Long before I even dreamed of professionally recording or starting a magazine like Tape Op, I was a huge fan of the band Dead Can Dance. Formed by Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard in Australia in 1981, the band soon morphed from post punk to creating beautiful, ethereal sounds drawn from ethnic music all over the world, as well as other sonic journeys of their own creation. Their recent album, Dionysus, was recorded entirely by Brendan at his private studio in France, as well as their five previous albums. I was excited for the chance to talk with Brendan about his recordings. I was also surprised to learn about some of his working methods and modest equipment choices over the years.
You've relocated to France?
Yeah, about three years ago we up and left Ireland with the family and a menagerie of animals, and crossed the sea to France.
Did you sell your old church studio, the Quivvy Church, around that time?
Well, it's still for sale actually. A couple of potential sales fell through. It's still on the market. I've got a new studio here now.
Right, that's Ker Landelle?
It's an old stone barn that I converted.
Are you living on the same property?
Yeah. It's like a collection of houses and buildings. It's actually an old farm that was converted with some land, some woods, and a big garden.
You had Quivvy Church for 25 years. I didn't quite realize how much of the recording of Dead Can Dance had been done on your own, and in that space.
And two solo albums, too. I did Eye of the Hunter and Ark there as well.
What led you to having your own space and recording setup, as far as the process and the creativity?
The first three albums we did in professional commercial studios. We got to a point where the technology was so good. I was using sequencers and a secondhand reel-to-reel 8-track. A large part of the budget was actually going into recording those albums. I just saw this opportunity, so I said to Ivo [Watts-Russell] at 4AD [Records], "Why don't you give us the budget you'd give to a recording studio, and we'll invest it in our own studio and start delivering albums that way." Basically I wanted to cut out the middle man. That way we'd obviously have more control, and more studio time. More importantly, right at the beginning we weren't seeing any money coming through for record sales. Getting our money back – seeing that come through really quickly – was much more empowering for us rather than waiting for the initial production debt to clear. So, in that belief we put more and more money aside from the money we'd earned on each album; we also improved the studio and eventually the studio space itself.
You mentioned using an 8-track and sequencers. What was the trajectory of technology you were dealing with? A home studio was not as easy to do 25 years ago as it is right now.
Yeah. There was no access to automation or anything like that – all mixes were done manually. On the digital technology, that front was really coming through and becoming affordable. There were so many formats we experimented with, some weird formats that were kind of aimed at the home recording market. Initially we were using Commodore 64 sequencing. We had that slaved to the very first sampler, an Ensoniq Mirage. Then we would get into the AKAI series, from the S-600 on. That would all be slaved with a mixing desk so that the sequencing would handle quite a few tracks in its own right. Then we would use the 8-track with a sync on one of the tracks.
Yeah, exactly. We'd be able to sync the Commodore 64. That meant we had the seven tracks available, as well as an eighth track purely for sync audio. We could run all the sequential sampler stuff independently, without having to commit it to tape. It was really empowering. We went from that to the AKAI format. I think it was the 12-track, with the old Betamax tapes. Remember them?
Yes. That's the one that pops its head up occasionally here and there in interviews.
It didn't last long. It was pretty harsh sounding. We pretty much tried every format we could. The more money we got that came into the equation, the more we upgraded and got better gear.
Did you move into tape-based digital, ADATs or DA-88s, at some point?
Yeah, Spirit Chaser was on ADAT. Into the Labyrinth was an interesting one. We did it on a 16-track 1/2-inch; a TEAC [80-8], which had dbx [noise reduction]. It sounds like a lot, 16 tracks on 1/2-inch, but the sound was really good. We did Into the Labyrinth on that, and it even won a few hi-fi audio awards! The way I've worked all along was to record the sequential sampler parts live through the desk. I never, ever "recorded" it.
Oh, right. Yeah.
So, anybody who's thinking about doing any kind of mashes or mixups of Dead Can Dance can forget it, because there's no multitrack in existence, which has everything on it. It's kind of nice, in a way. I come from that kind of school of, "When it's done, it's finished. It's a work of art. Throw away the template. That's it." That's the definitive version, and there shouldn't be any other version, really.
When you describe some of the technology used, it sounds like you'd be making a Depeche Mode-sounding record. However, you were making music that was hybrid but feels very organic-sounding.
Yeah. When it's sample-based, as opposed to real recordings and instruments, I try to energize the samples and make them more analog-sounding. To do that I use a lot of psychoacoustic types of interfaces, like [Aphex] Aural Exciters. I try to manipulate the samples so that they breathe more, as well as exploring the dynamics of them so that they become more harmonically interesting as they change over time.
Right, to keep from becoming too static or repetitive.
Exactly. It's a real art to get in there and work with them. There are so many elements. If I've got a cello spread across so many octaves, I'll find that if I'm trying to emulate a real cellist that certain notes aren't actually expressing the right sound at a given time. I've got to get in and use LFOs for that particular note so that I can tweak it, all dependent on what I've written. That's the relationship.
It sounds like a meticulous process.
It is, but it's worth it because it's an education in itself. I'm pushing the creative boundaries all the time of what I can do with sampling technology.
Right. Is the process for your new album, Dionysus, still using a lot of samples?
Yeah. The biggest revelation to me for this album has been working with vocal sound libraries based on choral groups. They have these new engines built into them that are fantastic. They're called Syllabuilders; basically a directory of syllables. You have hundreds of these syllables you can actually put together in sentences, phrases, and words. It's very creative. All these syllables are sung by a range of large groups to just soloists. You can write your own phrases, and then you can play them polyphonically. You have a whole group harmonizing with each other, singing your words basically. It's really powerful. It's been a real revelation, working on this album. I wanted a collective chorus. It was never going to be song-driven by soloists. It was always going to be a collective group, like a commentary of singers that were commenting on the proceedings or developing change, intended for trance or what have you.
How did you decide that this would be a Dead Can Dance record versus a Brendan solo record?
Well, I decided on DCD because I wanted Lisa to be involved, and I thought it was time we made another album. We probably would have gotten to it sooner, but after the last album we were on a world tour for about one and a half years. The whole process of moving and having to build a new studio; I couldn't start work on a new album until two years ago. That's usually how long it takes; one and a half to two years. When the time came, I thought it would be perfect working with Lisa on this. It was definitely going to be a Dead Can Dance album, but also our first-ever concept album working together.
There are a lot of unusual instruments being used from all over the world. How did you start learning how to place microphones and get the sounds of all this? I assume that happened when you started running the Quivvy Church.
Yeah. Because of the kind of spaces, and because I work alone – I don't have an engineer – I haven't been able to really explore space or mic setups in a classical way. I tend to close mic instruments, and I use effects. I use a lot of reverb, as you've probably noticed. Really very few instruments escape the reverb process. I like to suck up as much tone and have as much edge to the recordings as possible, knowing that down the line I can filter out certain frequencies and reduce sounds. As you probably know, when you try to add bite on tracks that isn't there, it starts to sound very digital and hard. I like to soak up as much of the sound as possible. Then I treat it and give it its own ambience accordingly, rather than use the room sound or the microphone setup to get that.
I assume you're using a digital audio workstation. What are you working with these days?
I'm working with Logic Pro. Actually, Dionysus is the first album that I've totally recorded in Logic. The previous album, Anastasis, I did in Pro Tools. I still have the Pro Tools system there. To be honest, I really couldn't tell the difference. I'm using the Apollo, the Universal Audio interfaces. The plug-ins for that are fantastic. I thought, "Well, I might as well make the leap now." This seems to be where it's going. I was really happy with the quality.
Have you used the Ocean Way Studios reverb in the [Universal Audio] UAD system?
Yeah, I tried it one time. I'm more into natural plate reverbs. Actually the reverb I'm using a lot on it is the Lexicon 224. I really like it, and I'm using it live as well. I like those old-school big plate reverbs; the big '60s wall of sound-like vibe. Like The Righteous Brothers or Scott Walker; that dark plate ambience.
Are you using a real Lexicon, like an outboard one, or using plug-ins at this point?
Yeah, I've got two Lexicon model 200s, but they're old. I've got a weird little high-frequency noise that's coming into one of them. In the past, I always had to ship them back to America to get them fixed by a guy in the middle of nowhere, near Boston. It's really hard to find a lot of the parts now. I bought a couple old ones off eBay just to cannibalize the parts. I love the sound of those so much.
Have you ever had a real plate reverb of your own, like an EMT?
I thought you'd be searching for gear like that.
I did a classical recording, my first for Sony Classical in Paris, in this old-school studio where Jacques Brel and other people like that used to record. They've got two rooms, with two plate reverbs. It was the first time I'd gone in and actually seen one. The closest I've come is the Waves Abbey Road Reverb Plates plug-ins. They're really, really interesting.
I figure for someone who's so into reverbs, there's now such a plethora of plug-ins to search through for different sounds.
Yeah, they are getting better. They're certainly improving.
On some of your records there have been bird calls or morphed animal sounds that are hard to define. How did that enter your music, and how do you create some of those sounds?
Dionysus is essentially a nature deity. It's really concerned with this primal, natural energy. It's a celebration of nature, in that respect. I felt like it would be nice to introduce these elemental soundscapes, obviously with wind, rain, and running water, but done with instruments that actually emulated and mimicked them, like, for instance, a rain stick from Colombia. It sounds like running water. I've also got this Mexican death whistle shaped like a skull. It's all pretty much white noise, but you can play with the harmonics so that it sounds like wind blowing through trees. There are those emulations, and then I also have a collection of Brazilian rosewood bird whistles that have little springs and levers on them. They're designed so that you can mimic and imitate different types of birds. These ones were actually developed and sold to professional hunters who would go out into the Amazon and would collect certain parrot species, for instance. They'd capture them live and then bring them to market. There's a bit of a sinister context to some of them, but I love the sound of them. And the fact that humans are celebrating nature. It's wonderful that they're actually celebrating by trying to communicate with animals, in that respect. Mixed with field recordings of the sea, insects, and various other animals like goats and bells, I felt it was really important as a bridging mechanism.
Are the field recordings ones that you captured?
No, the web is just a wonderful resource. There are lots of wonderful websites with enthusiasts from all around the world, some of them using Nagras with really expensive mics, and others on smartphones recording these natural environments and posting them, copyright-free generally. I was looking for bees. I eventually chose a hive that was actually just a couple of miles away from where I used to live in New Zealand, up in the rain forest. I had to listen to about 60 different ones before I found the right one. But it's great, all these wonderful field recordings are out there. You can bring the whole world into your living room without having to leave it. It's just your imagination that helps you travel, in that respect.
It's really difficult to capture a field recording of only what you're trying to focus on as well.
Yeah, very difficult. It's a real art, in itself. It's there to lend a kind of dramatic ambience so that it makes the listener feel like they're actually outside and in nature, as opposed to an internal ambience.
How did you sketch out Dionysus, as far as being thematic?
There were various inroads into working on it. For instance, using the sea sound, where you can hear the waves at the very beginning, the movement "Sea Borne," you can hear that happening. Then you can hear this old ship. You know it's an old ship because you can hear the wood creaking, and you can hear the ropes tightening. That really was the inspiration. There's a rhythm that happens with each successive wave that comes in. I was building rhythm from that. One of the main foundations for the album really was rhythm. There are a lot of rhythm tracks. I build a lot of the pieces from a rhythmic basis, primarily because rhythm and dance is a very important part of Dionysian practice. They use that with chance in order to achieve what is called extasis, which is ecstasy, to go into a trance and have an out-of-body experience. I felt that rhythm was an essential motif that had to drive the album along.
And then you work top lines, vocals, or other instruments around the rhythms as you write?
Yeah, the rock bed of instruments I chose were traditional folk instruments from the Mediterranean region, from the Black Sea, the Balkans, and Turkey, as well as isolated instruments from Slovakia and Sardinia, Corsica, and some from North Africa. These instruments, as well as the wind instruments, percussion, and stringed instruments have really old pedigrees that go back into the mists of time. They haven't changed for hundreds of years. I felt it was important to have that link, the archaic link into the past.
Have you collected all these instruments? I'm trying to imagine your studio full of wild instruments.
I have a good few. I also have quite an extensive sound library that I've accrued over the last 30-odd years. Yeah, it's a balance between using real instruments where I can – like some of the flute sounds, bird whistles, drums, and percussion – and from my sample libraries.
For your rhythm beds, would you start with a loop and then add more organic parts, as well as non-organic things onto the percussion to build it up?
Yeah, usually. I have percussion templates, and I actually play them in with a keyboard for a lot of these rhythms. I'll put together a template of what I think is a really interesting combination of percussion sounds. There was one really important addition to my sonic arsenal for this album. You know these performer-player keyboards, where you wander into a hotel lobby and someone's got this big organ setup with drum machines all going into these speakers? I bought one from Yamaha, which is a version that's sold to the North African and Middle Eastern markets [PSR-A30]. It's got quarter-tone scales, and you can choose which notes are going to be quarter tones or what have you. Instead of your regular polkas and tango beats, it's got all these amazing Middle Eastern rhythms; whole families of rhythms from Azerbaijan, to Morocco, to Balkan. Incredible! It was a great resource.
I've never heard of this!
Yeah, it's fantastic, especially the quarter-tone sounds. I can really make these instruments sound authentic. I used the combination of that and my sample libraries for the rhythmic beds. I play them in by hand, freeform, and they turn into 5/4 or 7/8 odd time signatures. Then I'd loop them. The next stage is usually the bass parts, where it's low wind parts, low organs, or strings. That's generally the way I work. Songs are either percussion-based at the beginning, or I start with just the bass parts.
I always felt that what opened up a door for you was being able to have a string sample that held a note for an unnaturally long time, where you'd hold a drone and build against that. Did that change with sampling technology, and did it influence the way you were writing and creating?
The drones came from a study of Baroque music I did. I read a book by Johann Joseph Fux called Steps to Parnassus [Gradus ad Parnassum]. It taught me counterpoint. It's heavily based on this principle of using pedals, because this music was originally written for organs. They had this music theory that related to the pedal notes. As a bass player previous to this, in punk bands and what have you, I tend to write from the bass as well, if it's not percussion. I really identified with that approach. A lot of Baroque composers wrote from the bass up, which was a revelation to me. Of course, playing these bass pedal notes meant that then the harmonization is the next stage and goes over the top of that. I found that you could be really inventive by just having the one note and then exploring all the possible harmonization you could do above that. That's one part of where that came from. Also listening to troubadour, and early music where they used to use a lot of drones, like hurdy-gurdies and instruments like that. There's something incessant that casts an almost hypnotic, trance-like quality when you have an element that holds its presence continually and draws you back continually to it. We discovered it has a weird, discombobulated, disembodied effect on the listener.
But being able to take samples and loops, and meld them together so you don't hear a beginning and end created new sounds.
Yeah. And live, it's even more impressive when you're using it with a big system, with all those sub-bass frequencies. The audience really feels it. That's the way I want to hear music. That's a contradiction. I want to feel it. I really want to feel it in a live context. Bass is my go-to. Exploring the bottom end is very important.
When I saw Dead Can Dance live during the Into the Labyrinth era, the sound was impeccable. Do you make sure you've got a front-of-house engineer who's absolutely engaged and work them into the fold?
Yeah. We've always regarded the front-of-house engineer as the n-th member of the band. They're such an integral part of the music-making that we have to have that attitude. We also spend an inordinate amount of time sound checking. Every venue is different. Unless you have the luxury of working with the same sound system on the road, then you have to spend a lot of time tuning your sound into the room. You also have to respond to the limitations and see what the room can offer, maybe in a positive way or a negative way. That all takes time. We also have engineers who are used to working long hours, like us.
Ones who can stay a bit obsessive for you.
Yeah, exactly. We have those nerdy, obsessive types running front-of-house who never get bored, or tired, or fatigued.
Your second and third records, Spleen and Ideal and Within the Realm of a Dying Sun, were done with John A. Rivers co-producing. They really set the sound and vibe that you carried on with. What were the sessions like working with John? He's worked with Eyeless in Gaza, Felt, and Love and Rockets.
Yeah, and The Specials' "Ghost Town."
Oh, I love that song.
Yeah. We were quite bitterly disappointed with the first album [Dead Can Dance]. We only had two weeks to do it all, and we had an engineer who was totally impossible to work with. He was just really unhelpful and it was a really unpleasant experience. The results bear witness to that, which is a shame, because there were a lot of good songs on that album. For the next album, we stipulated that we wanted to work with someone we liked, in a studio we liked. We drove 'round – me and James Pinker, who was playing percussion with us at the time – and we visited about four studios. We wanted to do it outside of London in the countryside, where there were no distractions so that we could be very focused. We went to John's studio [Woodbine Street Studios], and we really liked it. We talked to him in this really nice studio, in the basement of this old, three-story Victorian house. We really got on well with the engineer [Jonathan Dee] because he was into classical music. We'd taken a big left turn from the first album, which was a post-punk album, into this neo-Baroque world that we wanted to explore. Having Jonathan engineer there was just great. He had an ear and a sensibility for classical music. We also imported some people. We actually had six string players, some wind players, a trombonist, and we rented timpani. We went for it, but a lot of it was self-taught. We found a home away from home working at that place. It was really nice. The boarding house where we stayed was run by this wonderful old eccentric English guy who made the best breakfast and dinner. We became friends of the family; him and his mother. It was lovely.
You've kept a tradition of not recording in the city centers with your own personal studios. Does working somewhere rural feel good to you?
It does. I'm more of a country boy at heart. I don't really like cities that much, to be honest. Most cities are very polluted and noisy, with too many people living in small spaces pretending they're happy to be doing that. I can work from anywhere now. I can choose where I want to live, which is a nice luxury to avail of. It's funny though. I was talking earlier about when we had enough money, we approached 4AD to give us the next recording budget. We were living on the 13th floor of a high-rise near the center of London, right on the river Thames. We did The Serpent's Egg in our bedroom, but at least we had a view! We were living in this concrete jungle, but we had a view from the 13th floor; this eagle's nest in the sky. But Lisa moved to Barcelona after that, and I moved over to Ireland and took the studio with me there.
It seems like it was a pretty interesting location there in Ireland.
Yeah, it's beautiful. A quite remote area, and it's right on the border of northern Ireland in the Lake District. It's quite stunning.