Much of the ’80s alternative scene (see post punk, goth rock, darkwave) had an air of mysticism to it. Dead Can Dance took this trend to the next level by crafting songs that could have been soundtracks for supernatural films, often featuring allusions to mythology and folk instruments from a variety of cultures. The duo, consisting of Australian musicians Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry, grew a dedicated fan base throughout the ’80s and ’90s—especially after releasing 1993’s Into the Labyrinth. In 1998, they disbanded; then, in 2011, they returned triumphantly with Anastasis. Now, they’re back again with Dionysus—their first full concept album, which explores the lore of the titular Greek deity. Broken into two acts and seven movements, it’s a portal into an ancient era, showing fans that Dead Can Dance is most definitely alive.
Recently, we had the chance to chat with Brendan Perry via Skype. We talked a good deal about Dionysus (both the album and the god himself); we also discussed the past and future of Dead Can Dance, the beauty of nature, and more. Read on to learn about Perry’s tour plans, favorite element, and reading preferences.
TYF: How’s your day going?
Brendan Perry: Good! It’s been a long day, but it’s been fruitful. I’m working on a new solo album, so I’m working through new material, getting it ready for a tour.
TYF: Where in the world physically are you now?
Perry: Well, believe it or not, I’m in Brittany.
TYF: (Laughs) Oh, wow. That’s wild.
Perry: (Laughs) Brittany, France. Is there a reason why your parents called you Brittany?
TYF: They just liked the name, but I’ve always been aware that Brittany, France is in existence.
TYF: What are you doing in Brittany?
Perry: Well, I moved here with my family from Ireland about three years ago. I live here now.
TYF: Oh, wow. All right; now I have a few questions about your album Dionysus. First of all, the album took shape after you became fascinated by longstanding spring and harvest festivals that had their origin in Dionysian religious practices. Can you elaborate on these festivals?
Perry: Well, you can find them all around the Mediterranean regions, from Portugal right across to the Black Sea. You can say that they’re actually pre-Christian or pagan because they’re celebrating spring, which is something that [did not originate in Christianity]. And they dress up; they wear masks, which is the way the ancients used to do it. The clothing is made of parts of nature, whether it be foliage or animal skins, sheep’s wool. You can still find these festivals in the remote regions where Christianity hasn’t had such a sway on the old customs and ceremonies. They’re nature celebrations, celebrating the spring and the renewal of energy from vegetation.
TYF: How did you first become aware of these festivals?
Perry: Well, I’ve been to some small towns in Spain, Calanda and Zaragoza, and Spain has a lot of festivals that are pre-Christian, kind of pagan, in that little zone. So that direct experience piqued my interest. And I’ve discovered a lot on the web. On YouTube, there are lots of live performances, both official [videos] and those taken by tourists. As a point of reference, a really good [group] to look toward is the Kukeri. They’re in Bulgaria. Their festivals are amazing; the costumes are incredible.
TYF: What was the most interesting anecdote about Dionysus that you learned while researching his mythology?
Perry: Anecdotes… You know, Dionysus principally came out of my research in ancient Greek theatre. And in that research—this is before I even had the idea of making a new Dead Can Dance album; it was just my personal education—I read Friedrich Nietzsche’s book The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, which talks about ancient Greek dance and tragedy and these Dionysian tendencies. That set me off on more research. I read more books on Dionysus in particular, so really, the concept came to me from literary sources. The subject matter was so rich in content that I thought it would make a fantastic concept album—which is an idea I’ve been toying with for years, you know. We kind of touched on it with Dead Can Dance—[we’ve done] semi-conceptual [albums], but never a full conceptual album like this. I locked myself away in a studio with my research for one and a half years.
TYF: What do you think it is about Dionysus that has captured people’s imagination for so long?
Perry: I think it’s that sense of mystery of nature, the energy outside us in this world, which is very attractive to us. There’s this age-old sense of wonder at the power and beauty of the cosmos, because in a sense, that’s what Dionysus represents—this sense of flux, these primal energies, which human beings can tap into, can work with or go against. There’s a kind of peril in a way, because there’s a real sting in the tail if we don’t work together with nature on an ecological level. To me, that’s what it represents; it’s natural, beautiful energy. And I think people tend to celebrate things in a ritual sense. When they come together collectively, it automatically becomes a ritual event, and people have been doing that universally for the same reasons—for planting crops, for harvesting—all around the world since the dawn of humanity.
TYF: What are your favorite natural places?
Perry: My favorite natural places? Well, I do like the sea, I have to say. It’s got a great power; it still retains such an element of mystery. Your imagination can really play with those great horizons. On one level, it’s quite meditative. I think the sea’s [my favorite]; water’s my favorite element.
TYF: Any sea in particular?
Perry: I have to say the Mediterranean. It’s probably my favorite, primarily because it’s, in a sense, the cradle of Western civilization. And a lot of my passions, obsessions tend to do with those ancient civilizations, whether Minoan, Phoenician, Egyptian… All of those ancient civilizations lived around this sea, looking across at each other and being influenced by one another.
TYF: Which Greek deity do you identify with most?
Perry: Dionysus! (Laughs)
TYF: (Laughs) Yeah, that would make sense.
Perry: Dionysus is very complex. An interesting thing about Dionysus is that the gender isn’t so obvious; he has male and female aspects. If you see the ancient Greek statues, he stands with his hips to one side, which is normally the pose of a woman in Greek statues. And you can see small breasts forming underneath his toga. And the beard… It’s odd, but there’s a transgender aspect to it. He also is someone who protects and is celebrated by outsiders and minorities, and I’m very much pro-protecting those people and pushing their rights. From slaves to women, [Dionysus protected] anyone who had a suppressed, secondary role in ancient Greek society. He really appeals to me on so many levels—obviously, the nature level; the liberation of minds…
TYF: For sure. Did you travel anywhere in particular to do research for the album?
Perry: No; I’ve been working here. I have a new studio—I converted an old barn. I’ve been working [on the album] for one and a half years. It took that long—primarily because I tend to work alone. That’s why Dead Can Dance albums in general take a long time—because the preproduction, the foundational work is done by myself. When you work alone, obviously, it’s a lot less efficient than if you were in a band with three/four other people working alongside you, developing it. It’s more rapid. But [working alone] is the way I prefer to work, to be honest—it’s slow, but it’s a craft for me, crafting time.
TYF: Dead Can Dance has been inspired by folklore for years. What are some folk tales that you like that haven’t made their way into songs yet?
Perry: Folktales? Hmm… When I was a child, my favorite section of the local library was the folktales. I had a really good library when I was a child. It had folktales from all over the world. I don’t know; I’m trying to think of ones that haven’t been put into songs… I’m a bit stuck there. I’ll have to have a think about it.
TYF: Yeah, you guys have covered a lot of ground. What are some of your favorite folk tales that you have put into songs?
Perry: Let’s see. Icarus… The songs are references to the real tales, but I use the settings and see them in a new light or put the myths in a first-person perspective where I’m only tangentially touching on the actual myths. For instance, I use Medusa as a metaphor for a woman who’s not a particularly nice woman who turns men’s hearts to stone. It’s a love song or love story that’s kind of gone wrong. So I’m referring to the folktales or myths but not actually doing a rendition as they’re told traditionally.
TYF: You’ve incorporated countless instruments into your music. What are some of your favorites that you use on Dionysus?
Perry: I’d say the gadulka. I really like the slap behind it. I found it in Turkey around the Black Sea region. It’s really beautiful, especially when it’s played in ensembles.
TYF: Which parts of the album can we hear this instrument on?
Perry: You can hear it throughout the album. It kind of sounds like violins, but it’s got a very unique timbre. It’s also played in quarter-tone scales; it’s not a Western tuning. It might sound to some ears as if it’s slightly out of tune when it’s played well because it’s played in quarter tones. It’s on the very first track; you can hear the string sounds, bowed string sounds.
TYF: You’ve got a tour coming up in 2019 called A Celebration—Life and Works Tour 1980-2019. Which works from the past are you most excited to revisit in concert?
Perry: I think probably Within the Realm of a Dying Sun. We’re going to do four songs from the album, and they’re all from that neoclassical period. I’m really looking forward to doing them because apart from “Cantara,” of course, we haven’t played those songs since the ’80s. We’re also going to do songs like “Mesmerism,” for instance, which we’ve never, ever performed live. So yeah, we’re going to do songs that we recorded in the studio but never ever performed live, and I’m really looking forward to doing that because we’ve realized that recent generations of people never had the opportunity to hear or see us perform live in the ’80s—or in the ’90s, for that matter. It’ll be really nice to celebrate our musical legacy and share some of the older material, give them an idea of what we actually sounded like when we were younger. (Laughs)
TYF: What are some of your favorite cities that you’ve visited while on tour?
Perry: In the States, or in the world?
TYF: In the world.
Perry: I really like Istanbul. I love Istanbul. I love Athens, too. Venice is amazing… There’s so many! I like San Francisco a lot… I think I like cities that are on the sea, now that I’ve just realized what all those cities have in common. (Laughs)
TYF: What’s Istanbul like?
Perry: It’s really quite amazing, because you have this sense of having one foot in the East and one in the West. It really is a city that is a conduit for Western and Eastern cultures. Its position is just stunning. The city’s kind of split—there’s the European side and the Oriental side. There’s this huge sea, kind of like a lake, right in the middle of the city, and it gives it this special character.
TYF: What kind of movies do you typically like?
Perry: I like all sorts apart from horror. I’m really not into horror films. I have a predilection, I suppose, for good science fiction—ones that are really grounded in science, not fantasy. Ones that present a future world which isn’t too distant from our own, where you can actually see how what’s happening today is contributing to this futuristic world. I find them really, really interesting—these prophetic science fiction films based on current trends. I watched this film with my wife last night which I thought was great. I loved it. It really had all the aspects of the perfect Greek tragedy about it—that film Three Billboards [Outside Ebbing, Missouri]? Have you seen it?
TYF: I’ve heard it was really good—another band recommended it to me as well—but I haven’t seen it yet.
Perry: Go watch it. It’s fantastic. It’s kind of a black comedy, but it’s really thought out. Really interesting story.
TYF: I’ll definitely watch it. Is your taste in books similar?
Perry: No, although I read a lot of science fiction when I was a teen. I really loved Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury.
TYF: Oh, I love Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury.
Perry: Ah, great. I was really influenced by science fiction, but my tastes are quite broad. In recent years, I’ve been reading a lot on ancient cultures, particularly Greek culture. I think historical books would be my main go-to. I also like poetry. I read a little poetry, too.
TYF: What are some of your favorite poets?
Perry: Arthur Rimbaud, Baudelaire… A lot of French decadent, symbolist poets. Stéphane Mallarmé. I also love T.S. Eliot.
TYF: Oh, Eliot’s great.
Perry: Yeah, yeah.
TYF: Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring musicians or songwriters?
Perry: Yeah. I would just say, “Try and discover, really try and develop, your own unique voice.” By “voice,” I mean that as a metaphor for your music—what you’re singing or what kind of music you’re making. It’s really important that you identify what is special about what you do. And don’t get trapped within trying to copy what others do as a form of reference. It’s great to do that to develop your work, but don’t fall into the trap of basically just mimicking, you know. I hear a lot of music today that’s kind of a retro celebration of past music. These artists aren’t bringing anything of themselves. It just sounds like a smorgasbord of all these retro ideas pulled together, but without a unique voice at the heart of it. That’s what my advice would be. Also, just stick with it! If you’re going to do it, be prepared for the long haul. It could take 10 years, it could take 15 years, but stick with it.Don’t give up. If you’re in a beneficial situation, if you live in a society that’s going to help you achieve your dream without having to starve, then grab it and run with it.
TYF: For sure. Do you have anything else that you’d like to say before we wrap up the interview?
Perry: Not really, no. Anything you’d like to ask?
TYF: Hmm… Will you be heading towards Washington, D.C. at any point soon?
Perry: Well, next year, I’m doing a solo tour for about four and a half months of next year, and then there’s the Dead Can Dance tour for about two and a half months. So that’s a year of touring in Europe. Hopefully, in 2020, we’ll branch out and take the Dead Can Dance tour to the rest of the world. So if you can hang on… (Laughs) 2020’s the earliest, I’m afraid.