Reviving life in music

Australian duo Dead Can Dance have ended a long silence by recording their new album Anastasis in Ireland, says Ed Power

DEAD CAN DANCE singer Lisa Gerrard says “there is something very powerful about growing up in an Irish household. Something that says you can be as sophisticated as the Queen of England, even if you are from a very poor background. It’s a quality that comes through strongly in our work.”

Gerrard, the female half of the cult goth-pop duo (Brendan Perry is the male half), is haunting and banshee-like on albums. In person, she is a flinty Australian direct from central casting. She has a hearty laugh, swears, and greets with a fierce bear hug.

“There’s a piece on our new album, called Return of the She King,” she says, explaining why Ireland means so much to the band. “It was inspired by the story of Gráinne Mhaol, the 16th century pirate. That’s our heritage, these brave people going out and doing extraordinary things.”

Gerrard and Perry are from Melbourne and Auckland respectively. Their families are Irish, and she and Perry have lived here periodically (Perry’s studio is at a converted church in Quivvy, County Cavan). Their last album together was 11 years ago. Their haunting new album is Anastasis.

In the early 1980s, Dead Can Dance drew on cerebral post-punk bands such as Joy Division, but soon morphed into something more interesting. Their 1985 album Spleen and Ideal was inspired by the writings of Victorian essayist Thomas De Quincey; 1986’s Within The Realm of A Dying Son by early medieval music. By 1990’s Aion — their first album recorded in Ireland — 16th century Catalonian folk and Irish sean nós had been incorporated.

Recorded in Quivvy, Anastasis delves into the arcane traditions of the near east. Songs are inspired by ancient Greece, Cyprus and Byzantium. The stand-out is Return of the She King, a collision of wailing uilleann pipes and Gerrard’s sonorous, distinctive vocals.

Dead Can Dance have been influential. Employing tribal rhythms and obscure instruments, they helped initiate the ‘world music’ movement. Hollywood is a cheerleader: Michael Mann put them on the soundtrack to the Miami Vice TV show; as a solo artist, Gerrard has sung on the score to Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. Most famously, electro act Future Sound Of London sampled Dawn of the Iconoclast, from Within The Realm Of A Dying Sun, for their hit Papua New Guinea.

“When I was singing in Persian, I got flack from Persian people,” says Gerrard ” ‘Oh, who do you think you are? What right do you have, coming from Australia?’. What they don’t understand is that we grew up in immigrant families, living in Australia, on a Turkish street, surrounded by all these world cultures. If people criticise, my response is, ‘what do you want me to do — sing bushwhacker music? Give me a break’.”

Dead Can Dance’s songbook has a spiritual aspect. Sacred music is a part of their DNA. Neither Perry nor Gerrard are conventionally religious. They see that as no impediment. Why shouldn’t they draw on the musical traditions of Christianity and other creeds? “Our philosophy is, ‘why does that music have to be stuck in the world of the religious?’,” she says. “We see no reason why it shouldn’t be brought into the secular domain.”

Perry and Gerrard were for many years a romantic couple. Their break-up cast the future of Dead Can Dance into question. How could two ex-lovers work together, carrying on as if there was no previous history? Eventually, the creative partnership petered out, too. Their last album before Anastasis was 1996’s Spiritchaser. A reunion tour took place in 2005. But for a long time it was unclear if Dead Can Dance would record again. On several occasions, they tried writing together. Things never seemed to go anywhere.

“What people don’t understand about us is that our music has always grown out of us being in the same place,” says Gerrard. “After we stopped living under the one roof, it was hard to have that connection.

“Doing something creatively with Brendan is like going to university. He has this extraordinary, inquiring mind. It’s not about the rhythms of the instruments we use. When we make an album, we are trying to understand the spirituality or ethos of the material. In this case, we were inspired by the area around Byzantium and Greece. Our connection is what drives the wheels that create the motion of the music. We lived in the same house for many years and this was part of our daily lives.”

When making an album, Dead Can Dance soak up many influences. Neither of them lives in the city (Gerrard resides on a farmstead in a remote part of New South Wales). To be among the hubbub would distract from the things that are important to their art.

“As an artist, you tune into everything,” says Gerrard. “You don’t go out and look for it actively. It settles on the palate. You will access it if you are sincere in what you do. You have to be genuine in terms of what you expose yourself to. There’s a lot of music out there I don’t wish to expose myself to. Stuff I wouldn’t want to be influenced by.”

In his post-Dead Can Dance career, Perry has been notoriously sporadic. He put out two solo albums during their 16-year recording hiatus. Did Gerrard’s presence encourage him to quicken the pace? “I’m not sure Brendan needs this, but if you make a connection with another soul it definitely speeds up the process,” she says. “If we are together, there is an excitement. On your own, it’s difficult sometimes. You haven’t got that encouragement. On this record, we got so into it that the daylight disappeared and we didn’t even notice. That’s how carried away we were.”

* Anastasis is released Friday, Aug 17. Dead Can Dance play Grand Canal Theatre, Dublin, Sunday, Oct 28.


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