Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Loving the Dead with Lee Dorrian

With The Dead (Lee Dorrian second from right). Photo by Ester Segarra.

I’ll say it right here, right now: Love From With The Dead is the most brutal album Lee Dorrian has ever done.

A recorded work brimming with raw pain, Love From With The Dead finds Dorrian and the rest of the current incarnation of his band, With the Dead – former Electric Wizard member Tim Bagshaw on guitar, new bassist Leo Smee (ex-Cathedral) and new drummer Alex Thomas (ex-Bolt Thrower) – dig even deeper into the sonic depths of doom first explored on their eponymous debut in 2015. This is far from music to have on at your next party; this is the soundtrack for those moments when you want to grab and shake something (or perhaps someone) out of sheer anguish and frustration – only to realize you can’t because you’re totally on your own. To put it in more succinct terms, Love From With The Dead is Doom Metal’s answer to Black Flag’s Damaged.

The release of Love From With The Dead coincides with Dorrian’s 30th anniversary as a recording artist, a journey that began when he replaced original Napalm Death singer Nik Bullen in time to cut vocals for the second half of the band’s legendary Scum album in 1987. His first proper full-length with Napalm Death, 1988’s From Enslavement To Obliteration, took the UK underground by storm and even earned the band the cover of New Musical Express. The nearly 25 years that followed saw Dorrian front Doom Metal kings Cathedral before he moved on to focus more his energy on running his label, Rise Above Records – past/present home to Blood Ceremony, The Oath, Lucifer, Galley Beggar and a host of others.

Despite the intensity of his output, Dorrian is a surprisingly calm and affable fellow whose good humor can be felt throughout the following interview.  

The first With The Dead album earned a lot of attention and did quite well. What were your goals going into this second one?

It’s kind of hard to remember, really, because with the first album, the lineup was different. On the first album, Tim plays both bass and guitar; we didn’t have a bass player on the first record. We also had to lose our our drummer, Mark Greening. Things changed in terms of us becoming a full band. We recruited Leo Smee, who I worked with for years in Cathedral, on bass and a friend of his called Alex Thomas on drums. The dynamic of the band was changed almost immediately after the first album was recorded. It just seemed like a real band as opposed to a few mates doing a record, which is how the first album kind of felt, even though it wasn’t intended to be that way. We didn’t want it to seem like some kind of ‘project’ band or something, because we wanted to see where we could go with it and maybe pursue it further.

When we started work on the second album, it was more of a band; it was a cohesive lineup. The first rehearsals we had were essentially an audition with Alex and Leo because we had committed ourselves to doing some live shows. Mark was still in the band, but when we had to lose Mark, we still had these shows to do. We were a bit like, ‘Oh, fuck. What do we do?’ We kind of felt a bit lost for a while there; we still had to do these shows and we didn’t know who was going to be in the band. So we had a rehearsal/audition with Leo and Alex, and it worked out great the first night. We actually had the set nailed within, like, two hours or something. I had booked four nights’ worth of rehearsals, which we obviously didn’t need. I just suggested we spend the next three nights working on new material. This was in January 2016. Pretty much within three nights, we got together a bunch of brand-new material straight off the bat. Tim had some riffs that he’d been knocking around. We worked on them and came up with four or five brand-new songs, which wasn’t expected at all. I didn’t think we were going to work on new material until much later in the year last year.

The dynamic was much different, and the songs were a lot more oppressive, I suppose. I’m not saying the first album’s upbeat in any sense at all, but there are a couple of moments that are more upbeat than the tracks that we recorded in January 2016, which are actually the last four tracks on the new album. When we recorded the first album, the only real goal we had collectively was to make the heaviest record we possibly could. I suppose after we had done that, the kind of subconscious – if not overly conscious – feeling was, ‘If we’re going to do anything, we have to make the next one even heavier.’ That’s the way we approached it, really.

There was a gap of a year before the rest of the album was recorded. It was recorded in two sessions, with the first three tracks recorded earlier this year. That gave us the time to think about how the album should be or should feel when complete. We felt that there was something missing, because I won’t say those four tracks are one-dimensional, but they’re very much in the same kind of style. We spent last year doing a bunch of shows and had a bit of time to think about what we needed to add to the LP to make it more complete. It wasn’t intended to be a double [album]; that’s just the way it turned out.

This is easily one of the heaviest albums I’ve heard in a very long time. Where did that level of rage come from?

Observations about the world around me, which was also kind of relevant to the first album. Personally speaking, I’ve been through a lot of traumatic times in the past couple of years. I won’t go into any detail, but so has Tim. He hasn’t had much fun, shall we say. It’s a no-fun record! (laughs) I haven’t exactly been in a great place in many respects. I’ve had health problems as well as personal problems. When you experience all these things, there has to be something good that comes out of it; otherwise, it’s just a complete waste of energy. If you’ve gone through hard times and you don’t make anything positive out of it, then it seems like everything’s almost futile. And if you’re in a band that plays heavy music, you want these heavy feelings to be conveyed in the music to make the music heavier, I suppose. In that respect, it’s genuine angst and genuine frustration that you put across in the music as opposed to making up situations that haven’t happened. The feelings that you hear on this record come from reality within our own personal lives. Also, the way I see things going in the world is unfortunately not very positive at the minute.

Having said that, the title for the record, Love From With The Dead, is a title you certainly wouldn’t expect from a band like us. Although there is a lot of angst and a lot of soul-destroying expression that goes on in that record, I think basically what that title is trying to say at the end of the day is that we did pour our hearts into that record. It’s not all about negativity; it’s positivity coming from that negativity. That’s where the ‘love’ comes into it. We bled ourselves into that record for the listener. (laughs) That’s just giving our love to people, even though it might sound like a sarcastic, ironic kind of title. It kind of slightly is, but it’s not really because it’s actually quite sincere at the same time.

“CV1” is 17 minutes long. You’ve certainly come a long way since the From Enslavement To Obliteration days! Was there an initial plan to make that track that long, or was it something that developed over time as it was being worked out?

Tim came up with that song not long after the first album was recorded. He came up with the basic structure of it. The first half is pretty much based around a riff structure, but the second half kind of goes into a no-man’s-land drone kind of thing. From the time Tim sent over a demo that he made of it, I could see how the first half could work, but I was trying to think of a way the second half just didn’t seem like some big yawning drone for no reason. When I decided that the track was going to be about Coventry, the town where I was born, loads of things just started coming into my head – different ideas. There’s a friend of mine who guests towards the end of that track, Russell Haswell. He makes computer music; he’s a multimedia artist. He’s a friend of mine from Coventry I’ve known for many, many years. He did actually guest on Cathedral’s Endtyme on a track called ‘Whores To Oblivion.’ But the fact that the song was about Coventry and quite an epic song – and there was this kind of open space towards the end of it – it just seemed a perfect idea to have Russell involved and fill that space out and add a different dimension to the whole record, really. It makes the record end on a really extreme note, I think. As opposed to it being a happy ending, it’s the complete opposite. I think it puts a different slant on the record and leaves things open for what could come next, I suppose.

This new album is on Rise Above, which has released a lot of great music in recent years. How are you able to balance fronting an active band while also maintaining your responsibilities with the label?

You say an ‘active band.’ Yeah, we did quite a few festival appearances last year, but it’s not like we’ve been a hardcore touring band or anything like that – and I don’t think we ever could be. We’re only going to be able to do a certain amount of playing live. Everyone has their own personal lives. Alex, the drummer, is a session musician; he plays with a lot of bigger artists. His income comes from playing drums, basically – not with With The Dead, but with loads of other artists he tours around the world with. Leo has his own business in landscape gardening. Tim lives in New Jersey; him living in America and us living in England is not the easiest of situations for us to be a fully active band all the time. With me doing the label and also being a parent…It’s great to be in that situation as well. We don’t have a manager to answer to; we don’t have a record label to answer to. We do it all ourselves. We can pick and choose what we want to do, and we can take or leave things. We have no obsessive ideas about breaking as a band or anything like that, because we don’t need to. We can just do things at our path and on our own time. We allow ourselves to have greater freedom and take our time to do things when we want to, which is a perfect situation to be in, really.

We want to do more live stuff, and we will do more live stuff. After being in bands for all these years, we’re not 18 years old anymore and hungry to be the next big thing, obviously. (laughs) If we were, we wouldn’t be making music like this, for a start. We manage to do it at our own pace, because we can. We don’t have any demands from other people; we don’t have any other people shouting at us and telling us, ‘You must deliver on this time’ or we must do this or that.

Speaking of labels, Cathedral of course had a brief relationship with Columbia back in the ’90s. What lessons, if any, did you learn from that experience that you carry with you now in your work with Rise Above?

I’ve learned from every situation I’ve been in, really. I think that whole Columbia situation was way too ambitious. When I was in Napalm, I used to say, ‘There’s no way we would sign to a major label.’ But I suppose Cathedral didn’t have such a political – I don’t much use that word – agenda as Napalm did. But we got asked to sign to Columbia, and they offered us American tours and all this promotion. I kind of felt we would have been stupid not to take it up, really, but I also didn’t see where it was going to go. A band like Cathedral…yeah, [Columbia] actually thought we were going to be the next thing in Metal. After Death Metal had sort of reached its peak, so to speak – which they kind of seemed to think it had by then  – they thought the kind of Doom style that we were doing was literally going to be the next big thing. Of course, I was very apprehensive about that for many reasons. Despite the fact that Columbia released our records, we very much still had an underground mentality. We were very much into what we ware doing; we didn’t do it to try to be a commercial band. That was the last thing on our minds, really. The main thing we wanted to do was make the music we wanted to do, and we didn’t play the game. We didn’t really do things that they wanted us to do. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work out. We were saying things in interviews that you don’t really say about your record company. We certainly weren’t happy with the situation for various reasons. We know some really great people at Columbia; don’t get me wrong. I just think the big corporate situation wasn’t for a band like us. We were too underground in our mentality and in our sound to ever appeal to a wider commercial audience, which is obviously where they wanted us to go. It would have been great to get more popular without having to compromise, of course – and we really didn’t compromise. I think what happened back then is the underground scene – especially the underground Metal scene – was becoming so big that it was rivaling major labels and the Metal acts they had. A label like Earache was coming along and just cleaning up with bands like Morbid Angel. On another level, even a band like Godflesh was doing really well. Obviously, Napalm kind of exploded in the States. These were bands that were outselling major label bands, and the major labels were spending in excess of God knows how much more on budgets and marketing and all this kind of stuff, whereas the independent labels didn’t need to do that because they had the underground there that didn’t need marketing and didn’t need it thrown in people’s faces. People in the underground discover things for themselves and make it popular themselves.

I never had massive expectations as to what was going to happen there. I thought it would maybe last a year or two and then fall to pieces, which is kind of what it did. Unfortunately, it meant that the lineup of the band suffered, because the tours we were doing in America weren’t really that much fun. We weren’t really doing tours we wanted to do…The demands just kind of put a strain on members of the band, because we just weren’t cut out to be a major label band. The lesson learned is just be more realistic in your expectations. I let bands that we sign [to Rise Above] grow artistically themselves as opposed to trying to tell them what to do or how to be. With the marketing side of things, I just think if you’re a good-enough band, you don’t need to spend stupid amounts of money and become majorly in debt. If you’re good enough, people will find out about you – if not on your first record, then maybe on your second. You don’t need like 60 people running a promo office and spending thousands and thousands of dollars per release and putting out six releases every month just to keep your cash flow going.

While preparing for this chat, I realized that Scum is 30 years old this year. When you look back at that time, how would you say the Napalm experience most set you up for the music you’re doing today?

Hard to say. Mainly, I wouldn’t be in a band today if I hadn’t joined Napalm, because I never wanted to be in a band. Musically, in terms of what I listen to and my musical experience, I’d probably be exactly the same. The music I was listening to whilst I was Napalm and before Napalm would have evolved anyway, because I was getting more and more into Doom and Sabbath-type stuff. Through that, I was getting into more ’60s and ’70s underground stuff and just moving forward. As a person, I was the same as I am now in terms of what kind of music I’m into. Certainly, if I hadn’t had joined Napalm, I wouldn’t have carried on being in bands – that’s for sure. It was never my intention to be in a band. I was just good friends with those guys; we got on really well, and they just asked me to join. I had no previous experience or anything. (laughs) I used to be a concert promoter; I used to book Napalm Death quite a lot of times before I was in them. I used to be like a local Hardcore promoter at various venues around Coventry and stuff. That’s one of the main reasons I got to know them. I used to do fanzines and things, and we’d also go to the same shows and all that kind of stuff. So there am I one minute just doing that – just putting on some local gigs. The next minute, I’m in this band that kind of explodes and is on BBC TV three times in one week and on the front cover of the New Musical Express. It was completely bananas. We were doing these gigs that were selling out around the country, and people were just going absolutely mental. It was kind of a very surreal experience.

I can certainly imagine, especially for what you were doing at that time. It was not typical BBC fare!

I suppose it was quite a healthy time for music. As much as a lot of people say the ’80s was a terrible time for music, I don’t think so. Mainstream music was fucking horrible in the ’80s, sure, but for Punk, Hardcore and underground Metal, it was the glory days. What was happening in England [at the time] wasn’t just about the Metal scene, really, because the Metal scene was kind of alien to what Napalm was doing anyway. Napalm came more out of the Punk scene, to be honest. The venues we played at were more about the Punk scene. It was only when it became overexposed that the Metal audience kind of got into it. But there were a lot of noisy indie bands like Loop, My Bloody Valentine and The Cranes, who we played with a couple of times. There were European bands like The Young Gods. We didn’t sound like any of those bands, but we weren’t too far away from them because of the noise aspect. We seemed to fit in with the NME crowd as well as becoming more popular with the Metal crowd as time went on. But initially, it was seen as kind of extreme indie music, really. Obviously, the fact that Napalm was championed by John Peel certainly helped that to no end. Without his initial support, I don’t think Napalm – and the whole scene as well – would have achieved half the success.  

What are With The Dead’s plans for the rest of this year and into 2018?

We don’t have anything planned for the rest of this year, to be honest. We’re working on setting up some show now for next year. Hopefully, we’ll be coming to the States early next year. I can’t confirm that just yet, but there’s talk of it.

You’re 50 next year. When I look at bands from the original Earache era who started in the ’80s, a surprisingly high number of those musicians are still doing music – most of which remains very relevant. What it is about this genre or scene that seems to inspire such longevity?

I suppose because it grew organically, really, within its own world. It wasn’t marketed or phoned in. The people who made the music made it because they wanted to. They didn’t form bands to be Pop stars; they formed bands to express themselves. There’s a big difference between that kind of outlook and mentality and the major label mentality, where it’s basically all about sales and looking good and being accessible to a mass audience. The fact is, you can appeal to a mass audience without all that fake shit, and that’s what people like. People like being close to or a part of something that is genuine and comes from a genuine source. I think that’s what you can say about this music that’s different to any other.

*Portions of the above interview were edited for clarity.

Photo by Ester Segarra


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