If you're looking for a real story of on-record evolution, few are as fascinating as that of Anathema. Over two decades they've gone from doom metal kids to a genre-jumping band who harness power, tenderness and spirituality in equal measure and whose fans take turning others on to their music as something of a calling - when they played Dublin in 2010, one even travelled from Florida to the gig. Anathema could be the best band you've never heard, with this year's Weather Systems and 2010's We're Here Because We're Here two great places to make amends. Before their Vicar Street show supporting Opeth in November, Harry Guerin caught up with Daniel (guitar) and Vincent (vocals-guitar) Cavanagh to discuss Anathema's past, present and future with the brothers.
Harry Guerin: When you look back to those early days in the 1990s when you were on the metal and punk label Peaceville, what are your feelings?
Daniel Cavanagh: I probably look back a bit more than Vinnie does. It's part of growing up; we were kids, we didn't really know what we were doing. We consider our first album, real album, to be [1998's] Alternative IV. Before then it was really like another band.
Vincent Cavanagh: But We're Here Because We're Here was the first album that we did that I was actually happy with. I guess it's one of those things: when you've done something you listen to it for a couple of weeks and then you've had enough and you're on to the next thing. I'm always like that; I always go forward. To me the first stuff is a bit like looking back at your adolescence - it's what you do when you're 15/16 and all that.
It's been one of the most fascinating arcs, in terms of where you started and where you are now. Back in those early days, did you have any plans for where you wanted to get to as a band?
DC: We didn't really get serious until Judgement . That was when we started knowing what we wanted. Before then it was really just a big learning curve of being kids. It wasn't until '98/'99/2000 that we got focused on who we are as a band and what we want and it's grown since then.
Why did it happen at that time?
DC: Me and Vinnie got serious about the music. We got together and we got serious about writing and we did songs like One Last Goodbye and Inner Silence. When tunes like that are coming up and lyrics and they're very emotional songs... It grew from there. And when John [Douglas, drums] rejoined the band at that time and he started writing too... It was just about the musical imagination of me, Vinnie and John and what we could achieve in our minds.
Was it a case that very early on your ideas of what you thought you could achieve were much smaller? Did you have less confidence?
VC: It's not so much a confidence thing; I guess we were always confident. Even when we began we were part of a scene that we didn't really feel connected to as people. We knew we were connected to it, but when we were offstage we were listening to Pink Floyd and The Beatles the same way we always did. We didn't take that music [doom metal] home with us. Confidence-wise, I think we always knew we had something different and we wanted to do something different. I guess it just took us a while to find our feet. What happens is you strip away layers as you progress - as a person as well - and you get more to the core of what you're trying to get at and you don't hide behind something any more. You become more honest with what you're doing. That's why the music's changed.
You're one of those best-kept secret kind of bands.
DC: That's because we started in doom metal - it's as simple as that. When Vinnie started singing we had a singer who could really sing and we started pushing that. The fact is that the name Anathema has been present all along and that really is what the band is known as and trades on. For that reason, and for the history, the mainstream don't touch us. Even though the songs that we do now are comparable with - and I don't say better than, but attempting to be as good as - Chris Martin, Bono, Thom Yorke, people like that. That's what we're going for; that's what we aim for; that's what we compare ourselves to. On certain songs, especially on the last two albums, we've started to touch those heights. But the band name is Anathema and that is still tied to the past and that is the position that we're in.
VC: It's been a constant source of debate for the last few years about changing the band name. There are more voices against that than there are for. But it's still a debate that I would bring up. The point about that is, especially the last couple of albums... It's not as if we want to drop those songs and stop playing them. It's a bit of a tricky situation.
So is there a glass ceiling for Anathema?
DC: That's not a bad way of putting it. The only thing that we can say with confidence now is that we're not exactly dying on our arse any more. We've played to 1,500 people in the capital city in France; 2,000 people turned out for a club show in Holland; the audience in London doubled in a year - 700 to 1,400. We're not dying on our arses, but the mainstream, I think we've missed that. You've got to be in the right place at the right time or you won't make it. And we weren't in the right place at the right moment. Maybe we'll always be a best-kept secret. Maybe we'll sell 100,000 albums. Maybe we'll sell more. In this day and age it's no mean feat.
DC: Compared to a lot of people out there we are doing well and we are blessed and we appreciate that. We do feel blessed when we play to a lot of people. When people say, 'You should be touring with Muse; you should be selling as many records as Coldplay'. Yeah, but it doesn't quite work like that. I could play Dreaming Light to Chris Martin and he'd get it. But that's a different matter: he was in the right place at the right time.
It would sadden me if you thought that breakthrough wasn't going to happen.
VC: I don't particularly see it like that. I think Danny's got a point and he's trying to be realistic. There are still open possibilities with our music and I'm very, very confident, even if we were to change the band name that we would still do alright no matter what. I'm that confident in the future of our music. I'll never say never.
Have you ever been approached to do soundtracks?
VC: It's funny; I was talking to a guy recently about that. Our music does lend itself very well cinematically. It's perfect: on the ambient side of it, the darker post-rock stuff we do, the classical side of things or some of the simple piano melodies and vocal melodies that Danny writes. I think there's a lot of scope there for all kinds of soundtracks. We'll see. It's a big ambition of ours.
So, to the future: what would be on the rest of your wishlist?
DC: The record to take off in America and it to continue growing in Europe. But it would be a five-year wishlist with me. Realistically, pragmatically, five years for me is a minimum of 100,000 album sales, hopefully two- or three-hundred-thousand. Growing and growing, things in place, people don't have to worry anymore. Songs growing and people playing really, really well. And feeling ok and comfortable and at peace and for the songs to keep coming.
VC: Musically to just keep expanding into where I know we're going to go anyway. It's kind of a done deal for me - I can see it. The way I look at it, our music expands from a core - it just grows out. It may look as if it's linear but it seems to me like it just expands in all directions.
I couldn't actually say what your next album will sound like, which is rare with bands these days.
DC: I'm not certain either. I think it will be more colourful and there'll be more synths and more textures in it, but it's not going to be all like that. There are four corners to our music: orchestral, piano, guitars and synths. I just don't think we've done enough of the synths and stuff. I would like to see that come up to a more equal footing. But still the guitars, still the piano, still the epic vocals.
I'm looking forward to it even more now.
Weather Systems and We're Here Because We're Here are out now on Kscope.