It goes without saying that a great deal can change in 25 years, and there are few bands that illustrate that more perfectly than Liverpool’s very own prog rock stalwarts Anathema.
When the band took its first breaths in 1990 it was to make an ephemeral foray into the burgeoning British doom scene, alongside groups such as Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride. It was not just the sound but the line-up too that was a far cry from what we know as ANATHEMA today, originally featuring Darren White as the band’s vocalist. After only a year the band went through its first of several radical transformations, with Jamie Cavanagh leaving and being replaced by Duncan Patterson. Five years later it experienced its second overhaul, with White’s departure leading guitarist Vincent Cavanagh to step into the breach. It was at this point that the band began to explore melody in earnest, and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 2015 Anathema are celebrating their 25th anniversary in style – playing not only a series of acoustic cathedral dates, but also embarking on their Resonance world tour (featuring the return of both Darren and Duncan) and releasing their Fine Days 1999-2004 CD box set. As I wait to speak to the band hours before the last date of their cathedral tour, standing beneath the Anglican Cathedral’s intricate, soaring masonry, it’s impossible not to feel awed by the band’s remarkable achievements. Despite their puzzling lack of notoriety in their home city, the show sold out far in advance – a nod perhaps to both the special nature of the show and just how long it has been since they last returned (in 2010 – a similarly sold-out, one-off charity show in aid of Alder Hey children’s hospital).
It’s not long before Danny – the eldest Cavanagh brother and lead songwriter – emerges, himself looking equally awed by the sheer majesty of our surroundings. We skirt the stage, itself dwarfed before the cathedral organ’s colossal golden pipes, as we make our way up one of the many impressive stone staircases to begin our interview. The intensely emotional nature of Danny’s lyrics has always been a fascination to me, but it feels a bit invasive to begin our discussion on this personal level. Perhaps buoyed by the cathedral’s serene atmosphere I pluck up the courage to broach the subject, and it quickly becomes apparent that Danny’s mind has been dwelling on the more spiritual dimensions of the sandstone monolith in which we’re sat. “Yeah well, that’s me, isn’t it? It’s the story of my life really, all in songs…”
“I’m unconsciously afraid of becoming a little self-indulgent,” Danny continues in hushed tones, “but I’ve experienced so much internally… and also I find that to my mind the meaning of life is – well, there is a meaning. Which I think is the biggest statement you’ll hear all day. The meaning of life can be found only on the inside; it’s something that can only be experienced. You can have pointers from books and pointers from other people but ultimately it’s about what you can find within yourself and how deep you can get.”
“People can make spiritual breakthroughs, and sometimes it comes through trauma. That can be part of the process in which you break though the psychological structures of your mind and into something deeper. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a person, or at least one, possibly more, who was able to help me access infinitely deeper realms of life within, deeper than everyday life would have you believe is possible.”
It is this breakthrough to which Danny credits his lyricism – a breakthrough that came at an incredibly difficult time in his life and proved to be transformative. “In 2005 I had this therapy in which I was able to break through the psychological structures and difficulties I’d been in and suddenly access something incredibly beautiful and incredibly deep – a deeper state of consciousness, a higher state of awareness.”
His frankness should perhaps have come as no surprise considering the nature of the band’s music, but it’s nonetheless remarkable to hear him talk so candidly about what is for many a touchy subject. However, this touchiness, it seems, is something he’s experienced first-hand. “I meet people who don’t know me very well, and somebody might make a comment that playing in cathedrals makes them feel a little bit strange because all religion is evil, for example, and I could – and I did – speak for three minutes on the subject and realised I was getting nowhere and just dropped it. But life isn’t that black and white, and religion isn’t that black and white.”
Now on a groove, Danny reaches for the most fundamental thoughts this run of shows has called him to reflect upon. “The best way I can put this is to say that at the deepest level of reality there’s something incredibly profound and beautiful and it’s timeless, it’s outside of time altogether. We are life itself, and we are absolutely and indivisibly connected to the heart of the fabric of reality, and because it’s outside of time it can’t die. Only things that live in time can die, and that’s cells, molecules, atoms; but this is something non-physical. There’s this divine, almost inconceivably beautiful presence inside everything, inside the heart of the fabric of reality, and no words can possibly describe it, but everything that is comes from it. If there’s one word in the English language that flows from this presence it’s love – the truest word I’ve ever known.”
For many fans of Anathema, it is this focus on love which creates such a deep connection between them and the music – and something which has not gone unnoticed, as Danny will soon be releasing a solo covers album called Memory And Meaning, funded in part by offering personal performances and dedications of their songs.
“Dreaming Light has been chosen almost twice as much as any other song, and it’s almost always for a romantic reason, connected to a partner. So I don’t mind doing that. I can’t sing it like Vinny though, but I do a sincere version, and that’s the main thing.”
Whilst it’s Danny who writes much of the music for the band, it’s his brother Vinny who brings it alive with his astonishing vocals. As he explains, it’s the combination of talents and personalities in the band which led them to be where they are today.
“The songwriting team that I’m at my happiest and most comfortable with is Vinny, John Douglas, and me. We’ve grown together so long – John understands music on a particularly high level, and he’s a fucking lunatic [laughs]. In the best possible way! He’s hilariously funny, absolutely hysterical, and people who don’t know him can’t see it because he’s so quiet. It’s been a long time you know, and I think there’s a lot of love there. He’s not scared to put me down if I need bringing down a peg or two, and he should never be afraid of that – there’s no kingpin in this band, that would be inappropriate. I’m very, very grateful to have them. They’re soulmates.”
The reflective nature of both Danny’s speech and the band’s anniversary celebrations gives the conversation a rather intense air of nostalgia, something which seems to be at odds with their usual mantra of ‘make it, and move on’.
“It’s just for this year,” he explains of the quarter century anniversary. “We’ll move straight on again next year. Vinny was against the idea of doing any kind of nostalgic thing at all, but I told him ‘Look the next album won’t sound any different; we’ll just do it for a laugh!’ And that was the idea, and it will be fun, and to be fair we do owe Duncan Patterson and Darren White a debt – without them I don’t think we’d have done what we’ve done. Who knows where we’d be – it took Darren to get the band started really, his organisation and focus. And it took Duncan to take the band into new musical areas, melodically and in terms of songwriting – writing with piano, and having Vinny sing that way… during Alternative 4 for example, it wasn’t a happy time, it was a horrendous time, but there was real musical growth. And then when he left, which was coincidentally the day my mother died, a very painful time, I was able to take that forward. I was able to match Duncan as a songwriter, and we were OK. It took us a couple of albums to get going, and I don’t think we hit our peak until We’re Here Because We’re Here, when the next level of songwriting came along. Songs like Dreaming Light… that all came after the therapy.”
On stage in this grandest of settings, the band shed any signs of insecurity, swelling to fill the vaulted cavern that towers above the crowd. As the audience is plunged into darkness at the beginning of A Natural Disaster, my mind wanders back to the last thing I asked Danny before he disappeared for the soundcheck: whether the remarkable nature of that evening’s show had quite sunk in yet? “When I walked in today, and I saw you, and I saw the stage, I realised ‘Yeah…OK’. I’ve walked in here a hundred times before, but to see all of our stuff set up… I got it.”
Words: Laura Coppin / @laaauuuwra
Photography: John Johnson / johnjohnson-photography.com
Anathema’s latest album, Distant Satellites, is out now on Kscope Records.