Anathema: the contrast of happiness

For the past two years, Anathema have been feeling better in every respect: personally, professionally and musically. When we interviewed him in 2010 on the occasion of the release of We’re Here Because We’re Here, Danny Cavanagh told us: “I am in a better place in my life and so my music and my band are in a better place emotionally”. And in the present interview, conducted on the eve of the release of the band’s next album, Weather Systems, Vincent Cavanagh does confirm this fact: Anathema have never been prouder of their releases than in these past two years.

An enthusiasm that can be heard in the musical evolution of the English band. Not that their albums are particularly exuberant or festive – they simply convey a feeling of deep calm. Or how to find happiness by going through every single experience of life, including the worst kind, with great composure. Some will blame the band for not writing as many hymns to sadness as before (“Anathema sounded better when they were low”). Whether you like them or not, We’re Here Because We’re Here and Weather Systems go much farther than that, by embracing and looking at life and all its contrasts – hence the climatic metaphor used on this latest record.

But this feeling of accomplishment does not keep the band from being humble, or from imposing no interpretation, even their own, to the listener. What truly matters is the sharing of feelings: “It’s up to you to decide what we do; […] someone on the other side of the world can listen to this music and relate that is some way to their own life, because the experiences we talk about are quite universal”. Vincent actually considers that he’s being “controlled” by his music, and not in control of his own art.


“With We’re Here Because We’re Here is that the game changed. Anathema suddenly started to realize its potential.”

You released the album We’re Here Because We’re Here seven years after A Natural Disaster. The songs of this album had been ready for a long time. Did this generate some kind of frustration so you felt an urge to move on and record this new album, Weather Systems, so fast?

Yeah. We also made Falling Deeper last year, it came out in September. So that’s three records in just over a year and a half. For us, that’s a record! (laughs) I’m quite proud of that, actually. I’d like to continue that run in the future. I prefer to work fast. We have a lot of ideas, and between Danny, John and myself, I really believe we can do a lot of stuff quickly if we put our minds to it. So why not get new songs out there, you know?

Since the We’re Here Because We’re Here album took you so long to release, and since it was so difficult, do you have some special relationship to this album, that you don’t with every other album?

No, not at all. We’re Here Because We’re Here was much like any other album, really. The difference was that it was the first time we made an album that we were truly, 100% proud of, really happy with. Everything we’ve done since then has followed the same path. I can say the same thing for Falling Deeper, we’re completely, 100% proud of that. And equally, we’re proud of Weather Systems. So what happened with We’re Here Because We’re Here is that the game changed. Anathema suddenly started to realize its potential. And from there, we’re taking that forward. But it’s one of the eternal things about any artists: when you’ve made a great work, you can’t go backwards. You have to either live up to it or do better the next time around. I think we have done that.

“[Danny] came to my room and woke me up and said: ‘Hey, I just had this dream. I have this tune and this whole scenario from this dream. We should make a song, and we should make a video for it’. […]We wrote down the idea, and then we said: ‘OK, let’s go back to sleep, we’ll think about it tomorrow!’ (laughs) “

Were some of the songs of Weather Systems composed while you were working on We’re Here Because We’re Here or while you were waiting for the release of it?

A couple of them were, yeah. One or two of them perhaps came just as an idea. One song particularly, “The Lost Child”, came to Danny in a dream, towards the end of the We’re Here Because We’re Here sessions, when we were all living together. I remember, in the middle of the night, he came to my room and woke me up and said: “Hey, I just had this dream. I have this tune and this whole scenario from this dream. We should make a song, and we should make a video for it”. I said OK, and I got out of bed and recorded the song. We wrote down the idea, and then we said: “OK, let’s go back to sleep, we’ll think about it tomorrow!” (laughs) And eventually, that song became “The Lost Child”. It’s happening all the time, that’s natural. Anytime we’re all together, or at least the main creators – me, Danny and John –, we’re really having a spark. Things happen quickly, you know. It’s cool.

And you didn’t punch him for waking you up?

Oh, no! (laughs) If he had woken me under different circumstances… But as it’s a song, and as I like things like that – stories from a dream, a tune that came to his subconscious… It’s a beautiful thing. I’m looking forward to fully realizing this vision and making something visual to accompany the song. The song itself is beautiful, it’s some of Danny’s best writing he’s ever done. It’s called “The Lost Child”, and it’s the second-to-last track on Weather Systems. We usually leave the most epic song on the album to the second-to-last track. On the last album, it was “Universal”, and on this one, it’s “The Lost Child”. You can see a bit of a pattern here.

Does it happen often, these ideas Danny finds in dreams?

No, not often. It can happen, but this particular one stood out, because it was such a strong idea, almost a complete idea, really. It was a single tune, which is the first thing you hear in the song, and it was this vision behind it. I don’t want to explain it, because I prefer to actually try and make it. When we make it, you can see it. But the tune and the scenario and everything else was already complete, right at the beginning. Sometimes when you dream, things can be a little vague, surreal, even difficult to remember in the morning. But this one was very clear. That was unique.

“We don’t really have a choice as far as progression in concerned: that’s how the music wants to be. It wants to progress, it changes all the time. I use the word “it” because sometimes, it’s almost like we’re not completely in control.”

Even if it’s released only two years after the previous one, Weather Systems is very different from its predecessor. How did you manage to change the atmosphere between those two records?

We always do that. That’s how we write, we’re always progressing forward. The next one’s going to be different again. We’re one of those bands, you know. We do this because we have to. We make music and art for the art. We don’t really have a choice as far as progression in concerned: that’s how the music wants to be. It wants to progress, it changes all the time. I use the word “it” because sometimes, it’s almost like we’re not completely in control. It’s something that’s more subconscious; you don’t make a conscious decision to say: “Let’s make an album that’s different from the last one”. It just happens naturally. Do you understand? That can happen in any song. I may wake up tomorrow and have an idea for a song that sounds completely different than anything else I’ve ever done. And I follow it, and it’s almost as if the song, the idea, leads you where it needs to go. Part of the songwriting process is actually knowing when to get out of the way and let the song take the lead, you know? The song dictates what it wants to be eventually. That’s one of the secrets about progressive music, and about how you can progress with music: don’t think too much. If you do think, then just try not to repeat yourself. We never really want to repeat ourselves, that would be too boring. Music is infinite, and what we can do with music is whatever we like. There’s no end to it, you know?

It means you have no limits, since it’s so very spontaneous.

Yes, exactly. We put out stuff that we like. Anathema doesn’t have a select sound or a select genre. Anathema is just one of those bands that keeps changing. If people don’t know that already, they will eventually have to know it, because that’s what we do.

“It’s up to you to decide what we do […] I don’t want to explain that, because that is personal. […] The difference is, someone on the other side of the world can listen to this music and relate that is some way to their own life”

About this new record, Danny said: “This is not background music for parties. The music is written to deeply move the listener, to uplift or take the listener to the coldest depths of the soul”. In other words, you wanted to avoid elevator music or background music. Do you think that’s the risk when you are writing such emotional music?

When you write music that’s completely direct and honest, you have to sit up and listen to it. Trent Reznor wrote that song, “Hurt”. The original version is amazing, but when Johnny Cash sang it, with just him, a piano and an acoustic guitar, it changed. It’s one of those things where it’s like listening to somebody speak the truth. You have to listen, you know. And if it’s really important, you have to listen to it. Now, I’m not for one minute saying that’s what we do. It’s up to you to decide what we do, I don’t mind. One thing I’m saying is that there’s nothing fake about what we do. All of it is real. That goes right down to the lyrics, right down to every part of how we feel this music. For us, it’s more about the feeling behind the music. It’s about the intuition, it’s about going through it. It’s an experience that changes every time. One of the reasons I love doing what I do, now that I’m a singer, is that each time I experience a song, it’s different every single time. When you listen to a record, it’s the same every time, and that’s great. If you’re happy with it, it’s great. But then comes a certain point where you stop listening to the record, because it’s always the same. It usually takes me a couple of weeks! (laughs) I’m at that position now where I stop listening to the record and I just sing. The only time I get to hear our music is when I sing it. That’s when I know it’s real for me, because I mean it, I mean everything I’m doing, 100%. That’s cool for us, you know? I also don’t mind music that is meant to be just entertainment, that’s meant to sound the same all the time. That’s cool, too. But that’s not what I do.

Do you think the only way to write good music is to be honest?

No, no, that’s not true at all! There’s no secret formula right across the board that you can say: “This is how you write good music”. In fact, the question is false. What you have to ask any person is what do they bring to music. How do you live it? What can you bring to your music? What you have to remember is that each individual has their own voice. Each individual has their own mind, their own heart and soul, that they can put into something. And it’s unique, in and of itself. Even if you try and sound like somebody else, it’s still you, you know? It depends how much you want to give. A lot of people don’t want to be honest in music, because it’s giving too much away. They like to hide a little bit, and maybe to create something else. That’s cool too. A lot of people write about the world, or about external things. They try to be honest in that way, and that’s cool, too. There’s an infinite set of ways to do music, write lyrics and write poetry. But being honest, it’s… I don’t know, it’s up to you. I’m not so bothered about people knowing my life. I don’t want to explain the meaning and the experience behind these songs, what it all means. I don’t want to explain that, because that is personal. It is in the lyrics, it is in the songs, and you can feel it anyway. The difference is, someone on the other side of the world can listen to this music and relate that is some way to their own life, because the experiences we talk about are quite universal: the themes of love, death, loss, madness, euphoria, all the deep emotions that we go through in our lives every single day. I much prefer to hear somebody else’s story and their experiences, how they relate to our music. Maybe one of our songs reminds them of a relative, or a loved one, or something that they went through. I think that’s beautiful. So in that way, it could be universal. But like I said, there’s no formula. You have to be yourself.

So you don’t want to give to explain your lyrics too much?

I don’t think we need to. It’s very open, they’re not cryptic. We read books, we’re quite intelligent people, but we don’t have to write music we don’t particularly want people to understand! We don’t dress things up in a kind of ostentatious way, with really big words and things that are very difficult for an average person to understand. There’s something to be said for that, though. Some people advocate literacy and the love of language. I don’t mind that, but it’s just not what we do. At least not yet! A lot of the lyrics are very open, very honest and very direct. It just goes straight to the heart of the matter, really. At the same time, I do like imagery. In the song “Lost Child”, for example, it’s really all about imagery to create the scene. So I like that kind of thing, and I’d like to do some stuff like that in the future as well. I guess all possibilities are open, really.

The album is called Weather Systems. What do you find so inspiring in weather and nature? Do you think weather, the way that climate changes, is the best way to symbolize the polarity of human life?

I don’t know if it’s the best way, but it’s a way. The emotional turbulence that we all go through in our lives can be likened to that. But it’s the feeling that’s there’s something bigger than ourselves, as well. Sometimes you feel like you’re not quite in control. When you see the artwork for the album, the full thing, it kind of makes more sense. I like the metaphor, I think it works on this level.

“In music that people consider to be melancholic, there’s euphoria. You know? It can bring you to tears, but those tears are not necessarily sad. […] Somebody else understands exactly how you feel. And then you don’t feel alone anymore.”

It is said about this album that “it is also an album of polarity. The play of opposites; light and shade, birth and death, love and fear. The simple truths of life and loss, hope and strength and darker internal themes are all explored here”. It looks like you wanted to say that every cloud has a silver lining and that every silver lining has a cloud. Do you think that, to be really happy, a man has to accept that balance and accept the fact that even the saddest moments are a part of his life?

Ultimately, yeah. If you go through life completely happy, then it’s very difficult not to think there might be something wrong, you know? Are you mentally stable, or what? I’m not making any generalizations with that, of course. Everybody’s life is different, everybody’s experience is different, there’s no grand rule to rule it all. But for the majority of us, we have to take the rough times with the smooth times. And yes, we do have to try and find our balance. I guess it’s in your heart. For us at least, it’s important to explore all sides of what we experience. We don’t really want to just convey one thing, because there’s a lot more to human life than that. Even if you’re in the happiest relationship in the world, for example, let’s say if you’re happily married, if you have a nice family, a nice house, car, job and everything else that people associate with being happy, there could be something else that’s missing. A lot of people find that in their lives. There’s a lot of suffering in the world, and when you consider that music and love and friendship and loyalty are still present in people, they can help you through it as well. So there’s a balance there, somewhere.

When we listen to the biggest part of Anathema’s discography, we hear sadness and melancholy. And, at the opposite, while listening to We’re Here Because We’re Here and Weather Systems, I personally hear pure and peaceful happiness. Do you agree with that feeling? Are you happy now?

No, not completely. I don’t know… All I’m saying is that, in music that people consider to be melancholic, there’s euphoria. You know? It can bring you to tears, but those tears are not necessarily sad. It’s not like somebody died. Ultimately, it’s like somebody understands. With any kind of art, and music especially, when you hear something that resonates with the darkest parts of your life, it’s like somebody else gets it; somebody else understands exactly how you feel. And then you don’t feel alone anymore. And even though it’s a very sad song, that is not a negative feeling, it’s not sad. It’s kind of joyful. I remember Thom Yorke saying that; somebody asked him why he wrote such sad songs, and he said: “I don’t think they’re sad songs, to me they’re joyful”. “The Lost Child” is a deeply dark, melancholic piece of music, but to me, it’s so intense. I don’t feel sad when I listen to it. It’s just the music that we like to make. We also write about the other side of things, like “Lightning Song”, or “Sunlight”, for example. We just like to do all the colors of our lives, rather than just the dark colors. We like to express the other side of things, too. I think what we’ve reached with We’re Here Because We’re Here is a new level of honesty with ourselves, whereby the music that we’re putting out is a more accurate reflection of who we are. It could be said that, in the past, our previous albums, even though they’re fantastic and beautiful for what they are, they maybe only showed a small side of what we were going through. We’ve evolved, of course, but again, it’s a musical decision.

Danny told us two years ago that We’re Here Because We’re Here was the first record he was a fully satisfied with. And it looks it’s the same for this one. What changed in your way of working, of writing and recording music so that you can now achieve to be fully satisfied with your artistic work?

The biggest change is internal, within the people involved. That’s been the biggest change. We’re more able to realize music in the right way, now. I guess that’s what it is. It’s part of the process of going through life, you know? We had some tough times in the past, it was never easy. It was never easy to make records either, just like it wasn’t easy to get up in the morning and do whatever you got to do with your day. The difference now is that it’s easier. It’s easier to live. And as it’s easier to live, it’s easier to do what you need to do.

On that same subject, Danny told us: “I am in a better place in my life and so my music and my band are in a better place emotionally”. Do you think being happy makes you more proud of what you are doing?

No, not necessarily. I don’t know, it’s a very broad term, anyway, “being happy”. Happy or just content? Happy or just able to get through your day? There are different levels of what makes somebody happy. It depends how low you’ve been, to be honest with you. It depends if you really did hit rock bottom or not. If you’ve been suicidal and then came back from that, happiness is a very different thing compared to a normal person. It’s just going through life without those kinds of extremes, you know? It’s a relative term, that’s what I’m saying.

What’s the story behind the first two tracks of the album, “Untouchable” parts 1 and 2?

Musically, the two songs were connected, to begin with. That was obvious, so it became Part 1 and Part 2. The lyrics were written after that. They are about the same experience and about the same person, and they come from the same person. It’s very sad, actually! (laughs) That’s the way it is. But there’s also a glimmer of hope in there. Again, I won’t go into details and specifics.

By the way, the guitar on the beginning of “Untouchable” reminds your acoustic version of “Are You There ?” a little bit…

It’s a similar guitar picking style. So yeah!

Lee [Douglas, vocals] is much more present on this album. What motivated this choice?

Her voice is perfect for us, and the fact that she’s our sister makes it even more perfect! She came to the studio more often this time, and she spent some time there. We could actually work some stuff out. Just having her there made it possible to say: “OK, Lee, we just wrote that now, do you want to try it?” We could just immediately record it, and then we’d know. It gave us the freedom to paint with the different colors that we had. I think Danny as well sings one song on the album, “Sunlight”. He’s done some backing vocals, so we have three singers. That’s how we have it live, as well, so it’s cool. I think Lee’s incredible.

By the way, her voice on this album is quite different from the previous albums, and more diverse. Did she work on her singing especially for this record?

We wrote the stuff for her, but she also brought some things to the table. She brought a little bit of flair, a little bit of expression to it, and she changed a couple of tunes here and there. But one of the main things is Christer-André Cedeberg, the producer. He’s very good at bringing the best out of people. Lee had a great experience with Christer, and so did I, actually. Christer’s our guy, he’s our producer now. We’re keeping him, whether you like it or not! (laughs) We’ve found our George Martin, he’s the guy.

Danny also looks more present in the media and on stage than the past…

He’s one of the focal points of Anathema because he writes a lot of the stuff. At least, he comes up with the initial ideas for a lot of stuff. He’s one of the driving forces in the band, just like myself. I think it’s important to remember that John is also very important in the creative process. It also feels like Lee is starting to commit more. Lee is also a focus now, so it’s good. I don’t particularly need all the attention on myself! (laughs) I’m not an ego sort of person and I absolutely support having more than one singer. I think it’s a good thing. Like I said, it’s keeping things real.

When the previous album came out, Danny told us about the incredible working chemistry the band felt with producer Steven Wilson. Why didn’t you work again with him for this album, then?

We had a good chemistry with Steven Wilson, but the difference was, he only came in on the mixing stage the last time. With this one, we wanted somebody we could work with from day one. I guess if Steven was not such a busy man, we might have chosen to work with him. But at the same time, we were interested in and intrigued by Christer-André Cederberg, after we heard the album from Petter Carlsen, the second album, Clouds Don’t Count, which has this super cool production. As good as anything you’ll hear. We thought: “OK, this guy did this in his own studio, he’s obviously a talented guy, he’s young… Let’s work with him”. It was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. From day one, I got on with him immediately. We were kind of like roommates as well, because we were sharing an apartment in Liverpool. In the morning, we would talk about music and have breakfast, talk about the world, anything we would usually talk about in the studio. That’s when I know that we had a good friendship starting. When we got to the studio, it was work time, and it became easy. I was basically alongside Christer the whole time. We both tried to push, and push, and push for the best performances, the best arrangements, making sure we got everything right to the last detail. Also, we did that from the beginning of the process. On the last album, when we recorded with Les [Smith], he would say: “No, we’ll do that in the mix”. And I was saying: “No, no, I don’t want to do that, I want to do it now”, but we had to wait till the mix. I was fighting with him about that. But nowadays, it’s a much easier way to work, to have everything right as it’s going down. Christer has a very even temperament. He never gets stressed out, he never gets angry. He works hard, long hours; sometimes we were doing something like 16 or 20 hours per day in the studio. We were working hard. And he never stops, so while he was there, I felt I had to work hard too. It was good, we got the best results we’ve ever had.

Do you think you’ll change again for the next album?

No. Like I said, this is our guy. He’s our George Martin, our Nigel Godrich. The Beatles had George Martin, Radiohead had Nigel Godrich, and we’ve got Christer Cederberg. That’s the way it’s gonna stay, as far as I’m concerned. Unless, of course, he becomes too famous and wants a big huge paycheck! (laughs) In that case, we’ll see!

Interview conducted on february, 20th, 2012 by phone.

Transcription : Saff’

Anathema’s Website :
New album : Weather Systems, out on april, 16th, 2012.

This post is also available in: French

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