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A Shock to the System
PIGEON-HOLE THEM AS BELFAST HARDCORE MERCHANTS AT YOUR PERIL - IN THE PAST FEW MONTHS THERAPY? HAVE RELEASED TWO CLASSIC PUNK-POP EP'S THAT SHOOK THE BRITISH CHARTS, AND EVEN GOT THEM INTO THE PAGES OF TEEN-BIBLE SMASH HITS. AS THEY BEGIN RECORDING THEIR NEW LP, THEY TAKE TIME OUT TO GET NERVOUS ABOUT FEILE, GET ANGRY ABOUT THE BEATLES, AND EXPLAIN WHY THE DAYS OF THE NINE-MINUTE INSTRUMENTAL EPIC ARE OVER. INTERVIEW: LORRAINE FREENEY
Lorraine Freeney, 14 Jul 1993
IT'S BEEN a long, strange trip, and that's nothing to do with Therapy?, you understand; that's just the journey from pre-dawn suburban Dublin to Homestead Studios in Randalstown, Co. Antrim.
Andy Cairns is waving out the window, so this must be the place. Tucked behind the main street of a modestly sized town an hour's drive from Belfast, is a bungalow flanked by an outsize satellite dish. Within the walls of that spacious bungalow you can find a recording studio, Kit-Kat machine, Budweiser dispenser, a much-watched video of "Romper Stomper", a (temporarily non-functioning) jacuzzi, and Therapy?, about to begin recording their new album. It's not yet 11.00 am but everyone, apart from a poorly Fyfe, is up, making tea, burning toast, munching cereal, and enduring the Richard and Judy televisual experience.
Within the past year, Therapy? have done something that few people - and that includes the band, their most loyal fans, and the psychically-gifted - could have foreseen around the time of their first single, "Meat Abstract? Punishment Kiss". They have appeared on Top Of The Pops. Twice.
"It was brilliant the first time, but you don't know what to do," says Andy. "You realise you're miming a song in front of fourteen year olds and they do not know who you are. The first time we did it, Snow and all these people were on it, and all these wee fourteen year old kids had seen his picture in Smash Hits and were going, 'That's a pop star!'.
"And then we came on, and they turned round and went, 'Who the hell is this?!' I just sang the whole thing with my eyes closed, I was pretty nervous. The second time we did it, I was a lot more comfortable. A girl gave Michael a rose because we'd been in Smash Hits the week before. It was more accepted."
"I remember seeing Motorhead on Top Of The Pops, and thinking, what the hell is this?" adds Michael. "We probably stuck out like a sore thumb in that we don't look like pop stars."
No, Therapy? don't look like pop stars, Andy's partiality to leather trousers notwithstanding, and they certainly display none of the ego imbalances associated with pop stars, but they have become extraordinarily successful within a short space of time. One recent review got it spectacularly wrong when it predicted that Theapy? were going to spend the next two years "desperately defending their indie roots while flying across America in private jets snorting 11 different strains of Peruvian talcum powder . . . their argument being that, although they may appear to be The Undertones, they are in fact Big Black."
Therapy? have never aspired to being Big Black; they have claimed to like them, but then they've also admitted to liking Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Blondie, Jesus Lizard, Black Sabbath, REM, Husker Du, techno, the soundtrack to "Twin Peaks" . . . Their eclectic approach, and their determination to play whatever the fuck they want regardless of the fact that someone somewhere will expect them to re-write "Teethgrinder" till the day they die, is what makes them great.
It's irritating and offensive that, months after Andy promised he would "ram the entire Smiths' back catalogue" up the arse of the next person who accused them of selling out, there are still those whose rants about the creative perils of signing with a major and releasing singles that chart, imply that they wish to take Andy up on his offer and become that bit more intimate with Morrissey and Marr's recorded work.
So here, especially for them, are the reasons why signing to A...M made such good sense. One last time, Andy, with feeling . . .
"We just wanted to get our records out there which was impossible - it wasn't Wiiija's fault but with the southern distribution the way it was, it was impossible to get the records out and get people to listen to them. Now, we'll make the records the best we can within our capabilities, and because we're on a major they'll be available in record shops throughout the world. You won't have to hunt them down and they won't be late from the warehouse into the shops.
"A...M tend to build up people's careers and are very loyal to acts, whereas a lot are like, well, where's the million seller? No-one has ever come to me from A...M and said, "Do you not think you should do this?' "Nurse" went top forty, we got all the artwork done ourselves, and then we did the next EP, 'Screamager', and said we're going to get a pop art sleeve. The whole idea is it's meant to conjure up ideas of a fourteen year old standing in front of a mirror pretending to be on Top Of The Pops being The Buzzcocks or Blondie.
"They said, aha, well if it's not successful don't blame us. It went to number ten and got us on Top Of The Pops. The next single we wanted to be a bit more dark because we don't want to be construed as being just a bubblegum pop band at the minute. And that went into the top twenty so now they just assume we know what we're doing.
"We always want to be in control. I think the bottom line is that we always want to be responsible for our mistakes. I don't want to be sitting here in five years time going, 'If we'd only done this on the album'. We can evaluate stuff we've done before and see the faults in it. If there's bad sound, for instance, it's not the producer's fault, it's our fault for choosing him in the first place, and that's the way we look at it.
"It'd be different if A...M had demanded we use a certain producer. If something went horribly wrong and it was the record company's fault I couldn't live with that, but if it was my fault, I could because I'd say, well, I fucked up but I won't do it again."
"In America," Michael continues, "it's amazing how many alternative bands have moved to majors and they're not happy at all, they're moaning and griping about not getting such and such. Well, why did they sign to them? They've obviously got a lawyer and knew what was in the contract. We knew exactly what we were letting ourselves in for when we went to A...M. You don't sign and get a red sports car, you just get a little bit more money to do things properly."
"I can't believe the amount of bands that use their advance on personal things," says Andy. "We've been really careful, we took a drop in advance money because we've got full artistic control, and then we just pay ourselves enough to pay our rent and live on each week and that's about it.
"There's so many bands, even bands that aren't quite as successful as us, signed to a major, and the first thing they do is go out and buy a house and then they've no money for the album. It's OK to get the red sports car or spend lots of money on cocaine, but that's only going to last for six or seven months, and then the fall's going to be far harder."
"There's one English band that I know that would never sell as many records as us, and their wage is twice ours," says Michael. "How can you justify that? Sooner or later, if you're not selling enough records you're either going to get dropped or end up with no money."
The new Therapy? album is scheduled for release in Feb-ruary. "We've twelve tracks at the minute," explains Andy. "Actually, we've more than that because I wrote a couple in America. We take a four track with us. I've lost my notebook, which is filled with sixteen songs worth of lyrics and I can't find it anywhere - I know it's somewhere about this studio unless the classic dog's eaten it." He looks suitably worried at the thought.
"We've been quite prolific since we came back from America, with regard to songwriting. Basically we've just kicked out all the nonsense factor. Before we would have sat and laboured. A song like "Prison Breaker" off "Pleasure Death", it's seven minutes long, and we would have sat and crafted it. It's not as if we're a band like Rush or ELP," (Michael dissolves into laughter at the thought), "it's not like we're classically good enough musicians to try and do something like that. We used to spend a week rehearsing each song, to try and get it out because there were so many time changes and things like that. Then we just realised it's not being natural.
"We thought, well, why are we going out of our way to write these seven minute epics? At the time it worked and people seemed to think it was doing something quite different, but for the last few records and especially this one, we wanted to just hone it down and make them the kind of songs we want.
"The thesis to the album is basically that all the songs are three minutes, they're all energetic and they're all up-tempo. There's a song called "Troublegum", about making bubblegum music. We've always been criticised for absence of melody - people say, 'I went to see them and they're very powerful but they didn't really have any songs'. "Potato Junkie", "Nausea" and "Screamager" and "Turn" obviously - we have got melody there, but now maybe we're just honing in on it more.
"There are songs on the album that are poignant, there are songs that are uplifting and there are songs that are angry . . . I think what I'm trying to say is we're trying to hone down our pop sensibility more on this record while still making it really exciting."
"We're doing so many gigs now," adds Michael, "but a lot of the big long songs we don't play live, because we don't really enjoy playing them. So if I look at our latest set list it's all "Potato Junkie"s and "Screamager"s that we're doing, all quite short and concise songs which are good to play and seem to go down well. I don't think there's any sense in writing an album, if in a year's time we're not going to be able to play half of it live."
Therapy? spent a considerable amount of time searching for the right producer.
"We were thinking of asking Bob Mould," says Andy. "We knew an A...R person who was friends with him, and he's expressed an interest in working with us sometime, but I think Fyfe was a bit wary that he would be left behind and he'd be underneath a barrage of about twenty eight guitars. We just thought, hold on, everyone has to agree, so we phoned Steve Albini.
"I phoned him myself and he was like, well, 'I like the band and I'd like to do it, but I'm very good friends with Touch And Go'," (the independent label that Therapy? left in America, in order to sign to A...M) "and Touch And Go is a very anti-corporate and anti-establishment kind of label. They're actually a great label with a lot of great bands. Albini wasn't nasty, he was a perfect gentleman, but he just said that obviously because of his connections he would feel uncomfortable working with us. We didn't want to start all the politics all over again.
"Then somebody suggested Chris Sheldon because he'd done some work engineering some Pixies stuff and he's a friend of Gil Norton's - Gil Norton had actually been suggested at one stage too, but we thought he wouldn't really be suitable for us. So Chris came down and did a couple of tracks. Even the way we reproduced it through the speakers was more like the stuff we'd always wanted. We'd always tended to get a thinner guitar sound even though live the guitars are pretty powerful. Other producers seemed to concentrate more on the drums, especially on the records after "Babyteeth".
"We said we wanted a really nineties sound, we didn't want to sound grunge, or sound like Nirvana or anything that's current. Even now I'm really pleased with the "ShortSharpShock" EP when I put it on. Now that we're selling more records we really want to make sure that the records we make have a great sound."
So how do Therapy? feel now about their back catalogue?
Andy: "'Babyteeth' sounded like a band starting out, "Pleasure Death" sounded like a band that was becoming like an American noise band but experimenting with different arrangements, and "Nurse" was too idiosyncratic really, in its approach. The stuff we're doing now is far more representative of what we're about.
"It was brilliant making "Babyteeth" because we only had a day and a half in the studio for a hundred and fifty quid or whatever it was at the time, and we did the best we could, and the same with "Pleasure Death". Then with "Nurse", we did it on a limited budget through choice, and that worked at the time. We hadn't really developed the style or direction we wanted until recently. If you listen to all our records there's like, a techno track and a punk track, and it's all got the Therapy? drum sounds and the screaming vocals. It's taken us about three and a half years to decide what we really want.
"It used to take us about six months to write a song, whereas now we know exactly what we should be doing and we can write two songs in a day," says Michael. "I really hate labouring over songs. You should play it and arrange it and get it right and that's it, rather than sitting down and writing notes and analysing because you're going to take away from what you originally had.
"When I listen to music I like to get excited. My girlfriend and all her friends are into all this Orb stuff, and when they put it on they just sit in the room like this," (adopts trance like pose) "and I get so annoyed, I go into one of these rants. I just can't get my head around all that sad old progressive rock. That's why we want to make this record as 'in yer face' and fuck off as possible.
"That's why I've a great deal of respect for Cornershop and Huggy Bear and bands like that," agrees Andy. "I don't think they're particularly pushing forward the boundaries of sonic sculpture," he laughs, "because they really can't play, but what they're doing is a real fuck off to everyone else. Maybe I'm just an old punk at heart, maybe I'm just not intellectually adjusted enough to understand what's going on but I'm twenty seven now and I still hate that ten minute stuff with flutes in it . . .
"An awful lot of rock music is sad and tired and it's taken all the teenage enthusiasm out. After Nirvana came out with "Smells Like Teen Spirit", I thought, great, but then along came Pearl Jam with what sounds like a Foreigner and Journey album, and young people were buying this," he says incredulously. "I think if I was a teenager I'd be buying Huggy Bear and Cornershop, or Pet Lamb. I wouldn't be buying Pearl Jam, or Stone Temple Pilots or Alice In Chains.
"My whole standpoint on this record," Andy continues, (he's definitely warming to his theme now), "is that people for years have maintained that songwriting started with The Beatles, you know, four loveable moptops. Four loveable moptops my arse. One down, three to go is my policy on that - I just hate the fucking Beatles. For me the songwriting yardstick starts with The Ramones, 'cause they really stripped the whole thing down. I'm not saying they're greater songwriters than the Beatles. Well," he shrugs, "I am actually, I'm saying The Ramones are greater songwriters than The Beatles, because The Beatles are responsible for so much rubbish in music.
"You get A...R men from record companies coming in going, 'Yeah, we should throw a middle eight in there and a bridge there' and they're going on about 'crafted songwriting'. We're not making tyres in a factory, it should come from inside, and still people sit down and think that they have to write a certain way because of Lennon and McCartney. If I ever have to go and seek spiritual guidance somewhere from some . . . idiot" (Andy is spitting contempt at this stage while Michael shakes with laughter), "then, I dunno, then I've lost it. Then maybe I'll be a greater songwriter."
He pauses for breath. "We just want exciting, energetic records at the minute. That's what we're trying to achieve. God knows, having said this we'll probably end up with an album that sounds like The Beatles and The Orb, and I'll be eating my hat."
Therapy?'s indisputable fondness for a good time, memorably displayed at this year's IRMA awards when a dishevelled Fyfe could be seen engaging in some very unsavoury antics with a certain aspiring indie record company tycoon belies their phenomenal work rate.
"It was our choice really," says Andy. "We've seen an awful lot of European and Irish bands become successful in Ireland and England, and they'll play in America and only ninety people will turn up whereas they're used to playing to two thousand at home. And they'll automatically not want to go back. We've been through that - we went over and played to fifty or sixty people and then we went over the second time and played to big crowds, and it's going to get bigger the next time.
"It's the same in Europe. We play fairly large crowds and it's because we went back there - we're going back to Europe and America for the second time this year, and people who have seen us before bring their friends. For us that's the best way to do it because we're never going to be a fashion band. We know that a lot of our music won't ever really cross over to the mainstream.
"We don't want to be seen as a hardworking wee band that sails round in a Transit and becomes like the Status Quo of modern rock, but at the same time we are prepared to get our music out there. There's no point in us sitting in the studio for two weeks, writing songs, writing lyrics, putting a lot of effort into it, and then saying, 'Oh God, I've got nervous exhaustion, I've got to take two weeks off', and complaining when nobody buys our records."
Therapy? are serious about this, worryingly serious. When Fyfe does eventually turn up, looking decidedly ropey, he admits that his doctor has diagnosed that self-same nervous exhaustion and urged him to take time off. No offence, but it looks like Fyfe needs it. It's not going to happen though. There's just too much to do.
"We've two weeks off in the next eighteen months," Andy explains. "We're going to Japan, we're going to Australia, we're going to America, and we're going to Europe again and to do some Irish gigs and English gigs."
"People say we've got two years of work ahead of us, but it's not really work," argues Michael. "We all love doing it. I couldn't think of anything better than to be able to travel to all these countries and play music we've written. Obviously you're going to get jet lag and feel really tired and have a really bad day, but there'll come a time when we're sitting here going, 'Jesus, I wish we could get a gig somewhere'.
"We get bored very quickly as well. I always think it must be dreadful being a bank like Metallica who put out five albums over a period of ten years. That's why we always like to play new songs live, way before we've recorded them or released them. I could never imagine touring an album for three years and taking six singles off it. But people do it and no-one complains."
"I think it's just something in our build-up, that we've got no problem touring," says Andy. "A long time ago when we were in Germany, it was the first time really I'd been away on tour for more than about two weeks, and all we'd done before was go over to England for two weeks, stay with Gary Walker," (head of Wiiija Records), "and done maybe three gigs in London and two in the North of England. Then all of a sudden Touch And Go arranged for us to go over for four solid weeks to promote 'Caucasian Psychosis'.
"Two weeks into it, after waking up every day on the move, going to a gig and playing in a strange country, I began to think I was really missing home and I thought I was going mad. At the same time I was having a good time but I began to realise that having such a nomadic lifestyle you're either going to have to adjust or say that this isn't for me. And I went with the flow and had a brilliant time. I don't really get homesick at all any more. I really care about people back home but I realised that you have to live with this kind of lifestyle.
"I think it's because I worked in a dead end job for five years, and I only did it for money and rent, and didn't think about it in other terms. All of a sudden I woke up one morning and thought, 'I don't want to do this any more'. The band began to happen and I left the job. It's a real sense of freedom."
It's been a giddy, exhilarating trip. At the beginning of this year Andy Cairns was on the cover of Melody Maker with Tanya Donnelly, Brett Anderson, Ride's Andy Bell and Rob Birch from the Stereo MC's as part of a 'spectacular meeting of five quasi-extraterrestrial beings'.
"I can't believe how fickle the English music scene is really," says Andy, referring to that illustrious cover. "You get so called intellectuals going to see bands, and they talk about aesthetics, but the same people championed The Stone Roses and talked about how wonderful their splashing swirls of Mondrian-esque colour were, and they're now talking about the glamour and debauched future of Suede. Maybe it's a great thing that there are all these movements, and that it chops and changes and is exciting. I supposed it'd be dreadful if it was young men in black t-shirts like us every year at number one in the charts.
"A lot of people can't get their head 'round the fact that I like Suede, actually. I'm not a huge fan but I think they write great songs, Bernard's a brilliant guitarist and Brett's a great singer. And a lot of people are saying, 'Hold on, you stand for everything they despise and they stand for everything you despise' and I say, 'No they don't, in your head they might'.
"You can't set up this sort of camp with all these scruffy, smelly Therapy? fans on one side and effete, intellectual, sensitive Suede fans on the other because there's a lot of people into our music that are probably a lot more intelligent than Suede fans, and vice versa. The good thing now is that people who come to our gigs probably go to Suede gigs too, which is what I like to see, because to me Suede still have a bit of pop glamour and a slight bit of dangerous air about them. It's not as if it's The Orb or Ozric Tentacles . . . that's our pet hate at the moment. With Pearl Jam.
"We're quite lucky in that we can attract metal fans as well and the so-called metal press seem to be really interested in what we're doing," says Michael. "People can go and see Iron Maiden one night and us the next night. It's getting to be a bit more like it should be."
"In England, whenever I'm talking to people in other bands they talk about how it's hilarious they saw me in Kerrang last week," says Andy. "and I don't care because it's these metallers who will buy our records, be really into us and stick by us. I would never, ever criticise our fans. I'm very flattered that anyone wants to buy our music in the first place.
"I remember reading a quote from Johnny Marr years ago saying that he looked out into the audience and it was full of all these handsome men, and I just thought, what a dildo! You don't look out into the audience and think about how aesthetically pleasing they are. It's fascistic, an attitude like that. There's a crowd of people there to see a band and listen to the music."
Therapy?'s new single, "Opel Mantra", will be released next month. It's "rocky melodic", according to Andy. It's also two minutes and thirty seconds long, has a chorus just as addictive as "Screamager", and will probably give them another opportunity to wow the fourteen year old girls on Top Of The Pops. Meanwhile there's Féile to look forward to. Or maybe not.
"I'm shitting myself," Andy confesses. "It's a long way from playing the Camden Falcon and the Baggot Inn. We're fortunate being on Friday, when they seem to have the alternative line-up. It was brilliant last year, but then we'd nothing to lose. Out of all the festivals we played last year, I really enjoyed Féile, straight up. Reading, I hated, really really hated. This will be the test for Féile this year because we're doing nine festivals all over Europe."
"Because we haven't played in Ireland since Christmas, and the two singles have done really well, there's going to be an awful lot of people who have only heard those two songs," adds Michael. "I think there's going to be a lot of Sawdoctors' fans wondering what the hell is going on."
After everything that's happened in the past three and a half years, can Therapy? really still view themselves as 'Belfast losers'?
"There's people in bands that I know that haven't achieved the amount of success we have in our small world of success," says Andy, "and the minute they get one or two articles or any kind of press, that's it, they're at clubs and becoming arrogant, and beginning to think that their view is far more important and far more valid than anybody else's. I can't understand how someone can all of a sudden turn from being just a human being making music, into an arrogant, opinionated sort of guru. And I've seen that happen to an awful lot of people, people that I liked.
"I don't know what it is, maybe it is something to do with Belfast," he continues, laughing, "but you always have to keep your feet on the ground, because what goes up must come down, and you can't go around treating people like underlings.
"I remember writing to bands when I was young. They never wrote back and you felt really sad, because you thought every band would personally write back to you and they don't. And because of that, whenever I meet someone at a gig backstage or down the town somewhere and they ask me for an autograph, I always try and spend some time with them. Obviously it's hard if you're waiting to go on stage and there's a lot of people, but I always think you should never treat anyone with a lot of disrespect. I'm a major believer that everyone is born equal no matter what they do in life, and how dare anyone set themselves up as some kind of guru.
"We were at Timothy Leary's house recently. I went there to check it out because I'd just read about him. The guy's charming; it's easy to see how he got so many people under his control, but the light's on and no-one's home, you know what I mean? It's quite sad. I think whenever you set yourself up as some sort of guru then you've something to live up to in your own head, and you're only ever going to be disappointed, because human nature is such a horrible vile thing.
"So yes," he finishes, "we do still think of ourselves that way."