Yesterday, FACT spoke to Lisa Gerrard, one half of Dead Can Dance.
Gerrard and Brendan Perry, her friend and former partner of many years, founded Dead Can Dance with Simon Monroe in Melbourne in 1981. They moved to London a year later, leaving drummer Monroe in Australia, but it wasn’t until ’84 that they dared to loose their music upon the world – in the shape of the Garden Of The Arcane Delights EP and a self-titled debut album, both on Ivo Watts-Russell’s rapidly evolving 4AD label.
Dead Can Dance struck an immediate chord with both introspective goths and rangier post-punk seekers looking for something more transporting than the latest weak Joy Division imitation: here was a band steeped in mythology, mysticism, literature and religious iconography drawn from various different cultures and eras of history, these disparate materials bound together by a profound, elemental romanticism. This romanticism, this serious engagement with the big themes most of us shy away from (life, love, death, the beyond), has persisted in Perry and Gerrard’s work through to the present day; as such, their work has fallen in and out of fashion along the way (mainly out).
Dead Can Dance struck an immediate, solemn chord with both introspective goths and rangier post-punk seekers looking for something more transporting than the latest weak Joy Division imitation.
Their next album, 1986’s Spleen and Ideal, was one of the records that defined the so-called “4AD sound” – influenced by medieval European music, its grave, quasi-symphonic overtures and undulations felt more appropriate to the cathedral than the concert hall. Within The Realm Of A Dying Sun (1987) saw the pale, strikingly beautiful Gerrard assert her role as one of the most distinctive vocalists of her generation, with a tone and phrasing seemingly capable of travelling through time, of connecting the ancient to the present, the Western to the Eastern, the earthly to the otherworldly.
Dead Can Dance continued to releases albums throughout the 1980s and ’90s; Perry and Gerrard went their separate ways after completing their seventh full-length, Spiritcatcher, at Perry’s home studio in Ireland. That, we all thought, was that; there was a live reunion in 2005, which led to the release of some concert recordings, but no new material. Then, in 2011, they announced another run of live shows, but more importantly a brand new album.
That album, Anastasis, is due to be released in August, and the extensive world tour kicks off in the same month, taking in an already sold-out show at London’s Royal Albert Hall in October.
FACT’s Kiran Sande could have happily spoken to the fantastically alluring Ms. Gerrard for days, if not weeks; alas, the record company allowed him only 20 minutes. “What would you like to talk about, darling?” she purred as she answered the phone.
“Well…I suppose I wondered if you felt any anxiety about reprising your creative relationship with Brendan after all this time apart?” was the only question he had time to pose. The answer he received is printed in full below.
“We asked ourselves, what was the missing ingredient, the perfume, the alchemy?”
“When we actually fell away from each other, well, when things like that happen, there are lots of questions you ask yourself – what happened really? Was it a blackbird or a sparrow or a crow, was it a crow or a sparrow or a blackbird? What happened, what did we do wrong, how come we’re not allowed not work together?”
“And when we did actually get back together, we just didn’t connect…something was wrong, life had moved on. I was living in Australia, he [Brendan] was living in Ireland…prior to this, we’d always lived in the same town, the same house, and we were immersed in the same desires, the same literature, the same painting. It wasn’t something that happened overnight, it’s not something that can just be dialled up…
“Being with Brendan…It’s like going to university. He’s very much into books, he’s into where books lead him…and usually all boats wash up onto a beach where it becomes the music that we make. It’s not that you deliberately go about it in this way, or that you think of it in this way; that’s just how it happens.
“We attempted things in the past few years, but it didn’t feel right. We asked ourselves, what was the missing ingredient, the perfume, the alchemy? The problem was that we’d been apart and we hadn’t had that shared map or that compass of discovery that we’d had with every previous album.
“With each album it had taken time, two years or more of immersion and dedication, before we felt we’d earned the poetic license, earned the RIGHT, to do these works. We weren’t hunters or collectors … we felt the need to deeply connect and live out all the theories, the philosophy, the ethos, the history, the musicality… the loss and the love.
“We weren’t hunters or collectors … we felt the need to deeply connect and live out all the theories, the philosophy, the ethos, the history, the musicality… the loss and the love.”
“So we’d aways been through this extraordinary, necessary catharsis…. a journey that leads us to the work that we do. Brandon’s very literary, with him it’s all about words: history, philosophy. I’ve always been…well, I’ve always done this kind of abstract sound poetry in response to the reality of what he’s experiencing. I’ve tried to feel what he’s feeling, and to transform it. It’s like the butterfly. what happens between us; a metamorphosis. Of course, these are all retrospective thoughts, one never realises this at the time…
“There’s a subtlety that has to be embraced in order for us to be allowed to touch this work…you don’t get to pick up the newborn baby if you’re not the father, or the nurse, because it’s so precious…You don’t have the right. And as a partnership, we’re deeply woven into each other, I mean we met when we were 17, and we were already spellbound by music then…
“Ultimately what we wanted to do was to preserve the essence of how music gives you a sense of wanting to stay alive, how it gives you a capacity to look inside yourself or get excited about other cultures and cross-cultural dispossession….and all these things that music seems to have this innate power to do.
“You want to walk towards this beautiful thing without sorcery, without witchcraft or mischief, because you know that you’ve had to live without it for such a long time. As the saying goes: if only we had an undo button in life. Or if you had three wishes in life…the first would be that you were able to go back. That is so precious.
“You want to walk towards this beautiful thing without sorcery, without witchcraft or mischief, because you know that you’ve had to live without it for such a long time.”
“Working together again on Anastasis, we stepped out onto a very different soil… I saw a documentary years ago, that reminded me, in the abstract, of myself and Brendan – and I do hope this doesn’t sound too arrogant. There was this guy who got thrown out of aboriginal society because he got one of the young girls pregnant, so he was banished, ostracised, shunned…and so he wandered in the desert for 40 years…
“In that time the tribe and its way of life had changed dramatically…some of them were going to work in the city, they were very modern and urbanised. Suddenly these people wonder, what happened to Jeffrey (or whatever his name was)? A couple of the brothers decided to go and look for him, and they walked and walked for two years before they managed to track this guy down. He had been on this walkabout for 40 years, thinking he could never, never come home. Eventually the brothers find him and at first they don’t recognise him, but then he does this extraordinary dance, and they immediately know it’s him, and he knows it’s them… but they’re not allowed to approach each other…And this, this is what happens in art.
“We wanted to preserve the essence of how music gives you a sense of wanting to stay alive, and the capacity to look inside yourself.”
“We’re so spoilt as children, we’re given everything we want but we don’t recognise how precious it is – and of course it until things that are taken away that we realise they’re not coming back. But if you walk back towards each other – with subtlety, and with sincerity – then in time you will be able to rebuild to the threads that have been broken… it takes time, it takes time. You have to slow down. Remember [candy floss] at the circus when you were a child? Those thousands of fibres coming together – that’s what it’s like when you unite with someone you have a soul connection with.
“Those fibres that bind you are so thin and the wheels of emotional texture and emotional continuity are so delicate… you can’t plan any of it. But you think, I am going to walk towards my brother that’s been out in the wilderness for 40 years. It’s love, a desire to make things right, it’s a desire to bring things home, it’s a desire to reconnect. And you don’t really know how to. But there is something in you that innately presses you to do it, and you know that unless you do it – unless I do this – I won’t be able to move forward.”
As told to Kiran Sande