A Fine Day To Live: Daniel Cavanagh of Anathema talks The Optimist, being an honest band and more

Despite a messed up sleeping pattern and having not yet gotten around to getting any caffeine in his system in the hour since he woke up, guitarist and co-songwriter Daniel Cavanagh of Anathema is in good, wry spirits. Almost Optimistic one might say… An erudite and affable chap of no little musical or creative talent, Mr Cavanagh is talking to Ghost Cult about the newest Anathema album, The Optimist (KScope)

Ghost Cult: So, how you feeling?

Daniel Cavanagh: Good, mate. I’m good, I’m in a new home. I’ve moved in with our Vincent [Anathema vocalist and Daniel’s brother], which is a new thing, and it’s good being with people. I’d been living alone for about three years, and I’ve loved it, but this is a different atmosphere, and it’s more social. So, I’m good, but I’m getting used to living with people again!

I was going to say, most people try and get away from living with their family where they can, but you seem to be actively going out of your way to stay close to yours?

Particularly with Vincent, he’s been a rock to me, a real best mate. It’s just one of those things, he’s my next of kin, Vinnie’s close. If anything was to happen to me, he’d be the first to know. If it wasn’t for the music, I don’t really know what the relationship would be, but it is what it is.

So how long is it now together with Anathema? More than twenty-five years?

We were kids when it started, and it was a different band back then. Up to about 1996, it was a certain thing, then from about ‘97/98 it became another thing, and then, you know…

With the link back to A Fine Day… on this album [the story arc of the album revisits the character and actions from A Fine Day To Exit – Ed], you also recently did an anthology tour, covering songs from your whole career, including playing with Darren White and Duncan Patterson; has this been part of some conscious closing off of circles, from your own points of view?

I don’t know. I’d say, not really… To be honest, I would do that tour again – I thought it was fucking hilarious! I’ll be honest; Duncan is one of the most intelligent and funniest bastards I’ve ever known. Every single night he’d have me in a state of paralysis from laughing like a fucking lunatic. And he’s also an incredible bass player, who wrote a lot of great music that helped shift our music into this modern era we’re now in. We owe him a lot, you know.

And I think it was good for Darren in terms of getting a bit of closure, too.

I really enjoyed playing the Eternity trio on that tour, you know, and some of the Silent Enigma material was really good too. I remember… when you have the chaos of a concert, and you’re not really focusing on everything that’s going on… but there was one song, ‘Sunset of Age’, and there was this fucking enormous sound going on behind the song. But, I didn’t really register for a couple of gigs, so then I really listened to it in London, and it was the bass making the heaviest bass sound I’ve ever heard! It was massive! It could have been a post-rock band. It could have been Sigur Ros.

As a fan whose been with you since Serenades, it’s seemed you’ve had clusters of albums that sit together… everything up to Pentecost III (Peaceville), then a reset and then the run from Silent Enigma up to Judgement (Music For Nations) and then there’s a reset in 2001 with Fine Day To Exit (Koch) up to Weather Systems (KScope), and then a reset with The Optimist

No, that’s a fair observation. I do think this album is a bit of a reset. We always felt the last three albums were connected, Steven Wilson was involved, we had the same producer… and this feels like the next phase. It’s also something we’ve never done before, because it has this narrative. The songs are still autobiographical, and there’s a lot going on which ties to our emotions, because there’s a lot going on with us guys, normal life stuff.

When John (Douglas – drums) wrote the songs he wrote for the album, he’s writing about himself, he’s not thinking about a character, he’s just writing from the heart, his own stories, life and feelings. And then we made that fit into the narrative of “The Surrogate”; another person. We were trying to do something different because it gets a bit self-indulgent otherwise.

See, I’m not as talented as the Thom Yorke’s of this world, or Tom Waits, these talents with their grasp not just of English, but of the world. They’re very wide in their approach, and compared to them my approach is much narrower. My emotional spectrum is very wide, though, so the songs are very honest.

That’s always been something that you’ve been renowned for. And I’d say that’s why people have stayed with you through style changes and you’ve kept the old fans while you’ve picked up new listeners; because there is that integrity and honesty at the core of it. A lot of bands are scared to go to those personal places and put themselves out there like that.

I think that is a perfect observation of what has happened with us. And you’re absolutely right in this. The integrity, even when we’ve done soft music like a ‘Temporary Peace’, people just hear that it’s real, and the melodies, tunes and voices are nice. It’s not the best band in the world, but it’s an honest band. It’s real. This stuff happened. We’re not pretending. And we’re not playing at Metal. We’re not playing at Prog. We’re not playing at a career. This is our life.

It makes me laugh when people complain on YouTube, and they want us to go back to the Judgement style, and I think “You can say what you like, but it’s honest”. It is what it is.

And you know if you did take that step back, you know the first thing put out there is “Oh, you’ve sold out. You’ve gone back…”

Totally… The way to sell out is to manufacture a style because it’s popular. And believe me, there’s fucking loads of metal bands that have done that in Europe. I’m not saying they’re all sell-outs, but they stay in a formula, and it’s not very special. We could easily have been a massive Gothic Metal band, even with Darren White we could have done it, and we just never even tried to do that. That would be the sell out.

The sell-out thing is a quite funny. It makes me think of Cliff Burton and his quote “We’re just doing what we do”.

It’s not like you’re writing Bieber songs…

But to some people it is. To them it is pop music and they can’t listen to it, but that’s OK. It’s just when they write it on every YouTube video, you wonder why they don’t get a life…

One bit I took out of listening to The Optimist is I really started to “get it” when I started thinking of it as a soundtrack rather than a collection of songs…

Absolutely, and it’s really visual. August last year it started to come together for me, and I started to think if there was a story there what would it look like. And it started with the ‘Optimist’ song. Vincent already wanted to make this into the title track, so I thought about if we have a story, and if it’s “The Optimist” and you have a journey in a car, then what do you do… linking it to A Fine Day To Exit was really obvious and the whole story came together in front of my eyes. Vincent got home from holiday and we had it. It was always supposed to be a visual narrative, and we’d never made a story before, so that was cool.

Was it difficult?

Nah, I thought it was fun. It was a challenge, but the hardest part was just figuring out what we wanted to do. And then you’ve got three people in the writing process, and a producer, with strong opinions. But John, who doesn’t always have the strongest opinion, wrote some of the best songs, so, he’s an unusual character in that. We had an amazing producer, Tony Doogan, absolutely amazing, but the hardest part was just making it happen with the characters that we are.

We leave at least half of the story open to interpretation, so people can make their own decision about what actually happens.

I love that there’s a musical narrative too, that The Optimist works best as a “whole”, for me. So… We’re Here Because We’re Here…, there’s positivity and brightness throughout the album, it’s a reoccurring uplift. And, ironically, here we are with The Optimist where, as a listener, you have to work for that positivity, and it’s only in the last couple of tracks where you finally get that. When you use the different, classical, instrumentation, and those instruments come in, and the music swells and it uplifts, and you get the payoff, and you’ve had to wait for that, well, optimism…

Well, we couldn’t have him jumping off the Golden Gate bridge, now…

Ha, fair… but was it conscious to save those bits towards the end, to narrate it that way?

Not really. The last song, ‘Back To The Start’, was one of the last songs to be added to the album and we picked it because it was a better song than the one I wrote. I had one that could have been nice, could have been good, but John had a song that was more complete, that had this catchy vocal and the guys wanted that one. I said “It’s one of the best songs on the album, just do it”, and it was a simple as that.

When that one and ‘Springfield’ were added to the record, on the same day, that record was completed. It was a good time for me, personally, then.

How does the orchestration come together, and get worked into it?

We get someone to do it for us. This time we used Paul Leonard Morgan. He’s a friend of Tony, a great guy, he does soundtracks for TV, films and games and really we just Facetimed him in the States and chatted it through. He did it really fast. Next thing, end of the week, he’s in Glasgow, conducting the strings with the music in front of him, and these eight fantastic players doing a brilliant job, he’s got the conductors wand, or baton, and Tony’s reading the proper music, and it was amazing watching them do this.

It must make you feel proud as a musician to be involved in it?

Honestly, Vinnie was watching and he’d never seen anything like it in his life, because he hadn’t been there in the past when the strings went down. So when they started playing on ‘Endless Ways’ he just freaked! It was three hours… they did the whole album in three hours! And when you see people working like that, you just have to step back and say “Well, we’re in the presence of proper people here…”

Funny you should say, and a bit “metal”, like, but I reviewed the Dimmu Borgir symphonic concert DVD where they worked with a hundred piece orchestra, and in the extras they’re saying they thought they were pretty tight, pretty decent musicians, then suddenly they’re faced with “Ahhhh, these are musicians…”

Actually, yeah… we’re a gang of sloppy twats in comparison…

So… you’ve had these musicians, you’ve had an album of songs reimagined in classical style, you’ve played cathedral shows, whole album shows, you’ve done a whole host of things a “normal” band doesn’t get to do, so, is there anything else in mind, seeing as you’ve covered quite a lot of stuff…?

I think there is a visual element of the live performance I’d like to escalate in the future. I think we’re going to push to play the whole album, if we can make it happen, with a film off-stage projected behind. I’d like to upgrade the visuals. We’re working with Steve Wilson’s soundman on sound, so we know it’s going to sound great, so we need to work on the visuals.

We’ve got a visual artist who worked with us on the Tenerife show, where the first song was performed with Stephen Hawking on the stage with us and it was us with his voice on a Pink Floyd song, and he’d always wanted to do that and it was Professor Hawking’s idea, and this guy made the visuals, and sixty feet wide visuals projected behind us, so we’ve asked him to make a film for The Optimist, so we want to play it all live and bring him along. So, hopefully…

Anathema’s eleventh album The Optimist is out on 9th June on KScope.

Daniel Cavanagh was speaking to Steve Tovey