The Carnival’s Begun: An Interview with Dead Can Dance

Dead Can Dance

In a song on their 1993 release Into the Labyrinth, Dead Can Dance sang, “The carnival is over / We sat and watched / As the moon rose again / For the very first time.” And, since then, their carnival has been over. It wasn’t until August 13, 2012 that the legendary world fusion band made their return with Anastasis, which found Brendan Perry singing “We are the children of the sun / Our carnival’s begun / Our songs will fill the air” on the opening track, “Children of the Sun”. And, with their first new album since 1996’s Spirtichaser and subsequent world tour (the first one since 2005’s retrospective tour), the carnival has begun again.

Anastasis has two meanings: rebirth and a time between two stages. Both meanings are apt, as they find the band both regenerating their musical career and looking to what they will create in the future. Anastasis also finds Perry and vocalist Lisa Gerrard in fine form. On the second track, “Anabasis”, which is a term for a large-scale military advance, Gerrard sings her trademark wordless, evocative vocals. Even without words, she manages to convey the feeling of the song. The same holds true for the following track, “Agape” (a kind of universal love), which pulses listeners forward with is spiraling, neo-gothic sound.

“When you do music, it’s something that hopefully if you can maintain a standard when you know yourself that you’ve arrived at the highest level you’re capable of arriving at with this work. Then when others come and are exposed it it, hopefully it enables them to look inside themselves and pass through some of the feelings and deeper experiences that they have and explore or examine those as nurturing of the soul. As opposed to nurturing

things that come toward you that disconnect you with your soul tissue. As artists, that’s what artists are really trying to do. They’re trying to unlock those properties inside that help us to understand who and what we are as human beings,” says Gerrard.

“When you have the privileged or the expected life of being an artist — whichever way you want to look at it, because the pendulum swings between both realities, that you’re able to explore the deeper issues and philosophy of life. It’s very much a soul journey, and you do have to dig deep, and you do have to face silence to a point where you can grow something out of silence. So the kind of onslaught of input is reversed if you like. You have to be able to create output. So, you tend not to watch as much television and things like that, because the horribly suffocating mediocre assault actually creates a sort of numb layer of ignorance. It can get in the way of the work,” she continues.

“We live in the dreamtime / Nothing seems to last / Can you really plan a future / When you no longer have a past,” Perry sings on “Amnesia”, itself a Greek word for “forgetfulness”. In fact, the Mediterranean was such an influence on the legendary post-goth duo that Perry himself discussed the inspiration of Greece in the band’s most recent official bio, saying he had been fascinated by the “immutable” elements of Greek culture as well as Mediterranean-inspired instrumentation, including a percussion instrument known as a Hang.

“All my love and all my kisses / Sweet Mnemosyne,” Perry intones, addressing the Titan personification of memory. While his lyrics give pause to the listener — as opposed to Gerrard’s wordless tapestry — each member is singing for different reasons. “You know, I was talking to Brendan the other day, and he was saying he doesn’t reach out. When I sing, I’m reaching out from my heart to create a bridge of emotional connection,” Gerrard explains. “He said ‘I don’t reach out.’ I said, ‘What do you do?’ He said ‘I’m telling people what I feel. But I’m not reaching out to them. I’m showing them how I feel. And it’s a completely different ambiance to what you’re doing.'”

“That’s something in the mind, isn’t it? The complexity of how an artist views themselves and the work that they do is very much a story of the mind also. That can become quite complicated. It’s usually based on instinct or the presence of instinctual reality as opposed to whether something is beautiful or aesthetically pleasing. For me to do this work, I have to be inspired by it. Otherwise I will say just ‘Fuck it all’ and whatever I would be doing would sound boring,” says Gerrard, who has spent her time between Dead Can Dance albums and contributing vocals to a number of projects (namely soundtracks) while Perry released two solo albums.

“It’s like playing with an electrical current. You don’t go and stick your finger in an electrical current wall socket. When you’re dealing with this work, there’s a lot of electricity and power that comes up through the ground or something when you do this work. You call upon the power of your instinctive ability to open up the pathways of — I’m not sure what they are — but the pathways that allow you to communicate through music and respond to harmonies and create the architecture. When Brendan and I work, we often talk a lot about the way that the piece is making us feel. So that really is the roadmap that we have to go forward to write the next part or maybe sing. There’s a lot of communication about those things.”

In videos from the current tour, Gerrard sings “Kiko” while backlit in a purple and blue glow. She wears a blue dress and gold cape. Despite the YouTube’s iffy resolution, she is clearly invested in carrying the song forward, taking it to the last melodic sigh as the stage lights turn red and white. It may sound odd to say that Gerrard believes in what she’s doing, given the wordless, inimitable nature of her vocals, but she remains committed to the importance of communicating feeling through her delivery, in addition to the importance of inspiring others to create: “I don’t know what it’s like to not have an artistic soul. Sometimes I think we all possess the potential to have an artistic direction. Anyone has the creativity or a way to create in some way to connect with things and feel the frequency of things and respond to colors and respond to poems. There are different ways to wake up the creative center and excite you to make you want to contribute in your own creative way as a response to those realities. Yes, I hope that when we create this work, we can encourage others to do the same, because clearly it keeps you very healthy. The thing that I really liked about Dead Can Dance in the beginning was that some of our pieces were just with a drum and maybe one beat, one drum, and some singing, and I think it really empowered our public to realize ‘I could do that. I haven’t been to the conservatory of music, and if I wanted to express myself, it could be really simple, as long as I’m genuine and committed. It doesn’t matter how simple what I do is, as long as I believe it.'”

That’s not to say, though, that Gerrard doesn’t believe in Perry’s lyrics: “They’re very much the campfire of where the people are in this present time where Brendan is communicating his experiences of the time. He’s a great songwriter and he writes incredible words and they’re usually about his life experiences, like all writers, I suppose. It’s whether you connect with the depth of that that he’s communicating, that you have an understanding of that,” she says.

“Sometimes / I feel like I want to leave behind / all these memories,” Perry sings in “Opium”, whose tribute to forgetting may be the antithesis of “Amensia”‘s salute to Mnemosyne. Thinking about lyrics, Gerrard reflects on the power of the word: “I remember when I was young I read, for the first time, a piece of poetry. It was by Marina Tsvetaeva; she’s a Russian poet. I would have been about 16 when I read her work, and at the time I was going through a lot of dark ideological changes and feeling like I couldn’t connect with anything and feeling really miserable that I was living in a world that I didn’t respond to and just, I felt, was completely pointless. You go through those really dark hours of ‘What am I doing and why am I here? I don’t want to be here.’ And I was reading this poem, I realized that this woman felt just the way I felt. She had the same kind of thoughts and the same kind of feelings and she really empowered me to realize that there wasn’t something wrong with me, that there was a lot about being the person that I am that wasn’t being celebrated because I was simply getting an education in how to go out into the workforce of the world.”

“When Brendan sings those words, he’s providing an olive branch, acknowledging for others if they connect with those words, that in a sense gives the presence or the right for him to engage in a dialogue that will empower those people in some way or even whether they connect, it’s something that creates a strength between people so they don’t feel disconnected from everything,” Gerrard elaborates. “There’s always that motive with writers. They want to be understood. They want to communicate their deeper feelings. That’s really what it’s all about. It’s all about opening yourself up so that you can pour your understanding of things out onto paper and share those. The things that you can write down, you don’t really get to speak to everyone about, unless it comes through the form of music. That’s how you really create that connection.”

Anastasis, like other Dead Can Dance albums, has a strange sort of sensitivity to it, much like the tinge of an ache in Gerrard and Perry’s voices on the soaring “Return of the She-King”. Gerrard stresses once again the importance of making choices that foster one’s artistic creativity. “There has to be integrity in what I do. Otherwise it would be a mishmash of soup. It has to be authentic. So it’s all a matter of that you maintain an open heart and, in order to do that, you must make choices about how you’re going to live your life and the things that you’re going to expose to. If you’re completely exposed and in a state of surrender, and you allow yourself the onslaught of those things that create confusion, then you become sick. You won’t be able to do this work.”

For Gerrard, the keys to making substantial, enduring music are an open heart and sensitivity. “It’s much harder to walk away from a situation with a good conscience or to walk away from a situation without any conscience about what’s going on if you have massaged and exercised your flexibility and your sensitivity. You will be more aware of what others are experiencing. Not only human beings, but animals, the forest, the ocean, you can tune in to those frequencies more readily. That’s the role of music: to do those things. It’s an oracle in that sense. I know when Brendan sings, he sings words that are the result of the things that he’s learned, and that he wants to share those journeys and experiences with others. When I think that I know that I want to unlock my musical centers and my voice and remain more abstract where I’m not telling people what I think but I’m opening a pathway to the heart so we can connect with an emotional bridge.”

And, on the rebirth, the anastasis of Dead Can Dance, the reopening of the carnival, that emotional bridge has never sounded better.