While combing the emotional landscape of Dead Can Dance, Lorraine Ali unearths Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard's will to remain together apart.
Soft sunlight pours through the leaden glass windows of the refurbished 150-year-old church in Belturbet, Ireland, that Dead Can Dance's Brendan Perry calls home. His groggy Wolfhound named Neph is curled comfortably on a long woven runner that leads from the living room where the pulpit used to be, to the thick, oak front doors. Lisa Gerrard, the other half of this duo, rearranges the mismatched, thrift-shop furniture for a photo shoot.
"Oh Brendan," says Lisa, exasperated. She just found clumps of dog hair, broken glass, and an old grape under a chair. The seemingly reserved Brendan looks embarrassed then giggles. Lisa, dressed in a medieval-style gown, scampers away to find a broom, her feet tapping across the cold stone floor, while Brendan kicks the shriveled grape around with his beat-up black tennis shoe.
It is here that Brendan and Lisa recorded their new album, Into the Labyrinth. The setting represents yet another time period that perhaps will influence this musically self-taught duo from working-class Australia. Dead Can Dance fuse together the sounds of ancient Celtic, Balkan, classical, medieval and Middle Eastern music into seamless and fluid songs. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, the 13-year-old band creates an eclectic mix that resists classification and has developed quite a loyal cult following as a result. "We've had a core who have come with us all these years," says Brendan. "They're probably all mad artists, but they're still with us."
The small village of Belturbet is 70 miles north of Dublin in the county of Cavan. Between here and the big city are flocks of sheep in endless green fields, and occasional hand-scrawled, terrorist-like cardboard signs reading "Abortion is Murder." Standing outside a chicken hatchery, schoolgirls dressed in baggy rave wear wait for the bus. It seems that even MTV's "House of Style" has influence out here.
Brendan Perry's abode lies only 400 feet from the border of Northern Ireland. The Irish government, he explains, is in the process of selling off all the old Protestant churches that were imposed on the Catholics by the British. He moved in a year and half ago because it was one of the few places big enough for all of his equipment and, more likely, because mum and dad live only a few towns away. "Sometimes you can hear bats flying around in the rafters when you're sleeping," he quietly remarks. Brendan's tousled, mousy brown hair and squinty eyes give him that just-woken look that most grunge bands have to work at achieving. His expressions are restrained and smooth while his old, button-down wool sweater and faded jeans add to his overall low-key demeanor.
Lisa arrived from Australia a couple of weeks earlier to work on the final details of their sixth proper album for 4AD Records. Since they started recording, she's flown back and forth twice. She lives about 200 miles outside of Melbourne in Moondarra with her American husband Jack and one-year-old daughter. Each time she travels, she leaves her baby behind. "I couldn't have left her if I thought she couldn't have coped with being alone," Lisa says. It's obvious she's pained over the separation. "If I am not true to myself, how can I be true to her?"
Her beige gown with its high, rolled collar seems to constrict her movements and she appears slightly nervous. Her hair is pulled back tightly with a matching band, accentuating her fragile, classically beautiful Anglo features. There are another four or five dresses just like the one she's wearing in a side room that used to be the church's cloakroom which now serves as her temporary home.
The church is cluttered with instruments, from the drums stored in the bell tower to the studio equipment set up on the balcony. A video of Led Zeppelin's movie Song Remains the Same shares shelf space with various obscure and mainstream films while an old copy of John Mayal's Turning Point and various albums of artists from India to Spain line a lower case. But even with Perry's personal belongings and homey furnishings--a rumpled bed and a floor sprinkled with stray socks--the church could prove a vast and lonely place when there's no company. "No, it's just like anywhere else really," he says nonchalantly. He snaps his fingers and the sound resonates up to the rafters. "Well, sometimes you hear the echo of your own voice and it amplifies that you're all alone. I'm making music all the time so I'm filling up the space with sound and energy."
The church sits on an estate that was once owned by a Protestant Anglo named Lord Lanesborough, who built the church in yet another futile attempt to convert the area's Irish Catholics. Lanesborough's castle on the estate now lies in ruins, burned and vandalized during the Irish civil war in 1931. But the church, which had long since fallen into disuse, survived the uprising intact and later went on to serve various community purposes--as a general meeting place, a storage area and at one point, a hatchery for butterflies that still reproduce there. When the church's industrial boiler fires up all fourteen heaters, the cocoons hatch.
When the butterflies are mentioned, Lisa looks up to the wooden beans as if one would materialize by simply talking about it. "They're very beautiful," she says dreamily. "But they don't live long," adds Brendan as he lights a cigarette. She stares up and he down. The crux of their partnership is displayed in such simply untouchable and grand discovery, while he sorts out the meaning of life, better recording equipment, and this next pint down here on earth.
It's hard to imagine that these two were once lovers. "We started a relationship when we first came to London from Australia in 1982," says Lisa. "It's strange," adds Brendan, "at one point we ate, slept and worked together, around each other constantly, but now we only see each other when we're actually recording. It's like a conversion. But we got to the point where everything was a fight and someone had to go." Lisa continues, "And you're doing something that's very passionate--and you have to be critical."
It's been three years since Dead Can Dance released their last album Aion. In between that, the duo did their first American tour, contributed to the This Mortal Coil compilation and scored the Spanish film El Nino de la Luna (which Lisa also starred in). Several ballet companies have used Dead Can Dance's music for performances and believe it or not, the band's music set the mood for a Miami Vice chase scene across the Florida Keys. Brendan and Lisa's work was also used to open last year's Winter Olympics in France.
The two began work on Into the Labyrinth last year. "We would've finished earlier, but Lisa had to fly home for her mother's illness," Brendan explains. On the new album, Dead Can Dance's more pious and dark elements are replaced with warmer Mediterranean influences. Middle Eastern tonalities wind over African drum beats while a ghostly calm blankets the songs. Lisa's voice hits incredible, chilling peaks and eerie highs while Brendan's dips low, in an odd, almost lounge-like tone. The lighter and more worldly mix makes this album their most accessible and appealing yet.
Lisa's on here second cup of tea and talking about her baby again. Her maternal struggles aren't met with much solace from Brendan. "He was talking about how some native African woman never leave their children, but that woman in the bush don't make records," she justifies. "It's very different when you're recording and there's a baby crying in the church and you can't taker her anywhere. I think it would have made it difficult and longer and I still would've had to leave her when we were working. So I found it best to come, concentrate and do it. I couldn't function as a sane human being without the music. I need to do that."
In 1982 Brendan and Lisa transported Dead Can Dance from Australia to London. "We went to London because there was a greater market in Europe for the kind of music we were doing," says Brendan, "Australia, at the time, was all FM rock."
"It's all pretty one-dimensional still," assures Lisa, "especially for someone embarking on an individualistic, artistic adventure. It would be practically impossible to survive solely off that in Australia. It's nearly impossible anyway."
Dead Can Dance had immigrated with original bass player Paul Erikson, leaving drummer Dave Hefner behind. They lived in a tower block in the East End of London in a rough area called the Isle of Dogs. At that time, it was a sparse section of London's old docklands soon to be taken over by yuppies in search of waterside condos. They recorded half of Serpent's Egg, their third album, in their tiny, thirteenth-floor flat. The apartment featured a view of the industrial wasteland below and the highly polluted Thames River.
For such atmospheric music, Brendan claims his environments play little part in the creative process. "If it affected our music, it was very subconscious and minimal. The music we make is more about the internalized landscape than where we are physically." Initially, he felt the church and its lush surroundings were less inspiring than the inner city flat. "I actually felt it rather stultifying at first--living here surrounded with all this beauty. It took away the ability to write music for awhile."
Neph comes galloping in from outside. He's covered in much and makes a beeline for Brendan's bed, which sits in the middle of the church where the pews once stood. "That period in our lives when we were in London was so intense," recalls Lisa. "Living in a really rough, desolate place where people are constantly looking for weak prey. We were complete outsiders and weren't hard at all. If you were soft, people would pick up on that. We had some really frightening confrontations. So we stayed home and worked. Work was our saving grace."
Brendan and Lisa walked into the record company 4AD in 1984, four years after label-founder Ivo Watts-Russel had started the post-punk art label known at the time for its roster of eccentric music by bands like the Cocteau Twins, Wolfgang Press and Xmal Deutschland. "When we met Ivo we were incredibly full of faith," says Lisa. "We had arrived in London with a drum and practically no other equipment at all, and the idea we were going for world domination. Ivo went for it. I look back at this man, someone in his position, and I think he was incredibly intuitive. I wouldn't have a clue if those people were really serious or not. It's amazing he took a chance with us."
Recently, when Ivo flew in from London on a visit to 4AD's Los Angeles office, he talked about Dead Can Dance's early days. "They were three fairly quiet, serious individuals that communicated clearly what they wanted to do with music but obviously had no understanding of the music industry," he says. "I had pretty much zero understanding as well.
"I remember hearing their music fro the first time. Lisa used her voice as an instrument. She had an incredibly powerful, expressive voice, but no actual words. They were a four-piece group at the time so I couldn't have predicted where they were going musically. I just know they made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up."
Brendan Perry was born in East London in 1959 to a working-class, Cockney father and Irish mother. His family moved to New Zealand when he was 14, and at 17 he formed this punk band the Scavengers. "We had the unfortunate reputation of a lot of people dying at our concerts due to drug overdoses," he says. "We'd finish playing and there'd be someone dead under the table or in the toilets. After a while, no one would book us. So we moved to Australia." Brendan was 18 when he started playing around Melbourne; he left the ill-fated band after a couple of years and met Lisa in 1979. [see AK79].
Like the Perrys, Lisa Gerrard's parents had also immigrated. In the '50s, her Irish father and British mother moved from England to Australia, where Lisa was born. She grew up in an older section of Melbourne called Prahran. It was an Irish community that also became a settling area for many Greek and Turkish immigrants.
"Prahran was sort of referred to as little Greece," she says. "we were the only English-speaking family that lived in the vicinity of about four blocks. I've often wondered if the reason I feel the way I do about Mediterranean music is because of all the Greek music pouring out of those houses. These lavish, sort of Greek women singing in these fabulous voice."
Lisa started singing at an early age, but was neither discouraged nor encouraged by here parents. "They just sort of let it go by, but they didn't understand," she explains. "When I was about 10, my mom and dad had some guests over and I put on a show. I sang some songs without words and everyone there was just studying their shoelaces. 'She's just trying to get attention,' they assured each other. They completely ignored the whole thing and I thought I'd broken barriers--taken the roof off! Something incredible has happened! Then I remember my mum asking, 'Well, does it mean something to you, sweetheart?'"
A mutual friend in the Melbourne music scene introduced Brendan and Lisa. At the time, Lisa was playing with a band called Junk Logic. "We were playing in the ten-minute breaks between other people's sets. Brendan came down to see us and I met him afterward...but I don't know what he thought." Brendan smiles. "well," he says, "she sang a song in between the ten bands who were playing that night and the words went, 'I found a man in the park today mum/Can I take him home and keep him in the cupboard?'--then she came offstage and said, 'Well, what do you think?' So instead of lying through my teeth, I said it was interesting." As he recalls the story, Lisa laughs so hard her face turns red.
"I originally thought her voice was too freeform experimental to work with, though," admits Brendan, who was playing and writing in a more rock-oriented vein at the time. It would be a year and a half before Lisa joined the then three-piece Dead Can Dance, and even then, it was as a percussionist, not a singer.
There's a knock on the back door of the church where the small kitchen is. It's a Belturbet local selling potcheen, the Irish's potato-made answer to moonshine. But Brendan already has a bottle.
He and Lisa recall their band's early shows in some of Melbourne's more unsavory venues. "We played at a two-story club called the Champion Hotel," Lisa says. "There was a rough aboriginal pub downstairs. They were like smashing bottles over each others' heads and a woman bit a man's nose off there one night. But you don't notice things like that when you're playing your music," she emphasizes. Brendan shoots her a glance as if to say, "Oh really. I was fearing for my life."
Brendan recalls some of the ways they prepared for shows back then. "She would run around the block and be all out of breath before a show, but would swear it clears the lungs so you could really sing strongly." Lisa looks a bit embarrassed. "What a nutcase," she laughs. "I discovered that from running home after school really fast. I always sounded better after running home."
Sean Bowley of the band Eden has admired Brendan and Lisa's work since his own band started up around 1980 in the same Melbourne scene that spawned other notable bands like Nick Cave's Birthday Party. "There was a very creative musical community and diversity of bands in Melbourne from 1980 to 1983 that seems to be called the 'little bands,'" Bowley explains. "That's what the film Dogs in Space refers to but it's an inaccurate description. They all played at the Crystal Ballroom.
"There was a real emphasis on using common instruments in unusual ways. Dead Can Dance were much more aggressive back then, but not in a punk context, it was more in a Joy Division context. They had a really driving rhythm section that made it in some ways to their first album."
"When you listen to our albums, there's a natural progression," points out Brendan. "A metamorphosis. The difference between the first and second album is immense. That was a large stretch because we had basically been with guitar, bass and drums. Through the years, we started choosing sounds that couldn't be expressed through those instruments. We were streamlining our sound, in a way, but also choosing more palates. We also had access to more tonalities. We really needed that."
"I think everyone on any musical level needs that to explore for a natural evolution, Lisa adds.
"It's a vehicle," Brendan continues, "whether it be in Arabic or medieval form, that expresses what we are."
Lisa and Brendan's strong sense of what they wanted for their band caused them to change the entire make-up and contributions of other members early on. It was apparently this form of tight control that Lisa and Brendan wanted that caused Paul Erikson to leave the band in 1983 and fly back to Australia. "Initially we had intended to be a group where people were co-writing and inputing ideas," says Brendan. "They could use Dead Can Dance as a catalyst for their creativity. But as we progressed it just became apparent to Lisa and I that the kind of music we were writing was unique and the others weren't in the same vein. So we decided, as our writing capabilities grew stronger, there wasn't any point in maintaining this ideal of a group-writing situation."
4AD's Ivo believes that Brendan and Lisa's strong sense of control and self belief has propelled the band to where they are now. "They've been the most consistent of all the people I've ever worked with in their attitude and motivation. They've absolutely stuck to their guns. They've learned to follow their own instincts and, as far as Brendan's concerned, learned how to create the sounds that he wanted himself to become an extraordinary producer. They're role models for the way things can be done in this industry if you're talented and your motivation is music as opposed to success, money. They're truly self-sufficient. They make records at their own pace and the kind of records they want to make with no interference of direction from the record company. We've banged heads a couple of times, but ultimately, they've always been right for Dead Can Dance and I respect them for that."
An old rusty truck rattles up the path outside the church. A man in thigh-high Wellington boots gets out. It's another local, this time peddling coal. His two friends wait in the truck, blasting traditional Celtic folk on the beater's old stock radio. As Lisa leaves the door open to make the exchange, the Egyptian music playing inside the church intermingles with the Celtic sound outside.
"I don't know how you can call us Gothy," Lisa says in a slightly peeved tone, while discussing allegations that Dead Can Dance pioneered the Goth style, laying the groundwork for megagloom bands like Sisters of Mercy and the Mission. "If you look at us, we predate Gothic music anyway. Out music has evolved in so many different areas, how could you think it possibly fits in one genre. That has always been the problem in getting airplay, that you can't capsulize what we do. It's a very lazy description that was picked up on from one album and it's stuck."
Sam Rosenthal is owner of Projekt Records in Los Angels, a label the describes as "gothic ambient." Projekt bands include Lycia, Thantos, Alio Die, and Rosenthal's own group, Black Tape for a Blue Girl. Although he claims he's not heavily influenced by their sound, he holds a great deal of respect for Dead Can Dance. "A person's comments that Dead Can Dance are gloomy are based upon how that music makes them feel. I find Dead Can Dance very uplifting and enlightening. 'Morose' isn't the adjective I'd use at all. The band stir scarry emotions because their music makes you think. Most people don't like to think, so when they do, they're often not happy. Their life isn't as glorious as they would hope."
In order to understand something that's foreign or new, people often have to either peg it into some already existing category or realm, or tear it down and destroy it. "No one really understood what it was we were trying to achieve," Lisa says. "They thought Brendan was a lunatic because he was doing five-hour soundchecks. We were trying to do something that had a standard and quality that we had set. It wasn't about money and being onstage, it was about creating something that was poetic and absolute. We must be totally convinced by the work and, by being totally convinced, we've carried on. We want to take people outside the mundane, the void of existence that has been created for us so far by ourselves."
"The music brings us into another state," Brendan continues. "Music is an escape that sometimes plays on emotional tensions, but is a release at the same time. It's surrealism, which is a higher sense of realism."
"Our music brings us beyond being just human beings that eat and shit and watch TV," Lisa adds. "We can do something great that brings us in contact with the earth, each other and ourselves."
Dead Can Dance were flat out broke for the first half of their career. It wasn't until the late '80s, when the two split up--Lisa moving to Spain and Brendan to Ireland--that they began making royalties. The band's last album Aion sold over 75,000 copies. "in the beginning, we were living on twelve pounds a week. All the money we earned, if any, was put right back into the band by buying instruments," recalls Brendan. "As long as we got a pint in on the weekend. But we started living off our music five years ago, then making a little in the past four. You know, compilations, soft drink ads," he jokes, "also films, documentaries."
"Their music doesn't have a limited appeal," says Projekt's Sam Rosenthal, explaining why Dead Can Dance's popularity has increased. "it carries across more than a guitar-based alternative band. They reach a wide range of people and you don't have to be into one kind of music. Anyone from 14 to 49 can feel it--maybe for different reasons but not many people who listen to classical would care about Nirvana. New agers, classical fans, world music and goth fans would probably like Dead Can Dance if they gave it a shot."
In the most recent edition of The Trouser Press Record Guide, a reference book to alternative and underground music, you'll find Dead Can Dance sandwiched between the Dead Boys and the Dead Kennedys. The band's entry, written by David Sherida, the entry describes Dead Can Dance's sound as "all-too-precious"; other critics have described the band as outright pretentious.
"We all pretend," responds Lisa. "It's through pretending that we arrive at something. I don't think being pretentious is a negative thing. We should all be allowed. But as a description, it's a very lazy way of saying 'I don't understand.' Isn't part of the challenge trying to understand the nuance of the words and music?"
But Gerrard herself has been characterized in interviews as haughty even to the point of being absolutely loopy. As a result, she stopped doing interviews entirely for a good five years. "When I was reading these articles, I was thinking, 'You're only telling me about you. You're not telling me about something that's outside of everyday life or something that's inspired you. You're telling me how cynical you are.' I'm not prepared to get ripped to shreds while Brendan seems much more capable of saying the right things." He laughs and says, "That's us. Mr. Logic and Miss Flyaway."
As the sun goes down, the farms and green knolls seem to totally disappear in a countryside void of street lamps. The waning light casts weird shadows across the church. For the first time today, Brendan and Lisa are looking comfortable around one another. "When you're working and in a relationship with someone," says Lisa, "it can be really hurtful. When things get tough, you can't walk away and go home. It breaks down after awhile and it's a pity. When we split up we decided we wouldn't work together again but the music was so strong. We threatened each other about not ever working together again, 'This is it! I never want to see you again!'
"It's our mutual passion for music that keeps us together," says Brendan, "keeps us alive."