1980-81 In '80, Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard, both of Anglo-Irish extraction, meet in Melbourne, Australia. 1982-early 1984 In '82, they move to London and the next year sign to 4AD. In March '84, they release their first album, a collection of the songs they have written over the previous four years. It is simply entitled Dead Can Dance.
The album artwork, a ritual mask from New Guinea, attempted to provide a visual reinterpretation of the meaning of the name Dead Can Dance. The mask, though once a living part of a tree is dead; nevertheless it has, through the artistry of its maker, been imbued with a life force of its own. To understand why we chose the name, think of the transformation of inanimacy to animacy.. Think of the processes concerning life from death and death into live. So many people missed the inherent symbolism, and assumed that we must be "morbid gothic types," a mistake we deplored and deplore...
...The naked blindfolded figure, representing primal man deprived of perception, stands, within the confines of a garden (the world) containing a fountain and trees laden with fruit. His right arm stretches out - the grasping for knowledge - towards a fruit bearing tree, its trunk encircled by a snake. In the garden wall - the wall between freedom and confinement - are two gateways: the dualistic notion of choice. It is a Blakean universe in which mankind can only redeem itself, can only rid itself of blindness, through the correct interpretation of signs and events that permeate the fabric of nature's laws.
1985 The second Dead Can Dance album is released and reaches #2 in the British independent charts. It is called Spleen And Ideal.
...The terms 'spleen' and 'ideal' were taken from nineteenth century symbolist ideas. Spleen - the ill natured and malevolent aspects of human nature such as envy, ill temper, spite and intolerance - was seen as inextricably linked to the notion of the ideal. On one hand it tended to rob the ideal of its potentiality to exist; on the other hand it would shape and influence the ideal's very nature. Correspondingly, our songs were about the truth and illusion; conditioning and freedom; doubt and faith; and beneath all these couplings, the quest for perfection. The attainment of the ideal...
1986-87 In '86, Dead Can Dance tour extensively and contribute two songs, "Frontier" and "The Protagonist," to the 4AD compilation and video Lonely Is An Eyesore. They also release their third album, Within The Realm Of A Dying Sun.
...We realized we had been limiting our musical visions, adapting role playing fixed around guitar, bass and drums. And a lot of things we were hearing, these instruments weren't adequate to express them. So we were learning classical theory, particularly baroque structures based on counterpoint, and we decided we were going to work within the form of the classical idiom and use classical instruments, with the aid of samplers, computers and a few books on how to score. To play the parts we could hear...
1988-89 In the latter part of '88, Dead Can Dance write the film score for the Agustin Villarongas film El Nino De La Luna (Moonchild), in which Lisa Gerrard also made her acting debut. Earlier in '88 they release their fourth album, The Serpent's Egg.
....a lot of aerial photographs of the earth, if you look upon it as a giant organism - a macro-cosmos- you can see that the nature of the life force, water, travels in a serpentine way. We had a vision of this serpentine embrace around the egg: the earth. Again we were telescoping into an earlier period of European music. The troubadour trouvere musics going right through to the renaissance. The romantic elements had disappeared.
1990 Dead Can Dance's fifth album reflects their interest in liturgical and secular music from a period spanning the early Renaissance and incorporates reproduction instruments from those periods. It is called Aion.
...the word Aion - alternately spelled Aaon - signifies an age, but also the entire duration of the world or universe. In Platonic philosophy it represents benevolent power existing within eternity...
1991-93 In '91 Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard work with the theatre and festival projects in Eire, Dead Can Dance perform Lisa Gerrard's score for the Temenos production of Sophocles Oedipus Rex and, at the Cavan Lakes and Vales Festival, Dead Can Dance conceptualize and performed the music for the parade and closing ceremony of The Lughnasa. In '93, a mixture of new and previously released Dead Can Dance music appears in the American film Baraka, and they also contribute two songs to the '93 Hector Zazou album Sahara Blue. In October '92, Dead Can Dance collect their finest compositions (and two new songs "Bird" and "Spirit") as their first American domestic release under the title A Passage In Time.
...We chose songs to show a journey, where the pieces interlocked. It's evolutionary, traversing something, as opposed to a time which is fixed and linear. Derived from something and arriving towards something. The music tends to still sparkle and glow, though the events surrounding it are very dim...
In September 1993, Dead Can Dance - Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard - release their new album Into The Labyrinth. Brendan Perry lives on an island in a river on the border between Eire and Northern Ireland; Lisa Gerrard lives in the Snow River mountains in Australia. As a result, they wrote independently and then, in three months together, prepared and recorded both Into The Labyrinth tracks as well as other material.
Brendan Perry: It's a journey into a year of writing, very much focused on living in the countryside with rural people. There's folk rootedness, in one respect: a love for natural, primitive music of the world, and a love of very natural sounding things: bird song, wood..
Some of the songs on Into The Labyrinth are without words, perhaps some are beyond them. Some are deceptively straight forward, heaving pop ballads, and some are disconcertingly unpinned instrumentals. Some brook no explanation, while some allow a little.
"The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove" is Brendan Perry's alter ego ...the abstract relationship of myself and woman..
"The Wind That Shakes The Barley," a late eighteenth-century piece written by Dr. Robert Dwyer-Joyce to commemorate an uprising in Wexford against the British. Lisa Gerrard wanted to do her own version...it was meant to be a rallying song, but it has such an intense sadness that it becomes an anti-war song...
"The Carnival is Over" is a reminiscence of pre-teen Brendan Perry living in East London, visiting the circus.
"Tell Me About The Forest": When you live in Ireland you see the people who have been away for years returning to their parents, and you also see those they leave behind..the breaking down of tradition along with the uprooting and upheaval of tribes. In Ireland, and in the rain forests. If we could only keep the oral traditions going, and leave the clerical bullshit behind..
"How Fortunate The Man With None": Brendan Perry set words from Brecht's Mother Courage, to music from a Temenos production of the play. This is only the second such permission granted by the Brecht estate, the previous one in 1963.
...live, we don't play much from our records. We have a system where we introduce nodal structures which allows room for improvisations, according to a melismatic approach. You can achieve some dangerously beautiful musical moments by way of this process...
Into The Labyrinth is Dead Can Dance's sixth album...we make records because we still have a lot of demons to exorcise: we enjoy the therapeutic nature of making music and through that enjoyment we want to express that joy and pass it on to people. It is our greatest source of therapy, and our greatest means of expression...
That spirit is continually bound up both in Perry and Gerrard's extraordinarily affecting voices, and in the continually changing face of Dead Can Dance's music. On Spiritchaser, there is another shift, away from the distinct Gaelic qualities of 1993's Into The Labyrinth. But to these ears at least a track like 'The Snake And The Moon' on the new record has definite South American influences; Gerrard hears African. " It's gone past the point of being 'this' and 'that'," she affirms. "Music has come to a new age, where we're exposed to music from all over the world, from a much larger palate of colours, as opposed to just what was available in the '50s and '60s. Our music has taken on an identity of itself. A track like 'Nierika' sounds like 'Frontier', the very first piece Brendan and I ever wrote together, at the age of 16 or 17, before we'd heard any African music.
Perry suggests that Dead Can Dance music tends to mirror the music that the pair are listening to, or have been researching he in his converted church in Ireland (where Spiritchaser was written and recorded), and Lisa in the remote Gippsland region of Southern Australia. Perry admits he has been listening to South American music, largely from Chile and Peru, but that the roots to Spiritchaser are based in rhythm.
Perry: "With this record, I was conscious of the fact that we were delving into areas that we had worked in before, so we made a conscious decision to move away from that. We decided to set ourselves limitations in terms of instrumentation, to work from the basis of purely rhythmical means, and develop from there. I've been doing a lot of percussion workshops and doing sessions with friends, and invariably we'd come back to the studio and have up to fifteen people playing percussion, just to entertain ourselves, and some great ideas were generated from that. We subsequently put down a week's worth of percussion, from which 'Nierika' and 'Dedicace Outo' come."
The latter, a brief, trance pattern, is based on a Vodun rhythm from Haiti (Outo is 'the spirit of the drums'). 'The Song Of The Stars' begins with words taken from an Algonquian Indian poem, and ends with words from a Vodun invocation. Elsewhere, Dead Can Dance traverse the planet. The words to 'Song Of The Dispossessed' are Perry's, adopting a traditional Latin melody to address the eternal problem of people, "whose lives have been changed for the worse".
Sometimes the nature of a song comes from it's incidental inspiration. 'The Song Of The Nile' is so named because it features the sound of real crickets from the Nile, while Perry and Gerrard agree that the track, once completed, suggests a river journey, "with rhythms of someone pushing a pole through the water, or a marsh." 'Nierika', which opens the album, is an Inuit term for the paths between the underworld, middle world and higher world that shamen travel, inspired by the 'running dogs' sound that they felt was Samiinfluenced. Gerrard's 'Devorzhun', which closes the album, is an invented word of Gerrard's; the track, she says, "is a lullaby for the sleeping spirit."
For Perry, the unifying force behind the eight tracks that make up Spiritchaser, "is a search for sounds which would convey a sense of animism, to try and bring elements of nature through, like birdsong and things which suggest woods, snakes, water, atmospheres...to look for alternatives rather than conventional uses of instrumentation, to express an animal nature rather than music that was coming from a technological background."
The rhythms suggested harmonics; the harmonics suggested more diverging possibilities, and so they progressed. "Making this album was an evolution of discovery more than anything," Perry reckons. "We don't discuss that much while we're working; we just know when it clicks, and become more animated. It's not an intellectual way of working, we just try to understand the emotional charge, in order to go forward."
It's a process, Perry says, that led to the title of the album. "We were looking for something that excited us, looking for the spirit, hunting it down, cornering it...we had the sense of searching for something which had meaning, something where you hear the spirits talking."
The result of which is an album that stands well apart from it's predecessors. Not since the mid'80s have Perry and Gerrard's contributions dovetailed together, as opposed to their increasing tendency to work more in isolation. It might be because Gerrard worked on her solo album, The Mirror Pool, which 4AD released in 1995, or that the pair realised how they had become 'separated' over the passage of time, after the dissolution of their physical relationship. Either way, it is a joy to hear the pair of them sing together much more, as if two rivers have converged to form a stronger, flowing current. Their music is grounded in hybrid and fusion so it makes more sense that they follow the same aesthetic.
Gerrard: "Usually, when I listen to our records, I haven't heard it as an entity, with a separate life of its own, but this time, I've been able to sit down and not feel a little tug of war going on within the picture. We've got away with doing quite a bit more, which made the creative process a lot more intense. It was like a Siamese twin's experience: we microscopically went over everything. We found ourselves crossing each other's boundaries, and maybe doing what we know the other usually does, so it's been an important record for us."
So boundaries are crossed, and boundaries dissolved; The boundary between the studio and the stage will be crossed too when Dead Can Dance begin their world tour in June, their first since 1993, from where the live double album and video Toward The Within was taken. Besides the usual Western and Eastern European and Northern American dates, the expanded ensemble are visiting South America for the first time. It's not commonly known but, out of all of 4AD's artists, Dead Can Dance are the biggest internationally in San Francisco, for example, they are playing to 8,000 people ("I'm a bit tentative of losing the audience from the 40th row backwards," Perry ponders. "We might have to throw in some stadium rock numbers...").
Two instrumentals, both instigated in those original percussive sessions, are to be included in the tour programme. The beat goes on, in other words. Evoking the spirits; chasing the spirits, and following where they may lead.