Interview with Anathema: It’s all states of consciousness
Since their inception in 1990, Anathema have been creating emotionally-charged music, all the while escaping the confines of genre. Distant Satellites, their 10th album, is one of their most uplifting and poignant records to date. Remfry Dedman sat down with principal songwriter/guitarist Daniel Cavanagh and vocalist Lee Douglas to talk about their latest release.
Distant Satellites has a more stripped back approach than heard on previous Anathema records. Was it a challenge to resist the temptation to keep building layers over these songs?
Daniel Cavanagh: Well, no it was great fun actually. Once you’ve got a drum track, a bass track and a piano or a guitar it’s very full anyway. It’s a bit like spring cleaning the junk out of your house, and I enjoyed doing that. I’m a bit of a minimalist.
Lee Douglas: I think stripping everything back gives the vocalists a little more freedom to express ourselves. I quite enjoyed that this time around, like on The Lost Song Part II for instance.
Lee, your contributions on this record are absolutely fantastic. How do you go about the process of putting your vocal over Daniel’s music?
LD: Thank you! Well Daniel put a guide vocal on the tracks but then there were bits where I didn’t know exactly what it was going to be, so in those moments I just go with it and see what happens. I’ll sing it in my own way; obviously we do it a couple of times, keep going through it. Your feelings towards the song grow (the more you do it).
DC: And Christer-André Cederberg (producer of Distant Satellites as well as 2012s Weather Systems) is a massive part of it. He’s the key to the vocalists really stepping up a level. I mean obviously it’s come from both Lee and Vinnie, but Christer really dug deep and got that extra 20 per cent out of these two on the last two albums. If you’re hearing a difference, it’s him.
The Lost Song Part I – III were three attempts to re-write a song that had been erased from your hard drive, could you explain the story behind that?
DC: I had a digital recorder and it had a little lock switch, which meant that you couldn’t lose the songs. And I’d forgotten to put the lock switch on! So the original sketch for that song was knocked off the recorder and I was unable to find it. I went through everybody’s computers looking for this riff, thinking “I’m sure this is going to be a good one for us”. Nobody had it. I was convinced I’d recorded another version of it somewhere but I hadn’t. John just said, “Tell yourself it was no good!” but that didn’t really work.
Then one day, I was on holiday and I was consciously trying to remember it and frustrating myself. But obviously, whilst I’m trying to remember it, other things are happening instead. We put together a beat that may have been like it, based on what I’ve been trying to remember, and then I found chords that were somewhere in the ball park, and that’s how Part I came about. It’s not the same song but…
LD: So you never found it?
DC: No. It’s gone. It is lost.
You’ve said before that “We’re people who let the music come through us and we try to get out of the way a little bit.” A lot of musicians seem to subscribe to that way of thinking. Do you have your own theories about where those moments of inspiration come from?
DC: I think it’s all states of consciousness. Chris Martin said the same thing; he doesn’t feel like he’s writing songs, he feels like they’re gifts. Thom Yorke said something similar. Not putting myself in their league by the way! It’s like a meditational state, it’s a state of being that every person can have and for a writer, what happens in that state is a little gift, a little gem, a melody, a chord progression. As for what consciousness is, well, that’s the ultimate question. No scientist or philosopher has ever truly answered that. But really that is the question you’re asking.
You explore elements of electronica, particularly on the last four tracks of Distant Satellites, almost as if it’s an album of two very distinct halves.
Was that a conscious side of the band that you wanted to develop for this record?
LD: Yeah, we’ve always listened to dance music growing up, so it’s always been a strong base for us to do that kind of music.
DC: I used to go down to dance clubs in my early twenties and it was a big part of John’s early years. The root of the title track is over 16 years old; we actually came up with that in 1996 when the band was writing the Eternity album.
LD: The original name of the song was Voodoo which was the name of the club that we went too in the nineties
DC: The chord progression has stayed the same but the approach has changed and the lyric and vocal melody is new. The fact that those songs appear at the end of the album was an afterthought, but the last two songs, Distant Satellites and Take Shelter were always going to close the record.
This is a little bit of a side fact for you but the penultimate track on our albums is always a prestigious track for us. It’s where you have your final statement, because the final song is your play out but the penultimate song is what you’re really trying to say. And on Weather Systems it was The Lost Child, which the band considered to be one of the very best and on We’re Here Because We’re Here it was Universal. The song Distant Satellites was the screw in the wall on which this album was hung.
Sequencing is vital to Anathema records isn’t it.
DC: We got it wrong once on A Fine Day to Exit. We had an intro that was taken off. That’s the only time (we’ve got it wrong). Otherwise, it’s always been ok. But I think things have gone up a level since We’re Here Because We’re Here.
There was some debate as to whether The Lost Song Part I and II were too close to how Weather Systems started and whether they were as strong as Untouchable Part I and II. They are strong, but they’re not as instantly catchy and as a listener, you have to work a little bit harder. But once Ariel comes along, that’s where you go, “Ok, this is going to be a good album!”
The tracks You’re Not Alone and Take Shelter were both mixed by Steven Wilson. How did that come about?
DC: To answer your question honestly, the albums producer, Christer-André Cederberg, was taken ill so he had to go to hospital and we lost a week of studio time. In fact, it’s a miracle we finished the record on schedule. Christer went through the pain barrier, then another mile and then an extra 500 yards. We couldn’t do all the songs and I panicked! So who do you call!? Batman! You call the best!
Steven sent the first song, You’re Not Alone back after 6 hours, and I was so knocked off my feet with what he’d done. The separation and the definition he found and the musical choices that he’d made, being a writer and a musician, were excellent.
We’re Here Because We’re Here (which Steven Wilson produced) was a lot harder because he’d been an advocate, even back then, of us stripping things back because he thought we were recording too many layers. It wasn’t until 2013 that we got the message! We learnt three important facts from Steven.
1) Never make an album over 55 minutes long (if it’s intense music)
2) You can’t replicate an orchestra so don’t even try
3) Don’t do too many layers in Pro Tools or Logic, just because you can.
The key is to take four or five elements and make them sound massive. If you’ve got eight or nine elements, there isn’t the space. That’s the temptation with digital recording, because there’s no limit, but we consciously chose to strip it back this time.
You’ve always strived to make music that defies description. If there is a through-line in your music, it’s the ability to make the melancholic feel uplifting. Do you think that’s a fair description of what Anathema do?
DC: Yes it is…
LD: It’s melodic, it’s emotional and it’s atmospheric.
DC: It’s very real, and it’s very honest. That’s the key to it. All the good bands are real and honest. I’m not saying we’re up there with the greats or anything like that, I think there’s a level above what we do. But it’s from the heart, it’s a real band, with real music. I was walking home from Camden the other week, and I put on What’s the Story (Morning Glory) and I thought, “My God, I’ll never beat this record!” for what it is. You know, there’s a reason it sold 30 million copies, there’s a reason U2 sold 30 million, there’s a reason Pink Floyd sold 40 million. With Anathema it’s harder because of our roots, the name, the history and the age of the band, the way the scene has changed. Our music was never as accessible as those groups are. But we are as real and as magic as they are, in our own way and it’s because of that honesty in the music and in the melody and lyrics. There’s a glass ceiling where Anathema is concerned but as long as we can maximise what we have together, that’s ok.
Anathema begin a UK tour at the ABC2 in Glasgow on 21st September. Distant Satellites is out now and can be streamed hereTagged in: Anathema, Daniel Cavanagh, Distant Satellites, Lee Douglas
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