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Backstage With Vincent Cavanagh

The Anathema frontman on his India show, new material and his band’s epic switch from doom metal to a sound that can’t be pinned down

Tushar Menon Dec 05, 2012

Anathema frontman Vincent Cavanagh. Photo: Gary Wolstenholme/ Getty Images

Anathema were recently confirmed as the headlining act for IIT-Madras’s Saarang festival, an event which is gathering momentum and building up a formidable reputation, having been headlined in the past by Opeth and Pain of Salvation, among others. Coincidentally, Anathema were touring Europe with Opeth when I cornered lead vocalist and frontman Vincent Cavanagh for a chat. 

I’ve just heard from your brother Jamie that you’re playing in India for the first time in 2013.

We’re extremely excited about the prospect of going to India. For the first time in all of our lives. It’s a country that you really have to visit in your lifetime.

This news comes at a point where the band is at its peak.

It’s been a period of very intense work. Releasing four albums in four years helps. The quality of the music has, we feel, reached a certain standard now that it sets a new bar for us. It’s more consistent, more diverse. Once you’ve done that, you can’t really ever drop below that. Everything you write after that has to be as good, if not better. You would know in your heart of hearts if it wasn’t, and then you should just not do it.

Has the image that you have as a doom metal band because of your first album affected the way you’re perceived by fans?

It’s not so much fans or an audience, really. I think it’s more the mainstream media, who don’t know who Anathema is because of the history. We are fighting against that because our music stands for itself. We haven’t been a metal band for 15 years or more.

We’re Here Because We’re Here had a very dominant piano sound. Weather Systems had prominent finger picked guitars. How do you go about and orchestrate a song?

Well, I wouldn’t take that [the finger picking] as any indication as to where the band is going. We very much write song to song, and those ideas can be written on anything. It just so happened that on this album there were some finger picked songs, but looking at what we’ve written for the next album, there are very few. When you come up with an idea, you can switch which instrument it’s written on. I think the piano will always be present. I also think, in the future, we’re going to be going more and more into the electronic side of things as well. Especially the sort of things that John and I do. It’s not really what you’d expect from Anathema. John writes almost everything on keyboards and his stuff is really epic ”” chords that are just epic sounding. But that comes from going clubbing! He’s heavily influenced by dark trance music and that kind of thing.

We used to cover only the melancholic, dark side of life. Now we cover everything and the music reflects moods and emotions that are not just dark. It has to be just like life. With our music, we don’t fake anything ”” the situations are real, the people are real, all that we talk about is real ”” it’s all happened. In that way, I think, we end up connecting with people because no matter where you’re from, these themes are universal. It’s all part of the human experience. It’s all about people. We’ve been through very deep experiences, as most people have and we channel all of that into our music.

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I don’t know how it is in India, but in the north of England, if you’re a man, you don’t talk about your feelings with your friends. You’ll have a funeral for a family member, but it’ll be very”¦ respectful. You’ll keep a straight face, a stiff upper lip. It’s almost like if you show emotion, then it’s a sign of weakness. But I don’t like to live like that. I like to address it and music is one of the ways to do that. It’s a way to pay tribute to a relationship, a person or a situation you’ve been through.

Does that make it hard to perform on stage every night?

No, not at all. I don’t have to worry about those situations anymore because I’ve dealt with them. But I can sing those stories with absolute respect because I know exactly where it all comes from, even if I didn’t write the lyric. These people are my family, so I’ve been there, and it means I can deliver it with the absolute integrity that it deserves. This is what taught me to be a singer. To begin with, I was a rhythm guitarist. I became a singer because we needed a singer. We were in the studio. It took me a while to learn how to sing. Eventually, I discovered that I could sing and then I discovered that all I needed to do was to forget about entertaining the audience. To forget about the whole situation and focus one hundred percent on the lyric. Then I can do it. I’m not hiding behind anything.

There was a piece in The Guardian saying you should have been nominated for the Mercury Prize this year

That’s good, because it means that the music is good enough to counter the lack of attention we’ve been getting from the mainstream for quite some time. I believe in this band and this music. I believe that what we’re going to do next is better than everything we’ve done before.

It’s funny being on a support tour now. I went upstairs during their [Opeth’s] set to watch and I saw a huge moshpit. It’s been a while since I’ve even seen a moshpit. We could have completely different setlists depending on who we tour with. Our setlist with, for example, Mogwai would be completely different than if we were to tour with Radiohead.

I was doing an interview yesterday in Dublin, and he asked me to describe the music and I had to say, you know what”¦ I don’t even know. We’re very difficult to pin down. It’s one of the things that Porcupine Tree had. I think that’s a great thing for a band to have. Like Radiohead ”” how do you classify Radiohead?

Yeah, they’re prog to the prog guys, alternative to the alternative guys”¦

They’re all things to all men! [laughs] They are utterly unique. I’m not professing to be in such esteemed company, but what I sense is an evolution in our music that can only ever go up.

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The change from doom metal to your current sound is quite dramatic. What precipitated the change?

Anathema’s Vincent Cavanagh. Photo: Alterna2

To us, it wasn’t so drastic. The first three albums were moving into a more melodic, rockier direction. By the time we came to Alternative 4, we stripped down the layers. That’s one of the biggest lessons you get as a songwriter. When you’re very young, the tendency is to do all or nothing and although we had some room for subtlety, the overwhelming majority of what we were doing was heavy.

I guess what happens as you evolve as a human being is you strip away the layers and you become more honest. If you’ve got a really good song, all you need is vocals and one instrument as a backing track. So we stopped dressing things up and Alternative 4 is very stark. Our old bass player Duncan [Patterson] wrote quite a bit of that album and he learned a few lessons there. Then he left, and since then, we’ve taken the music further and further, to the point where We’re Here Because We’re Here became the first album that I was truly happy with. We’ve found more of a balance in life and that reflects in the music being more accomplished. That also gives you the thirst and hunger to do more.

How does it work personally, having your family in the band?

Well I’ve got nothing else to compare it to. You would have to be very lucky to advertise for musicians and find people that you want to spend 20 years of your life with. With us, we’ve all grown up together, even with John. Our two families have known each other all of our lives.

There’s a funny story about me and John. What made Anathema possible was the meeting between me and John when we were eleven. When I was 10, my parents had the choice to send me to a grammar school with Danny or to send me to a different school in Liverpool with Jamie [Cavanagh]. They chose to keep the twins together, so I went to school with Jamie, who was in another part of the school. On the first day, we were arranged alphabetically and Cavanagh and Douglas were next to each other and we instantly became best friends. If my parents had sent me to school with Danny, then Anathema would not have existed. And then you start to think about fate and destiny and I love that. There are a lot of people who’ll shit all over it. The scientific logical masses. But I believe life is more beautiful than that.

Philosophy has always been part of my life. Life is too beautiful to be negative. I have a very acute understanding of what it is to be alive because I’ve experienced so much death. And been through things that have reminded me constantly of how important it is that I am still breathing. I can’t get away from that and it pisses me off sometimes. But it makes me realize how much I respect life and people. It’s ultimately all just people. That’s all I have. 


Anathema will headline Decibels at IIT Madras’s Saarang festival on January 12th, 2013.


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