In conversation with Therapy?’s Andy Cairns
In numerous interviews, the members of Therapy? have stated that there was never a plan with the band. Pure creativity. Passion. Desire to expand the boarders has led them all through all these 30 years and having no plan. Whether these are acoustic shows they did a few days ago, the recent LP Cleave or their recent release – a Greatest Hits compilation of re-recorded versions of all theirwell-known songs.
I got a chance to speak to Andy Cairns, about the very first years of Therapy? and the upcoming record, they’re working on now; about Troublegum and the energetics of their acoustic shows, about lyrical references and their songwriting processes.
Within your recently released Greatest Hits compilation you brought a new feel to these well-known songs, re-recording them in Abbey Road studios. How did you get this idea and what, according to your opinion, did you as musicians of 2020 bring to some of these songs written 20-30 years ago ?
Well, initially, it was going to be our 30th anniversary, 2020, and we knew we had a book coming out as well. We had many, many concerts planned. We thought it would be a good idea to do a celebration. Initially, it was meant to be a live album. But the venue we expected to record it at – the gig was cancelled a month in an advance. We didn’t get a chance to record a live album. So it got…I think September of 2019, our record-company saying to our management: “We need something for the tour!” – because, we wanted to tour all 2020, we needed a record. And we didn’t have any ideas. The producer, Chris Sheldon was talking to our record-company on another band he was working with and he mentioned: “Why don’t we book a day in Abbey Road studios? And record their greatest hits! Abbey Road studios is legendary! It would be something special. Or, we could maybe do the XXI century versions of the songs…” – so we organized that. And I think, the difference is that it was just three of us playing. Those songs on the original albums were recorded by Fyfe Ewing or Graham Hopkins or Martin McCarrick. But these are with myself, Michael McKeegan and Neil Cooper. If you go to see Therapy? since 2003, that’s the lineup you would have seen. So, we were very pleased. They came across very bright and very up-to-date. And with respect the original versions, which is still very important.
In one of your interviews you said that it’s interesting to go back and re-discover those things you haven’t noticed before. Starting with Nurse, you were signed to a major label, putting out the records with a better production, having more qualified producers, engineers. But coming from DIY-background, how much did it affect the logics of your creative processes ?
Well, with Nurse, it was quite stressful because we wanted to make a record which [would] sound really impressive. But impressive to our peers – people we admire and like. And more importantly, to our fans. So we knew we didn’t want too to be much of a differentiation. But at the same time, our engineer and producer, Harvey Birrell, he was our live-engineer the first two years of the band’s existence. He felt quite a lot of pressure. Because, he knew the record would be getting looked up intensely because it was now on a major-label. So he was a bit nervous. I think, maybe, when you listen to Nurse now, there’s almost a forensic detail on drums, because two weeks we spent on drums. More than on guitars and vocals. I think that’s because he was very nervous about the sound of a drums being correct.
By the time we did the Troublegum album, after that, we were a bit more confident. And we found Chris Sheldon, who was more compatible producer for that kind of record we wanted to make. Harvey was fantastic for Nurse, Chris was very good for Troublegum. The record company never ever said anything until Infernal Love. So with Nurse and Troublegum the record company-guys would turn up at the studio and they’d go “Yeah! That’s ok!” – because, we were a cult band. Our two previous albums went to number one of the independent charts. But, it was a cult thing. When we did Nurse, we began to sell more records worldwide. It was ok. But Troublegum took them by surprise. Troublegum sold more copies than they expected. After that, that’s where we started seeing the clichés about the record-company interfering. But before that, they just said: “These guys are a cult band! They know what they’re doing! Let them do it!”
And how did it feel when your shows started getting bigger and Therapy? as a band kind of get out of this context within all these big shows and festivals you were playing at that point ?
I enjoyed it! Because, I’ve always enjoyed being a musician. I’ve been playing guitar since I was 13-14 years old. And I always wanted to play concerts in front of people. I never really dreamed on football stadiums. But there were certain concert halls I went to as a kid in Ireland. I would love to play all these legendary venues all across the world. Irvin Plaza, New York; Brixton Academy…So that was good. And I knew, Michael McKeegan, the bass-player, he really enjoyed it. I think, our drummer Fyfe [Ewing], he found it difficult. He’s as quite a private person. And he didn’t like travelling. He found travelling too hard. Which a lot of people do.
But the concerts, the bigger they got, the more closed and separate from the band he got. So when we went to Poland and played an arena with 5,000 people with Troublegum, he wouldn’t speak to myself and Michael. I don’t know what it was but it certainly had an effect on some bandmembers more than others. We really enjoyed, because, we felt we worked very, very hard. It’s great that all these people here like the record. But…It’s nobody’s fault. Some people just don’t like it, playing in front of a lot of people.
By the time you formed Therapy? you were slightly moving from being a local band and releasing your first single on your own to your first, Babyteeth. How much this DIY-type-of-ethic affected your attitude back then and how important is it for you now ?
Well, Dan, every single day, I’m grateful for the way we started. Because, we built the band off from nothing. From playing in front of 5 people. We paid for our own singles. We made the [record] sleeves at my mothers’ kitchen!…It meant that whatever things would turn for the band and the records or concerts we’d done, we didn’t panic, because we’d feel: “Well, we’d been here before! We’re playing for hundreds and thousands of people – which is more than we did back then. If we have to change a record company and release a record ourselves – we’ve done it before.” – it was more of a concept of what we wanted to do. The other thing is financial. We’ve always been very careful. Because, we’re very working class. So, whenever we got a lot of money from a record company – with Nurse, Troublegum or Infernal Love – we didn’t spend it all. We made sure we had a lot of money in case we’d ever get dropped by the record company. So, we’d need to pay for a rehearsal space, equipment hire, vehicle hire, hiring of a crew-members. And most important – to pay the bills, rehearsal-space bills, electricity bills.
So I think the DIY-background taught us little things about how important it is. And also, one thing we did in Therapy? the DIY thing crosses in how to interact with people. So if we turn up the venue, don’t be an asshole! Because, you get to the venue and that guys probably be there for the whole week. The guy’s meeting you is looking after five bands. He had no sleep. He spent time putting up the posters, losing money, trying to get the venue right, arguing with the local company to make sure that this stuff is ok, trying to buy you the vodka and the beer you want. And then, the bunch of assholes would get there and: “No!No!No!…”. From DIY-days we learnt to treat people with respect we’d like to get treated.
And what it was like, exploring those things in the mid-late 80’s – through tape-trading, fanzines and local record shops? Was it hard for you to find the music and artists that would resonate with you?
Growing up in Northern Ireland was hard in the 80’s – because of the political terms. So looking for a music, especially hard guitar-music and noise-music, was a really good escape – it was cathartic. Buying the records was difficult. Because, there were three shops in Belfast, which is nearest big city to where we grew up. If they got a copy of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds album, they’d maybe get five copies and by the time we’d got on a bus, travelled to Belfast and got to the record shop, the five copies would get sold (laughs).
So what you had to do is you had to get to know the guy who works in this store and earn his trust (laughs)! Until: “I wanna buy that Birthday Party record. I wanna buy that Jesus Lizard’ album. I wanna buy that Melvins’ record. I’ll be there next Tuesday at one o’clock!” – that’s fantastic. It’s fantastic – it’s a pain in the ass when it starts. But it’s building networks and then you go back to the record-store. There was one brilliant one in Belfast called Caroline Records and it was fantastic! The guy who ran it was called Angus. And you build up the relations with him. If something comes in, he’d go: “A record come in from Touch And Go by a band called Slint. I thought you may like it. So I put it aside for you. Cause, I know you’re the guy who likes…”- it’s a little network. It’s meant a lot to us. Also, that whatever we’d paid for our first single, Meat Abstract – our first 7-inch single, we’re gonna sell them on tour. But we went to Caroline Records, this store. I said to the guy: “What do you think about selling our record ?” and he says: “Yes, sure! Give me ten copies!” and he put them on the counter with “Local Artists” (laughs). So that was very cool.
I can’t but notice that that your lyrics, early on was quite dark and even gloomy. You’ve been touching the image of death and negative side of human relationship a lot. Starting with Nurse – within songs like Gone you kind of started moving to the light. Up to the point, when you started exploring human feelings on a deeper level within Unbeliever or Turn. What had happened in your life at that point? What made you change your lyrical focus?
I think, at the beginning of the band, I was uncertain. This was the first time we had records that were released, that other people would hear. All three of us had been in bands, but we’d just been in local bands. And Michael McKeegan’s band, Evil Priest, had released a tape. Among the three of us, Michael was the most known as musician. Because, people all over the world knew Evil Priest, because, of the tape-trading. Like, Michael knew people from many-many bands all over the world. Bands from Brazil, Italy, Hungary, just because he was in this band called Evil Priest that used to rehearse in his mothers’ basement. Whenever we had a chance to release a record, I think, it’s almost like…if I look at something, I’d talk about it with almost a detachment, because, I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to give to the world. Once we released Nurse and songs like Gone, I felt more comfortable within Unbeliever, as you mentioned and songs like that. But it was a matter of me feeling comfortable with how much I want to tell to the world.
These days, is it hard for you to find your comfort zone within each song, each piece of lyrics you’re writing? Or has it become kind of mechanical process for you?
No. Sometimes, I wish it would be a mechanical process. It would have been a lot easier. It’s a most difficult part of a band. The music comes very easily, we write songs all the time. The melodies are second. I write melodies spontaneously. The lyrics – I find it difficult. I’d look at one verse or one chorus again and again. I’d change it many times. And quite often, like many musicians, I’d go back to the first idea and keep that. I find it…At the minute, we’re writing. We have 26 songs. The music and the melodies are fantastic. But I’ve just rewritten the lyrics so many times, I’ve changed the choruses, I’ve changed the verses. Once I get a theme, like Troublegum was about my childhood, Infernal Love was about relationships, Cleave, the last album, was about society. So once, I get a theme for that next record – then we’d have it like that. But if it were mechanical if would have been easier (laughs).
Could you please tell me about the current stage of your work on what will become the next Therapy? album?
We have 26 songs, 26 pieces of music that are finished. And vocal melodies. So we have to write only lyrics. Because, what we’re doing, we’re writing remotely. I live in Cambridge. Michael McKeegan, the bass-player lives in Northern Ireland. Our drummer – Neal Cooper, lives in Derby, in the Easy Midlands. So it’s a very long process. Before the pandemic, we’d written 12 songs together in a rehearsal space. And the other songs, sometimes come from ideas. So Michael and myself and Neil would send each other ideas. I’d send Neil a guitar-riff and the chorus, Neil would add drums. Neil will send the mp3-file to Michael. We’d go back and forward. I think, after Christmas the newest songs will be finished and if we can go to a recording studio in January, we will. That’s what the point is, at the minute. We’re hoping to get to a recording studio by January.
It’s incredible how good your songs sound despite the context. Whether these are acoustic shows or big festival shows, or club gigs, and I think it all simply come down to two components presented in your music: heaviness and melody. What gives you an understanding of how you should bring these two together?
The melody always comes really, really natural to me. It’s one thing in music I’ve just always liked, melody and songs, probably because when first got into the music, it was Buzzcocks and The Undertones that were very, very melodic. They wrote great songs. And The Ramones. And I think, some of the melody-lines as well. Joy Division and The Cure, when I was a little older, they always got really strong vocal melodies. So that’s probably influenced me. Sometimes, I remember Unbeliever, we wrote the music for a song Unbeliever. We had a discussion at the studio, because the music was so heavy. But the vocal was almost resigned, tired and exhausted. Chris Sheldon, said to me: “Should this feel like screaming? Should this not be a very-very high-pitch vocal?” – we tried it another way. It didn’t sound right. “Yeah, that kind of works!” – sometimes that can cause problems. But we will try song with different keys quite often. We’d try song with me singing very low, very heavy. It won’t sound right so we’d change the keys, and I can sing it in a high register.
Sometimes, with the tempo, after we’d record a song, when I play it on an acoustic guitar it’s quite laid-back tempo, but I think that’s what makes it sound like Therapy? – because, we don’t write the songs on the melody. The melody sits in. Does that makes sense? There’re quite a lot of other bands, and everything serves the song, everything serves the song, everything serves the vocal. So if the lyrics are quite understated, the whole music would be understated. And I think, that’s what makes us quite an unusual sounding band. Because, we got these very-very melodic songs like Lonely Cryin’ Only or Unbeliever but the music is almost verging on chaotic. Yes, it’s melodic. And it’s very noisy.
When you start working on a record, is it important for you to have a certain kind of concept? Or, personally, for you, is it more like a calling?
No, it’s important. Because, that’s almost brings everything together. For example, at the minute we have 26 songs. And I’ve got little ideas. Because it was writing over a ten-month period, there are different moods. One day I’m happy, one day I’m angry. But I need them to sound as they all are from the same album. Cause, I like the albums you put on and listen to the whole album. I like an album to be something that transports you. And it may be Metal Box, it can be something like Burial’s Untrue. It can be Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division. It can be Black Secret Technology by A Guy Called Gerald. You put in on and you’re: “Aah…”. And I think, with albums like Troublegum or Infernal Love, the album has got a sound you’re living in for 45 or 50 minutes. So once I’d discover what the theme is going to be, it’s when everything happens. I can sit down for 10 months trying to write different lyrics, but once I’d decide: “Oh, this album is gonna be about relationships!” – all of a sudden it makes sense. And I can make all the songs relate to it. But I have to do it before the album is going to be finished.
How long did it take for you to find the place when you’re comfortable as a songwriter and a lyricist, first and foremost?
I think Troublegum was the one, because whenever we finished Nurse, Fyfe was really exhausted. He didn’t want to record, rehearse or tour. He just wanted to go home for a few months. And Mike was spending a lot of time with his family. I’d written Screamager and Chris Sheldon liked it! He said: “This is very melodic for Therapy? Have you got any other songs like that? Otherwise, it would sound like an unusual song!” I had bits on Nowhere and Unbeliever. That’s was when I realised that I could actually write songs confidently by myself. I used to write a lot of a songs as a kid for other bands, but I always thought they sounded ok but not great. The song Gone on Nurse was the song I’d written very quickly. And that went down very, very well with fans. Then we got Screamager. It sort of made me think: “I can do this!”. I think it was the point where I’d realised that I could write songs as opposed to just riffs. It was riffs and arrangements and lyrics. And it can actually be songs.
I’d say that within your previous one, Cleave, you kind of got back to your musical roots with this heavy sounding, tension. What made you to get back to that aggressive sound, especially after you did an acoustic tour?
Cleave was very organic, because, what we did, we hadn’t rehearsed for a little while. And we got together. Mike had some ideas for Cleave. Michael brought the riff for Wreck It Like Beckett. I had a song, Callow, written on an acoustic guitar. Cause, when I was doing acoustic shows, I’d written Callow, just really simple chords that didn’t have a riff. Michael had the main riff for Kakistocracy, I had the chorus for Success? Success Is Survival. So that was all written in the studio. So we had a rehearsal studio and I’d bring in: “Listen guys, there’s a song called Callow. I’d play the chords and they’d go: “Ok!” – that was a bit like Ramones at that minute. So we needed it to sound a bit like Therapy?. So It would be a certainly faster. I’d add a guitar riff. With something like Wreck It Like Beckett, Michael had one riff on bass. The main riff which is amazing. And he said: “I don’t know what I can do with this!” so we spent four hours – drums, bass, guitar, playing round and round and round. And Michael said to me: “When I wrote this riff I was thinking of Public Enemy – Fear Of A Black Planet. So Neal thought: “Ok!”and started thinking how would Public Enemy do this drum-beat. That was all written in a studio. We’d spent time in Derby, in a rehearsal studio and in London. The whole thing was written as a band in a studio. That’s why it’s quite organic.
And if you’d speak about those acoustic shows – whether it’s a live album you recorded or your acoustic-solo-tour – how did you come to this decision and how did it feel from listeners’ perspective to hear all these songs in a different context?
Well, that all came from a bit of an accident. In 2013 the two guys in the band had very young families. Both them had two very young kids. We were taking, I think, six months off. In the first month of these six month-off our agent, our booking agent said: “Obviously there’s no Therapy? stuff and you might not want to do this but I’ve had a request for the acoustic show. Just you playing an acoustic guitar. Would it be something you’re interested in ?” I thought about it. I phoned out to the guys and asked: “Will this be ok ?” and they said: “Yes! We both have very young kids. So we’re both not going anywhere for the next four-five months.” – so I said: “I’ll do the show!” And then, our agent came back and said: “Well, to make it worth, I can book another five or six shows, if you want.” – I didn’t think anyone would be interested. But we got shows all around U.K, Ireland and Europe. And it was good fun! It was all frightening! Because, it was me, my own car, a friend of mine helping selling merch, and driving all around Europe – like the old days. Like getting my car at the venue and selling my own merch at the parking space. But I really-really enjoyed it!
Michael came to one of these shows in Dublin. And afterwards he said: “That was very good!” – and I said: “I miss Neal and you on stage!” and we said: “Let’s try acoustically. With the whole band and see it from there!” – I think, what’s good about it is that when you’re run through 30 years as a band, and Neal has played in many other bands before he joined Therapy?, Michael has been in other bands, you can kind of get too comfortable. It’s almost like remote control. But when you do something like acoustic shows, it makes you re-arrange your arrangements of existing shows. The audience quite often is sitting down. And you have to work really hard to keep their attention. Because, when you’re really playing rock-music, it just puts people in a trance. When you’re playing an acoustic show, you could hear a guy ordering his drinks at a bar (laughs)! It puts you in a different mindset! We’d really enjoyed it! And some of the venues were spectacular! We played in the old church in Rotterdam. We played all sorts of Speakeasy cafes around the country, art-centers, Union Chapel at Islington, London. And then it meant we were ready to come back and do Cleave. We were ready for some volume and some kind of intensity.
How can you describe your upcoming record ?
It’s very like Cleave, very like Troublegum. It’s very heavy. It has very melodic choruses. But we’ve tried to keep the rhythms. It’s not like The Ramones where it’s very melodic, very guitar-heavy and it’s all 4/4. The rhythms are a bit more interesting. Neal always tells that, ’cause, he’s such an amazing drummer. If you like Babyteeth, Troublegum and Cleave, it’s kind of the direction where it’s gone.
Having a certain idea about the songs you’re going to write, is it important for you to tie the concept, lyrics within emotional coloring of the musical line? For instance, you did Diane, originally written by Hüsker Dü, incredibly emotionally song performed in a chamber format. At the same time, if we’d speak about Suicide Pact, there are lots of songs with quite specific emotional and lyrical colouring. He’s Not That Kind Of Girl or Ten Years Plan. But the record is still, quite dark with this quite specific aftertaste.
It’s important that the music works with the context of lyrics too. If it sounds like I’m reading a shopping list, it doesn’t work. Or if it sounds like I’m trying too hard then I shouldn’t scream too much. So that’s when a really good producer helps me. Even normally, because we’d produced our first two records ourselves. Producers were just there to make sure that the session runs on time. But someone like Chris Sheldon – he’s very good at saying to someone like me: “That vocal doesn’t sound like it belongs to that song! You’re singing it wrong!” and that’s what helps. The most important guys are Neal and Michael. Because, whenever we do write songs, what happens at the end of a writing session, Michael puts microphone in the middle of the room, and says: “Ok! Sing the song into the mic!” and it’s just me in the room on my own. No guitar. Michael and Neal listen to it and go: “It maybe sounds a bit too hard or I think, you should maybe back off the aggression…” things like that. And that helps as well! ‘Cause, I really value their opinion, so much!
At the same time, you’ve always been okayabout doing experiments, like with Teethgrinder, incredible song with incredible drumming. What leads you in such moments ?
We do what we do. We have to be fearless. We’re very, very lucky having a fan-base worldwide. We have a certain amount of people stayed with us since the start. We’re very, very proud of our past. But we can’t try re-create it all the time. It’s a bit like the song Screamager. People know us for what was written really quickly. We thought it might be a throw-away-song. With something like Teethgrinder, the drums Fyfe came up with, I wrote the riff, and the vocal melody. We set up in the room and he came up with this drum-beat. Michael and I were like: “Oh, my God!”. We used to take turns to sing. He said: “I want to sing this one!” – we thought it might be a bit too difficult. It took a while to rehearse it. But that was done very, very quickly. That wasn’t a drum-beat he’d worked on for years. Nothing like that. [It] just came to his head at a rehearsal room. You can’t re-create that. You just have to do everything following the context of a work you have at a minute.
I guess it all gets to your ability to do each next thing differently after you’ve already tried it once. With it, in your creativity you’ve never had too long pauses. Since the beginning of your career you’ve been releasing something new every 2-3 years and, even though the main elements are still presented in your music, each record of yours shows significant differences from the precious ones. Can you say that you are always searching and re-discovering yourself?
I think, it’s quite simple: the three of us still listen to a lot of new music. We’re three old guys. We’re three guys in our old 40’s, early-mid 50’s. But Neal, Michael and myself are always listening to new bands. We always go to check other bands. Whenever we go to rehearse, I’d say: “I used to see this band from Brazil called DEAFKIDS and they do have this really amazing vocal effect. And I’d play Michael a DEAFKIDS record. He got a PA System and we’d try that. Or Michael would say: “I’ve heard a group – Zuzu. They do some really amazing things with drums”. And Neal would get some jazz record. Or hip-hop record to listen to. I think if we didn’t listen to new music, I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you now. Because we think it’s important. Whenever we go on tour, if we’re on tour bus all we do is play each other new music that we just discovered. If there’s a new band, young kids coming out, we know we can’t be like them, because they are young kids, but we can take ideas and get inspiration from them. I know a lot of musicians, and this always breaks my heart when if you go to their house, they don’t listen to anything after 99’ (laughs). They’re kind of stuck in the past. There’s nothing worse if I’m talking to a friend and he goes: “No one has made a good record since 2003” or so. And I think: If you say that you shouldn’t probably be a musician. But getting back to your question, that’s why we always are so interested within the music we do, ‘cause we always look for new ideas. And then you look at people like Napalm Death or Killing Joke, Justin Broadrick still releasing amazing records. They’ve been doing it longer than Therapy? has. So that gives us an inspiration.
Photo credits:Tom Hoad
Words by Dan Volohov. Find his author’s archive here.