The Zen of Lee Dorrian: An Interview With The Doom Legend
Lee Dorrian should require no introduction. The legendary frontman of such monolithic bands as Napalm Death, Cathedral, and Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine has been a dominating force in extreme metal since the 1980s, particularly in the realms of doom metal and “occult rock.” His label, Rise Above Records, has become one of the pre-eminent doom labels in the scene, working with artists like Electric Wizard, Church of Misery, Moss, and the Gates of Slumber. Furthermore, Dorrian has recently begun a new doom metal project called With The Dead alongside Tim Bagshaw (ex- Electric Wizard), Alex Thomas (ex-Bolt Thrower), and Leo Smee (ex-Cathedral). They released their first album to great acclaim in 2015.
With The Dead takes everything you recognize about doom metal and turns it up past 11 into the thousands. Huge riffs, titanic drums, and Dorrian’s trademark vocals blend brutally to craft a singular doom sound that towers far beyond what most of their contemporaries have even considered possible. With The Dead’s latest record Love From With The Dead drops on Rise Above on September 22. In anticipation, we sat down with Dorrian to discuss the new album, songwriting, the place of genre, the importance of place, and the guiding philosophies behind his music and his label.
(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity).
In many ways, With The Dead feels like a departure from Cathedral in that it seems a lot darker and more brooding. Has there been a need to up the ante on lyrical content between Cathedral and With The Dead, or for that matter from With The Dead to this new album?
Well, that’s quite a bit to take on! As far as Cathedral is concerned, this is obviously a completely different band. I think that by the time Cathedral had come to an end, being in that band for over twenty years and being part of its “vibe” and “ideology,” whatever that may be, you obviously become consumed by all of that. No matter what you do within that group of people, it’s always going to be a Cathedral record no matter how it’s recorded, how it’s written, or how it sounds. There’s obvious similarities between Cathedral and what I’m doing now because I’m in it! But I wanted to see this as coming from a completely different place in an entirely new style.
I didn’t consciously try to make it more “brooding” or “dark,” I just wanted it to be its own band. And I wanted to put some of myself into it. I will say that it has been a lot easier to do With The Dead in terms of writing and recording because there’s not been a back catalog to live up to. It’s obviously a doom band, but in terms of the creative side of it it’s different. I’ve just followed my gut instincts and put a lot more of myself into it, and I’ve made things a lot simpler, which I couldn’t have done if I was still in Cathedral. In Cathedral, sometimes things maybe got a bit over-complicated; with this new band, one of the harder things is actually trying to keep things stripped down.
I noticed in the PR for this new record that the writing and recording processes happened very fast. Can you go into what the songwriting process looked like?
In terms of writing and recording, it was very fast. The album was recorded in two separate sessions: the first was in January 2016, actually. It came about spontaneously. We had some problems with our previous drummer, he’s not in the band anymore, so we had to find a new drummer because we had to fulfill our commitments. A friend of Leo’s came along to try out, and within the first night of rehearsal I realized that he was gonna work out fantastically well. We had the whole set nailed in just a couple of hours. So, I thought, “we’re all here, let’s grab this opportunity to work on some new material,” and so by the second night of rehearsals we were working on new songs, which we hadn’t planned on doing until much later in the year.
Within three days, we had over forty minutes worth of music, three brand new songs. So, we recorded them the following week, and then we left the album for a while, just to let what we’d recorded in that session sink in and assess what we felt needed to be added to the record to make it complete and balanced. For the rest of the year, up until about October, Tim was thinking about new riffs and about how three or four more songs might fit in on the rest of the record. In January 2017, literally one year later, we wrote and recorded the next three songs, which are the first three songs on the album. They were rehearsed in one night and recorded in two days.
All the vocals were done in one afternoon, in the space of three hours. We spent a lot of time thinking about the material and how it should be presented, but when it came to the physical act of writing and recording it happened very fast. We wanted to keep that spontaneous edge: we don’t fuck around too much with recording. There’s no triggers on the drums, none of that nonsense. Everything was recorded live. We try to keep things as minimal and as earthy as they can be, we just want the tone to be raw aggression in its purest form.
Where do the lyrics fit into this process? Do you have a repository of lyrics, like where you keep ideas as they come to you?
I have a memory bank where I store experiences I go through and emotions I feel. These last couple of years have been pretty heavy on me personally, and when you’re writing a heavy record you need to let those heavy experiences bleed out of you. It’s all things that have been inside me. When the time feels right, I’ll sit down for a couple of hours and I’ll write a set of lyrics that fits a song. I’ll have been walking around thinking about themes for the song, but then when I hear the music it’s like finding the piece of the jigsaw puzzle that will fit the themes. After it’s written, I don’t go back to it: it’s over, it’s done.
The first album was obviously very important in terms of making a statement. As a new band, we didn’t know where it was gonna go, we didn’t know if we’d be doing a second album. We didn’t wanna be seen as some cheap doom band that’s just some guys getting together for the sake of it, because it was more than that. The objective of that first album was to make the most suffocatingly heavy record we could, and I feel that we achieved that: for the style of music that we make and for the people who we are, it couldn’t have gotten that much heavier. Where do you go after you’ve done that? The only place to go is heavier, if you can, and make it even more soul-destroying.
But to do that, you’ve had to have lived through some quite harrowing times, like some of the quite traumatic experiences I’ve gone through in these past couple years. I think it all comes out: every riff, every lyric contains the anxiety written into the new album. I’ve felt every single note, every millimeter of that pain. It’s good to get it out, it puts a lid onto those things that have happened. And I say that, but that’s only one part of it, because now we’re starting to play those songs live and it’s sort of like re-opening those things that were closed. I am looking forward to playing live more, though.
What sort of live presence are you envisioning for this latest record cycle? What sort of live performance, what sort of tour, and how do you want the live experience of With The Dead to be similar to or different from the recorded output?
If we’ve got a good sound and the vibe is right, then there’s a lot more personal involvement in playing live than in sitting down and recording. I prefer seeing bands live, nothing is a better experience. Witnessing a band deliver a performance that’s full of honesty is certainly one of the best things in life. So, if we channel everything that this record means in terms of sound and lyrical content, then that’s what we aim for. In terms of what we’re gonna be doing live, I know we’re gonna be coming to the states at least once next year; in terms of touring, though, I think that’s something we won’t ever do unless something amazing comes up, because it’s quite hard for us. Tim lives in America still, the three other guys live over here in London, our drummer is always doing stuff with other bands, Leo’s got a full-time job, and I’ve got the label. To be thinking of touring, of being out on the road all year round, that’s just not a possibility. But we will be doing key festivals and the odd show here and there.
In the last ten years, I feel like the subgenre of doom metal has really exploded. Do you personally find the “doom metal” label to be restrictive? Obviously, it’s descriptive, but do you feel the need with With The Dead to push the envelope past the current saturation of doom bands?
What Cathedral wanted to do, when we formed, was to be darker and heavier than all the bands that had come before us. That wasn’t intended to disrespect the bands that came before us. It’s just that we were younger and we were less experienced musically than our peers, such as bands like Trouble, so what we did was use our strengths, which were our underground sensibilities and we just pushed those strengths forward, which made our music more oppressive and darker. Honestly, I don’t even know what “doom metal” is anymore: people have so many different interpretations of what “doom” is. I used to know what it meant, in the early ‘90s, but now, while I still know what “classic doom” is, it feels like a lot of bands nowadays, and I don’t want to name names, but a lot of bands whose names get thrown around are just retreading old ground and getting really popular. Selling out big events, you know?
I find that quite interesting because I know when a band sounds unique to me, and a lot of bands that are doing rehashed stuff are becoming more popular than bands that are unique. I find it quite strange. At the end of the day, though, I do what I do and we do what we do. And it is great that people have taken such an interest in the genre of “doom.” I just find it weird, because 28 years ago nobody wanted to know about it. There were bands like Candlemass, who were the most popular, and second to them was probably Trouble, and then bands like Saint Vitus, but nobody really knew who any of them were apart from the few punk kids who had seen them and a few kids in places like Germany and Switzerland. When Saint Vitus played with Cathedral on the first UK tour that I put together in 1990, there were maybe eight people turning up to each show. Now there are hundreds. It’s fucking weird! I mean, those bands sell out pretty much every show they play.
It’s great, for us, but in terms of an explanation as to “why”… maybe metal fans just realized that there was more to doom than just playing slow, that it is a genuine genre and that it does have a lot of serious emotion to it. It’s genuine metal music, at the end of the day.
In many ways, it hearkens back directly to Black Sabbath, making it one of the subgenres most connected to the original roots of heavy metal.
Yeah, though back then people didn’t even give a shit about Black Sabbath. In the mid-90s a lot of people started getting into Sabbath again or for the first time, but in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s nobody gave a shit about them. I remember being at a festival and I was…let’s just say I’m pretty sure I was on LSD, and Faith No More were there playing “War Pigs.” And the whole crowd were singing all the words. But I don’t think anyone there, at the time, even realized it was a Black Sabbath song; the audience genuinely thought it was a Faith No More song!
Nowadays, you probably have people who have Paranoid on like fifteen vinyl editions.
You just need the first pressing, you don’t need ten different pressings!
The internet age has been both a blessing and a curse for completists and elitists. In 2017, what are some current musical influences, or bands and artists that you find yourself going back to and incorporating into your music, both new and old?
No one. We don’t sit down and think about what bands we want to sound like because we have already our sound. We’re old! We’re in our 40s, there’s nothing that’s gonna come along that’s new that we’re gonna be influenced by, it’s all the stuff that we’ve grown up with that’s influenced our sound. We don’t really reference anybody, I think we sound just like ourselves, you know? I would never try to copy anybody. I mean, yeah there’s a bit of Tom G. Warrior here and there, but I’d never try to copy anyone, especially in their vocal style. I know I’m quite limited in what I do, so I’ve always tried to put myself into my own vocals. I’ve never pretended to be something I’m not.
I’ve tried different things, I’ve always tried to be individual and hopefully original, but I think that probably goes for all of us. None of us claim to be extremely talented or original, but hopefully we are. I think when people proclaim to be something, that’s when you have a problem. We just do our thing. How we are and how we’re interpreted is for the listener to decide, not for us to proclaim.
Part of the beauty of music is keeping an idiosyncratic sound but also one that the listener can draw their own conclusions about.
At the moment, there’s all these bands going around saying they’re “psych-this” and “psych-that.” But “Psychedelia” is a big word to put on yourself, it’s something that’s not really definable. You can’t just say “I write trippy lyrics, that makes me Psychedelic.” That’s bullshit! Being “Psychedelic” is about mind expansion, listening to music that takes you to another place or expands your mind in a certain way. It’s not the person making the music, but the person listening to it and receiving it who has the psychedelic “experience”. Ultimately, you’re making it for someone else.
And yeah, Cathedral used to say we were a “doom” band, because we knew what “doom” meant back then. Now it’s more open to interpretation. We tried different things out and people would argue that we weren’t a doom band anymore at some points in our career. It all comes down to the interpretation of the individual, really.
Yeah, and if you get too hung up on describing yourself as one thing, and only one thing, you paint yourself into a corner regarding how people perceive you.
If you make all these self-promotions, it’s going to turn out to be quite shallow. If you’re saying “we’re this, we’re that,” in two years’ time, when that’s no longer trendy, what are you gonna do, say “we’re the next thing?” Like, “we were that but now we’re this.” Just do what you do.
I feel that the bands that have the most staying power are the ones who’ve done just that. Returning to the new record, what’s the meaning behind the album title Love From With The Dead?
[laughs] I’m not even sure if I thought about that, really. It just seemed quite appropriate because the album is all about the end of love, it’s about the lack of love, it’s about a world without love. It’s like holding out a dead hand. It’s sarcastic. It’s not that we’re reveling in the fact that the world is fucked, it’s more like desperation speaking. Like, “come on, let’s get our fucking shit together.” It’s how this record has made us feel. Our experiences in life have brought us to this level where we’ve been so down that we’ve had to make a record like this. The world is a fucked-up place, and while we don’t want to revel in misery and woe, if you experience misery and woe then you wanna get it out. You want other people to hear it because other people go through it.
I think that this extreme-heavy type of doom metal is very cathartic for many people. It can in some ways be very therapeutic, it can help people get through hard times. When I listen to The Skull, Trouble’s second album, even though it was a long time ago and things have gotten a lot darker and heavier since then, that album is still very dark and very depressing. And yet, from my point of view I always found it very uplifting. It made me feel like, though I might be down, these guys are even more down than me! And after listening to that record from start to finish I feel like I’m not the only one.
I think that a great thing about metal is its catharsis. It’s that sense of not being constrained in your emotions but just bringing them up.
We went through hell to put this record out, so you could say we’ve given our “love” to this record and then given it to you, whichever way you want to take that. It’s not like we’ve just done this half-heartedly; we put fucking everything into it. You wouldn’t expect an album like that from a band like Cathedral.
I had a question about the closing track, “CV1.” In the PR for the album, it stated that this track was about Coventry, your hometown. With some songs one doesn’t want to give too much away about the subject material, but what about Coventry does this song cover? I’m also interested in the fact that this track features a collaboration with Russell Haswell, who you’ve worked with in the past. How did that come about and what was it like to work with him on this track?
Russell’s a very old friend of mine, I’ve known him since the mid ‘80s. I first met him at a shitty nightclub in Coventry, which was a goth club on Friday nights. I’d seen him a couple times and he’d been wearing a Swans t-shirt; I had long hair and he was a skinhead, but there wasn’t anyone else in Coventry who knew about Swans, so I started talking to him. This was 1986, I believe, and now he’s one of my closest friends in the world. It’s been a lot of ups and downs. He moved out of Coventry sometime in the ‘90s, but when we lived in Coventry together it was our place. As hard as it was to live there sometimes, because it was quite restrictive and there was a lot of negativity within the city itself.
The people in Coventry are the greatest in the world, but the city itself has been so badly neglected and mistreated over the years. I’m not sure how much you know about the history of the city and how it was bombed in the Second World War and completely flattened, but it’s a tragic story because, before that, it was a medieval city. When it was rebuilt in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s it was one of the most futuristic cities in the world. But as time went on, it became more like a concrete jungle. The people that were in the city had no real idea of how to keep their city alive and vibrant. Their architectural plans were completely mismatched: they’d build something, knock it down, and replace it with something worse that doesn’t coordinate with the rest of the city. Even now there’s tearing up of cobblestone streets or knocking down something that survived the war.
It’s heartbreaking. I grew up in those streets, from age eight until I was fourteen I was walking around those streets at night with friends, sleeping rough and whatever. I knew the city inside out. Then I grew up and started heading to the pubs, hanging out socially in the town. Since I moved away, whenever I’ve come back I’ve seen it get more and more neglected. “CV1” was our battle cry, it was our whistle. If I was Australia, doing a tour on the other side of the world, I send friends a text saying “Know where you’re from, CV1.” It’s a very heartfelt place.
I’d had the idea to do a song like this for quite some time, but doing it had to be special. It couldn’t just be some thrown-together doom song, it had to be quite epic. The crescendo at the end where Russell joins in, I mean, I don’t know where we go next. It’s a very extreme end to the album, but I think it’s what the whole album leads to. More nihilism at the end seems to close things perfectly. It’s not a happy ending, isn’t it? [laughs] And I don’t think any doom record should be, simple as that.
For me, some of the metal that has really stuck out over the past 5-10 years has been stuff with a heavy emphasis on sense of place, both in good ways and negative ways. When you hear bands like Panopticon or Pyrrhon, they’re very closely tied to where they’re from, and I think that makes the music more “real.” Like you say, it’s not like just writing songs about wizards or demons, it’s about “this is where I’m from.”
It’s your roots. Even though I don’t live in Coventry anymore, my parents do and a lot of my friends do. Even if I never moved back there, even if I moved to the other side of the world, it’s still where I’m from and it’s what I’ll never forget. It travels with me everywhere I go. The first 15-20 years of your life, growing up in a city like that, it’s never gonna leave you, no way. For better or for worse, it’s gonna have a lifelong impact on you.
In 2017, what sort of a direction do you foresee for Rise Above? It’s largely a doom/sludge/hard rock/etc. label, but nowadays what do you look for in artists to be on it? What sort of sounds or aesthetics are you currently trying to cultivate?
I don’t look for anything in particular; there’s no definite plan or thing about what I want to pick up or spearhead or whatever. It’s just about what bands I think fit the label, particularly bands which I think have their own individual sound. No matter what style it is, they have to have and individual sound. Fortunately, I think every band we’ve ever signed has had a very unique style. We signed a band called Diagonal, who play progressive jazz, and while we’ve never signed anything like a funk or reggae band, that’s not to say we won’t, if they’re cool enough. Not funk-metal because fuck that, but a proper ‘70s sounding raw funk band. We recently signed Galley Beggar[http://www.invisibleoranges.com/10-essential-folk-rock-albums/] who are in the early Fairport Convention vein. And we just signed a band called Antisect, don’t know if you’re familiar with them.
I am, in fact. They’re good.
Yeah, they were one of the most important bands to me growing up. Certain bands in the mid ‘80s meant more to me than my education, because they were my education. I didn’t learn fuck-all in school but I did learn from bands like Crass, Rudimentary Peni, Antisect, Flux of Pink Indians. Punk was my education; the way I think was certainly shaped more by the music of anarcho-punk bands than by any bullshit that I ever learned at Catholic school. And for that reason alone, working with a band like Antisect 36 years later is a privilege for me. So, there’s a folk-rock band like Galley Beggar and a hardcore punk band like Antisect, and those bands are recording in the same year and on the same label.
And then there’s With The Dead and Uncle Acid. Uncle Acid are finally releasing the first album of theirs that they never released, Volume 1. It’s a major cult album now, it’s been in demand for years. We’re released that in October, at the same time as Antisect. Another band is Beastmaker, who play really great no-frills hard ‘n heavy doom metal. They just fit the bill, there’s just something about them that I like. Simple as that. People seem to think that there’s a science to it, but there isn’t. It’s literally just bands I hear and I like the name, the presentation, and the vibe of their music. Sometimes you can wait two years before finding a band like that; sometimes there’s a few of them at once. But there’s not many, which is why we don’t put out many releases. We only put out six or seven maximum a year. We could be like other labels and just put out average records by average bands, we could do three of them every month, but what’s the point in that?
That’s what sets labels I find myself consistently going back to apart: that sense of curation. Not being beholden to just releasing X number of releases or just being a distro for a bunch of generic death metal bands.
Ugh. With those labels, it’s like a meat-packing factory. What’s the point? If you’re in this position where you’ve got the chance to put this record out, why just do something half-assed whether you’re the band or the label? I never understood that.
A lot of people approach it more like a business and less like it should be: as a chance to curate. Like releasing the older Uncle Acid stuff, for instance. Being able to provide fans and yourself with quality music.
It’s nice of you to say so. That said, it has been hard. It’s taken almost thirty years to get to the point where we are actually acknowledged and respected as a label. Only in the last ten years has it actually become a label that’s been able to manage itself, really. Before that, it was always a major struggle to keep it going. We never took a wage from the label at all until about seven years ago, which meant twenty-three years of living hand-to-mouth and bleeding for it. But people see that, and hopefully they appreciate it. That’s probably why it’s easier for us now. People now have a bit more faith in what we do, which is great. People do come expect a certain quality from all the releases we put out.
Going back to With The Dead, even though much of the project has been spontaneous, broadly speaking, what might you foresee the future looking like? Where do you see the project going, what might you like to do with it in the future, and how far out do you tend to look with a project like this?
I don’t, really. I’ve never looked past tomorrow. I don’t look too far ahead, and that’s why I think I’ve been around so long. With Cathedral, I didn’t even think we’d do an album, and then we after we did, I certainly didn’t think we’d do a second one. Then, twenty years later, we were releasing our tenth album, and that was never planned or expected. Planning too far ahead is taking things for granted and I’ve never been one to take things for granted. I’ve always tried to avoid being complacent or getting carried away with what could happen, because you never know what’s gonna happen. You never know how you might change, what might change around you, it’s too hard to predict. Who knows what might happen? I don’t.
I’m sure that before too long we’ll start thinking up new ideas, but how we go from this album is hard to say. With this album, I’ve realized that we’ve had to make it heavier than the last one, but thinking about how to make the next one heavier than this one is quite a daunting feat. Maybe it’ll still be heavy and extreme, but in a slightly different way. The addition of Russell seems to work, maybe we can expand on that. We’ve proved that we can do heavy riffs, maybe there’s something else we can add without going light or “wimping out,” if that a phrase that’s still used in the modern age.
There’s something to be said for the Zen approach. If you plan too much, you confine yourself.
Personally, and probably to the frustration of everyone around me, I’ve never been one for planning too far ahead. I think life has too many things to offer to just focus on “this is exactly how it’s gonna be.” Who knows what’s around the corner? I like the unexpected more than the planned. Is that a good quote? [laughs]
It is. The final words, as always, are yours.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you get something out of what we do. I hope people dig the new record, we tried to make it the best we could, and hopefully it’s an honest representation of the band. And thanks to Invisible Oranges for your continued support.