Dead Can Dance's Brendan Perry on the trance-inducing powers of making music in 6/8 time
See also: Dead Can Dance at Buell Theatre, 8/19/12
Dead Can Dance was formed in 1981 in Australia by Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard, who later moved to London. The pair quickly absorbed the emotional intensity and urgency of the most interesting post-punk bands of the era, and the group's self-titled debut showcased much of that early influence but also hinted at the duo's interest in archaic music both Western and decidedly not-Western.
For the rest of its career, Dead Can Dance cultivated a sound that could not be grounded to a specific time and place, that sounded like it came from an otherworldly, primordial place in Perry and Gerrard's collective imagination. In 2012, the act issued its tenth album, Anastasis. The first release in sixteen years, Anastasis builds on what had come before it while showing clear growth in Gerrard and Perry's separate creative paths coming together.
We recently had the chance to speak with the gracious, thoughtful and wry Perry about getting into making electronic music, the rebellious appeal of the symboliste poets, and the trance-inducing powers of 6/8 time.
Westword: What got you interested in tape loops, electronic music and non-Western rhythms before and during your time with the Marching Girls?
Brendan Perry: Electronics, at that stage, was very much analogue. To be honest, a lot of that stuff was financially largely out of our reach -- reel-to-reels or something and a few effects. When I really got involved in experiments with electronic instruments was in the early '80s when I was getting my first Ensoniq Mirage.
[What got me interested in that] was just the empowerment of being able to write and perform things that you wouldn't be able to otherwise afford yourself. It's like when you're writing solo: It's good to be able to hear what all the other parts sound like. So you write bass parts that could be performed back. So you use sequencers and drum machines and you develop guitar lines over that. Then bring it down into verses, bridges and choruses. Then developing the song sonically so that they're kind of expressive and be able to use them in their own right, eventually.
I've been using them since the first commercial ones became available, which was a Yamaha system with a little monitor. But you still had to play each note in a chord. You couldn't just play a chord. It was very laborious, but we did use that and connected it up with MIDI instruments. From there we went on to a Steinberg Pro 16. That's pretty much been the background of my various studios.
Why did you end up moving to London after Dead Can Dance formed?
Principally because Australia was a cultural desert. We played, like, 26 concerts, but, invariably, the music we were playing, we played to the same audiences continually. It's a very small scene, very localized. We felt like if we didn't move to Europe or a place where there was more potential for a greater audience -- and therefore more support for our music -- then we would be going around in circles. So London was our first choice. I'm from London, originally, so it was like going back home.
The first Dead Can Dance album sounds very post-punk but more tribal. What kinds of sounds and ideas were inspiring you at that time?
Oh, well, post-punk music. Joy Division, Public Image, Magazine and groups like Can, who were more experimental.
When you were starting the band, "world music" wasn't quite the phenomenon it would become. How did you acquaint yourself with what many people at that time, and maybe now, would consider an archaic music and indigenous music from other parts of the world?
Well, I'd emigrated from New Zealand, and a lot of my friends were Polynesian. We sold our house, when we emigrated, to an Asian family. I also grew up in a part of London that was predominantly Asian. Lisa was very much surrounded by that in Australia among ethnic communities of Greeks and Italians, and we were very much influenced by that. We worked in various restaurants. I was a bit of a dishwashing specialist. We worked in Lebanese and Egyptian restaurants, and that came home, really. That Middle Eastern love for music of North Africa and the Near East.
Why did you want to synthesize non-Western and archaic Western music with modern sensibilities and technology?
The synthesis is really in the reinterpretation of it, not so much the sound. I'm not a purist. You stick to those instruments. A lot of the history of a lot of indigenous music is one of continued evolution into electronic music, with bouzouki replaced by electric bouzouki, electrifying everything, amplifying things. For me, there are no real rules. Synthesis is a form of sound creation. I use whatever I feel is right. What I hear in my head, you know? It would be silly to restrict yourself to an early set of materials. I've done so with parts with a minimal, experimental rhythm. But generally speaking, I don't.
It seems, on all your albums, that it's not just musical free association and synthesis that you accomplish, but also a weaving together of cultural concepts, literature and artwork. What is it about Charles Baudelaire, and The Flowers of Evil, specifically, that served as an inspiration for Spleen and Ideal?
It was that whole kind of time, I think, that fin de siècle period, the Belle Époque, in France, in particular, fascinated me because of all the amazing poems and the syntheses that were happening between the arts. From the written word to the pictorial work to the amazing advancements in technology and science and pushing back the superstitious negativity that Christianity had affected upon the spiritual development in Western Europe -- it was the combination of these things, really.
Charles Baudelaire as a decadent and as a symboliste. Arthur Rimbaud, even more, was someone who railed against the conservatism of the time -- those people who wanted to retain the old empire. It was really great period of change. To me, they were heroes in that regard -- sort of the punks of their day, railing against the establishment.
Your new album is called Anastasis, which recalls the name Anastasia, which means "she who is reborn." What about your coming together again with Lisa Gerrard and making music again has felt like kind of a rebirth for you?
That's why we named the album that. We had a thematic concept of the album, of how, out of that process, was a reintroduction of ourselves and to our audience, and resurrecting the spirit of what we do together.
For "Opium," you use a Moroccan Sufi 6/8 rhythm. What effect do you feel that rhythm has on you as a musician, and you as a listener of music?
It's very trance-inducing. I spent some time in the Atlas Mountains one holiday and heard a lot of Berber music. Half of the side of the Atlas is on the edge of the Sahara. The 6/8 rhythms they use have compound structures based in double time -- double time, triple time. They lend themselves to a trance-like, emotive reaction, because you can follow them in both times simultaneously if you've got a good enough ear. You can feel and think in two different times.
It really opens up this incredible space inside to the extent that I think you kind of lose control. It's not like you're stamping a beat and keeping it down in 2/4 -- everything's on the money; everything's on the beat. This is something which really allows space and less control and awareness that something that is parallel running, which is kind of still. It's hard to describe. It's the fact that it's a compact rhythm that lends itself well to a trance-like state of mind.
It's related to African modal music. They have this thing called the clave, which is a sort of break. They have 4/4 rhythms, but they bring in compound, triple rhythms at a certain point. And when they do that, the dancers, who are actually dancing, waiting for spirits to enter their bodies -- the lead drummer, who is also a priest, usually, knows that precise moment when to introduce the compound rhythm. They call it "the break" -- that's when they break open so that the spirit can enter that person and possess them and ride them in the dance. That's where you get, in hip-hop music, that term "the break."
Also for the new album, you drew a lot from, for lack of a better all-encompassing term, Near Eastern music. What got you more deeply interested in that kind of music this time around?
Because that's what I've been listening to, really. Our albums reflect what I'm listening to in any given moment in time. I've been listening to a lot of Greek and Turkish music.
What do you feel that music expresses especially well?
I think love and poetry, because a lot of the actual music and the musical phrasing actually comes from lyrical poetry. They are the equivalent to sonnets in the West. They have their own forms based on rhythms -- kind of odd meters like 10, 11s and 9,17s. Essentially they're based on love poetry and very lyrically oriented. I love the musical lines, too. The way they play instruments, they tend to take on the actual expressiveness of the voice, kind of like vocalizing melodies.
Supreme examples of that are in the Arabesques and the way they use glissandos that they fly between notes. They have heavy use of quarter tones. So it's very niche-y but very high-resolution music -- very emotional and dramatic. I like the sense of drama and emotion that you don't necessarily find in a lot of Western music. A lot of Western music is very cool, calculated and very beat-driven these days. Certainly lyricism has been sent to the back of the classroom when it comes to rock school.
Your last world tour was seven years ago, and it sounds like it was exhausting in some ways. What do you do on your tours that helps to rejuvenate you?
It's playing in front of a live audience; that's where I get the energy from. That's how we get through and play over a hundred dates. To get to share our music in the context of a live audience is really invigorating.