On the release of their 10th album, Getintothis‘ Laura Coppin catches up with Vincent Cavanagh of Anathema acclaim.
Having recently released their tenth, and already most successful, album Distant Satellites, Anathema are a band at the top of their game. Their newest offering swings between moments of piercing emotion and playful exuberance, something which can also be said of their charismatic lead singer Vincent Cavanagh.
Vincent moved to Paris six years ago, and now lives with his Parisian sculptor girlfriend in a stunning Indian-style pavilion (a boone of her residency as an artist); a building adorned with spectacularly ornate windows and crowned with golden domes which boasts spectacular views of the sprawling city. Built for the 1878 World Fair, it acts as a complete creative space and even includes an upstairs recording studio.
“Paris was always a place I’d wanted to live”, Vincent explains. “I’m enormously proud of Liverpool; I’m always talking about it, but I felt like there was only so much I could do there. Paris – it’s made for someone like me. I’d always felt it was a place for an artist, and a musician, and a writer. At least historically, it’s always been connected to the arts, and it feels more like home than anywhere I’ve ever lived.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t miss the city of his birth, however. “They’re not as open over here; that’s what I miss about Liverpool. The fact you can get into a conversation with someone you don’t know very easily, and it’s funny, it’s a laugh. When my girlfriend used to visit me that was what she loved about it.
“I still like to be as friendly as I would normally be, he adds, grinning, despite everybody else. I’m on the tube like “alright there love, d’yer want some ‘elp with yer pram?” He pauses briefly. “There’s something about the pleasure loving decadence of the French though…”
Vincent laughs suddenly, remembering one of his favourite Dylan Moran (stand-up comedian and star of the successful TV Series Black Books) sketches.
“On his best DVD Monster: all these Americans wanted the French to participate in the war but they wouldn’t, so they called them ‘cheese eating surrender monkeys’. As if the French were all in bed at two in the afternoon, eating cheese and slashing yesterday’s paintings…”
Cavanagh’s speech is punctuated by bouts of laughter and wild, descriptive hand gestures, making it impossible not to be swept along by his enthusiasm. A huge stand up fan, he describes Moran as “quite possibly the best I’ve ever seen, at his peak anyway. He trots off these beautiful verses, like poetry; like it was nothing. Just incredible.”
It’s when discussing music though, that he comes most alive; particularly the Liverpool scene which he left behind.
“When I was a kid growing up in the eighties, we had The Beatles – who wrote their own music and changed the game for everyone – and the best football teams in Europe. For me it was the centre of the universe – though you’ve got to admit that after that we fell off a bit, in as far as proper musicians who write their own music go.
“If you were to ask me one thing I miss, it would be the live music scene. I took it for granted that I could just go out any night of the week and go and see a fucking cool band. If I wanted to see great music here in Paris, it’s not the same – and this is Paris. You can see great international bands a few nights a week I suppose, but you’ve gotta buy tickets and it’s big venues.
“But a place like Hannah’s, or the Old Horse and Rainbow, or anywhere on that side of town where you’d get amazingly talented musicians, from amateur professionals to LIPA students… everybody jamming, lots of people on the dance floor, and after the bands had finished the DJ would come on and you’d be dancing until four in the morning. I miss that.”
Liverpool’s underground experimental scene is also one he looks back on with a great deal of fondness, “It was pretty cool when I was living there, I remember I quite liked Kling Klang and a.P.A.T.t – they were interesting.”
Canavagh’s love of experimentation is apparent in far more than just his musical tastes. Since moving to Paris he has been involved in a number of his girlfriend’s exhibitions, providing soundtracks which are far removed from his work with Anathema.
“I’m really enjoying crossing the boundary of where music or sound has a place in contemporary art. He concedes. It’s bizarre for me as a singer because I’m known mainly for my voice, but it’s not something I do for my solo stuff; I don’t sing, I just do instrumental soundscapes and strange stuff.”
That’s not to say he hasn’t tried to combine the two, however, he says: “I once suggested a few years ago that we would have no support band on tour, and from the moment the doors opened to the moment we played we would have a low drone; just a low, sub base, drone note the whole time everybody was there, just building the tension. It would gradually alter, it would be a synth that I would be controlling backstage, and it would become more and more expansive and wider and wider and wider until the moment we entered the stage.
“Everyone just said “what the fuck are you taking about?!” he admits with a laugh. I was going “It’s a brilliant idea, why don’t you get on to it?” and nobody would go for it. I might eventually convince them to do it, but people thought I was mad.”
Yet if one looks at the band’s most recent offering, it appears he may have taken them further down the experimental path than he may realise. The cover art for Distant Satellites features an installation by Korean artist San Jun Yoo, a suggestion which actually came from drummer John Douglas.
“He’s got a kind of abstract mind, John; he often speaks in abstract terms. He’s got a way of expressing himself that is very different and unique – his mind is fluid like that. He came across this guy’s art and saw the colours representing themselves as, perhaps to him, the feeling behind the music. Something that you give yourself to.
“For almost all of our previous records I’ve done the artwork, either with somebody else or on my own. I think it was time for a change of scene for Anathema, we needed to try something new. I think for the rest of the band, at least for John, to use a contemporary artist and an installation for the album without my suggestion shows that they’re coming round to my way of thinking.”
One of the most striking things about San Jun Yoo’s work is its use of light, a theme which is also present in a number of the band’s songs. One cannot help but imagine what it would be like if they were to interweave the two for their live performances.
“[Light] is something I’ve always wanted to bring to the live show. I think a band like us needs to have a focus on a light show, rather than a video show – something more akin to Pink Floyd’s use of light.
“I remember everyone was mightily impressed going to see bands in the nineties and they had this big video screen behind them, but you go to see this band and you’re essentially watching TV. It’s OK, it does lend a cinematic quality, but you lose the interaction between the band and the audience.
As anyone who has ever seen the band live will know, this type of crowd interaction is at the core of their shows. “It’s naked emotions and it’s intense; we can’t really do that kind of thing as a performance, you can’t act it. You get up there, you fucking go for it, and you bare your soul. Putting up screens would distract from that.”
Their less-is-more approach is apparent in the remarkable intensity they bring to their music. You can reduce somebody to tears with a single violin, a single piano, or a single human voice. Just a simple melody, without even a lyric. It can make somebody’s jaw drop, and their heart swell up.
“When I was very young I was walking through a square in Brussels, and there was a lone violinist playing Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor. I stood there and watched him, and it was like an out of body experience – I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, it was so beautiful. I was in tears.”
Anathema begin their UK tour in September, playing a string of dates across the country before moving on to the rest of Europe and Scandinavia, and it’s one that seems set to be their biggest and most atmospheric yet.
“For the next tour we’ve got the stage set up in such a way that we can use two drummers: John with a percussion kit, electronics, and synths, and Daniel Cardoso with his normal kit. Then you’ve got the band in front. It’s going to look really good. We put an enormous amount of time into our live shows, and we’ve played together for so long that it’s automatically tight. We have an understanding with each other, we’re in a really good place. I don’t think that the band has sounded better than it does now, especially not live.”
Douglas’ unusual kit set up is a vital part of bringing Distant Satellites to life, as the album marks more than just a departure from the norm in terms of their artwork – it marks yet another evolution in the band’s ever-changing sound. More experimental than anything they’ve done previously, it draws upon everything they’ve produced so far yet still manages to feel like an entirely different animal. The second half of the album in particular stands out; suddenly weaving electronic beats through the music with such playful abandon that it makes you want to laugh out loud.
Definitely in Distant Satellites and You’re Not Alone… no that whole part of it really, and I’m glad you’ve hit onto that because that’s exactly how it felt. It’s not the kind of thing you’d imagine us doing, it’s one of those things where I actually was laughing my head off while I was coming up with all of these rhythms. He launches into an animated re-enactment of the recording, wildly bashing out rhythms on imaginary synths. FUCKING COME ON! You know what I mean? It was hilarious for me.
Some songs on the album required more work than others however, notably the titular track Distant Satellites. The chord progressions for that song had been around for years – we’d tried loads of ways of doing it which just weren’t working.
Eventually me and John sorted the song out, when we were already halfway through the album. We sat down and figured it out: the rhythm of the chord progressions were wrong. The chords themselves were fine, but it was the way it was being played on the piano that was making it sound dated. So, we took the rhythm away. We decided to go for a beat which was slower in groove, but higher in intensity.
We’d had that song for ten years, and it sounded completely different by the time we’d finished it; it ended up so strong that we made it the title track of the record. It’s the process that’s as exciting as anything else, it’s like the songs themselves get the choice of what they’re eventually going to be.
This intuitive approach to songwriting is one that has seen the band change their sound with every album they’ve produced. Such daring freedom, one suspects, would not be possible if the band themselves weren’t so in tune with one another – something which can only be strengthened by the fact that they are all siblings, albeit two separate sets. Vincent’s twin brother Jamie acts as their bass guitarist, whilst elder brother Daniel plays keyboard and writes the majority of their songs. Their female vocalist Lee is John Douglas’ sister.
Danny and I seem to be very similar people when it comes to the dedication towards the music, I don’t know anyone else like him and I’m pretty sure he would day the same thing about me. It’s very important to me, especially as a singer, to have that close relationship with Danny. I don’t think there’s anyone else at this point in time that he’d want singing his songs. We push each other; our relationship has enhanced both of our lives.
Push each other they certainly have; releasing numerous critically-acclaimed albums, EPs and DVDs across their impressive 21 year span.
The reason we’ve had that longevity is because we’ve never, ever, tried to repeat what we’ve done before. We’ve never listened to what people wanted; we’ve always followed our hearts. It’s the only way we know how to do it. I think we’re quite possibly one of the most unique bands to come out of Liverpool for that reason, and what’s bizarre is that people there don’t really seem to know about us. There’s a few, but we’re still somehow like a best kept secret.
That’s the one thing I would love to change. If I had a choice over anything, I would like to introduce people from Liverpool to our music. I love Liverpool, it’s because we’re from there and we’ve led the lives that we’ve led that we create the music that we do.
Canavagh’s determination and enthusiasm is inspiring, and one can only hope that the success of Distant Satellites will ensure that this dream becomes a reality. Come on Liverpool; open up your ears. You won’t regret it.