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Dead Can Dance on Awakening the Ancient Instincts Within

The duo’s latest album of unclassifiable music, ‘Dionysus,’ pays tribute to the Greek god of pleasure and wine

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Dead Can Dance's Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry discuss their new album, 'Dionysus,' a meditation on the Greek deity.

Jay Brooks

About two decades ago, Dead Can Dance’s Brendan Perry had one of the most transcendent experiences of his life. He and his brother traveled to Calanda, Spain where they picked up drums and joined in on some local festivities, Rompida de la Hora, that date back to the Inquisition. From 8 p.m. on Good Friday until 6 in the morning, they drummed without stopping, drinking wine and eating olives that people fed them. “You just get into a trance after a few hours of playing and you wander around the streets and you meet other drum groups and realize there’s thousands of them playing throughout these little towns, and they’re covered in blood,” he says. “Our hands split open. We didn’t feel anything. We were completely oblivious to the pain.”

When he looks back on the experience now, he describes it as “very Dionysian,” referring to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and pleasure. “Part of the Dionysian celebration is to achieve ekstasis or ecstasy,” he says, his Australian accent still strong despite living abroad for years. “It’s the spring festivals like that one where you see the real remnants of Dionysian festivals. They’re all over the Mediterranean in remote places where Christian influence hasn’t been as great, such as Sardinia or the mountain regions of the Balkans in Bulgaria. People wear masks and dance in circles almost like time has stood still in their celebrations. There’s one in particular called Kukeri in Bulgaria that’s really beautiful.”

Perry, 59, has recently been immersing himself in all things Dionysian. Two years ago, he was researching Greek music and checked out Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy: Out of the Spirit of Music in the process. It opened his eyes to Dionysus in the way it described two schools of cultural thinking: Apollonian and Dionysian. The former is “all about order, measurement, control,” Perry says, while the latter is dreamlike, “a release in freedom almost, improvisation.” When the two strands work together, it creates the best art. “That was really a revelation for me,” he says. “In a sense, that’s what myself and Lisa [Gerrard] have striven to do for many years.”

The duo’s newest LP of unclassifiable music, Dionysus, is Perry’s meditation on the mythological deity and what he stands for. Perry and Gerrard, 57, sing in made-up languages, explore quixotic Mediterranean sounds and generally bliss out with abandon. The record contains seven movements, like a work of classical music, structured into two acts with titles that suggest images like “Dance of the Bacchantes,” “The Invocation” and “Liberator of Minds.” It’s unapologetically heady (its catalyst was Nietzsche after all) but, like all Dead Can Dance records, it’s also intoxicating.

“Dionysus isn’t something that’s understood through the intellect,” says Perry, who is at home in the northwest of France, where he’s working on a new solo album. “It’s a subliminal, unconscious energy, which is part of nature.”

“Brendan said, ‘Let’s not do songs this time’; let’s make this the sound of the forest so that we can wake up the beauty inside people to remember nature and the ancient,” says Gerrard, who sounds angelic and ethereal on a call from Thessaloniki, Greece, where she’s on tour. “It’s not to look at vanity or at the self, but to look into the forest and open up the vision of the things that we still have that are live in nature and to take a connection with the old and bring it into this current moment.”

Dead Can Dance formed in Melbourne in 1980 — Gerrard was 16 and Perry was 19 when they started working together — and they decamped within a few years for London, where they recorded their goth-rock–inflected, self-titled debut. Within a few years, they dispensed with rock all together and started exploring elements of classical music, opera and Greek and Middle Eastern music on brilliant albums like Within the Realm of a Dying Sun and The Serpent’s Egg. “I’ll be the last person to ask in terms of finding a genre for our music because we’re willful obscurantists,” Perry says. “We don’t really adhere to any one particular style. We filter our musical influences, whether it’s from historical musics or regional musics, through us because we’re very passionate about them. It’s very much a marriage and a celebration of these musics, whether they’re traditional or contemporary.”

By the mid Nineties, when an album like Chant was able to go double platinum at the height of grunge, they reached their commercial peak and their influence reverberates through the works of the Chemical Brothers, Slowdive, Björk and Nine Inch Nails. They’re also tangentially responsible for Europe’s pagan-music movement led by artists like Wardruna and Corvus Corax. They split in the late Nineties, and both pursued solo careers, with Gerrard contributing to the Golden Globe–nominated Gladiator soundtrack, but they reunited briefly in 2005 and permanently in 2011, releasing the excellent Anastasis album a year later. Now they’re at a point where they feel confident in their process and the music it produces.

UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 01: Photo of Brendan PERRY and DEAD CAN DANCE and Lisa GERRARD; Posed group portrait - Lisa Gerrard (C) Brendan Perry (R) (Photo by Kerstin Rodgers/Redferns)

Lisa Gerrard (center) and Brendan Perry (left) of Dead Can Dance in the 1980s. Photo credit: Kerstin Rodgers/Getty Images

“When we were in our twenties, there was an urgency, like, ‘Everyone really needs to hear this,'” Perry says. “Like, ‘This is important. You only get one chance and the moment’s now.’ Now it’s much more measured, more thought-out. We figure out things on paper and arrange them; we have a concept in advance as opposed to discovery through improv.”

Dionysus was an especially different album for Dead Can Dance since it’s almost entirely Perry’s work. After he read three more books about the deity, he decided he wanted to do an “impressionistic work” rather than a song cycle. “It’s an incredibly complex subject,” he explains. “Dionysus changed from an early agrarian, seasonal god of nature into something quite profound towards the end, when the occult was banned in ancient Rome.” He chose three different types of musicians to capture the essence: traditional Mediterranean folk instruments, ones that mimic natural sounds like bird calls, animal sounds or the elements and finally a vocal chorus of his and Gerrard’s voices. “Most Dionysian festivals were celebrated en masse with lots of people,” he says. “And because Dionysus is very much associated with the birth of Greek tragedy and theater, where it began with a chorus, I decided that was the best approach.”

To craft the language of Dionysus, he used a computer plug-in of choral libraries that has an engine called a “Syllabuilder.” “It’s basically a directory of sung syllables, which you can then put together into phrases and sentences from a directory,” he explains. “You can invent your own words and phrases, and then you can play them polyphonically. You can have a whole group singing the same phrase in different harmonies. So I made a combination of that with Lisa’s and my voices to create the ensemble effect.”

“I have no idea what language is on the album,” Gerrard says. “I think the album is very much about Brendan unlocking his own language. He’s always been a genius and a remarkable composer, but I think that in this album he is coming to something very innocent and brave.”

Through it all, he was never worried that it would come out a Brendan Perry solo record. He knows what is Dead Can Dance music and what is not. Generally, he says, he comes up with the themes and concepts and lays the groundwork for the albums; that’s how he Anastasis came together. “Lisa’s input was always gonna be sublimated into the chorus anyway,” he offers. She came to France for about a month to record her vocals, which Perry had already arranged.

“I was there to support him,” Gerrard says. “I didn’t connect with the idea of Dionysus personally, because I’m not a Greek mythologist. Brendan is the academic and literary side of our work. I always connect with the voices that I wasn’t taught to speak in. So it’s a nice relation, because I work outside of systems and Brendan understands everything academically. It’s always been like this between us.”

What did speak to her was Perry’s interest in attempting “to wake up” ancient instincts within people. “The point he’s making with Dionysus is that it’s male and female,” she says. “It’s to wake up the consciousness inside of us. And not to be arrogant, because it’s only music at the end of the day, but in some ways as musicians and poets we stand outside of politics, religions and culture. We’re still able to speak the sacred language of the poetry from [ancient times]. We’ve been doing this together since we were children.”

Moreover, she says this was the easiest Dead Can Dance album ever made because she relinquished control. “I said, ‘If you want me to do something, show me and I’ll do it,'” she explains. In the past, they would argue and disagree about concepts; Gerrard liked supporting Perry this time. “This is really special for Brendan because it really is his work,” she says. “Maybe the next Dead Can Dance album will be my work. We don’t know.”

Now that Dionysus is out, the group will be embarking on its first tour in five years. But Perry says fans of the album shouldn’t expect to hear anything from it live. “I don’t want to break it out into its constituent parts because it’s designed to be listened to as an entire piece,” he says. “We could do it but we’d need at minimum six singers and lots of multi-instrumentalists. And it’s not long enough for an entire set so we would have to augment it with other material. It would dilute its impact.”

Instead, they’re rehearsing a set list of songs from the Eighties and Nineties that they haven’t performed ages. “We’re going to do studio records that we never ever performed live. It will be old John Peel sessions, early demos and we’ll write some new music to bring it up to date,” Perry says. “We’re going to do about three or four pieces from Within the Realm of a Dying Sun and some of the early guitar pieces, which Lisa used to sing, like ‘Avatar.’ It’s going to be nice to return back to that and see if we can still conjure up the same youthful energy as when we wrote that music.”

Gerrard says they’re also “digging deep into the books of poetry that we had many years ago,” and specifically, she’s is looking forward to revisiting the song “Bylar,” a Medieval-sounding rarity from 1996 that first appeared on the group’s 1981 – 1998 box set, on the tour since it will showcase Perry’s younger brother Robbie, who was featured in the band’s 1993 video for Toward the Within  “Robbie can take anything — like a piece of pipe — and turn it into an instrument,” she says. “And it’s exciting that the two brothers are together again. Robbie is probably one of the most remarkable musicians in the world.

“The exciting thing for me now is that we are really going into the past, because those pieces were so sweet,” she continues. “When we wrote them, they were really born of love, excitement and passion, so it’s going to be interested if we are not so old and jaded that we can translate those now. Brendan said, ‘Why don’t you and Robbie do “Bylar”?’ Robbie and I wrote that in the gatehouse next door to the Quivvy Church [in Ireland, where Brendan used to live]. I thought that was a great idea because it’s really just the yangqin and Robbie was playing charango, which is a South American instrument made from the wood of orange trees. Brendan is really wanting to wake up a lot of the things we did before, which is exciting.” (For as excited as they are, though, the tour is currently only scheduled for Europe. “We will come to the U.S. after you’ve impeached Trump and he’s history,” Perry says with a laugh. “Then we might think about coming.”)

“It’s pretty much a celebration of our musical legacy,” Perry says.

And after nearly four decades, what is Dead Can Dance’s musical legacy? Are they new age, goth rock, “world music”? After all those, are each genres they’ve been lumped in with over the years. “We’re all of those things at the same time,” Perry says. “I’m joking. But at the end of the day, it’s a search for the universal truth. What are the universal elements that we all have in common beyond borders, barriers, race, skin, beliefs?”

“Dead Can Dance has never been something commercial,” Gerrard says. “It’s always been an olive branch of friendship, something to reach out to others, so they don’t feel alone on the planet. Dionysus is just another piece of the puzzle to be solved.”

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