ANATHEMA: Orbiting Around Music

Read an interview with Anathema's frontman Vincent Cavanagh

Anathema is set to release their tenth studio album, Distant Satellites, on June 10th via Kscope. Being described as the culmination of everything the band has been working up to so far in their musical path, it contains almost every conceivable element of the heartbeat of Anathema music that it is possible to have. There is beauty, intensity, drama, quietude, and extra musical dimensions that the band have previously only hinted at. All built on the song writing chemistry of Daniel Cavanagh, John Douglas and Vincent Cavanagh – and the haunting voice of Lee Douglas.

Distant Satellites isn’t so much an evolution of Anathema‘s sound so much as it is a new spin on the formula from their last album. Whereas Weather Systems was busy and dynamic, Distant Satellites honours a more static approach.

Prog Sphere conducted an interview with Anathema‘s frontman and guitarist Vincent Cavanagh, talking about the new album, upcoming tour, songwriting and more.

Distant Satellites feels a bit more heavier compared with previous album Weather Systems. Was it a conscious decision to go heavy with this one or it came as a natural progress?

Heavier, you say? Hm… I don’t know. It’s certainly darker. I think a lot of the songs, in fact all of the songs practically are in the minor key. So that was the reason. But the thing was we didn’t even realize until we finished the record. When we finished the record we played it to a couple of people and they were like “Fuck me! It’s good. You know, it’s dark. It’s fucking dark, this album.” And we were like “Is it? Ah shit, I guess you’re right. Okay, we made a dark album.” [laughs] I don’t know, man. It was never a conscious decision. We never set out to make any conscious stylistic changes, we write what comes out. We write naturally and what comes out, comes out. And it’s always an honest reflection of where we are at that time. I guess we’ve been through some dark touch, so that’s why it is the way it is.

What evolution do you feel Distant Satellites represents for the band?

Well, I think it’s in the way that Weather Systems and We’re Here Because We’re Here were connected, I think Distant Satellites is disconnected from those records – it’s a new step forward. Especially on the electronic side of things. There’s some moments on there, especially in the rhythms of the band, the drums, the beats, I think there’s a huge step forward with that. In the composition side of things – quite a lot of this record was improvised – so it’s all fresh – it sounds fresh and a new step in the evolution and being something different. You know what an apple is like? We always change every record in some way and I think that the next record we do after his is going to be different from Distant Satellites. It’s just the way this band is – we continue to evolve and move on.

Anathema - Distant SatellitesHow did the creative process that informed the new album go this time around? Were there any differences in your writing approach for Distant Satellites comparing with your older material?

Yeah – there was a lot more improvisation on this record; and by improvisation what I mean is – you will find something like a beat for examples, which is what happened with the Lost Songs – we had this beat and immediately you put your fingers on the piano and you start with the first chord, then wherever you move after the first chord is pure instinct. So you’re flowing! And it’s just there! And the thing is, the only responsibility we have as musicians is to make sure that we’re recording at that point because it’s all happening at that moment. You have to make sure you capture that moment. That’s what writing is like for this band really and moreso for the last couple of years. We get ourselves into a certain state of mind where we switch off our normal functional part of the brain, we find the first chord and then everything that happens after that is pure instinct. You have to sort of switch off your brain to say that “this is a G chord I’m playing now so I know that if I do an E minor or a C minor that it’s going to work” – all of those things you have to switch off, you know what I mean – you have to forget about what it is; close your eyes and follow what the music is telling you what to do. And it’s the music that gets the choice of what it wants to be; it’s the music that gets the final decision to where it’s going to end up as a song. So that’s why you won’t find a lot of ‘show off’ stuff on our songs. It’s all about the song itself you know. If it’s meant to be there, it’s there; If it’s not meant to be there it’s not there. A lot of the time in music you’ve got to know when not to play something – when to shut up. When composing you’ve got to know when to get yourself and your ego out of the way of the song – that’s what progressive music is you know. Progressive music to this band is The Beatles, Radiohead, Pink Floyd and bands like that and these are bands that you don’t hear massive, elaborate show off parts like guitar solos. What you hear are songs. So the experimentation is cool and always there and we love to experiment with music but it’s all about the tunes; it’s all about the songs. The big hooks, melodies, chorus, harmonies – that kind of thing – that’s what it’s all about for us – the songwriting.

Weather Systems was received very well by both fans and media. Considering that you intentionally wanted to strip the things down on Distant Satellites, do you think that this could cause different and polarized reaction this time?

No, no, no, we don’t give a shit about what other people think! I’ll be honest with you – we don’t care about what other people think, we care about what we think and that includes our previous albums and this album. It’s how we feel about the music that matters. We can’t control about how other people feel about it thereby we don’t care about it – that’s good or bad, we don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

Both Weather Systems and new album were produced by Christer-Andre Cederberg. What was it like working with him again? How did his support help shaping these two records? I personally think that his touch was crucial for both records, resulting in two great albums.

Yeah, Christer is one of those guys who’s almost part of the band. As a personality, he fits right into the family you know. We love the guy and we love his mrs, his wife, and his little daughter – they’re like part of the family to us. His temperament, the way he is, his personality and of course he’s been in a band – quite a successful band in the past called Animal Alpha – he knows what it’s like to play in front of 25,000 people, he knows what it’s like to write songs and he’s a very very good musician, but above all, he’s a fucking wizard in the studio! He’s a very talented producer and engineer and so for this record he asked us if we could record in Oslo in his studio because he had a new baby so we said it was ok and fine because the advantage was he was using his own studio, his own equipment, compressors, equalisers, his own reverb units and outboard gear, his own mixing desk his own microphones – his own comfortable space that he works in every day. And then it makes the whole process more concentrated and more focused from day one. We even did a pre-production session in his studio so even before we started the album we had the templates already laid out so we knew each song and the arrangements and everything else so it was quite easy to do.

Anathema's Vincent Cavanagh

Anathema’s Vincent Cavanagh (Photo credit: Stefan Raduta)

Two songs You’re Not Alone and Take Shelter were mixed by Steven Wilson. Did you intend reaching some sort of versatility by deciding giving the mixing pult to Wilson?

It seems like that story hasn’t got out but what happened was that at the end of recording, Christer had a serious problem with his back and he had to have an operation so it was a bit of an emergency, but happily and luckily the operation was a success but what it meant was  that the doctors had said to Christer that he had to take three months off work. He said no and that he’d take one week off work [laughs] – mix the album for Anathema and after that he would take three months off. So in losing a week, it meant he couldn’t do those two songs and asked if we could find someone else to do those songs we could still make it on time. So we called Steven Wilson – he was the first guy we called of course, we’ve worked with him before and  know how good he is and he was right there and able to do it and he did a great job. We’re very fortunate and lucky to have two amazing producers like Christer and Steven who want to work with Anathema and we’re also very grateful to those guys so hats off.

Steven is also singing on You’re Not Alone, no? This song feels as an unexpected change and break in the album’s flow. What is your take on it?

No! That was Danny. They sound quite similar but it’s Danny! Singing that bit over at the beginning of the song. It’s intense and I’m looking forward to doing it live. It’s  insane but it’s very short; I think it’s under three minutes so it’s over in a flash. It goes down a dark tunnel; it’s a hypnotic trip down this dark drum and bass inspired tunnel. It’s a bit of a weird one I must admit! It’s a good song but it’s a strange one on the album [laughs] – if I may say that you know!

Then come Firelight and electronically driven Distant Satellites. It looks like the second half of the album is contrasting the first half?

That was natural – it was just the way that the songs flowed naturally. When we’re putting an album together, one of the only things we think about is that the biggest track – the longest and most epic of all of the tracks – is second to last because that’s where your album takes a crescendo; where it reaches its highest point; it’s peak, its ultimate crescendo, so that was always going to be Distant Satellites (the song) and then after that you’ve always got the last song just to bring you back down again you know. And that’s what Take Shelter does, it brings you back up and down again at the end of the song. It’s fucking cool! And I think for that reason this album is my favourite of all that we’ve done because of where Distant Satellites is but see about the next one. It’s the same as The Lost Child was on Weather Systems, Universal was on We’re Here Because We’re Here – you know what I mean?

Dave Stewart created the orchestral arrangements for Distant Satellites. Did he have full creative freedom for this segment in particular? Are you satisfied how it turned out?

He’s a great guy and so easy to work with. He’s very responsive and such a talented composer of classical music and in interpreting our music into classical form  which I know he loves to do – he likes Anathema’s music so we’ve been working with him for about five years; he’s such a great guy and we’d love to continue working with him, we always get good results with Dave – especially on Universal; on records we usually use a 22 piece orchestra,  a 12 string chamber orchestra or the full 26 piece orchestra, but for Universal we used a 36, so what happened there was we had to re-orchestrate all the parts to fit the 36 piece orchestra and you also have to change how things are going to be played because you’ve got a live band playing next to it, so it’s a re-think really. But he’s a master Dave Stewart.

How does the album name complement the music showcased on it? If I’m not wrong, Danny said in the album’s press release that the working title for this new album was Kid AC/DC. How come?

That’s news to me! It must have been the working title in his own head because I never heard anything about that! And I don’t agree either, at all [laughs]. I think he was making a bit of a joke. I haven’t seen the official press release and I don’t write those things either but I think Danny’s joking with you to be honest. The actual album name, Distant Satellites, is about people in your life; those people that you know. It’s about yourself and how you’re a distant satellite to people in your life and how occasionally your orbits will cross but ultimately you’ll have to keep going and for this band particularly we are satellites to each other and we orbit around the music.

It took you almost 25 years to name a song after the band’s name. Why now? Is it some sort of a statement that you wanted to make?

It’s not 25 years really; we way we look at it is that the first album came out in 1993 which was when the band started – but the song itself chose the title. We were in the studio. We’d completed the song. The lyrics were obvious in what it was about and then the song demanded that it was called Anathema. We wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for that song. It was only that song and it would only ever be that song that could ever have been called Anathema. None of the others would have been suitable.


The story behind The Lost Song triptych is interesting. It’s basically Danny’s search for a lost riff. Can you tell me something more about it?

Ah yeah – the riff – yeah he lost the riff and he couldn’t find any more and so all we had was the signature, the time signature and the beat, so Danny improvised the piano, so I was behind Danny’s shoulder telling him what to do, directing where to go on the piano and the song was written immediately. Then part two was Danny on his own, just on his own in that creative moment when he started playing that song. It sounds funny to say that but that’s what he did – he played the first part, he played the second part and then he played the third part, it just happened like that right there and I think a day later we came up with part three so it was all very natural and very improvised in a spontaneous way, which is very cool  – AND it all came out of trying to remember this lost song, so that’s serendipity isn’t it? A happy accident! PLUS – you know what, I’m not sure that this lost riff, or this lost song was any good [laughs] because we probably would have remembered it, but it doesn’t matter because we got three great songs out of it – so what!

What were the biggest challenges you faced when making Distant Satellites?

The single song called Dusk – track three. We tried so many different ways of doing that and eventually went back to the first way of doing it. Sometime you can overthink things and then you realize that the initial thought you had for a song was the best way to do it and that’s what happened with that song. It’s a really cool song. It’s very intense – very very intense and a very strange song. Intense rhythms, a great riff, intricate playing and the vocals are insane especially in the first half. I remember when I was singing those vocals in the studio I had to have a break between each part as I felt my head was boiling as I was giving it everything I had! It was extremely intense.

Most people attribute that the revitalization of the band came with 2010′s album We’re Here Because We’re Here. Would you agree that this record in some way represented a new beginning for the band and a turning point for what came afterwards?

In a way I think it did because we had a big break between records before that. But I still see the natural evolution of the music, but from an external perspective, the band became much more successful after 2010 and that album and even more successful after Weather Systems so I guess it’s one of those things – how do you measure success and how it happens? We just write the songs and hope it goes well, but we’re on the same kind of momentum now – we’ve been releasing regular records and regular things for the last few years since 2009 when we did Hindsight so we’ve done one major thing every year  – it’s been one release for the last five years and I think sometimes sheer momentum alone keeps you in people’s imagination and allows them to keep thinking about you which is important for a band. You’ve got to work quickly in any band.

The Satellites Over Europe tour is scheduled for August, September, October and November, but you will be also playing on the summer festivals. What will the setlist for these dates look like?

Yeah – we have two drummers now [laughs] – that’s cool! That’s going to be fun. Danny Cardoso is playing the main beat and John Douglas is playing the electronic beats and he’s also doing acoustic percussion so we got the best of both worlds really but we’ll see – maybe start adding the new songs in as we go along and we can’t wait – especially for the September tour, the main headlining tour which is going to be something very special. We’re working on it now but you’ll just have to come out and see it but it’s gonna be very very special indeed. You’re talking about a band that’s got ten albums now and we’ve got an incredible setlist and we’re still hungry – we’re all fit and looking forward to it.

How was it playing this year’s Progressive Nation at Sea? What do you think of this new trend of organizing festival cruises in general?

You know what – it was fun! It was like a magical mystery tour you know! If I could organize my own cruise boat I would definitely do a psychedelic boat and invite all the best psychedelic bands in the world – that would be fucking hilarious man! Everyone from Super Furry Animals – imagine that – it would be hilarious, it would be so good! It was Mike Portnoy who curated the progressive boat, so big thanks to him for inviting us to that one it was a blast. And it was such a fun thing to do and the facilities were great – good concert halls and good venues – no reason why you can’t put on a good show on a boat!

We witnessed that your songwriting with Anathema has changed over the course of time. Does songwriting still give you the same satisfaction like it used to be, when you were writing albums such Judgement, Eternity or Alternative 4?

I get much more satisfaction now for all sorts of reasons. We still enjoy the process but when we were writing songs like The Last Goodbye, maybe it wasn’t happy times – I’m not saying that these are happy times but there’s an ease to songwriting now – something on a personal perspective that we’re very comfortable writing songs and writing music these days. Of course you still get your clashes as a group – somebody may think something is one way and you might argue but eventually you let the song decide and you put your ego to one side and let the song settle the argument. It’s the easiest way to work – you’re just a catalyst for the song and the one who makes it happen and it gets the decision of what it wants to be. So that kind of takes the pressure off your shoulders.

Anathema‘s new album Distant Satellites are out on June 10th via Kscope. Get your copy from here.

Anathema on the web:

Anathema official Facebook page

Anathema profile on Kscope

Anathema official website

Nikola Savić is a prog enthusiast, blogger and author, in addition to being the founder of Prog Sphere, Progify, ProgLyrics and the ongoing Progstravaganza compilation series.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: