Dead Can Dance

Waking Life:
Dead Can Dance Reconnect with Their Ancient Pop Muse

“We couldn’t categorize what we were doing, and we didn’t expect anyone else to,” Lisa Gerrard says about the early days of Dead Can Dance, the duo formed by her and Brendan Perry in 1981. And that could still apply, listening to Anastasis, the album of new material the two are releasing sixteen years after their last studio collaboration.

Dead Can Dance formed in Melbourne, Australia, during the last gasps of Punk. The DIY (do-it-yourself) ethos that fueled the movement and brought a less-is-more sensibility back to rock ‘n’ roll at the end of the ’70s had yet to run its course, and musicians and artists were expressing themselves in minimalist approaches with little regard for the future or for the past. Punk was also the precursor for Goth, a genre best defined by its disparate angst and despair. And Dead Can Dance were conveniently lumped in that subculture with such bands as Bauhaus, The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees. The problem was, Dead Can Dance had nothing in common with them.

Today, Gerrard is quick to call out the villainous miscreants responsible for the inappropriate mislabeling: “lazy journalists,” she says without hesitation. And right she should. While not directly libelous, the Goth tag certainly did nothing to foment an interest in the group’s true musical offerings but, as she notes, came about simply “because we did, inadvertently, have the word ‘dead’ in our name.”

After thirty years, seven studio albums, many world tours and a fan base that spans the continents, such concerns are no longer foremost in Gerrard and Perry’s collaborative mind. No, what has brought them together after their 1998 breakup is what found them crossing paths in the beginning – the music.

“Why now?,” I ask Gerrard, who is in Ireland with Perry two weeks into a concert tour that will find Dead Can Dance on the road for eight months.

“It’s that the love, the work that we make together, we’re realizing that it is extremely timeless. It doesn’t go away. There was so much passion and love put into the work (of) making these pieces,” she explains during our recent telephone conversation. “That’s something that sits very deeply on your heart. And it’s not disposable.

“What you have to understand,” Gerrard begins to explain of her and Perry’s dense culmination of musical styles in Dead Can Dance’s music, “is that Brendan was born in London and spent all of his time living in New Zealand, and I was living in Australia, brought up in an Irish family in a Greek/Turkish area.” Because of the two spending their early years in such diverse, multicultural settings, “there were definite influences that came into our everyday life from different areas.

“And, you must remember, an artist’s responsibility is to resonate with the realities of their world, and to communicate through the abstract the differences of dialogue, whether it be abstract or whether it be realism.

“We had the responsibility of being the voice for many different cultures, growing up in the areas that we both grew up in. It’s almost like a modern language that’s come through the music, because it’s a catalyst for so many various philosophies and indigenous and cultural references.

“Dead Can Dance really, is a celebration of (the past) and our experiences being in the world today, as it was when we were very young. There was definitely something very purist about our thought and expression, that we were drawing on, things that were absolute to us as poetic references in our cultural world.” Indeed, Dead Can Dance’s songs were not based on the nihilism that many of their “contemporaries” were espousing, far from it. “There was a love of Balkan music, Mediterranean, Irish music, (music) of Northern Europe, there were Russian influences, Troubadour, Sephardic…”

While Dead Can Dance may look to the past, as evidenced on Anastasis and previous albums, their work is much more exploratory than it is historical. Gerrard agrees. “Especially through Brendan, because he has a love of literature and has always had a very deep philosophical connection with the passage forward that we take within the work.” Of their composing process, she notes, “He comes in from the ground up with books, poetry, paintings, studies the mythology, studies the things that have invoked and provoked his imagination” and, more times than not, the two have found “something that’s always been fascinating between the two” of them, and they’ve been able to “share those realities” through their work.

“Being an artist is really being a conduit of those things that you see as being pure forms,” she continues, and, expressing them “through your heart, through your mind and through your soul.” Ideally, the result will be what she feels they’ve accomplished with Anastasis, which is to “wake up and reconnect with our ancient pop muse and those resonant frequencies that ultimately belong to a human being outside those things that influence human things.

“Where we’re going with this album, there’s a lot of empowering prophecies, if you look into the words. It’s a peeling back of ignorance, of trying to refine the real images that lead us through life. You have to ask yourself the question, ‘Why do I read poetry when I’m a child?’ or ‘Why do I pick up a book? Why do I keep looking for new music?’ We do that because we want to stay alive and we want to stay in connection with the purpose of what it is in the journey. We want to come into contact with the guardianship of this planet and remain healthy enough to take our responsibility seriously, like looking after forests, looking after animals, making sure that children have a decent world to live in. And all those things come through the campfire messages that come through poetry, books, music, dance. They are the places where we are able to celebrate the spirit of mind and be allowed to live in a safer world that provides a wonderful source of nourishment for the new beings that are coming into the planet.”

Clearly, these are ideals and ways and means to which Gerrard has given much thought. And, while they may seem like lofty goals to attain through song, they are not far off from the purpose music first served – to escape the now, to transport a person into another world free of the distraction, pain and reality of the day. Throughout history, it has been music, whether in liturgies, in funerary rites, in the work fields. Not the stuff of most songs you hear on the radio, Dead Can Dance have never been too concerned with such commercial radio success. Theirs has always been a higher calling.

“We are up against the forces of mediocrity, in a sense, that through the establishment there are so many pressures on us as human beings in order to survive and music is one of the few things that actually enables us to be relieved of all the horrible reality of the academic kind of lifestyle that we have to face. Getting together and having a dance, looking inside ourselves and really unlocking those areas that enable us to reach, hopefully, our true (centers) and healthy interpretations of the experiences that we’ve had and be able to find joy and laughter and connect in spirit.” Maybe not a common practice in today’s Western culture, but certainly intrinsic to the cultures and the music from which Dead Can Dance have received inspiration.

It was the music that brought Gerrard and Perry together for a short reunion tour in 2005, and why they find themselves together again in 2012. “And that’s what really is important for Brendan and I, that we are bringing back our first love, which is our music, and we’re taking that out with new music. Every one of (the compositions) is very precious and very dear to us and we put a lot of care and effort into making sure that they, that all of those works, were based on something that were capable of saying who we were at that time in our lives, what we were experiencing, what we were into . . . and that we still feel so sure that all of those integral properties are one hundred percent a sounding bell, so much so that we are able to deliver them back into the world, and they still have the power to give people a sense of connection and well being. That really is the very thing, ultimately, that inspires us to keep writing and wanting to take this work out there.”

It’s also the balance the two give each other. From Gerrard’s comments on their approach to composing, one discerns that while she may lean toward the visceral, Perry’s approach is more academic.

Gerrard concurs.“That’s what’s been unique about our work relationship together. Brendan has the practical and the very academic side completely in the forefront of where he wants to go artistically, and then I create an abstract … I introduce something of a completely different … its a celebrative frequency …  and I think the two things that we do together compliment each other. Brendan’s work is extremely grounded and very, very centered and my work is … I don’t know, it’s honest, in a sense, that it is based on pure abstract emotion, and is innocent.”

In the years following the 1998 break-up of Dead Can Dance, Gerrard has kept herself busy, releasing solo albums, collaborative efforts with other artists and scoring films and documentaries. Her soundtrack work has won her both Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. Her understanding of music and its varied properties and values has not been lost to an audience perhaps unfamiliar with her work in Dead Can Dance.

With a discerning ear and acute business acumen, Gerrard has steadily overseen and followed her career path on her own terms. Yet one project she hadn’t anticipated was the result of a phone call from Velvet Underground founder John Cale, who was putting together the concert “Life Along The Borderline – A Tribute to Nico.”

“Cale rang me,” she says matter-of-fact. “He said, ‘Look, I want to do a tribute to Nico and I think that you are the only woman in the world that I want to be involved in it.’” A high compliment for certain, Gerrard had her own reasons for accepting the job.

“I had a real love for The Marble Index and her harmonium playing,” she remembers of Nico’s first solo album (also produced by Cale) after leaving the Velvet Underground. “I think that she empowered me in that clearly she couldn’t play in the traditional sense of being trained. She could play from her soul and that was something that, as a young person,” had a profound impact on Gerrard. As for the Velvet Underground itself, she notes, “I always felt that they were a bit dark, you know; there were other groups that I liked more.”

Today, she sees Dead Can Dance perhaps playing the same role that Nico played for her, “not so much Brendan’s work, but with my work, sometimes just drone and me singing with a bell and a couple of drums or whatever.” Of newer musicians, she suggests her somewhat simplistic early approach as empowering others. “Maybe they’re overwhelmed that they haven’t had an academic musical background, but ‘you know what,’ she posits as a beginner, ‘I can write, all I need is something to back up the thoughts from my heart and maybe it is just a drone and a bell.’ In a way, you start with one note. It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are as a musician or a composer, everyone starts from a couple of chords, they don’t start from a full orchestral piece.

“And it hasn’t always been easy,” she says of the long road she has taken with Dead Can Dance. “I’ll be really honest with you, it’s been tricky, you know? I mean, we were living in very low income situations, doing a lot of things on the road (to survive), because, what we really did believe and we still believe is that what we have to offer is about the olive branch. You know, reaching out with an olive branch, in friendship, and trying to remind people that they are beautiful and they do have a right to be here. Their potential does have a right to be realized and that it’s all good to look inside yourself and maybe shed some tears, but you know what, ultimately, there is great joy in the community that works together.”

A sense of joy, a celebration of life, a cathartic experience. Certainly not the aims of a “Goth” band, not at all, but truly the goals of Gerrard and Perry.

“And that was the thing that we always hoped people would get from the name Dead Can Dance, that those things that became innately numb or would be desensitized would be woken up by being exposed to another person’s sense of joy and celebration, and the cathartic journey of looking inside themselves and wanting to share the deep tissue of their existence. We were hoping people would get that from the name,” she emphasizes, as opposed to their “copping a Gothic” reputation from “lazy journalists.”

Photo by Jay Brooks.