Pressing Forward: My Dying Bride’s Aaron Stainthorpe Talks “The Ghost of Orion” and the Trials of Life
Despite the many merits of trying to be objective in journalism, I think there’s no need for me to be coy about the fact I’m an unabashed fan of My Dying Bride. They remain one of my favorite metal bands of all time, ever since I discovered them just a bit shy of two decades ago in an interview from the now-defunct Metal Maniacs sometime around late 2001 to early 2002. That discovery introduced me to their (at the time) latest album The Dreadful Hours, an album I’d now consider a classic that rapidly led me to their earlier work like The Angel & the Dark River and Turn Loose the Swans. What set My Dying Bride apart from most other doom metal bands for me was the heaviness of the riffs and vocalist Aaron Stainthorpe’s unique range, not only in performing clean vocals but also his growls evenly shifting between death metal bark and black metal shriek. This isn't to mention the x-factor of violin and keyboard compositions that bolster the songs.
It’s this kind of music that transports me to realms both apocalyptically dreadful and romantically gothic in splendor, even when listening to it at the rather unsuited setting of a high school swim meet.
It would be almost 12 years after first discovering My Dying Bride that I finally witnessed them live at the Maryland Deathfest 2014. Experiencing that was a major bucket-list check moment for me, and I’m not afraid to admit the first notes of the opening song “The Dreadful Hours” brought me to actual tears. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve been that emotional during a performance, so it’s certainly a striking memory to think back on. A few years later, with another album under their wing to promote, My Dying Bride were announced to be performing at a festival in Sweden and making a second appearance at Maryland Deathfest, both of which I eagerly made plans to attend. However, both events were to not be, as the band eventually cancelled all upcoming concert dates.
I was, to put it lightly, disappointed, especially after a near four-year wait since last seeing them, but when the reason for the cancellations was revealed, I was stunned by how serious of a situation had befallen the band, and more specifically Stainthorpe’s family. First, it was announced that someone in Stainthorpe’s family was critically ill and he needed to focus all time and energy on their recovery. Nearly a year later, Stainthorpe revealed the ill family member was his daughter, only five years old at the time, having been diagnosed with cancer. Fortunately, the details of the ordeal, which Stainthorpe elsewhere described as “one of the cruellest of Gods bitter and loveless creations,” were followed in the same announcement with news that his daughter had beaten the disease and was now in the recovery process. All of this is more than any family should ever have to endure, and a circumstance I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy.
With Stainthorpe able to give the band attention again, My Dying Bride headed into the studio, though down two members who exited the band, to record their 13th full-length The Ghost of Orion. The album is a bit of a marked challenge into new musical territory for the group, which some old fans may find testing, though likely many more will relish what they hear.
Speaking of challenges, I must admit I felt extremely anxious in the lead-up to my interview with Stainthorpe -- while I’m hardly a rookie at conducting interviews, it was still something else to conduct one with an artist I’d so deeply admired for so long. Fortunately, the anxiety washed away quickly as Stainthorpe proved to be overtly welcoming in conversation and often delightfully funny at nearly every turn. So, enjoy our conversation below, and if the opportunity is at hand, perhaps pour yourself a glass of wine to really get in the mood.
First, I want to ask about your daughter who was stricken with cancer in 2017, and a year later after chemotherapy and surgery was reported to be making a recovery. How is she and your family doing today?
She’s doing really well. She’s back at school now, which is wonderful because she missed a whole year of school. Thankfully they do have teachers in hospital so she couldn’t get out of it that easily [laughs]. She can’t quite walk properly yet as we used to walk to school, about a mile. The radiotherapy really gave her a hard time with the bones but I’m sure it’ll come back in time. We drive halfway and walk the rest of it, so she’s getting there. We’re doing a little extra academic work at home because obviously when you miss a year you’re gonna be behind the rest of the class but she’s virtually caught up. She’s a great learner. Good at maths… handwriting is terrible but that can be improved. So overall doing great!
Well, bad handwriting is just a sign she’ll become a doctor.
[Laughs] Could be you’re right.
Looking at everything your family and you went through with that, how are you now feeling about your own life and future?
Oh, it’s definitely changed me. I would get annoyed at the simplest and silliest things before she got sick and then when you realize that none of that means anything when you’re really dealing with something serious, it becomes very insignificant. In the past, if my printer wouldn’t work, I’d be in a rage and smash it to pieces because it’s so stupid. Funny enough, my printer stopped working about a week ago and I just went, “meh, I’ll get another one.” Silly trivial things that would really wind me and stress me out don’t do that to me anymore. I had a shift in my life, for the better as well because I think as you’re getting older it’s probably better to get less stressed than more. So I’ve changed, a much more relaxed and laid back person which I think is a very good thing.
Once you were able to give the band your attention again there were a number of lineup changes with recently returned founding member Calvin Robertshaw leaving again and then drummer Shaun Taylor-Steels exiting right before the band entered the studio to record. My Dying Bride aren’t strangers to line-up changes but in the moment how did that feel to lose members and find replacements so quickly right before recording a new album?
Well I couldn’t care less, because I was busy doing something much more important in looking over a human being. So obviously Andrew [Craighan] got in touch and told me Calvin went off and I thought, “I just don’t care.” Thankfully, he went so early there wasn’t a lot of his material in the new songs. I think Andrew just deleted and rewrote anyway or he may have kept some altered bits… and again thankfully they hadn’t written an entire album together, that would have been a pain to sort out. You don’t want in the future someone saying, “oh I wrote that riff on song number 3. I want money for it. Blah, blah, blah!” It’s just simply easier to delete and start over again. Andrew then was in quite the envious position where he had the chance to put all of his own riffs onto the album. Which actually I think all guitar players would love to get away with. He did the same on the previous album Feel the Misery where Hamish [Glencross] left before that was recorded as well. That album got better reviews than our entire career which proves Andrew is a pretty good songwriter.
Then Shaun, the drummer, left before this recent recording but fortunately the studio engineer, Mark Mynett, knew Jeff Singer [ex-Paradise Lost] and in fact Jeff’s kit was already in the studio because he does a bit of session stuff for Mark. So Jeff came down, we gave him a copy of the album, he took it home for a couple weeks, and came back doing the drumming straight away. It was tremendous!
Well, that worked out quite well.
Yeah, but those two leaving… just hiccups, that’s all. We’ve had people leave in the past and at first you think it’s a little frustrating but you just got to crack on. I was in a different zone this time and couldn’t care less anyway, so it was more frustrating for Andrew to deal with as I had lost my connection with My Dying Bride for a bit. So when he informed me these guys had left I just shrugged my shoulders and thought, “I don’t care.”
The Ghost of Orion is your first album with Nuclear Blast as your label. My Dying Bride might hold the record as the longest continual rostered band for Peaceville, so what brought about the change to a new label after so many years?
I think it was time. Peaceville had done everything they possibly could for us. They were tremendous and gave us complete artistic freedom, which is wonderful since a lot of labels wouldn’t allow bands to get away with what we got away with. But even after all these years we felt we had more to give and that My Dying Bride’s presence in the community could be elevated somehow. Peaceville couldn’t do that as we’d already reached our peak with them and they couldn’t do anything more while we were still thirsty for more. So when the contract came to an end we shopped around naturally and we kind of hoped Nuclear Blast might be interested because they seem to be the one everyone wants. They’re huge now, and getting bigger all the time. Fortunately for us, the offer that came in from Nuclear Blast outshone all the other offers.
There were 11 record labels battling after us, which was marvelous and wonderful to see because after such a long period of time in this business you can become a bit jaded and the public might think, “yeah… they’re just churning out the same old thing.” So you’re not sure if you’re relevant anymore. However, when you’ve suddenly got 11 record labels tripping over themselves to sign you, it makes you feel wanted again. Since we signed with Nuclear Blast and got new members in the band it’s like a breath of fresh air. It’s like My Dying Bride’s been given a second chance, so we’re going to take that chance.
We’ve written what we consider the best album we’ve ever done; the production on it is marvelous, I think the fans are going to love it, and Nuclear Blast will push it into territories Peaceville just couldn’t do because they’re a bigger label. We feel like a young band again. We’ve got energy again, striving for bigger and better things, and I think we’re on a label that can deliver.
In the press materials and elsewhere, guitarist Andrew Craighan and yourself have mentioned how the album takes a bit of an “easier-on-the-ear” or even accessible approach compared to previous works. Having listened to the album I can concur with that, besides perhaps on parts of “The Old Earth.” There’s less of a brutal feel and it’s not from a lack of growling on your part but certainly in the choices of riffs and drumming it has less of a death metal stomp or gallop to it on the whole. How conscious of a pursuit do you think this was for the band on this album?
This was all done on purpose. Even towards the end of our contract with Peaceville we were considering taking a more laid-back easy listening approach, I mean for My Dying Bride obviously, because in the past when you’re young you try to impress people. When composing instead of writing a riff four times and changing where it feels natural to another riff we would play it seven and a half times just to be awkward. It was quite jarring I suppose, but we were trying to prove we were quite technical, but we’ve been there and done it already. We’re older now and just thought, “you know if you’ve got a killer riff then play it four times and when it feels like it’s time to change then change into another riff. Make it feel good. Make it flow naturally.”
So we’ve got a bit more of that on this album, a lot more harmonies in the guitars, and same with the vocals. I double tracked, triple track, quadruple tracked the vocals to give them more harmony and a sort of choir feel. So, attempting to make things just a bit more accessible and easier to the ear. I mean, we’ve been bandying around the word “commercial” as well, but I mean commercial for My Dying Bride. For no means commercial as in releasing a ten minute song like “The Old Earth” as a single, that’s just not going to happen. But I do think the album is easier on the ear as I’ve played to a few friends and family. I’ve got some friends who don’t know what heavy metal even is, but particularly with the backup of the video we made for “Your Broken Shore,” they said we’re really good. Which it’s quite nice to hear that. So it looks like we’re winning over some new fans already and it’s not even out yet.
I definitely noticed the multiple vocal tracking on some of the songs. Trying to recall if you’d done that before on previous albums.
Well yeah, I’ve double-tracked vocals I think going as far back as the demo. It just adds a little bit of depth to them. I’m pretty sure every vocalist will double track at some point as it just adds a bit of richness to the sound. This time though Mark, the studio engineer, wanted to try some new ideas and he would say things like, “take line number one on this song and sing it eight times,” and I’m thinking, “are you crazy?!” So he has me doing different octaves and I say, “there’s 25 lines in this song, Mark. It’s going to take all day!” while he’s like, “fine. If we have to do tomorrow as well then fine. Let’s try it.” It was hard work singing the same lines over and over. You come to dislike the song when you’re tortured with it, but the results stand for themselves.
I think it’s very rich and quite sumptuous sounding with all the layers. Obviously some fans are going to grumble and complain, “ugh, it’s not the same as it should be,” but we’re just trying something new, that’s all. For the next album I might do something completely different. We just have to wait and see, but it was nice to try something different for this one.
Speaking of trying new things, The Ghost of Orion features Wardruna’s Lindy-Fay Hella on vocals and composer Jo Quail performing cello. Besides the band’s orchestral project Evinta, cello has never before been on a proper My Dying Bride album and a female guest vocalist hasn't been used since the song “Heroin Chic” [off 1998’s 34.788%... Complete]. What brought about the desire to open the album to such experimentation and collaboration beyond the core band?
Well we knew the writing process was moving on and knew the album was developing into something a bit special. We knew it would be good, so rather than just go with it we upped the ante to really make sure it was going to be the best one by getting in some quality musicians. Andrew has been a big fan of Wardruna for a long, long time and he emailed me saying, “you think Lindy-Fay might be interested in doing some vocals?” Well, I don’t know anything about Wardruna but I said, “just ask. All you can do is just ask. If she says no then fine. We’ll just move on.” But she was over the moon to be honest in coming along for the ride. When I heard what she’d done I just decided, “you know what, I’m not going to do any vocals on this. She’s nailed this song.” The idea was she’d send back her material and I’d do a little bit of my thing on top of that but then when I heard it, and I listened to it many-many times, I thought, “I’m just going to ruin it and we should just leave it where it is because it’s a beautiful rose and I’m not going to poison it.” So that worked out really nice.
Then we were speaking about getting some cello when Mark in the studio mentioned he knew Jo Quail and said he’d ask. We thought, “oh she’s probably going to say no” and I don’t know why we think these negative thoughts, because she was just as over the moon to be asked. So she came from London, brought the acoustic cello, and she did some wonderful stuff for us. Just magical to watch her working. For one of the songs we’d be playing, she’s got a black piece of paper and a pen in front of her, as the song is playing she’s writing down every single note from the guitar. By the time the song is finished she’s got a page of notes and she can already see where the harmonies are going to be. So all the stuff she did was one take, so she knows what she’s doing and it’s brilliant. We invited her to come on the video as well [for “Your Broken Shore”] where again she came up from London and was very excited to be a part of that as well.
Both women have brought a substantial amount to the album. It’s not just embellishing what’s already there but rather adding a certain quality with their own talents that really stands out, so we’re going to shout out about it because it deserves to be.
In the press for this album and previous interviews, you’ve talked about the inspired state that a night of wine can transport you to where you often peel out the next day lyrics for My Dying Bride. This is certainly a very Dionysian process, but such a process is also a well known path for how many a musician has lost themselves in substance abuse and madness. How do you feel you’ve been able to take that Dionysian path when needed in your art without letting it consume you like so many others have?
Well, I did all that up until this current album where I was completely sober because my daughter was ill and I needed to be there. In the past though… we’ve all got parts of our brain that we just can’t get into during the everyday because of work, worries, and bills to pay. So parts of your brain are just locked off, probably for your own sanity. I think sometimes when you’re relaxing, especially in the evening because you’ve got no visitors or anyone likely to call so you can switch everything off. I know that sounds cheesy, but I light some candles, have a couple glasses of wine, and I just wait for that little door to be unlocked in my mind. It doesn’t always work but most of the time it does and you just tap into it allows the words to flow with more freedom, which can be a bit more eccentric too. I’m fine with that, but it’s a good way to exercise your mind of the terror and darkness that builds up over time. It allows me to pour all my thoughts out onto paper, some of which will become My Dying Bride lyrics, some of which will become my poetry, and others might be short stories or just thoughts. It’s important to get them out, I think, for if you leave them all in there they’re going to start overflowing into your daily life and that’s when things will become a bit more troublesome. I’m lucky I’ve got My Dying Bride to put all my negative thoughts into as it keeps me sane.
Wine, there’s no other substance, “wine is fine…” because it’s just the right level. If you go crazy... I mean I don’t drink spirits or hard liquor, if you go too far you’ll lose control of your thoughts and it’ll all become a bit insane. Drinking some wine loosens you up just enough to let you focus and keep track of what you’re doing. I mean I don’t go to bed staggeringly drunk unable to get up the next day because you can’t write while you’re drunk. It just warms you up a bit to be in the right kind of mood and it works really well for me.
You just mentioned using such states for your own poetry and some short stories. Have you ever published any of those?
No, but I think I posted something on Facebook earlier on in January saying, “right, 2020 is the year I’m going to collect all the funny little things I’ve written down,” because they’re all over the place. I’m going to have to search this house high and low for these books and scraps of paper but I need to get them all together and go through the incredibly dull task of typing them all into the computer. I tried some voice recognition software but it only works if you’re trying to be grammatically correct. Poetry can be a bit random. So I’d read the poem into the microphone then look at the computer and it’s red underscores everywhere and… it just doesn’t work with poetry! I’m like, “oh no! I’m going to have to type all of this stuff in.”
So I just thought in 2020 I am going to get all my work together, type it in, and see how much I’ve got. If I’ve got enough for some sort of publication, then yeah I’ll self-publish or check with Nuclear Blast to see if they work with anybody, so shop around and see if there’s an outlet there. In the old days you had to print a 1,000 books that would sit under your bed until someone ordered one, and you’d take it to the post office, but these days you just give them a link to a publishing site and it’ll get made for them. With the response I got on Facebook, it seems the fans want something like that, so I’m going to do it.
I think that would be great!
Hopefully… but you haven’t read it yet [laughs].
On the behind the scenes video for the “Your Broken Shore” music video you mentioned if you weren’t in My Dying Bride you’d like to, in one way or another, be making movies. So in touching upon that, what movies or television has perhaps played an influence on My Dying Bride’s music, lyrics or the band’s visual aesthetic?
Oh, art-house films, the ones that don’t make it to the major cinemas… just the ones that are a bit more thought provoking. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like an action adventure as the next person because they’re just great fun to kill a couple hours and enjoy yourself. There’s some more interesting films out there… there’s one doing the rounds at the moment called “The Lighthouse” [a movie I recommended in my best of 2019 piece], a black and white film, I mean as soon as you say “black & white film” to some people they immediately switch off. They’re not interested and think that in 2020 films should be eye blisteringly 4K, full color, and blah, blah, blah… but actually, they don’t have to be. So that’s the sort of film I would probably make, of course in the film industry darling you don’t call it “black and white” you call it monochrome [laughs]. I know, pretentious.
I think I’d like to do little things, I’m not talking about three hour epics… I mean music videos are ideal because they’re short snippets… you have to have a certain artistic license as well. With James Sharrock, the guy who directed the video for “Your Broken Shore," we just said go for it; do what you want and we’ll go for the ride. After he saw the finished video he emailed me back saying, “Aaron, if you want to work on a music video for someone else let me know and we’ll work on it together.” So I’m thinking, “yeah! I like the sound of this.” So I’m waiting now for James to say, “Ok we’ve got a band interested. Here’s the lyrics and the music. Let's see what you can come up with.” So yeah, I would need an outlet for my creativity, and if it couldn’t be film and the band didn’t exist, it would be creative writing of sorts especially since it’s so easy to self-publish now.
If you could pick, say, one movie that would best embody what My Dying Bride is, what would it be?
Sorry if that’s a bit too ridiculous of a question.
It’s a good question, but I’ve never been asked it before, which shows it’s a good question. I’d have to sit down and think long and hard about it otherwise we might just be wasting our time here [with the interview]. Gosh, well “City of Lost Children” is a glorious looking film, French and highly colorful though so that’s not black and white. Such an inventive film though. I also loved “Sin City” which was very pulp and stark. I really love creative directors, like Wes Anderson where some of his stuff is eye-poppingly gorgeous. I’m glad there aren’t a lot of movies like this are made because when a new Wes Anderson movie comes up you know it’s going to be special and you’ll really enjoy it. So I can’t quite point to one film, but I guess if Wes Anderson got together with… hmm, Tim Burton maybe, well that’s a My Dying Bride film right there!
That’s classic stuff, now isn’t it, but that needs a 70’s soundtrack [laughs]. We were actually even interviewed by his son some years ago, by the by. Again, in terms of a fitting movie, a few years to a decade or so ago, one of our albums was reviewed in Rolling Stone and they said this should be the soundtrack to “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Which is quite nice to hear something like that. I do quite like a good vampire film. Recently I watched “A Girl Walks Home at Night” which was an interesting take on the genre. An interesting arty film… the sort of stuff I like.
This year is the 25th anniversary of your third album The Angel and The Dark River, which was a pretty major moment in the band’s career. What stands out the most in your memories of that time with the band?
Well, that was a long time ago. When we did “The Cry of Mankind” that was one that just wrote itself at rehearsal one day. Calvin [Robertshaw] was just noodling around on his guitar while the rest of us were chatting and he got into this kind of rhythm where we stopped chatting and our ears pricked up a bit. We thought, “ok, what can we add to this?” Andrew added a bit here and there… and over the course of two-and-a-half hours, “The Cry of Mankind” was fully written. There’s not that many songs that just come out of nowhere, as normally someone will come in saying, “right I’ve got three riffs. I’ll show you what they are, then let's embellish them with the other instruments, and we’ll create a song.” So for one to be created from nothing and became an absolute crowd favorite, I mean the fans love that song and I think we have to play it live at every gig which is fine. So yeah, I’ll always remember those sort of moments.
Recording it in the studio was wonderful, it was the old Academy Studio back in the day. It was funny because Hammy [Paul Halmshaw], the boss of Peaceville Records, he came down and fancied himself a bit of a producer… I think he wanted credit on the album, but he smoked so much weed in the studio we were all off our heads [laughs]. We can’t even keep working on this record because we couldn’t see straight. So he’d be ushered out and we’d have to call it quits for the day. Then he wouldn’t be allowed in the next day, you know, because I don’t think he ever stopped smoking. So Hammy was banned from the studio onward which was probably a good thing. Actually, I saw him recently as it was his birthday and retirement, so it was good catching up.
Speaking on anniversaries, My Dying Bride has been a band now for 30 years with yourself and Andrew Craighan being the lone original members, who not only served the longest in the band but never left. How would you describe your relationship with Andrew and how if at all it’s changed over the years?
It’s kind of rock solid, as you would imagine. The only time we have differences is when it comes to album cover artwork and we generally take turns to find an artist. I sometimes do some [of the artwork] when I feel I’ve got a good idea but sometimes you’re so concentrated on the music you forget about the artwork and you think, “ok, lets get someone else to do it.” Which is kind of what we did with this one. I sent Eliran [Kantor] the lyrics along with the title and we worked together to come up with the artwork. Andrew loved it immediately, which was great. However sometimes he’ll show me some artwork and I’m like [making a blown raspberry sound] and sometimes when I show something he’s the same. Sometimes though it’s his turn and I just have to step back before I say something really negative that’ll create a lot of fallout. It’s just because both of us want the very best we possibly can make, that’s all. It’s no one-upmanship or anything like that, we just want the best cover that’ll represent the music at the time.
When it comes to music, there’s no falling outs at all. He writes great stuff, I try to put something that works with it, and between us we somehow manage to get things nailed. Me and him went to London just a couple weeks ago to do some promotional work and we got along like a house on fire. We’re like an old married couple. We just seem to get on with stuff and it works well being in each others company. We both say the same sorts of things. We both want the same sorts of things. I’m glad I’m not the only original member. It’s nice that someone else is still hanging on in there for dear life. I suppose you can afford to lose certain members over the years but if Andrew decided to quit then I think I’d throw in the towel as well. He’s said similar things as well because we just don’t want to do it on our own. Long may it continue! I could see another decade yet.
I certainly hope for that. So my last question here: in 2014 you ended a 17 year long absence from the USA with a Sunday headlining set at Maryland Deathfest. I was in the crowd having that point been a fan for maybe 12 years right then finally seeing you live and I do think I practically cried as I heard the first notes of, the set struck. So I do have to ask, despite how horrible the US visa process has become if there’s a chance in the next couple years if you’ll return for an American festival performance?
Yeah, definitely. We were planning to come back to that same festival but obviously my daughter got ill and we had to cancel. But yeah, we need to come back and do a proper tour as well. Being a bit of a weird cult band, making waves a little bit now but we haven’t been able to tour America despite the fans saying, “we love you, you have to come over!” Our promoter in London is in touch with loads of venue owners and promoters in the states, but when he puts My Dying Bride to them they kind of go, “who?” I think this album will wake a few people up and might get us to do a proper American tour but it’s a risk. We haven’t been there much before so there’s the risk of losing thousands upon thousands of pounds by playing some tiny little clubs which just wouldn’t be worth it.
So I guess, stick to the big festivals for now and hope something moves in the future which I think it is doing now. Even if we can’t somehow do our own tour, we can do a package with other Nuclear Blast bands. Maybe three or four bands touring together which would be really doable if we couldn’t do our own headliner, but we’re for sure looking into it.
The Ghost of Orion released today via Nuclear Blast Records on physical media formats and digital media platforms. My Dying Bride have multiple festival appearances lined up for 2020, including those below.
June 18th - Dessel, Belgium - Graspop Metal Meeting
July 2nd - Barcelona, Spain - Rock Fest
July 24th - Sibiu, Romania - ArtMania Festival
August 13th - Borre, Norway - Midgardsblot Metalfestival
September 12th - Sheffield, UK (HRH Goth) GB
September 13th - London, UK (HRH Goth) GB
November 14th - Athens, Greece - Athens Rocks Winter
December 11th - Eindhoven, Netherlands - Eindhoven Metal Meeting