Colombia were amazing, we had a fantastic time. So just things like that, y’know, playing with some of our favourite bands, becoming friends with some of our favourite musicians – things like that really. There’s times were you could say that we got mega reviews here or blah, blah, blah, but they’re just things that happen, the important things are the things that you experience in reality.

Cathedral’s last ever album The Last Spire is out now via Rise Above Records

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