Interview and Song Premiere: Lee Dorrian (With the Dead, ex-Cathedral)
Lee Dorrian can do whatever the hell he wants. He sung on not one, but two of heavy music’s crowning glories and managed to make some pretty great stuff before and after. He’s entitled to some fun without strings attached and with his new band With the Dead, he seems to have stumbled upon that.
With the rhythm section that fueled the engine on Dopethrone and Come My Fanatics in tow, an air of smoky doom was inevitable. Dorrian seems more than content with that and has his eyes set on making the heaviest music he can muster in his middle age. We spoke about his path back to putting his face on a mic, the benefits of releasing an album on your own established label and the sheer righteousness of the first Pentagram album. (Do we call it self-titled or Relentless? Hell if Lee or I know).
Check out the premiere of “Living With the Dead,” from With the Dead’s upcoming self-titled record, below.
I don’t know if you remember the last time you spoke to Invisible Oranges. At the time you said that you didn’t miss Cathedral too much, that you were enjoying living a different life. So when did you feel the need to sing once again?
Ha! Well, I didn’t actually feel the need in terms of . . . I wasn’t, like, looking to join a band or form one or anything like that. I mean yeah, after 20-plus years of being in Cathedral, ending the band was a relief and it was kind of sad as well obviously. It just meant that I now had more time to focus on other things I needed to focus on outside of the band, which is primarily the label.
One of the things I missed about being in the band was that I didn’t have a platform anymore to get shit out of my system, and a lot of things happened in the last few years that weren’t so great. The band just came my way and I thought, well . . . Basically what happened was, Mark and Tim . . . Well Tim Bagshaw lives in America these days, he’s lived in New Jersey for several years now, he married an American girl. He came over last year and hung out with Mark Greening for a bit, I guess Mark was a bit of a loose end after being fired from Electric Wizard and all that drama that went on with that. They talked about having a jam together and maybe doing a new band. Tim contacted me and asked if Rise Above would be interested in doing a release if they got something together. I said, “Yeah of course, sure. Just keep me in the loop, keep me informed as time goes on. Send me a couple tracks and we’ll see what happens.” I was interested of course, I remain good friends with those two. Tim’s a really cool guy, I always liked his style.
He started sending me some songs and I was instantly thinking, “Wow, these songs sound really cool.” They didn’t sound anything original as such, it wasn’t new or super inventive or anything like that, but it sounded fresh to me. They sounded confident, direct and heavy enough that I could imagine what the songs would be like if they were recorded properly. I started to think that I’d at least be into Rise Above releasing something by this band. He never asked me if I wanted to do vocals, at least early on. They kind of asked me a bit later on when they were looking for someone to sing and they didn’t really want to do it themselves. As the songs kind of sat with me, I could see the potential of how heavy this project could sound. They kept asking me and I was a bit hesitant at first, purely because of what you just said. I didn’t miss every aspect of being in a band, especially the drama that goes with it, and the tedium and a lot of the frustration that goes with being in a band. After so long, you get tired of it beyond belief, and your life constantly being on hold for it. All these things were going through my head and I was thinking that I didn’t want to go through that again, at least not in a hurry. Then I thought, “Well this stuff sounds so cool and it’s been handed to me on a plate right here, I’d be kind of stupid not to,” because I was so into what these guys were coming up with. So that’s how I joined the band, they asked me one more time and I said, “Okay let’s do it.”
The pair of them actually recorded a pair of backing tracks last year on Halloween in a studio in Dorset where they’re both from. I went down to the studio and to be honest with you, I was really into the material but the way it had been recorded I didn’t think it sounded strong enough. It sounded kind of amateurish the way it had been recorded. So what we did was use those original tracks as like a demo to build on. I didn’t want it to sound rushed, I wanted it to be spontaneous but not rushed. So what I suggested was to take the tapes away, listen to them for a few months and then come back and re-record everything again from scratch but do it properly. I guess that gave Mark more time to think about how to approach the drums, give him a bit more time to focus on dynamics. With Tim, I think that gave him time to think about effects and ways to approach the solos and stuff like that.
With me, I just let the material sit with me for that amount of time and I was thinking of ideas constantly, how I wanted to approach the material. I concluded that I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want to try too hard, I just wanted it to be based on gut instinct. I said, “If we are gonna do this, there’s only one rule and the golden rule is we just gotta make the most bombastic, crushing LP we can make between us. Otherwise there’s no point.” When that’s the only kind of goal you’ve got, I think it’s quite easy to remain focused on channeling into that idea. The band was new, so it’s not like I was in the middle of a bunch albums like with Cathedral where we’re thinking about the album we did before, how the current one sit with that one and what we’re going to do afterward. There was no kind of excess baggage stuff that you had to think about too deeply because it was a new band. Of course there’s elements of that, you’ve been in bands before and done records before but this one was just approached as a purely new thing. That’s the way it worked really.
There was a press release that came out of nowhere that said you’re in a band again and oh, there’s an album already done.
I didn’t want to jump out the gate before something had been recorded. I don’t think there’s any point in getting too carried away with the idea unless you feel confident that you’ll do something worthy of that. I didn’t want to announce it before we’d actually recorded it properly. I just think in terms of spontaneity, I mean lyrically I spent a long time thinking about the lyrics, but I also made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t spend more than 30 minutes physically writing the lyrics down. I set that as a rule. So I might have spent like four or five minutes thinking about them in my head, but I only put pen to paper like a week before going into the studio and we had rehearsals a couple of days before going into the studio. I only rehearsed two songs beforehand and all of the songs were done in like two hours without any proper rehearsals, all for the first time and we just kept the first takes. For me, that’s something I haven’t done since probably the first Cathedral demo or something like that. I just wanted it to be based purely on instinct and gut feeling and to capture the raw vibe that I think is missing from so many records these days.
I think too many records are just too thought out and too produced, too sanitized and too cleaned up. There’s not like glaring, obvious mistakes that you can hear jumping out like, “Ooh, that sounds fucking wrong,” or whatever, although some people will say the whole record sounds fucking wrong! [Laughs] I like to hear small errors and things that aren’t maybe supposed to be on there because I’ve always liked to hear that stuff, drumsticks hitting the mics or drum stands falling over or something like that. We just wanted to capture the raw essence of the band, as raw as it could possibly be. We didn’t spend too much time on it at all, all the backing tracks were done live and as soon as the first mixes came through, it was instant to me. It was perfect, didn’t need any more.
I know you’re a huge Pentagram fan, so maybe you heard this too. The first thing I thought of when I listened to the first notes of “Crown of Burning Stars” was, “Holy crap, that was ‘Death Row’ by Pentagram.” There was the tom intro and the guitar tone which was incredibly similar to Victor Griffin’s; the spirit of that song was right there.
Ha! I mean, I can’t tell you how much I love Pentagram, ever since I first heard them back in ’84 or ’85, whatever it was. Yeah I mean, when you get into a band like Pentagram and listen to a guitar player like Victor Griffin—the tones on the first two records for instance—there’s something that goes in you and just sits inside your bloodstream and they never leave, unless you become a completely different person. I think everything that you soak up through the years from the bands you’re into and all kinds of experiences you have in life, these certain sounds and tones, they filter through you in some way and you might exaggerate them to an extent and try and make them your own. You make them a flavor of the overall. I don’t want to say ingredients because that sounds cheesy, but the flavor of the overall kind of vibe that you want to achieve then yeah, it’s all a part of your genetic makeup in terms of being a musician. I don’t think we were consciously trying to go for “Death Row” though. [Laughs]
It does share that air of spontaneity though. On that first album, Pentagram were just busting out the best tunes they had at the time and just trying to get them down on tape. I think that aspect that the With the Dead album and that first Pentagram record share translates to something that you can hear and feel right from the get-go.
There’s a sense of urgency on the first Pentagram album. Their budget was limited and they played those songs live so many times, rehearsed them so many times and then they just had the tape running. They played the fucking death out of those songs, and they just wanted to get them recorded. That record does have a spontaneous feel to it although the songs are obviously worked out. In the same way with this record, the main thing was capturing that spontaneous feel. Although the songs were thought out, they weren’t pored over. We didn’t spend week after week in the rehearsal studio just trying to perfect everything, it was purely based on gut instinct. We just didn’t want to dilute anything, what’s the point? If you’re going to be a heavy band, what’s the point in being half heavy? You got to go for it 100%. I guess that depends on so many things, being heavy is a state of mind. Considering yourself heavy is a bit strange, I think it’s something that the audience has to be the judge of, how heavy you are. You go through different phases of your life when you’re perhaps not as heavy-minded or your soul is not as heavy or worn down as it could be. Heaviness is defined by the state of mind you’re in at the time I suppose. With this, there was a 100% focus to be as heavy as possible. If you’re going to make that kind of decision, you have to go for it on all elements, lyrically and musically. You can’t really sing positive lyrics over that kind of thing. Well you can, but it wouldn’t sound right.
Sure. You could even think of Trouble. Early on they had kind of hopeful lyrics, even though the themes were often pretty downtrodden.
Like The Skull for instance, yeah. They sing about God and the lord, but it’s in kind of such a melancholy way. I’ve always found The Skull to be probably my favorite doom metal LP of all time, or at least up there with the first Pentagram and the first Witchfinder General. Excluding Black Sabbath, I’d say those three. People used to say what a depressing record that was, but I always used to listen to that if I was depressed and by the end of it I would feel happier. For some reason, the catharsis that came through that record, you could relate your own anxieties to it. I’m not a Christian or anything like that, but I found the overall heaviness of that recording to be quite uplifting.
You’re projecting your own worries onto this inanimate thing that can just soak it up and release in the form of heavy sound.
Absolutely. You got to express yourself as intensely as you possibly can. The thing is, lyrically this record is not that hopeful but that’s sometimes the way you feel about life in general and you’re not trying to give people anything like an education, you just want to express the heaviness you’re going through. It’s something for people to relate to.
On this record, your vocals are mixed a bit in the back compared to the Cathedral albums. Is that indicative of your place in the band? Were you all trying to divert attention away from yourself?
Hmm. I just wanted everything to be kind of equal. I didn’t want it to be like the Lee Dorrian show or anything like that, I just wanted it to be an equal band. First and foremost, the riffs and the bombastic nature of the music is the most important, I’m just on the record doing my thing. I didn’t want it to be me at the forefront like some kind of conventional rock guy or something like that. [Laughs] I never wanted to be that guy anyway, it’s almost like the vocals were just another instrument really.
But I think that’s what happened with Cathedral. You became the front and center rock singer for that band.
Yeah, I agree. Especially on songs like “Midnight Mountain” or “Hopkins” and stuff like that. If I look back, a lot of that was done with a kind of hesitancy on my part. I always wanted Cathedral to be an out and out doom band. Within the band itself, other people wanted to change musically and I kind of went along with it. I’m not saying I regret any of that because I was into it too, but I never felt quite comfortable being that person to be honest.
For With the Dead, do you want to commit yourself in the same way that you did with Cathedral?
Well I can’t physically do that. That’s the beauty of being in a band where I run the record label and release my own records, you can kind of take control of it yourself. We’re all kind of on the same page really, as far as it goes for where we want to take it. I guess Mark might want to take it a lot further, I don’t know. I’d love to be in a situation where we do some one-off shows and I wouldn’t want it to be seen as just a one-off project that does one album and disappears, because I think it’s something that I’d really enjoy doing for a few more years. I can’t commit to it in the same way that I committed to Cathedral because I just don’t have the time or the energy or the resources. If we do live shows, they’d be irregular I guess. That’s the beauty of this band, we can take it at our own pace because there’s no one cracking the whip and telling us what to do. We haven’t got any pressure coming in from any management or labels because we’re in control ourselves. I won’t rule anything, but there are no definite plans as for how far it’s going to go.
There has to be a sense of easiness that comes with having no one on your back like that, no commitments other to than to your own ambition.
You can take your time and do things properly, artistically how you feel comfortable without any stress, without any kind of deadlines or general pressure. The only pressure that’s on yourself is your own. It’s obviously good to have some kind of pressure to make you approach things a bit more intensely, but I think that comes from the way things are happening around and the way the band is perceived and the way people pick up on that. You pick up on that kind of energy, don’t you?
So with The Last Spire, was there any stress? Unlike this album, you announced the end of Cathedral before making the record. You knew that it would be the last one.
No. The With the Dead album is the easiest record that I’ve ever been involved in to make because it wasn’t thought out or tortured. I didn’t spend long weeks writing lines for one song or something. I haven’t done anything like that for a while apart from the last Cathedral LP. The beauty of making that record was that we decided to break up and announce it before we even recorded it. You could say that we put a hell of a lot of pressure on ourselves to make an album after that announcing that we split, but the reason behind that was we didn’t want to release an album and then say we were splitting up, and then carry on touring again. We wanted that to literally be the last thing we do, and we didn’t want to do loads of promoting the record and going out and doing final tours. We already did ‘em, know what I mean?
When we knew it was going to be the last LP and we decided it was going to be a lot heavier than the previous couple of records, that we were kind of going to go back to our roots and be more kind of straightforward doom metal I suppose you would say even though it would still have some Cathedral twists and turns on it. That kind of music never died from inside us, so it was actually quite an easy record to make. We were quite focused on the way we wrote and recorded it. There was like a bunch of extra material that didn’t fit. It was too quirky, so I suggested we just take off anything that wasn’t out and out doom. We just made it a final record that’s doom from top to tail, and that was it.