Interview: Lee Dorrian – Part 1
Lee Dorrian, the man behind the mic for two of metal’s foundational bands, spent almost 25 years in Cathedral. Some people can barely stay interested in a job for 90 days. Dorrian? He racked up nearly 9,000. Rise Above Records, his label which continues to thrive while providing a home for timeless heavy metal, has logged about that same amount. But Dorrian isn’t counting. That’s not what you do when you’re passionate about your pursuits. No matter the trial or tribulation, you look towards tomorrow because what you love is your life. It’s no wonder that’s exactly the kind of conviction Dorrian looks for in the bands he ends up championing.
I caught up with Lee recently to chat about his post-Cathedral endeavors. Part one of this interview focuses on Rise Above Records. Part two will explore the reissue process of his other endeavor, Rise Above Relics.
How’s life going after Cathedral?
Oh, it’s still the same. Apart from being in Cathedral, life is kind of as hectic and busy as it always was. Just a little less hectic because Cathedral ended. I mean, the last few years of Cathedral, I was pretty much doing everything, the management and organizing everything, on top of trying to run the label. It all became a bit too demanding. There were many reasons why Cathedral came to an end, that wasn’t necessarily the main reason, but it was one of them. And as much as I loved my time in the band, all good things come to an end.
So everything is good. Maybe I’ll miss it slightly, but we did it for almost 25 years and that’s quite a long time in anyone’s life to be in one type of band or one type of situation. It’s not like we didn’t do a lot of stuff, because we did. I think we ended whilst we were still enjoying it. And to carry it on any further? That might not have been the case. Always good to leave on a high, I think.
So, with Rise Above, are you a solo operation or do you have employees right now?
Up until last year I was doing pretty much everything. And we’ve now got five or six people working pretty much full-time. So with that, demand is getting higher and obviously outgoings and expenses are kind of high; you’re paying people’s wages every month and you’re for paying office space and everything else. But to keep it running efficiently, you kind of have to do these things, and I’m still way too busy myself. I am a bit of a control freak when it comes to certain things, so I should hand over more to people. I just want to make sure everything is done properly, and the identity isn’t compromised. But it’s all good people working together. It’s not very easy finding people that you can fully trust. I’ve had people working with me in the past who have kind of fucked me over. I have to be very careful about who we have working with us.
At the end of the day, your name is on it, so you really have to have those good people around you.
Oh yeah, you can’t just advertise down at the local job center that there’s a position open at a record company. You need to have a familiarity with the people you’re working with. It takes a hell of a long time to be in a situation like I’m in now where I feel comfortable with everyone around me. Purely because, like you say, it’s not a commercial, machine-run operation; we’re very hand-to-mouth, very independent in our outlook. And you know we’re unconventional compared to bigger record labels, because we come from a very DIY background. And I try and keep the outlook and the integrity the same as it has always been. But obviously as the label grows you have to grow with it, because otherwise it could very easily fall apart. You have to stay on top of everything. It can be demanding, but it also is very rewarding.
Your reputation is so important. It’s like one false move and you just torpedo everything.
You can’t stop people saying stupid shit about you on Facebook, but at the end of the day, I think what you’re saying is the quality control is the main thing. This is why we don’t churn out release after release after release, we only put out a specific number of releases — well not a specific amount, but it’s generally not that many — every year. Realistically we put out about seven or eight albums a year, maximum; just so we can give each release as much time to resonate, just make its presence known. You know, if you put out like five or six releases every month, you’re just throwing stuff at the wall to see what will stick. Every release is as important to us as the next one. Obviously there are priorities because some bands sell more than others and they need an extra bit of treatment. But generally we treat all releases the same in terms of how seriously we take them.
It’s like you said, if you churn out those releases you’re doing a disservice to the bands that you’re working with. They could feel passed over.
Absolutely. You’re doing a disservice to the record-buying public, because you’re just churning out stuff you’re not even that into yourself. What’s the point in that? We put out releases that we’re 100 percent into, not 60 percent or 80 percent. We put out releases that we completely believe in. And whether they sell 500 or 5,000 or 10,000 or whatever, artistically these bands and these releases are equally important in their own way. We care about the music scene. With so many other labels, the market is flooded with so much copycat stuff we just want our releases to be special and individual.
You have Saturn coming up. How did you find those guys?
A friend of mine recommended them to me actually. To be honest with you I don’t scour the internet to find new bands. Bands indirectly come our way. I’ve been doing this for so long and I know so many people around the world and I’ve got so many friends who are into the same things as me and are passionate about music in the same way. So if there’s a band that we really should sign, I find out about them. And then I hear loads of bands all the time, but I don’t actively become obsessive about seeking new bands. I like things to sink into me. If I like something and I can see something potentially in it, I like to give myself a bit of time to become more familiar with it, if you know what I mean. I can’t just sit down and listen to 15 demos a day and say, “Those three are good and that one is rubbish.” I need to have time to give it my undivided attention. I can generally pick up a vibe purely from a bands name or their logo. I can smell something that I don’t like about a band. But there are things I can potentially see the opposite way — where I like something about a band’s logo or their name — that’s going to draw me closer to wanting to learn more.
It’s a very fine line, because I suppose the label is based artistically on more of a classic idea, as opposed to something that’s completely contemporary and up to date. I like to think our stuff, the releases we put out, are timeless. I hate the term ‘retro’ as I’ve said many times before, but I’d just like to think there’s some kind of timeless element in the releases we put out; where they’re not necessarily 100 percent relevant today, and they might not be totally relevant in 10 years time, but they won’t sound dated. That’s the main thing: you get a band that has a genuine vibe to them. It doesn’t necessarily have to be any particular kind of style as long as you can sense there’s a genuine vibe to what that band is doing. Presentation is important too, but I think sincerity is the main thing that draws me to a band.
With Saturn, a friend of mine in Greece just said, “Have you heard this band? I think they’re awesome.” He sent me a link to some of their tracks and I liked them straight away. I haven’t heard many bands this year that we wanted to sign. There are loads of bands that I think are kind of okay, but I don’t want to sign okay bands, I want to sign bands that are fucking awesome. So we could be putting out loads of average records, or okay records, but I don’t see the point in that. So Saturn is pretty much one of the only bands I’ve heard all year that I wanted to sign, and I couldn’t believe that nobody else had even approached them.
There are loads of things about Saturn that you could say you’ve heard before, a lot of Judas Priest elements are in their sound for sure. But I think because they’re young and they are of this generation, they have a freshness to them where style doesn’t really matter. Because to me, if you are really into the music you’re playing, that’s more important than how it sits as some kind of reference point to the past. To me, it’s if you play with conviction, and I think those guys play with a hell of a lot of conviction.
It’s early for that band. Because they’re quite young and you can just tell based on the strength of that first record, by the time they’re ready to do their next one they’re going to be amazing. When they’ve got time to really work on stuff and really get their shit together, I think they’re going to be totally killer. They are already but, you know.
I was just impressed they said they make music that they want listen to. I was like, Thank you for getting that. It wasn’t some spiel about “we’re trying to push boundaries.” It was, “We want to make music we want listen to.” I thought, Okay, I know who you guys are.
Well, pushing boundaries; I mean what’s pushing boundaries? That pushing boundaries thing is irrelevant these days. The idea of extreme music is you can be as fast as you want, as slow as you want, as so-called extreme as you want. But the whole point is that the extreme style of music is now an acceptable kind of music. Extreme music is now a genre in its own right. And once something becomes acceptable, it’s not really extreme in my mind. I mean yeah, in terms of electronic music and other fields of computer music or even dance music, I might say, Fine yeah, that’s music that will continue to break boundaries in that kind of world. But in terms of rock music, what boundaries are there to break? Rock ‘n’ roll is about making good, honest music. No matter how heavy, just as long as it hits the spot, for me, or whoever else.
It’s such a fool’s errand, because someone is always going to be heavier. If that’s your main goal, somebody’s going to best you in six months.
It just depends on how you define heavy, doesn’t it? When a band like Winter first came along, they released their early demos and the Into Darkness album that was downtuned and slow as fuck and heavy as hell. It totally destroyed. But now that the formula has been created, it’s like what else can you do? Well you can play slower, you can play more open chords, you can downtune even more, you can play even fewer riffs and even more drone, or whatever else you want to do. But because you play slower or downtune more doesn’t make you heavier than a band that plays in concert pitch. Like I say, the heaviness comes from the soul, not from your bloody tuning.
The songwriting is what’s going to last anyway.
Absolutely. You can be extremely heavy and have long-lasting songs as well. But generally, bands that play slow for the sake of being slow don’t really have songs.
There’s room for everything, you know, but when people try and prove something, I tend to go the opposite way. If the band’s trying to be outspoken about how they’re the heaviest band in the world, it puts me off of them. The listener should be deciding that, not the one who is making the music.