From post-rock with Parhelia to doom with Wreck of the Hesperus, Offaly musician Cathal Rodgers crams a lot into his flight case. He tells Harry Guerin about his new drone album, Instrumental Conditioning.
Harry Guerin: Having spent a few nights in with Instrumental Conditioning, my assessment is that if I was directing a horror film, I'd give you the job of scoring it. How do you describe the sound?
Cathal Rodgers: I get that horror movie analogy used quite a lot, and I always hope that any sense of horror one might perceive within the music comes maybe in the, ahem, Lynchian juxtaposition of the macabre and the mundane, or a form of Lovecraftian Cosmicism, where we look up at the night sky and come to realise our complete insignificance in the ineffable vastness of the universe. As for how I'd describe the sound, in lieu of using the journalistic shorthand of genre tags, or the record label marketing of name-checking similar sounding artists, I'll describe the sound by saying that if we were to equate music with the night sky, then Instrumental Conditioning is the sound of the space in between the stars. It's an attempt to capture the essence of dark matter and dark energy through some mysterious form of quantum recording.
And it wasn't recorded in caves in Banagher like it says on the back, right?
Ha ha... Well, it was recorded in Banagher, but not in any actual caves. I didn't come up with the idea for that name, but I did embrace it as a perfect metaphor for the intentions and approaches to the music we were recording there. In Plato's Allegory of the Cave he describes a group of people chained to a wall inside a cave, whose only concept of reality comes from seeing shadows projected onto the wall. In our modern world of reality television, 24-hour news and social networking, the ensuing state of hyperreality might infer that we are still in chains and still only observing the shadows. So whilst the Banagher Caves may not be actual caves, perhaps they are no less real.
It sounds like the type of record where you may have started out with one destination in mind but found yourself going somewhere else the further you travelled.
When I was first invited to record an album for [US label] Kendra Steiner Editions (KSE) the idea was for it to be a drone album, incorporating some homemade instruments and very much influenced by the atonal and microtonal works of György Ligeti and Anton Webern. But, as I was already familiar with a couple of amazing albums that had already been released by KSE, doubt and second-guessing began to take hold and I began to feel that maybe a simple drone album wasn't the best thing I could submit.
So what happened?
Around that time I had released a number of improvised guitar recordings, so I decided that perhaps I'd record an album of guitar improvisations. There are some major differences between recording something you're going to self-release and something that you'll be submitting to a label, so it wasn't long before that artistic self-doubt began to creep in again. I now had two semi-recorded albums and wasn't sure about which one I should concentrate on! Until I had the eureka moment that I should combine the two into one album.
Up to that point I had always treated the drone stuff and the guitar improvisations as two very distinct and separate entities and would never have dared thought that they belonged together on one album. Perhaps they still don't, but it was quite a leap for me to even consider placing them together as one album. This was where the idea for the title Instrumental Conditioning came from: wondering how years of social, cultural and religious conditioning can lead to us place limitations and boundaries on our thought patterns, where even the simple idea of placing two seemingly disparate forms of music together can seem like a cardinal sin. It can take some concerted thought and effort to counteract that conditioning.
What did you learn about yourself with Instrumental Conditioning that you didn't know at the start?
I am certainly a big believer in the premise that music and art can teach us things about ourselves, be that as a creator, or simply as a listener/observer. But much of the time these lessons do not come to us as epiphanies. Instead, they come as a cumulative, subconscious process, where one day we might have a thought which seemingly comes 'out of the blue', but if we were to meditate on it for long enough it should be possible to trace the branches back to the roots. I do spend quite an inordinate amount of time following and tracing such lines of thought. It is quite fertile ground in the search for inspiration and creative energy. Having said all that, I guess the only way I can answer your question is by quoting George Bernard Shaw: "Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself!"
You cut your teeth on and in metal bands. Can you remember key moments or records where you felt yourself being called in a different direction that led you to this record?
Metal has always been and will always be my first love. At the time I was a quite typical close-minded metaller. My move outside of that approach didn't really come from any exterior influence; it started as an attempt to recreate sounds that I was hearing in my head. So there were many nights over many years locked away in the bedroom with guitar pedals and a four-track recorder making them do things that perhaps they were not designed to do. But, having spoken to many musicians over the years, it would seem that a good many of them shared that very same experience, some inexplicable desire to recreate some almost innate sounds, and that sense that you were the first ever person to attempt these things.
And so another journey began...
I was very well aware of the metal underground at this point, but it wasn't until I had released a couple of my more 'experimental' CDs, and reviews started to mention other names, that I discovered there was a whole other underground out there, populated with just the very music I had been trying to capture all those years.
As I already mentioned, I was quite a close-minded metaller when I started making some very non-metal music. So while I can't point to any specific records which might have started me out in that direction, I did discover some quite inspirational music in my search for some referents to those sounds in my head. Music by Arvo Pärt, György Ligeti and the Cliff Martinez soundtrack to Solaris all stand out as offering some particular guidance.
You've played gigs in all kinds of places over the years. Tell us about the strangest things you've experienced.
I have been lucky enough to be invited to play in many strange and beautiful places. Of course, there are lots of stories and anecdotes, but I'm not sure any of them would transfer too well into typeface. But maybe my last gig was one of the strangest yet. We went to Fermanagh to play a gig deep inside a cave. It was freezing cold and pitch black. The audience consisted of three cavers who had somehow heard about the gig. I think there's some footage on YouTube but it doesn't do it any justice. It was perhaps a once in a lifetime experience... quite amazing.
So, what are you working on next?
As usual, there's quite a few things on the go. We are almost finished recording the new Wreck of the Hesperus album. Writing has been finished for a new Parhelia album, which will hopefully come out this year. There's also new albums in the works from Transfiguration and Urnfields. There's a couple of different collaborations on the go, and some other stuff that either doesn't have a name yet or is still in the very early stages of development.
Tell us about a couple of records that people should make the time in their life to hear - and why.
Talk about opening a can of worms! How can you go about distilling the entire history of recorded music into a few quality recommendations?! I guess I can name a few, as long as everyone is aware that when it comes to music there are no right or wrong answers.
Fear of God - Within the Veil
I moved to Dublin in late 1992 and still remember the day I bought this album on cassette for £1 from Freakout Records on South William Street, a really amazing record shop, replete with the surly shop assistants. Good times. Within the Veil is quite a unique album, from the riffing style and arrangements down to Dawn Crosby's harrowing, tour de force vocal performance - there is nothing quite like Within the Veil. Your world is a little less if you haven't heard it and loved it.
The God Machine - Scenes from the Second Story
I did a PLC course in 1992-93 and Disintegration by The Cure was the soundtrack to those times. I have no memory of what drew me to Scenes from the Second Story, but it always struck me as a perfect companion album to Disintegration, perhaps this is what The Cure might have sounded like if they'd been listening to copious amounts of doom metal? In retrospect, I'm not sure how well that comparison actually holds up, perhaps I was swayed by them sharing a record label and having a quite similar colour palette on their covers? Either way, The God Machine captured an almost perfect balance between loss and longing without lounging into nostalgia or sentimentality. Still sounds as fresh and vital today as it did 22 years ago.
Lingua Fungi - Vigil for the Snail Lovers
These days I don't listen to as much drone music as I did a few years ago, but this is one that I return to time and again. On the surface it's quite understated, but there is an entire universe to be discovered below that surface. With some amazing artwork by Sgraffito, this album is a perfect example of how sounds and visuals can come together to create something powerful and magical.
Spiral Architect - A Sceptic's Universe
As much as I hate the idea of 'Your Top 10 Albums', I reckon this one has always been vying for top spot on my list. Progressive metal taken to its most logical conclusion. The brain-melting performances and arrangements add nicely to that overall sense of cosmic horror. It is possibly something like the musical equivalent of marmite - you'll either love it or hate it - but for me A Sceptic's Universe is The Absolute.
And what new albums are you most looking forward to in 2015?
The only thing that springs to mind right now is the new Chelsea Wolfe album, which I believe is due for release sometime in April. I'm really looking forward to that. Otherwise, I'm not too sure who's releasing what this year, so hopefully I'm in for a couple of pleasant surprises.
Instrumental Conditioning is out now on Kendra Steiner Editions.