“Then you have on the other side, the Dionysian sublimation of dreams, almost chaotic and beyond human comprehension, which is a force of nature itself.”
2018 has been a rather monumental year for Dead Can Dance. The Australian duo have just released their ninth studio album, Dionysus via PIAS Recordings. As always, they’ve spent the years between records reflecting, researching, and even relocating, cutting the record at a newly designed studio space in France.
Dionysus is a dynamic record, led primarily by Brendan Perry‘s explorations into the mythology of the ancient deity, as well as a more modern take on a Nietzchean-construct. In today’s Spotify-driven, single-based realm, it is an anomaly, as always pulling deep from classical structures and featuring two acts to explore the concept and heart of the record. The acts are broken down into movements, each celebrating ancient rituals and different facets of the Greek god. That said, the album is best enjoyed in one sitting, preferably with headphones on, with as few outside interruptions as possible. As always, Brendan and Lisa Gerrard are keen to take us on an aural journey, and they succeed in spades, as Dionysus ranks among their most vital of works.
We had the chance to catch up with Brendan Perry regarding the album’s creation, upcoming tour plans, the duality of music, as well as the band’s legacy.
I’ve always admired Dead Can Dance’s use of unique instrumentation, and this record is no exception. How do you choose the instruments used on Dionysus?
Well, because it was a concept album, very much based on an early rendition of Dionysus as an Agrarian nature deity, I wanted a bedrock of instrumentation that would reflect a more rural, folk element. It’s a historical pedigree that goes back into the mists of time. I chose wind instruments, essentially natural instruments made from things that were once living; skin, bone, these kind of instruments, albeit in a sampled form. The instruments I do have are a combination of sample libraries and instruments I’ve collected over the years. Shepherd’s flutes, bass drums, lap steel violins called Gadulkas, which are prominent in Mediterranean folk traditions.
Are these instruments intuitive for you, or do you often spend time studying and dissecting each instrument? I am forever impressed that each record has a slew of instruments that the band seems to master and carve an amazing, singular sound out of.
You have to remember that a good portion of them are actually samples, so the actual mastering of them is more about familiarity of how to manipulate sample libraries and get them to sound really expressive. When you buy a lot of sample libraries, they come in a very basic format, and if you’re not prepared to get in and actually tweak and manipulate the performances of them, the tunings and the timbres and the EQ, and actually produce them, then you just end up with a box standard sound. If you have an idea for something and you’re using a preset, you often end up trying to put a square peg into a round hole, because it’s not going to express what you hear in your head. From a creative perspective, there’s a lot of work involved on that side.
I also do a lot of research into the cultural history and tradition of these instruments as well as the tunings and scales they’d use.
What was the impetus behind dismantling your studio in Ireland? Was it difficult to record this record in a new space?
Brendan Perry: Well, it was a family decision to move to France. We were looking for a property where we could convert some buildings and turn them into a new studio. It took a while as you can imagine, a number of years of planning and then the conversion itself before I could actually get in and work on music. That’s why there was a large gap between this album and Anastasis.
Can you speak to your personal relationship with Dionysus?
Well for me, Dionysus is an energy, something in the human spirit that’s a bridge and connection with the natural world. We, being part of nature, working in tandem in a cooperative sense, and reaping the results through fruition of harvests. It’s an understanding of nature in a rural context. I’m talking about the Agrarian dynamic, and I suppose on a deeper profound level, I’ve always had an affinity with nature as a child. My family on my Irish side were generations of farmers, so I spent a lot of time in the countryside as a child, balancing with time in London. Really, my understanding of Dionysus is more on that elemental, spiritual level of being one with nature.
I know the record has a very dual nature to it, the two movements, pieces, and of course, the duality in your own work as Dead Can Dance. Was there an intentional appeal to the duality of Dionysus as well?
How do you understand the dual nature?
I understand Dionysus not just to be in tune with nature, but also a bit more hedonistic – wine, celebration, ecstasy, etc., which adds an additional context even if you weren’t drawing from that. The record does have a two-sided approach, a classical suite in a way, and of course, the strength of you and Lisa as a primary duo has always been at the crux of your work. To me it seems like there’s a connection all across the board.
It kind of works on many different levels. During the seed of the idea for this concept album, it occurred a few years ago after I read Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. He kind of talks about these two current strands of energies and ways of thinking, being the Apollonian and the Dionysian. That was a real revelation for me, and it set me off on a journey. Essentially, he was saying that the combination of these two elemental forces creates the most sublime art. On one hand, the Apollonian is all about order and measurement, where the intellect overrides the creative process. Then you have on the other side, the Dionysian sublimation of dreams, almost chaotic and beyond human comprehension, which is a force of nature itself. It represents metamorphosis and flux where things are continually changing.
We kind of do that, I feel. Lisa is more intuitive and works more with improvisation a lot, and I kind of work between those two approaches. I tend to arrange and provide the framework within which the improvisation is going to happen. It’s really a combination of the two working together, and reading Nietzsche’s take on sublime art really was a revelation in that sense, as it’s something we’ve done unconsciously for years.
I know touring behind this record is going to be tricky. You mentioned sampling, and how most of these instruments won’t be played live at all. I also had read that you’ll be playing material that hasn’t been performed in a while, akin to the songs you were playing on your solo tour in 2011. How’s the tour shaping up now that it’s getting closer?
Yeah, well we decided that Dionysus would only complement half of the concert show anyway, and would require so many different musicians to perform it that it just became impractical trying to do that and augment other material with it.
We also realized that recent generations of people who appreciate our music never had the opportunity to see us perform in the eighties or the nineties. It’s also coming up to our 40th anniversary, so we decided it would be good to do a celebration of our musical legacy. We’re going to perform things we’ve never ever performed live; things from albums that were just studio recordings and were never performed in front of an audience. Some of these will have new arrangements, and we’ll be adding material from various sessions that were never committed to albums. We’ll put that together and bring in some new material to bring things up to date.
I really love Toward the Within, and how the majority of it was culled from new, unrecorded material at the time. I’m not a big fan of live records on the whole, but that remains my all-time favorite and a benchmark of what a live record should be.
Oh wow, thank you.
I’m glad to see you still have that spirit. I’ve seen the band live twice, both times in NYC, and it was great to see a more orchestral version of the band vs. a more stripped back approach. Sorry to hear you won’t be coming back to the US anytime soon by the by, considering Trump. Many of us agree, we’d all love for him to be gone as well.
*Chuckles* Oh, that was in the Rolling Stone, right? That was kind of at the end of the conversation, we were winding down and it was meant as more of a joke. Actually, I’m doing a solo tour, on either side of the Dead Can Dance tour in Spring and Autumn, so the whole of next year is taken up with Europe, really. We’re hoping to continue it into 2020 and then travel out to the rest of the world, including North America. It’s just a question of time, hopefully.
With a bit of luck, Trump won’t be president by then either way! Ha ha.
Well, thanks for clarifying that! I’d love to see you all again, but I totally understand if there’s a moral conundrum there, to be honest!
Definitely not the case at all!
I did hear about the new solo record as well – how’s that been going?
It’s been going good, yeah. We start our European tour in February, so I’m trying to get as much as I can done between now and then. After that, I really won’t have much time, as i’m looking at 6-7 months of touring in total. The original plan was to release it in Autumn, and i’m really determined to meet that deadline. We’ll have to see – I’m not as young as I used to be!
What I’m really looking forward to though, is actually getting out and playing after spending the last couple of years in the studio working on Dionysus and various other projects. Touring for the next two years, that’s the plan.
Do you generally enjoy playing live, or do you see it as a necessity to boost the signal of the record or break up studio time?
Yeah, I suppose if push comes to shove, I prefer playing live. It’s a real magical experience when you’re sharing it directly with the audience. It’s completely different than working in a studio in isolation. It’s the only way to share something directly and get an immediate reaction back, it’s a wonderful dynamic. When we have a really good performance that’s appreciated by the audience, it becomes quite a spiritual occasion in that sense.
Plus, the dates we’re playing next year in Europe are very special, we will be playing in ancient amphitheaters which will be amazing in the summer. On my solo side, I’m playing intimate clubs where the audience is right up in front of you. It’s quite a contrast. They’re the ones I really prefer to be honest, a few hundred people in a small club, face-to-face, where the directness is palpable. As someone who appreciates going to concerts, the cherish the intimate ones more than those where I was 50 rows back, looking over someone’s head, looking at television screens for reference.
Building on that, I would say that Dead Can Dance has been rather commercially successful over the years, and the band has been able to transcend genres and connect with very diverse groups of people. I came to your music as a 4AD fan and a fan of darker music, whereas when I’ve played your music for my family, they connect with it just as deeply as I do, without having that context. Despite having this overarching appeal, the music has always felt incredibly pure. How do you balance your music’s commercial success with the artistry of it?
Well, the music we’ve made over the years, as you say, is really quite diverse in terms of where its traditions lie and where it’s culturally sourced. I’d say it reflects our general universal passion for music everywhere, whether it’s ancient music or contemporary music in different parts of the world.
I think that each album is a direct result of a period of time where we just immersed ourselves in these different musics. After the first album for instance, which was more post-punk, we would go down to this music library close to us where we would go down twice a week and get these classical vinyl records, borrow them, and listen and tape the ones we loved on cassette. That’s all we would listen to for a year and a half, and out of that came our new baroque second album Spleen and Ideal, and then Within the Realm of a Dying Sun, which is more of a romantic classicism.
We found this really reflects our immersion and passion for whatever musics we were listening to at the time, or literature, or cinema, or any other cultural inspirations . Behind it all essentially, that’s the binding concept in the spirit of our own work. In a global sense, we look for what is universal in these different cultures, in an existential context. “Who are we,” you know, and as Gauguin said, “where are we going?” We’re drawn more towards the things that connect us and things that we all have in common as opposed to what makes us different, whether that be race, nationalism – all these artificial constructs really don’t interest us. That’s really the inspiration behind our genre wanderlust and how we work.
Speaking of cultural inspiration, I’ll leave you with a fun one – what are you reading right now?
I’m between two audio books at the moment. One is Cosey Fanni Tutti’s Art Sex Music, which is really an interesting look at the heart of counterculture in the UK in the sixties and seventies. The other is another female artist from that period, Viv Albertine’s Clothes Clothes Clothes. Music Music Music. Boys Boys Boys.: A Memoir, which is a great read!