Interview: Therapy?

20 years after releasing their first album, Northern Irish rock superstars Therapy? are still churning out album after unpredictable album, each stacked full of tracks that draw their influences from all over the music shop. The chart hits may have dried up but there’s no doubting the passion for music of all styles that still exudes from singer Andy Cairns. Andy, complete with the band’s numerous line-up changes, has taken his unruly rock crusade across the globe, taking in Greek riots and perilous encounters with South American police officers. Along the way, they’ve been listening to dubstep’s darkside and extracting riffs from the murkier recesses of free jazz and electronica. It’s been a seriously unpredictable journey, one teeming with ever-developing punk-rock anger, and it’s a long way from over…

You’ve been working on a new album – incredibly, it’s your 16th in the last 20 years, if we include the retrospective ‘best of…’ – how are things coming along?

It’s done! It comes out in October, we’re not sure of the exact date but hopefully the end of October. The album’s finished and remixed, we just need to put together the artwork, the promo shots and a video. We had 15 tracks, and we decided to put 10 on the album. It’s called A Brief Crack Of Light, which comes from Vladimir Nabokov, who describes life as “A brief crack of light between two endless eternities.”

It was recorded in two completely different sessions – how did you go about stringing them together to make a coherent whole?

Well what happened is, we did most of the writing in Derby, where [drummer] Neil Cooper is from and then we went to a studio in the North East. We went in to record it all before Christmas, but with all the bad snow we couldn’t get into the studio. We had to postpone some of the guitar and vocals until after Christmas, and by then I’d written some other songs. We listened to the songs we had and listened to the new songs and decided to re-record the new stuff. We did it in patches, but it’s ended up as a pretty coherent record.

It’s always been pretty difficult to pin you guys down style-wise. On the last record you talked a lot about the influences of a bass jazz player, and you’ve also talked about dubstep and other dance genres affecting your style. What’s going to shine through this time?

I’ve been listening to a lot of stuff on the Deep Medi label, like Mala and Old Apparatus. There’s a little bit of that, and there’s a lot of Fugazi influence again. We’ve been listening a lot to them, particularly the Red Medicine album. There’s a track on the new album called ‘The Buzzing’, which is taken from Samuel Beckett’s play Not I. It starts with a bit that could be by Black Flag. Then in the middle it changes into a dubstep breakdown, and there’s a bit of free jazz at the end. Its three minutes and 20 seconds long. The thing is, with us, that we listen to so much stuff, we’re constantly listening to new records and I think that’s probably why we’re still going after so long. When we’re on tour, we’re constantly turning each other on to new records and new tracks. We get quite restless creatively. When Therapy? started there was a chubby guy who sang, a geeky guy who played the bass and a quiet guy on drums, and we didn’t look like we belonged in a band. We certainly didn’t belong to any genre – we weren’t part of the grunge movement, or that punk revival thing led by Green Day. The advantage was we felt free to put whatever the hell we wanted into our music.

There was a time, perhaps about 15 years ago, when a lot of rock fans were very precious about the mixing of rock with other genres. Do you feel that you were a little bit ahead of your time in that regard? It seems to be almost expected now…

Yeah I think we were. Our first single had a beat that we couldn’t quite pin down as being either free jazz or hip-hop. But let’s call a spade a spade, we’re a rock band. We don’t really mind, though. I remember coming off stage in the US after playing one of our earlier tracks, and someone said “I love your band, but what was that Prodigy cover?” I had to explain that it was our single from 1992. We had a track for this record that had a Jamaican dancehall rhythm, but we had to drop it because it just didn’t fit with the rest. We used this really off-kilter guitar run through an effects pedal, and it ended up sounding more like a synth line. We’ll have to put it out sometime, but you constantly have to think about how things fit in. Then again, one of our biggest influences, Fugazi, have a lot of dub and reggae on their stuff. That’s such an influence for us and it influenced a lot of the darker electronic music we’re into at the minute, too.

Those kind of ideas seem to really separate bands of your era from the modern day ‘pop’ punk genre…

I have young children now, and it’s amazing how many of these American kids TV shows are soundtracked by pop punk. It’s nothing more than sped-up AOR. There’s no raging guitar, no jazz-style drumming underneath it all.

Do you feel you’ve lost any of that youthful anger over the past two decades, or do you still have that punk-rock fury in you?

Completely. I just have to look around me. We live in an absolute world of absurdity, the new religion is consumerism. You overhear people talking about what car they have, my house is bigger than your house, what brand of jeans they have… there are no more important issues. Everyone’s completely distracted all the time. The anger changes; when you’re a kid it’s a kind of impotent rage. When you get older, part of your brain tells you that you shouldn’t be getting angry anymore, and you bottle it all up. I actually think that’s worse. It’s a lot more dangerous. When you’re 18 or 19 and fall in love and fight there’s an honesty to that because of the age. A lot of older people seem to live under this cosmetic veneer of normality, and inside they’re bitter, dark and twisted. I think that’s why we get so much road rage and domestic violence. I think there’s this huge discombobulated mass of people out there just waiting to explode. We were in Athens just after the protests, and we were talking to the kids while things were still being cleared up. A lot of them said they’d never felt so helpless in all their lives, and that’s why they’d done what they’d done. Watching that, there’s a bit of you that almost feels guilty. I’ve never been able to do that kind of cartoon metal rage. I could never be in a band like Slayer, for example. There’s a great deal of untapped anger, though. I think someone like Neil Young is amazing at tapping into that.

So in a lot of ways, Therapy? Is quite a literal description of what your music is?

Yeah, I don’t think we’d have admitted that at the time [when we formed], but in a lot of ways I think that’s what’s kept us together. Not only that, but we really enjoy what we do.

It must sometimes feel like Troublegum’s a little bit of a weight around your neck, having had so much success. Is there any pressure to try and remain in that style?

Not really. It’s just really great to have a hit album. It’s a bit like Lemmy with ‘Ace of Spades’. Everyone talks about that track when they talk about Motorhead. All he says about that is “if you’re only going to be known for one song, make sure it’s a bloody good one.” I think it’s the same with Troublegum. There was a drummer in a black metal band not long ago, who shall remain nameless, and we were having this chat. He said “are you not sick of everyone going on about ‘Screamager’,” and I thought, well at least we’ve got one song. What song are you known for? It’s something we did, and that we’re proud of. If we hadn’t had that record, we’d probably be nothing more than a footnote in some Northern Irish music magazine.

At the time when you emerged, the Northern Irish music scene seemed extremely muted, and with the exception of the likes of Ash, Neil Hannon and a few others, not many seemed to really make it in the big time. Was that related to the troubles, or were there other reasons?

I think the biggest problem was the media structure at the time. There wasn’t really a way of getting your music out there. We did it by going to London, dropping our single in to John Peel with an address to send away for it. He played it and read the address out. I remember Tim from Ash coming up to me and giving me a demo tape when we were watching Blur in the Limelight. They just wanted to play and tour relentlessly, and I remember Neil Hannon in the kind of My Bloody Valentine-stage of The Divine Comedy being the same. It was really hard work, I think it’s an awful lot easier now. Their used to be only one or two gigs you could play in Belfast. Things seem healthy now, without those compartmentalisations there were years ago. Fair play to them.

You must have had some pretty mental tour experiences over the years. What’s been your wildest experience?

We went on a South American tour, and on one date there was a bloody bottle in the dressing room. Two cops were in the dressing room with us, and Faith No More had just come off stage. One of the band reached over and grabbed the cops gun from his holster. The whole room froze, and the two South American cops – it was in Sao Paulo – just looked at each other and burst out laughing. It could have gone horrendously wrong.

You’ve been around for 20 years now. How do you see the future going for Therapy?

Well we’re a pretty low maintenance band, really. We don’t have any airs and graces and we enjoy doing what we do. We don’t spend a fortune making records and we never have, even when we were on major labels. We’re pretty rigid about the business side, and as long as we’re able to do it and we’re making music that we enjoy and that we think is relevant, we’ll keep going.

As published on, July 2011.

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