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Brendan Perry (Dead Can Dance) (English interview, Paris, 2018)

I wanted to give Dionysus an arranged form, similar to an oratorio, a classical form, as I wanted to ensure, in a way, that people would appreciate it by listening to it from beginning to end." Brendan Perry 

Six long years after 
Anastasis, it was finally time for the iconic Australian duo Dead Can Dance to awake from hibernation to animate and give life to their ethnic instruments again, and create a new album. Dionysus is the ninth LP by Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard, yet it is still their first-ever concept album. The subject matter is, as you can well imagine, the worshipping of Dionysus, the god "that gives men's minds wings" and is actually still celebrated today during summer and spring pagan festivals. We were lucky enough to be able to have a chat with Brendan Perry, who wrote the bulk of the album, not forgetting to question him about the band's glorious musical past.

Photo by David Fitt / 2018

Anastasis felt a bit like a summary of  the career of Dead Can Dance musically speaking. Yet, Dionysus goes on a quite different path, it's actually closer to Spiritchaser in terms of tribal instruments, arrangements and themes. How would you explain this ? 

Brendan PerrySpiritchaser is a kind of celebration, in its own way, of world music, world rhythms and ancient cultures too coming through. Indeed, if there's one album that is most connected to Dionysus in spirit, it would be that one. But Dionysus is the first real concept album that we've ever made. Albums in the past have been partially conceptual, but Dionysus is the first real conceptual project. 

You elaborated the concept of the album and also wrote the bulk of the music. Could elaborate on the writing process of Dionysus ? 

BP: Well, when I had decided on the subject matter, the concept, I wanted to bring a sense of musical authenticity to it, in relationship with the cultures and traditions that were still performing these spring and summer festivals with remnance of dionysian cult festivals. I chose wind-instruments, sheperd's flutes from various areas of the Balkans, black sea, Sardaigna, Corsica, Switzerland, Spain. And then other instruments like gadulkas, violins and rhythmic drums from these areas too. That was the first foundation, the core of the music. And then, I chose bird wistles and instruments that mimicked animal and nature sounds, rainsticks that mimick water... I added field recording elements to give it a sense of natural ambiance and drama. I always try to bring in a dramatical, cinematic sort of quality into the music. Finally, the chorus itself, the voices which work as a true symbole of the Greek chorus of the tragic theater. You had the satyr chorus that developped into the chorus of the community. So it gives the impression, as it is an impressionistic work at the end of the day, of a collective that celebrates the harvest, fruits of the earth or the resurrection of spring, the sun, planting. Because Dionysus, at the beginning, is associated with the seasons, an agriarian deity. 

What about Lisa's input on the material ? 

BP: Well, once I had a lot of music arranged and ready, I'd normally ask Lisa to then come in and sing. She improvised ideas, different approaches on some of the pieces we worked on. And she came over last november for a month to put her vocals down. You know she lives in Melbourne, but she's been coming to Europe quite a bit over the recent years, touring with Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (EN : You really should check out that band by the way) and Hans Zimmer. So I've seen her a lot more over the last few years than I have done prior to moving to France. 

Photo by Arnaud Dionisio /  © 2018

It's the first time you sequence a record as a whole instead of separated songs. What decided you to do that and did it have an effect on the writing process ? 

BP: It did have an effect on the writing process because it's kind of a classical ancien tradition I'm sort of viewing through a modern eye I suppose. I wanted to give it an arranged form, similar to an oratorio, a classical form, as I wanted to insure in a way that people would appreciate it by listening to it from beginning to end. As, you know, in the same way late 19th century classical romantic composers did. Even in ballet music, they use acts and movements like in Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, which is a dionysian work. So that was the arranged model I had in mind. And then ultimately, practically, I put it into two acts to accomodate the vinyl record. Because for me, that was the perfect medium for listening to the album. 

After you did Spiritchaser, you had an attempt to do another album with Lisa but it was never completed. But I've read in a later interview that Lisa said this music was beautiful and should be revisited. Do you think it might resurface and be recorded ?

BP: Well, I don't know. I mean, I know the one she's refering to. Its uh, the... [Thinks a bit and laughs] Yeah, I remember exactly the problems we had. You see they were in very strange time signatures, we had a lot of weird type of rhythms and I remember Lisa had reals problems finding where the cycle begins and where it ends in the rhythms. That was a major problem. [Laughs] 

African rhythms, I guess ? 

BP: Actually, they were more Turkish rhythms and also things like zeimbekiko, which is 9/8, 5/4, and compound rhythms too where you can feel it either in fours or threes. Those songs are there, I still have those backing tracks but I tend to move on and leave the refused of history behind. [Laughs] 

Same for the numerous songs that you only play live, that sometimes can only be heard on bootleg albums today. Did you feel they were not worth recording in the studio ? 

BP: Well, it's primarily because they didn't fit it with the current projects. They were never gonna be happy members of the same family, in that respect. 

Dionysus bears several references to mind expanding drugs and hallucinogens. Do you think the use of this kind of drug may help people to have a better understanding of themselves and also stimulate their creativity ? 

BP: Oh yes, on many levels ! I mean, they're even seriously used in psychology now, small doses of psilocybin to help people with really horrible mental illnesses like schizophrenia. But primarily from the point of view of Dionysus, he is known as a liberator of minds on many terms, the god that gives men's minds wings ! If you ever use psychotropic drugs, it really almost introduces you to a completely new sensibility, one where a lot of your senses sort of coalesce and come together at the same time, especially optics and sounds. You see things, that people who denigrate the experience call « illusion, an illusionary experience ». But what it does is it shows you that there's more beyond our normal sensibilities, there's much more happening in the world. It actually shows the limitations of our sensibilities : smell, touch, taste, sight, hearing. You would't have most of the incredible psychedelic music from the late sixties because it inspires imagination as you feel, see, hear things differently. And you see more possibilities as a result. So it's very important in that way to expand one's mind, one's whole view that there is more to life than what you think there is.

Unlike all Dead Can Dance previous releases, this album has very few solo vocal parts. Is that because the music needed that balance with a lot of emphasis on choir parts ?

BP: Well primarily because, you know, Dionysus is never really celebrated with a little shrine in the corner of the house and have a one to one relationship with. It never worked like that. Dionysus always appeared in group celebrations. So it's important that the chorus, the collective, is the main voice. It's almost in a Brechtian way too, for example in Mother Courage, where he uses the chorus as a means of conveying us, working collectively as one, towards the celebration. And to get out of your minds too, collectively when you dance in big circles, like they still do, and you go into trance. This is ultimately geared towards achieving « extasis » as the Greeks called it, ecstasy. And for that to happen, you had to kill the ego of self-awareness and something else happens. You feel like you've become one with the greater scheme of things, wether it's with the other people, or the world cosmos, nature.  you lose yourself within that junction, and Dionysus has entered into your life, fully. So yeah, the chorus is central to that, and that's why we didn't have individual songs. It would make no sense as that's not the way Dionysus works.

Photo by Arnaud Dionisio /  © 2018

Some people might be suprised to see an album called Dionysus, a Greek god, with a Mexican mask as a front cover artwork. Same goes with some instruments, scales and singing that aren't quite related to Europe folklore. While doing research, I also discovered that the Egyptian god Osiris has a lot of similarities with Dionysus. So is all this a way to express that there is a form of uniformity in our cultures and religions ?

BP: I'd rather say universality than uniformity. But yeah, for sure. I see this Dionysian spirit in many cultures around the world. I think it's been there since we can remember it. Because Dionysus was ritually associated with the seasons, as an agricultural god. He comes in spring, harvest, returns to the afterlife, becomes a psychopomp. He has many different roles but it's obvious it's originally agrarian. So any culture or society that celebrates planting, spring or harvesting and has big parties, these joint celebrations, acts of life affirmation, of joy are essentialy dionysian in spirit. So yeah, I'm expanding that. Musically, you can hear afrobrazilian rhythms that come with the berimbau, also from Africa originally but brought to Brazil by slaves. And the mask on the cover is another facet of that universality as it's from the Huichol indians in Mexico. It has that context in which Huichol indians use peyote as a sacred rite, a rite of passage. I think the image is perfect on two levels, partly because it shows that liberator of mind, the mind expansion that happens in the explosion, that star in the middle of the forehead. It's an indication of the third eye and around it you have little flowers of peyote. So you have that symbolism there and also the mask, that's how Dionysus is represented and introduced into the amphitheater at the beginning of the play and put on a pole in tragedies. So it's the presence, you bring the presence of Dionysus. A mask because there is no real, like incarnate expression of him. It's really a force and an energy that's from behind the mask, it's the interior world and the marcrocosmos too. So all these elements come together. That was a mask I bought twenty years ago at a little market.

Dead Can Dance is working with Live Nation for the upcoming tour. You're probably unaware of this, but Live Nation owns offshore websites that allows scammers to resell tickets at a much higher price, an illegal practice in Europe. Knowing your background as an engaged artist, I wanted to know what you feel about this ? 

BP: This is for the French shows ?

Yes and for other shows in Europe too.

BP: So what do they do ?

Well they own websites that are out of Europe and people sell concert tickets there, like a ticket for a Dead Can Dance show for example, and Live Nation gets a percentage on those sales.

BP: Well that's illegal, isn't it ? 

Yeah, that's definitely illegal in Europe. And sometimes, they produce their own shows, so they get a first percentage there and then they get a second percentage when people resell the tickets on those websites.

BP: I'll have to ask my manager about that, I will look into that. I did a solo tour in America with Live Nation. Because I think they're American, aren't they ?

Historically yes, but now it's a multinational company.

BP: Like MacDonald's. 

Some call them the Macdonald's of live music.

BP: Yeah, I didn't like working with them, I found them impersonal. It was all about the money. I don't think they're music lovers, that was my impression. But I'm surprised, I know that people have had problems with tickets, primarily because of security now. You have to produce a photograph and all sorts of evidence to stop what we call ticket scalping. Yeah, I'll look into that, thanks for bringing that up !

Neredude (Octobre 2018)

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