Danny Cavanagh – Anathema

Interview by Alessandra Cognetta

Anathema is one of those bands that really need no introduction. This amazingly talented group of musicians has crafted some of the best albums our ears could hope for, ever since they started making music. “Distant Satellites”, their latest release through Kscope, is no exception. For this interview, I had the privilege to speak directly with Danny Cavanagh, and this created the chance for a really nice 30 minutes conversation about in-depth aspects of Anathema’s work and some interesting stories and opinions, dismissing at once all the pressure and anxiety of holding a live interview. Danny had a lot of meaningful things to say about the birth of “Distant Satellites”, but also a really peculiar story about “Weather Systems”, as well as some great analysis on the work he did with different singers throughout his career.
 
You wrote all the songs on the album, except for a few instances, “Dusk” or “You’re Not Alone”, where you’ve been joined by Vincent Cavanagh and John Douglas. What does, in your opinion, each one of you contribute to the music? And how do you all work to bring all those elements together in the final piece?

Well, it works because we’re used to each other. We support each other and we fit in the groove with each other, you know. Vincent is an arranger and John and I are writers, so it works as a three-men team and it also goes through the producer, Christer André Cederberg, who is also part of that team. He’s the figurehead on the computer to put everything down, make sense of everything in the recording process and to help with the musical decisions, too. But really, like I said, Vinnie is an arranger – well, he also writes a little – while John and I are writers for Anathema and that’s how it works. We try to support each other and we have fun, that’s one of the key elements. We just have fun and I enjoy being with them.

I think the whole album is a gem, but the “Lost Song” trilogy really piqued my interest, especially for how it builds up a certain atmosphere and then soars towards the end of Part 3 and it’s overall a great experience. Can you tell us a bit more about it? Why is it “Lost”?

The title initially came from a song that was lost. I had a riff, or a song, in about 2008 and it was lost from my recorder and I couldn’t find it again, because it was a little mini-recorder and it didn’t keep the information properly. I lost this piece of music and I tried very hard to find it on other computers and I couldn’t. I was very disappointed by this and what I tried to do was consciously try to remember what this little piece of music was. Now, the music didn’t come from the conscious mind and I couldn’t remember it consciously, but as I tried to remember it consciously, all those things started to happen and that’s where “The Lost Song Part 1” began. We found a beat, me, Vincent and also Daniel, found a beat that was a little bit like it. Then I found some progressions that were a little similar, but, actually, I stopped trying to remember and just started to write another song instead. It was born from a piece of music that was lost and, in the attempt to find this song, these other tracks all happened because of that. It’s funny.

That’s really cool, I mean, it’s sad to lose an important piece of recording like that, but it was eventually a good opportunity.

Yeah, exactly. And maybe these three are even better than the one that was lost. I will never know! (laughs) I’d like to hear it again, it could trigger something in me if I heard it again, but I can’t remember it.  It’s no big deal, it’s only a piece of music. It’s just one of those things that happen. It was a bit of a difficult time for me and I had a number of distractions in my personal life and if I hadn’t had such distractions I probably would have not lost it.

“Distant Satellites” shares a lot of traits with its predecessor, but it generally feels more “quiet/melancholic” in a way, the music is more elaborate and emotional than ever but has a different pacing to it. Was this an intentional choice or did it just come about naturally?

Not really, it was natural. Most of the music is unintentional. By that I mean that, a bit like “The Lost Song”, I didn’t ask for it to come and when I came it wouldn’t stay. The music almost has a life of its own. Sometimes we do say that, in the production or in the writing of the music, we try to let the music do the talking. We try to step out of the way and let the music speak, so that we are not consciously controllers of the machine, rather we are channelers. So this album is the same, really, “Weather System” was the same as that. It’s just how we do it, so far it’s how we work. I suppose it’s why the songs are quite simple, ‘cause we’re not really using our left brain intellect to write this stuff. There is some left brain intellectual processes and mathematical processes, but it’s always coupled with a right brain intuition of listening to the music and letting music tell you, or tell us, where it wants to go. It’s almost a meditation.

It shows, actually. When I listened, it showed that it was really natural, that it flowed naturally.

Yeah, it is. I mean it would be nice to maybe throw a few musical surprises in one day, there  would be nothing wrong with that. But I like this intuitive process that we have, that is kind of what Anathema is and I think it’s nice that three people could be all on an intuitive level at the same time in the writing, that comes from many years of friendship, mutual understanding and trust. That’s not to say that Daniel Cardoso isn’t fantastic, he’s fantastic in what he brings, he’s a great player. And Jaime’s a great guy and Lee was fantastic, she’s really special, but the album’s written and arranged by me, John and Vincent, just because that’s the team that has worked for so long. These things are complicated and I just don’t really wanna mess with that chemistry. I wanna respect that chemistry and keep it, because for sure there are other players than John and Vincent out there but they have a musical imagination that is something I can trust. That’s why we do it this way. Daniel came in to play his part and he did an excellent job, then he went home to work on the rest of what he had to do, but he laid a great foundation and then it was up to me, John and Vincent to write in the studio. We did most of the writing in the studio, actually. All the lyrics were written after Christmas in the studio and there was a lot of pressure but I like the way it turned out.

Why “pressure”?

Well, just because the song lyrics were not finished and we had a deadline to finish the record in time, because after this date it was gonna be moved back to September and Christer had to take his holiday leave with his daughter and everybody was tired because we, particularly me and Vincent, had been working for nine months without stopping. He didn’t really see his home for a long time and that’s difficult, things like that were really weighing on our minds. We were glad when it was finished. We also agreed to do an American tour with HIM while the album was still being mixed, so it was a very intense time for us

It takes a toll, somehow.

It does, it does. But I was personally proud of the work that was accomplished. I maybe was more proud than other people (laughs). It wasn’t a very pleasant process for everybody, but the end result is OK, I think.

Another important difference from Anathema’s previous works is the use of electronics, which surely adds a new depth to the music. Is this an anticipation of the band’s future?

It’s difficult to say where the band’s future will go. I honestly have no idea what the next album will sound like. I would like to get into electronics personally, it could be the next level of my writing, because I’ve done a lot of piano music and I’ve done a lot of guitar music and I’ve always done everything I can on a guitar, personally speaking. What the laptop brings is just a whole world of new sound opportunities. That’s exciting, so I’m gonna look forward to that because, it’s difficult for me to say, but that could be the next level for me. I honestly can’t say yet how it’s gonna go. Certainly for Vincent and John, they work this way already. But I’ve been more of a “piano man” on this album, and a “guitar man” on the last album, so it’s piano and guitar for me, at the moment. And if the laptop becomes part of that, then it will be great. What I would say is that it seems to me there are four elements to Anathema: guitar, piano, orchestra and laptop. And they are all to be respected, that’s how I see it.

“Distant Satellites” is, by now, out pretty much everywhere. Are you satisfied with the feedback so far?

Yeah, for the most part I am. I think it’s a positive response. For this album I may have been a little bit less “searching” than I was on “Weather Systems”. Maybe I had some of my self-esteem wrapped up and the fact that the album got such a response, you know, “Untouchable” a big hit. It’s the first time I had written what I would call, in our levels, a really big hit song. I didn’t expect that to happen, I wasn’t trying to do it, so when that happened I was like: “Okay, this is special!”. And I would admit to some of my personality being caught up in that. But not this time, really. I read them with a little bit of distance and what I generally think is if somebody thinks that the album is terrible, then I think they’re wrong, maybe it’s just not their thing or they’re being stupid, but if somebody really likes the record I will listen to the reasons why they like it.

Sometimes a lot of the critics, especially the negative critics, are just words thrown around without reasoning or logic, so it’s difficult to take them seriously, maybe.

Isn’t the internet a little bit like that? It can be, you know, and the first critics, the first public critics on the internet are usually the ones who are the most negative because they can’t wait to write something negative! To be honest, I’ll tell you a little story. When we made “Weather Systems”, the album leaked six weeks early. The leak was stopped, but somebody went online after illegally downloading the album six weeks early and said that we did not do our job properly on this album, after we had worked so long and so hard. It says more about that person than it does about the work of “Weather Systems”, it says more about them than it does about us. If they really wanna do that, then that is an example of their daily life and an example of my daily life is the work that you’re listening to. What can I say, that’s the internet. Beforehand, people used to talk to each other about these things, now they write on the internet and sometimes they regret what they’ve written. I actually don’t listen much to social media anymore like that, I live offline.

Sometimes it’s better that way.

Yeah, I think so. I use the internet for work, e-mails, these kind of things… keeping in touch with family is very important, but I don’t live on Facebook anymore. It’s very addictive (laughs).

In other interviews – and actually in this one as well – you said that Anathema’s music deals with the “left brain intellect” or your “internal state”. Can you tell us a bit more about that and how it affects you when you’re writing or rearranging music in general?

I think I’m never happier than when a song is coming together – apart from maybe if I’m with my daughter and she makes me really laugh – but otherwise I’m never really happier than when I’m arranging a song. This is because I feel like that’s my little piece of the world coming together. It’s a little bit therapeutic, it’s beautiful and inspiring. I love the feeling of when the music starts coming together, in my mind and in the recorder and then the group. I love it when it’s coming together like that in a healthy way and I think that’s just a very healthy thing. It’s an example of people doing what they love to do and that’s always good. If what they’re doing is supporting their own path, if it’s maybe bringing something good to the world one way or another, then it’s what we are here for. Actually, I think we’re here to love each other, but part of the process in that, for me, is music.

You’ve worked with many singers over the years, both with Anathema and on your own, all of which have different styles and voices, from Anneke to Tristania‘s Mariangela Demurtas. What do you appreciate the most in each voice when you collaborate with a particular artist?

Mariangela is amazing because she has a great presence when she sings. When I did a cover version of Jeff Buckley with her and she stood next to me and sang the whole thing, it was really amazing because her whole movements, her whole body and soul was in this performance. She wasn’t affecting anything, she wasn’t trying anything. She was just allowing the song to flow through her and it was really fantastic. She has a great voice, she’s very talented and very beautiful, too!

Anneke is almost like the perfect singer. Anneke’s voice is very deeply part of her being and when she sings it’s an extension of her inner self, as all good singers. She’s very gifted with tuning, pitching and phrasing. She’s very gifted in this. Lee Douglas has a lot of soul, I think. When she’s in the moment and it’s going really well, it’s arguable that she’s the best of all of them, but she’s not like the most accomplished musician as the others…

It depends on the feeling?

Yeah! I think that’s a good way of putting it. She goes into the moment and it’s like as if she doesn’t really know what she’s doing, it just happens. I think she doesn’t think about it too much. When we’re doing Anathema songs she really does learn the parts and she spends hours in her hotel room learning the songs and she does wonderfully well. She would bring additional little moments. There’s been moments where she’s really blown me away, on the stage. She’s special. She’s also John’s sister and we’ve known each other for many, many years, so in this respect there’s also a good close bond. Cause we’re not just working with a friend or somebody we’ve known for a few years, but this is somebody that goes back 24 years. And, certainly, we’ve been friends, Lee and I, since 1997-98? About that time. We get on really well, so she’s the right one for Anathema. But I’ve been very lucky to work with these singers and I really can’t say which one is the best out of those three, which is the biggest compliment I can give to any of them.

You moved to Norway a couple of years ago, and it has always been one of the places that influenced you the most, musically speaking. What has it been like living there so far, compared to Liverpool?

I moved back to England, I’m now in London. I like London, it can absorb so many things and it’s so full of energy, full of life and history and I’m just taking my time here. I really don’t know where I will end up when I’m an older guy, but this feels right for the moment. I just like the City, to be honest with you. I have a few friends here and it’s good.

Anathema has never been afraid to venture and face new musical challenges – with excellent results, I might add. I wanted to ask for your opinion on other kinds of “musical challenges”, like those related to the “business” side, especially the recent rise of crowdfunding, which helped a lot of bands or indie artists publish their work through sheer fan support, without the help of a label. Or Devin Townsend, who recently funded an album with a huge success.

I support this, but I still think that record labels are important for reaching new fans. I still think a good manager is important. I’m very lucky to have both in place, I’ve got a good manager and a good label and I still very much trust this people. I think Devin’s project still goes through the management anyway, so I think a good manager is very important. If you have this, then other things will follow. There’s so many reasons, it’s a big job.

Well, we’re at the end, please greet your fans and our readers freely. Thank you very much for your time!

I would say… grazie!

 

Photo Credit

Photos by Scarlet Page

 

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