by Niklas Göransson
A few years ago, Danny Cavanagh – lead guitarist and founder of Anathema, happened to be staying with a mutual friend in Oslo when I visited. I seized the opportunity to conduct an interview about the band’s formative years and their progression from doom/death metal into the sound they’re renowned for today.
Anathema are notoriously reluctant to discuss their ancient history but thanks to my friend, Danny agreed to make an exception. My way of repaying his kindness was commencing our conversation by offering him a Red Bull and vodka; alas, unbeknownst to me he’d given up drinking some years prior. Fortunately, he was a good sport about it and once I’d recovered my composure (as well as facial pigmentation), we got started.
– When our debut album “Serenades” came out in 1993 I was 20 years old but looked about twelve, says Danny. I’ve always appeared five years younger than I am, fortunately; now that I’m an old bastard it counts for something. It was great to be honest with you. Well, on one level it was but at home it was a tragedy.
Around this time, Danny‘s mother was going through a terrible ordeal – while declining to get into specifics he says it bears mentioning as the situation affected him a great deal.
– I recorded the first album with a brick in my stomach, I was a nervous wreck. We did have some good times together though, I think it was around 1994 when it took a turn for the better; I’d found a bit of balance and was able to help her a lot more. Once that situation stabilised I was growing more into myself, I was 22 by then and fricking vibrantly alive.
Danny says he had about three years where he really got to enjoy the whole thing with being in a band.
– Touring Europe with your best friends for the first time, getting drunk and carrying on – you have long hair but you’re young and look great. I have amazing memories from that period; one that always springs to mind was in ‘95 when I saw this girl and fell in love on sight, on stage during a gig in Bradford. I love her to this day, don’t think I’ll ever stop even though we haven’t spoken in over ten years.
Both the venue where this happened and its geographical location are integral to the wave of Northern England doom/death metal that swept the world in the early to mid-nineties, with its epicentre being the neighbouring West Yorkshire towns of Bradford and Dewsbury. Commonly known as the ‘big three’ of the genre – PARADISE LOST, MY DYING BRIDE and ANATHEMA were all signed to Peaceville Records, a label started in Dewsbury in 1987. The same town was also home to the legendary Academy Studios, its producer Robert ‘Mags’ Magoolagan being responsible for the sound on many of the trio’s milestone recordings. The club in question was Rio’s in Bradford, a venue that played an essential role in the seminal years of many a band in the early British underground doom scene; from Northerners CHAPEL OF REST, CHORUS OF RUIN and SOLSTICE (who are still going to this day) to Southern peers like DECOMPOSED and ACRIMONY. Another highlight in ANATHEMA’s emergence was their debut going on to receive the ‘Album of the month’ award in Metal Hammer.
– Stupid bastards, he says laughing, RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE’s album was released the same month and that’s fucking way better. Anyway, things like that were happening. There were tragedies going on but at least I had these years when it felt great to be part of the whole thing.
Sadly, as the proverb goes – all great things must come to an end.
– It went wrong rather quickly, I did too many psychoactive drugs and had a very, very unfortunate breakdown which took it all away from me. This was in America in 1997 when I was recording the LID album (“In the Mushroom”), a project I had with Eric Wagner from TROUBLE. That was extremely hard, in fact it was beyond hard – it was life-changing, just awful. My mother died a year after that.
“Serenades” was ANATHEMA‘s second release through Peaceville, the first one having been the 1992 “The Crestfallen EP”. Despite the name, with the CD version having a running time of 33 minutes it was more of a mini-album and landed them their first domestic tour, supporting CANNIBAL CORPSE’s “Tomb of the Mutilated” UK dates. No doubt seen as a mismatch at the time, in hindsight it’s almost comical to envision the two bands sharing any common ground. While on the subject of tours, rumour has it that ANATHEMA were strongly considered for the supporting act position of IRON MAIDEN’s European leg of their “The X-Factor” tour back in late 1995. Surprising many at the time, it was ultimately given to label mates MY DYING BRIDE. Confirmed neither now nor then, had the selection fallen on ANATHEMA it’s difficult to envision what would’ve happened to the young band when they fell upon the inevitable trying times that lay ahead. Before immersing ourselves in that era however, we’ll stay with the happier days for a while. Danny mentions that he rarely gets nostalgic but has lately found himself going back to “Serenades” and the 1995 EP “Pentecost III”.
– I just started listening to them again and really enjoyed it. I’ll occasionally stick on “Dreaming: the Romance” from the debut, that takes me straight back to those days. It was great being part of that scene with MY DYING BRIDE and PARADISE LOST. There was a bit of enmity with them at the time, we felt they copied the strongest melodies from our demo and put them out before we’d released an album. They admitted to it a few years later though but now we’re all grown up and it doesn’t matter anymore. Both of them have their own identity and all respect to them. It’s cool, I like the lads.
He says he’s always had a soft spot for PARADISE LOST, who he sees as the true originators of the style.
– Never mind this ‘trinity of UK death/doom’ – they invented it and we got it from them. Not so much with our first album which is quite death metal but on the second one, totally. There was some originality going on of course, I wasn’t copying anyone. If you’re any good at music then you take great inspiration from the stuff you love.
Following “Pentecost III” there was a shift in vocalist as original singer Darren J. White (SEROTONAL, ex-THE BLOOD DIVINE) was replaced by Danny’s younger brother Vincent Cavanagh, who up until then had only played the guitar.
– We needed someone who could sing melodically. The music for our second album “The Silent Enigma” (1995) was already recorded when we got Vinny to do it.
Vinny’s first show as lead vocalist was in June 1995 at Charlie’s Rock Bar in Dublin. Support for the evening was provided by now long gone Irish death/doom band ARCANE SUN, followed by a young version of what would go on to become one of Ireland’s premiere metal exports; PRIMORDIAL, who at the time were several months away from releasing their debut album “Imrama”.
– Music-wise it wasn’t really working with Darren anymore but on a personal level we’ve remained close friends, I love him and think he’s an exceptional bloke – great guy. I actually had to tell him just the other week that there was nothing he could have done. We were simply going in another direction and I think he still, in his heart of hearts, felt that if he’d done it differently he might have been able to stick it out but it was never going to happen. The sound of his voice was just not what we were after any longer and no matter how close he could get to being a decent singer, we were moving in a different direction – you only have to listen to the albums that followed to see that.
These subsequent albums were where ANATHEMA began straying from the death/doom sound and took the first footsteps on the path towards the progressive rock they are most commonly known for today. Danny credits a significant part of their sonic evolution to Duncan Pattersson (ÍON, ALTERNATIVE 4), who’d been their bass player since the 1992 EP.
– Duncan definitely brought up us a level when he started writing for “Eternity” (1996). This was proper song-writing, it formed the basis of what we did afterwards and everything we’ve done since – a lot of it was brought on by Duncan.
Danny remembers the recording of “Eternity” at The Windings in Wales as a very positive experience, actually his fondest recollections of being in a studio.
– My strongest memory besides being in a great studio with a nice bloke recording it is heading to the pub in the evenings, we were drinking loads of Kilkenny – we fucking drained them until they had none left. I loved first going there to drink and then when I got back, smoking weed and listening to the music we’d recorded. In retrospect, we should have been tuned to D or something; we were still all the way down in B. The material was singer-songwriter type songs – even “Suicide Veil”, it’s like it’s played better on an acoustic guitar.
The soundscape was remedied on the following album, “Alternative 4” from 1998 – mostly noticeable by how much more Vinny’s vocals come through in the mix.
– “Eternity”, that one and “Judgement” (1999) are our three special records. ANATHEMA wasn’t a band at that point though. I’d had my breakdown so my mind was all over the place and I did a few very questionable things that upset Duncan, although he was also a negative person at the time.
Given its success and the fact that this is the album that got many long-time ANATHEMA fans into the band, it’s bizarre to think what a dysfunctional shape they were in during the process of creating it.
– The songs are good, great song-writing – as simple as that. Duncan really pulled it together in terms of how he wanted the songs produced, which was cool but we weren’t a band. I barely played on Duncan’s songs – piano and acoustic guitars on “Lost Control”, keyboards on “Empty” and I think the organ on “Feel”; that would have been it really, there was very little going on. He wasn’t even talking to me at this point, which was extraordinarily shit because he was very important to me – just fucking crap.
It was becoming increasingly clear that either Duncan or Danny had to leave.
– I couldn’t have ousted him, didn’t even try – I was going to step aside. Unbelievable. It would not have been fair – I wrote the first two albums and I was the one who invited him to join. ANATHEMA was always my band, it just wouldn’t have been right.
The reason why this never came to fruition was the death of Helen Cavanagh, mother of Danny and Vinny. Duncan didn’t want to break the brothers up by forcing Danny out of the band so he left of his own accord.
– Duncan did the decent thing, which was probably the right move as he doesn’t really have the band mentality as such. He does all his work on his own, didn’t even stay with ANTIMATTER for very long.
These days, the hatchet is long since buried.
– Around the year 2000 he came up to me in a nightclub and gave me a hug. It’s great now, I actually know him better than most people and he knows me equally well – there’s a great respect there. I don’t see as much of him as I’d like but he’s fucking funny and I’m glad he’s happy and doing his own thing.
One might think the departure of one of the band’s driving forces combined with the death of the remaining two’s mother would leave ANATHEMA in an even greater state of disarray.
– To a degree, yes – but Vinny and I really pulled it together, we were jamming a lot and started writing material.
Less than a year after “Alternative 4”, “Judgement” came – the record that’s considered ANATHEMA’s commercial breakthrough. This is no mean feat, given that there was plenty of friction between the brothers.
– We were still young and weren’t getting along very well, there was a lot of difficulties between us. It didn’t really get ironed out until we were in our thirties, around 2003.
Another problem was that they were both in relationships with what Danny describes as ‘rather difficult women’.
– They hated each other these girlfriends and it affected us. Naturally, I thought mine was more honest than his and same for him – it was a nightmare really. When those relationships ended we suddenly found that everything was okay; we just watched “Withnail & I”, got pissed and it was fine.
He adds that Vinny doesn’t like talking about the past and wouldn’t have been comfortable doing this interview.
– No, he’s doesn’t identify with any of that. He’s just not into metal at all these days, never listens to it. I’ve still got fondness for the old days, I can still play “Breeding Fear” (PARADISE LOST) on the guitar.
It wasn’t only Duncan’s influences that led ANATHEMA towards their departure from metal.
– We’re cut from a different cloth, being from another part of the country – Liverpool. People ask us why we changed our music so much and I say that it’s basically because we’re all massive fans of THE BEATLES. That’s where it comes from – when I was a kid my first love wasn’t metal, it was the Live Aid show; Mark Knopfler, The Edge, Brian May, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton. Classic guitar rock – I still listen to U2’s “The Joshua Tree”, I had that before any metal album and to me it’s a top ten rock record of all time. “Brothers in Arms” by DIRE STRAITS – same thing, as with the best QUEEN stuff.
Metal made its appearance when Danny was in his early teens.
– IRON MAIDEN really hit me. Actually, they are the one metal band that stayed really close to my heart. You feel almost as if they’re your friends, like you know them – they’re so normal, such great guys and the music is fantastic.
Next came METALLICA, he mentions that James Hetfield remained a huge influence even after ANATHEMA drifted from their metal sound.
– Listen to their song “To Live is to Die” – the melodic riff. It’s not that different from “Inner Silence” (“Alternative 4”).
The use of piano stems from Danny’s lonesome school years.
– Love the piano, played it in school since I was twelve. I used to be kicked around on the football field and bullied quite a lot so I would retire to the great hall and play the grand piano. I did that every lunch for about two years. I used to play U2, DIRE STRAITS and all that stuff and then METALLICA when I was around 15-16 years old.
Seeking refuge in music wasn’t exclusive to school hours, as soon as he got home he’d pick up his guitar.
– The first three years I didn’t even have a distortion pedal. I got a heavy metal pedal when I was 16 years old and all of a sudden I was playing along to what I was listening to, learning all those riffs – METALLICA and all that. My grandmother to this day says: You wasted your life when you got into that heavy metal.
As with many youngsters who discovered metal around this time, he gradually got into heavier bands.
– Next thing, I had “Pull the Plug” by DEATH – oh my god, I’d never heard anything as heavy as that. It’s a great production, when you first hear that stuff it just hits you. From there I went on to discover the likes of MORBID ANGEL, PARADISE LOST and so on.
Then came the mid-nineties, metal yielded to classics like THE BEATLES, Bob Dylan and Roger Waters.
– I was smoking a lot of weed and listening to PINK FLOYD. There’s a specific moment I remember, listening to “Wish you were here” – something happened to me there, it started to change things and I took influence from that.
Having now gone full circle in rock and metal, he began taking note of contemporary bands.
– RADIOHEAD hit me in 1997, I’d never heard a modern band like that. I knew then, they were the best band in the world bar none. Forget any other band – in 1997 and for a long time since they were the best, everybody else can fuck off. They are a top ten band of all time. It wasn’t until 2005 that another band impacted me like that – SIGUR RÓS with “Takk”, they had the most unbelievable golden sound and that formed great inspiration.
Danny explains that it was natural progression and not a concerted effort that separated ANATHEMA from their musical roots.
– Metal wasn’t our first thing and that’s why we didn’t stay a metal band, it was never who we really were in our hearts. We started off as one and I’m glad we did, you can’t have too many regrets.
When one inspects the line-up of today, it’s quite impressive to note that every single member from the 1990 demo “An Illiad of Woes” is in the band today. Jamie Cavanagh, Vinny’s twin and Danny’s younger brother, left after the second demo (“All Faith is Lost”) in 1991 but joined again in 2001. Drummer John Douglas has been in the band since its conception, besides for a brief period around the recording of “Alternative 4”.
– I’ve known John since we were eleven years old. You know, Vinny and him sat together at the same desk on the first day of school because of their surnames in the alphabet. John wrote “Universal” and Vinny sang on it, is that coincidence? I don’t know, I think it was written in the stars.