Back in the late nineties I was a plucky young writer on my university paper, the lone voice of rock fandom on a staff full of Oasis fans, so when I was given the opportunity to interview one of my favourite bands, Brit-Rock legends Therapy? I jumped at the chance. This was my first big interview and was bound to set me on a career course that would see me eventual editor of Kerrang or Metal Hammer.
When I went backstage at Newcastle University to meet Andy Cairns, affable Therapy? frontman and bearded vocal wonder, he gave me Guinness and conducted the whole interview in his dressing gown and spoke at length and with knowledge about music, politics, fame and more. It was a great interview, up until I realised as I was rounding things up that I hadn’t hit record on my dictaphone.
Ashamed, I rounded off the interview as well as I could, then went to see the band play an excellent show. But I never printed my interview. I tried to write it up from half remembered snatches of memory through the Guinness fog I had conducted it in. But no joy.
So when I saw that Therapy? were releasing their 13th album, the belligerantly brilliant ‘A Brief Crack Of Light’ I thought it was time to put that particular demon to res, and so I stalked bassist Michael McKeegan online until he agreed to answer my questions in return for me leaving him alone and never telling that anecdote again.
Demon Pigeon: First things first. You were a part of the Judgement Night soundtrack, collaborating with Fatal, which was excellent. But then Nu Metal happened. Only a few years later we had Linkin Park. Do you feel that you owe us all an apology?
Michael McKeegan(bass guitar): So could it be possible that we’re responsible for all that? Actually that was all a cunning ploy on our behalf so nu metal would kick in to ‘save’ the UK from Brit-Pop and then once people had got used to hearing guitars again (albeit covered in rap vocals and faux-Dre beats) then true punk and heavy metal would rise from the ashes.
DP: Your new album is your thirteenth, and continues in the tradition of sounding instantly recognisable as yourselves and completely different to your previous albums. Is this something you consciously aim for?
MM: Not really though I suppose over the years our influences have maybe become less obvious and our own style more distinctive. With any new record it’s kind of unsaid that we’ll be tweaking and supercharging the ‘older’ sonic elements whilst still trying to incorporate new sounds and ideas. The easiest thing would be to just make a ‘stock’ Therapy? album though with the stylistic swerves over the years I’ve probably no idea what a ‘typical’ Therapy? song is. Sometimes there is a bit of chat about how an idea needs to go further for example or needs a different element to mix it up but for the whole we tend to go on gut reaction, just suss out whether an idea or a part works on instinct and leave the analysing alone.
DP: You and Andy have been together now for over twenty years, since you were still pretty much kids. How has the relationship changed? How close have you come to killing each other?
MM: We always got on really well from day one and I think any miscommunication in the past was normally due to ex-members stirring the pot and their inter-band ‘power plays’. Thankfully with Neil in the band it’s a very straightforward working relationship and the personal side of things is great as well. Most bands I meet are always bitching about each other so I count myself lucky Andy and I (and Neil) get on great, I really value the friendship.
DP: One of my favourite ever gig experiences was when you had to replace Korn at the last minute on the Ozzfest 98 bill, and you faced down a openly hostile crowd and managed to win them over, and Andy gave a speech about the Troubles that was the most eloquent assessment of a complex political situation I’ve ever seen delivered to a collection of spotty drunk men in black t-shirts. It stuck in the mind. What experiences stick out to you from your twenty odd year career?
MM: There have been many, many ‘pinch yourself’ moments over the years between meeting (and in some cases jamming with) musical heroes and all the travel and crazy crowds but one of the things that still amazes me is when I see people with Therapy? tattoos. I’m a big fan of many bands but I’ve never really seriously considered getting their name or logo tattooed on myself. That’s always a very wonderful, flattering and surreal experience.
DP: The new album is getting (well deserved) praise. It has a really jagged edge in places, and sounds remarkably fresh. Do you go into the studio these days with a particular plan in mind, or are you writing off the cuff and whatever happens happens?
MM: I think with ABCOL there was a bit of both…we had a few elements of Crooked Timber that we wanted to pursue a bit more and as much as you can rehearse and plot stuff, there are always spontaneous additions in the studio. I think you need to get a balance of being disciplined and tight with the structures and then have that ‘spark’ to come up with little nuances and more off the cuff things when you’re recording. Too much either way can either make the record too stiff and lifeless or can end up too sloppy and unfocused. The guy that produced it with us Adam Sinclair (he engineered and mixed Crooked Timber with Andy and mixed our live album) was an essential sounding board for those moments when we maybe might have been getting a bit carried away. Having said that there were moments where he suggested stuff go further so it was good working relationship.
DP: You recently did a ‘Troublegum’ tour, playing the album in full. Did you enjoy revisiting it, or are you more of a mind to keep looking forward?
MM: It was a brilliant tour and a lot of fun to play the shows. We’d just been doing tons of stuff with Crooked Timber so it didn’t seem in anyway like a ‘step back’…more a celebration, especially as we’ve never done the old ‘split up/reform/split up/reform’ routine. We’d seen a few shows where the artist focuses on a certain record so we had a good idea of the best way to do it…after the Troublegum set we did another hour or so from our first single right up to the latest Crooked Timber stuff so it was a really cool overview of 20 years of the band (2010 was our 20th anniversary). We even dug out some of the old guitars, old stage wear and old intros for the trainspotters in the crowd.
DP: A lot of the ‘Brit Rock’ bands that enjoyed success at the same time as you have fallen by the wayside. In some cases they’ve fallen, reformed and jacked it in all over again. You have managed to keep going regardless. To me this is because you never really chased the success, and never let it define what you were doing. What do you think has kept you going?
MM: Most definitely…the main concept behind the band when we started was to play the music we liked as none of the local bands then were doing anything particularly original…naively thought we could throw Dischord punk, noise rock, classic rock, thrash metal, noise pop, techno and jazz all together but bizarrely it worked and seemed to strike a chord with people. Any success we had was never planned, a lot of people perhaps perceive Troublegum as something we planned to be a hit, for us it was just the logical musical path after the mini lps and Nurse.
You have to remember the seeds of Troublegum were there on our first demos (SWT=Screamager, Body OD=Stop It You’re Killing Me etc.) and with tracks like Skyward. Also those early albums had steadily built up our profile and the relentless touring did help so when the media focus swung on a little thing called grunge which brought guitar rock more into favour again, we were right there with a good fan base and a heavy catchy album. Anyway, went a bit off track there but I think the main reason we are still around and making exciting records is that we like music, we like creating music and we like playing music…there’s no big subtext or plot in there.
DP: Rock seems to have fallen out of favour in recent years, certainly you’d be hard pressed to find any out and out rock bands troubling the top 40. Why do you think that is?
MM: I’m not sure though I personally think outside of ‘top 40’ scenes the rock, punk and metal stuff is flourishing. Obviously you get your Foo Fighters, Green Day, Chili Peppers on mainstream radio but I think people are prepared to dig a little deeper to find something good nowadays. In all honesty I don’t really hear any inspiring ‘new’ music on the main radio or tv in the UK, most of it is online, at gigs or recommendations from friends. I suppose the reception that the last Mastodon album got gives me a bit of hope for the mainstream media, it got a lot of attention outside of specialised metal/rock media and rightly so as it’s a brilliant album.
DP: Andy has spoken about his appreciation of Dubstep and has appeared on 6 music as an occasional pundit talking about all sorts of music. What sort of music do you as a band listen to these days? Do you all still influence each other’s tastes?
MM: There’s quite a wide range of music played on the bus and in the dressing room…depends on the mood really but normally lots of newer stuff be it electronic music or black metal, its quite an eclectic bunch of stuff. Yeah, I do pick up a lot of newer stuff from Andy and Neil, every time we get together there’s normally iPods full of new tunes to share…it’s a brilliant way to get into stuff…I don’t really have the time sometimes to sift through all the new stuff so the best normally gets filtered and I pick up on it from the other guys.
Recently I’ve really enjoyed the Symmentry album, lots of old thrash (Kreator, Whiplash, Razor, Voivod), some new thrash (Suicidal Angels, Nekromantheon), some older noisy stuff (Die Kreuzen, Bitch Magnet, The Gun Club), some newer noisy stuff (Hawk Eyes, Blacklisters) and a lot more of course I can’t remember.
DP: The bass sound on Why Turbulence is fucking immense. Not a question, Just wanted to say.
MM: Many thanks…all those years listening to Unsane have finally paid off.
DP:Neil has been your drummer for a while now. Do you still think of him as ‘the new guy?’ What does he bring to the band?
MM: Haha…we were actually talking about this a while ago. Neil’s been in the band 10 years this year (his first gig with us was in 2002), that’s twice as long as Fyfe (original drummer) and Graham were behind the kit.
We’ve known Neil since 1990 as our first UK tour was supporting his band The Beyond (highly underrated and ahead of their time ‘thrash-techno-prog’…both albums are due a re-issue and critical re-assessment) and Fyfe was a big fan of his drumming so I suppose we’ve always had a lot in common musically. I can only really compare Neil to the previous guys and obviously the technical side of things is superb but he’s also very pro-active with the ideas and overall approach of the band. That’s very important in a 3-piece where everyone pulls their weight on and offstage.
DP: You’ve managed to maintain a career and a fan base long after the mainstream music press moved on to the next shiny thing that came along. When you look back on that time when you were all over MTV and the music press do you pine for it back, or are you happier to be where you are now?
MM: Being completely honest that whole period was so hectic (1990-1995…we did 5 albums and toured non-stop in that 5 year period) there weren’t many times where we sat down and reflected on what was going on so its hard to judge. Everything was quite frantic and we were constantly heading to the next gig, the next interview, the next studio session so it was all about forward motion. Don’t get me wrong, it was really lots of fun and very exciting back then and I’ve really enjoyed being in the band since Neil joined, it almost felt like a new band when he got involved and each year and album things have progressively got better and more inspiring.
Many thanks to Michael for taking the time to talk to us. A Brief Crack Of Light is out now, and it’s a fucking belting album, so you should totally go and buy it.