Celebrating world culture and exorcising demons with Dead Can Dance’s Brendan Perry
The disparity of the labels most commonly assigned to Dead Can Dance’s style—gothic, neoclassical, world fusion—bears witness to the breadth of this Australian-born ensemble’s artistic scope. Seemingly contradictory elements intertwine with the utmost grace in DCD’s work: The group’s very name juxtaposes the grim with the festive, while its music is both elegant and primal, foreign and familiar, ethereal and earthy, witchy and angelic, ghostly and vibrant … and, as singer/multi-instrumentalist Brendan Perry states, an exorcism as well as a celebration.
Dead Can Dance performs at Monterey’s Golden State Theatre on Thursday, April 18, just two days after the release of the band’s In Concert album. A phone conversation with Perry, who co-leads the group with vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Lisa Gerrard, revealed him to be something of a paradox in his own right: The mysterious mesmerist with the stern, commanding baritone proved to be friendly, easygoing and mild-mannered.
Good Times: You once told Time magazine that Dead Can Dance made records to exorcise their demons. What demons were you exorcising on your last studio album, Anastasis?
Brendan Perry: [Chuckles] Well, it’s not solely that. That’s a partial way of describing what music means in our lives, what it brings to our lives. I think what I was referring to then was really about a form of working through your emotional problems, intellectual problems, with the aid of music. It has a great healing capacity, and also a capacity for giving you an insight into the nature of your surroundings and your relationships with the world and other people. I think Anastasis is more of a celebration, really, of musical influences, certainly from the Near East and Orient. They’re inspiring to me, both on a cultural level as well as a musical level. It was a case of immersing oneself in these traditions and seeing what came through the other end, which is often the case with a lot of our albums. They do reflect what we’ve been listening to at any given point in time. Like Aion, for instance, was very much influenced by early music, and that’s what we were listening to at the time. So the music’s also a mirror, I guess, for want of a better expression, of what inspires us.
I would imagine that life on the road with the band affects the music as well. You’re absorbing a lot of different influences as you travel the world.
Yeah, definitely. Meeting other cultures gives you a sense, I suppose, of being a bit of a gypsy. On tour, you’re a traveler. You don’t have your own home to return to every evening after work. You’re in a strange location, and it does feel like you’re a troubadour in that respect. You’re traveling from one place to another, absorbing cultures, different languages, different foods and smells and that whole sensual gamut of experiences. And just imbibing and enjoying it and making the most of it and discovering the world is an important part of touring for me, also.
Do you try to get in a certain mood before you record music, or do you just let the music take you where it wants?
Yeah, you have to [do the latter]. I can’t force it. It becomes intolerable, really, like trying to force a horse to drink when it doesn’t want to. It just doesn’t happen. When those moments do come along, it’s important to recognize them and to grab the opportunity, but it’s not like you can turn them on and off when you want.
How are you and Lisa getting along these days?
Very well, thank you.
I know there’s been some conflict between you two in the past. does that friction have an effect, either negative or positive, on your music?
I don’t think you can call it positive, but it certainly clears the way for, I suppose, us to only accept music which we really believe in, as opposed to totally unfiltered, anything goes, just churn it out, you know? I feel that’s where most of our friction stems from. It’s really about quality control. We both want the best that we can possibly do, but we don’t always meet eye to eye. And yeah, there’s a power struggle involved in that, like in any relationship. It’s like concerned parents, really, to use that analogy. [Laughs] The music’s our children, and we want the best for them. Sometimes we just think differently about the way that is best, you know? But at the end of the day, we can reflect on all our conflicts and realize that we want the same thing, ultimately. We have a basic premise that if either one of us does not like what we’ve done, then it doesn’t happen, no matter how much the other partner kicks up a fuss about it being the most amazing thing that we’ve ever done. That’s essentially where our conflicts stem from.
There’s a mystical feel to a lot of Dead Can Dance’s music. Do you identify with any specific form of spirituality?
No. No, I don’t. I’m a little bit anti-dogma. Anything organized when it comes to religion or spirituality just sets off alarm bells with me. It’s like a contradiction in terms, I find. As soon as things become organized, rules come into the equation, and then you have hierarchies, and then you have kind of closed minds as opposed to open minds.
Understood. But do you believe in the existence of some kind of spiritual force beyond the material?
Yeah. I’m very open to that being a possibility, inasmuch as I feel very humbled by my place in the cosmos, which is absolutely immense and awe-inspiring and should remind us how truly reverential we should be about all the creation. I just think we’re limited, probably, by our sensibilities. There probably are some forces or energies out there which are intelligent and non-human, which we just don’t have the sensibilities to be able to sense. It could be that; I don’t know. But I think it would be ridiculous to be closed-minded to that and to the afterlife and what have you.
When Dead Can Dance started out, there was no preexisting category for this kind of music. What genre did you tell people the band was?
Gothic! [Laughs] We had no say in it. That’s what the journalists decided we were; that’s what we sort of got labeled with. But there wasn’t really world music at that time. You walked into the record shop in the early ’80s, and there was probably 10 percent of the amount of different genres in comparison to what we have today. I mean, today it’s crazy! We’ve got subdivisions of dubstep. [Laughs] It just goes on and on into really niche-driven genres. Back then, the world music thing was like the Baka Pygmies and some Andean flutes, and that was your lot, you know? I should just mention, too, that the music press in England—you find it less so in America; I think Americans are far more open-minded and get us more in that respect—but there’s a distrust of people who try to do hybrid music and cross over into different musical areas. The English press like to have their music neatly niche-driven in a separate box that you can easily categorize. They do not like hybrids or crossover musics. I think it’s because they’d have to think outside of the box; they’d have to learn about music from another genre. They’re essentially lazy. They specialize on one type of music, and as musicians, we’ve never limited ourselves to one particular genre. Any music or cultural tradition is open to us.
Is there a primary message to Dead Can Dance’s music or a particular experience you hope to give your audiences?
I think ultimately it’s to enjoy the experience of the sensuality of music, combined with a certain degree of intellectual acumen, and just to have a sense of celebration: celebrating culture, the world, life.
Dead Can Dance plays at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 18 at Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. Tickets are $42.50-$75. For more information, visit deadcandance.com. Photo: Jay Brooks
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