Interview by Alexander Laurence
Brendan Perry has been involved in the music world almost 35 years. He was born and raised in East London, but his family moved to Auckland when he was still young. During that time the punk scene in New Zealand took off and Perry joined his first band The Scavengers. After two years they changed their name to The Maching Girls. By 1981, he had met Lisa Gerrard and formed Dead Can Dance and relocated back to London. They ended up on the 4AD label and becoming one of its most successful acts, releasing eight albums from 1984 to 1996. There was an international tour in 2005, which included a sold out night at the Hollywood Bowl. Brendan Perry also has two solo records to his credit: Ete Of The Hunter (1999), and Ark (2010). Brendan Perry has been touring with Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins. Perry still lives in Ireland with his family. I got to talk to him recently about touring, the music scene, and new Dead Can Dance music in 2012.
Brendan Perry and Robin Guthrie will be playing in Los Angeles at the El Rey on Monday, June 13th.
AL: How is the weather up there in Vancouver?
BP: It’s overcast, but I have been sitting in the venue all day.
AL: How many people are in the band?
BP: Five including myself. I have two keyboard players, bass, drums, and myself on vocals and guitar. Most of the band have been playing with me a while. We must have done sixty gigs since April of last year.
AL: When did you have the idea of touring with Robin Guthrie?
BP: It was an idea by the tour agent in the United States. Robin Guthrie has his own three piece band. They play with films. When I first started thinking about touring the Ark album in the States, we agreed upon a double headlining tour with Robin Guthrie. I have known him for years and it seemed like a no-brainer.
AL: The last time I saw you play was when Dead Can Dance played the Hollywood Bowl in 2005. What have you been doing since that time?
BP: You were at that gig? After we did the Dead Can Dance tour, we had some money to refurbish my home studio at Quivvy Church. I was tweaking and playing around with new gear. There was technical stuff and writing. That process took maybe two or three years.
AL: Do you see yourself as a person who adapts to the new technology or are you an old school person?
BP: I am open to any school really. I have used computer sequencers since they have become commercially available. I used the first Yamahas in 1982. I have embraced all the technology advances. That is self-evident on the album Ark. There is a heavy use of samplers and synthesizers on the album.
AL: Many people in the 1980s used regular recording studios. Now it is possible for everyone to have a home studio.
BP: We have had a home studio for twenty five years. It was just the first three albums that we recorded in someone else’s studio. Once we had enough income, we took the recording budget for the fourth album, The Serpent’s Egg, and invested it in a small studio. Recording technology had improved by leaps and bounds by that time. The smart people built their own studio at that time. The best analogy is the difference between renting and owning a house. Your money is going to go much further if you own your own studio. You will see more rewards. More important, it empowers you, because you can take your time with your own studio.
AL: When you start writing an album like Ark, are you trying to get across ideas, or are you trying to find exciting sounds?
BP: Yeah. Generally music is a stimulant. You play and see what comes through. There is a zeitgeist moment in those few years. I was very into what was happening with the world media and ecological issues. That becomes infused with the music I was making. It becomes amorphous and sponge-like.
AL: Do you like words for their sounds or is there storytelling?
BP: Usually the music comes first. It has shape and lends itself to progressions. Whether it be classic verse, chorus, verse, middle eight, and so on. Once the lyrics come through, the subject matter becomes clearer. The music is shaped around the lyricism and poetry. There is a shift in emphasis in the songwriting process.
AL: You have this dramatic voice. Did that work against you when you were doing the punk band The Scavengers?
BP: My voice has evolved over time. Back in the early days the dramatic voice wasn’t there. It wasn’t part of my sonic arsenal as it were. It was a slow evolution from punk, to post-punk, to alternative music.
AL: I saw this movie about Scott Walker.
BP: I was in the DVD. I was in the extras in the bonus disc. The film fucked up so there’s only the audio. I helped the director Stephen Kijak make acquaintances with various people who were influenced by Scott Walker and you can see that in their work. Unfortunately there were many people in the film who debt to Scott Walker is not apparent to me. .
AL: Were you influenced by Scott Walker and when were you aware of him?
BP: I became aware of him through Julian Cope’s compilation The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker. I heard it in 1980. From that moment on I was hooked. When I was a child I was familiar with the Walker Brothers. They had some dark wonderful songs. They had some stunning songs like “Mrs. Murphy” and “Archangel.”
AL: What about Peter Hammill?
BP: I am not so familiar with Peter Hammill.
AL: When people see you on this tour, you are going to play only songs from Ark?
BP: I will also be playing some new songs that I will be recording in Ireland in the Fall. Hopefully that will be coming out early next year.
AL: There are some people who are very faithful to the music of Dead Can Dance. What do you think of these hardcore fans?
BP: I love them. They are wonderful. They have allowed me and Lisa to fulfill part of our dreams. They have let us focus on music most of our lives. It’s what we love to do.
AL: You were involved with Ivo Watts-Russell and 4AD most of your career. How would descibe that relationship, and how are things different when you deal with a record label today?
BP: We had an unusual relationship with 4AD. It was unusual even with the indie labels of that time. Ivo was like a benign grandparent. It was really up to the bands how much freedom they really wanted. Ivo gave as much freedom possible, and we took most of it. He was a guiding light and he was there for advice. He helped us where we didn’t have any experience. There was a great mutual respect. There was a great ethos. All the bands got along with each other. It was a big family and those were great days in the 1980s and the early 1990s.
AL: Whereas now many of these bands are starting their own labels, and looking for distrobution deals.
BP: Yeah. There is no sense of development. You do one or two albums and if it doesn’t fly, then you are looking elsewhere. There was a dialogue with 4AD that you don’t have with labels today. Labels today are not intimate. Indie labels feel corporate. Whatever they say, they are still based on corporate models but on a smaller scale. And they are dying out. Labels are like white elephants. They are redundant. I think in ten years they won’t exist.
AL: Are you inspired by new bands or are you yourself your best inspiration?
BP: I am not too excited by new groups. I keep hearing hybrids. Some work. Most don’t work. There is a lack of good singers. There is a lack of intelligent lyricism. That is a serious vacuum. I decided about three years ago that while I still have my general health, that I would dedicate ten or fifteen years to doing music again. As long as I have the enrgy, I want to make as much music as I can. This winter I am going to get togetrher with Lisa and do another Dead Can Dance record. We should finish it by summer, and by fall 2012, we should be doing another Dead Can Dance tour. Between that and my own work that should keep me busy for the next decade or so.