Cathedral Interview with Lee Dorrian: “Put Me in a Box and I Jump out of It”

Cathedral vocalist Lee Dorrian belongs on a short list of key influential doom metal luminaries. Alongside the likes of Tony Iommi, Wino, Bobby Liebling and CandlemassLeif Edling, he has been a principle figure in making doom metal what it is today. With guitarist Gary “Gaz” Jennings, he has continually helped reshape doom in Cathedral‘s image, inspiring a generation of heads to plug in and freak out.

The Guessing Game is Cathedral‘s first album in five years. It is their second offering through Nuclear Blast, second record in a row produced by Warren Riker (Down), and with it, the band celebrates their 20-year anniversary. Joining Jennings and Dorrian are longtime bassist Leo Smee (also formerly of Bill Steer‘s Firebird) and drummer Brian Dixon, and the album is a 2CD foray into ’70s prog, psych and folk the likes of which they’ve never before attempted. Having written a record more in line with their earliest works, the band summarily threw it out and started over, making — as Dorrian puts it — the album they always wanted to make.

I won’t delay, both because I’ve already reviewed the album and because the interview’s long and comprehensive enough, but I would like to say thank you to Lee Dorrian for taking the time for the following Q&A session, and to Nuclear Blast for facilitating. And of course, thank you for reading. The more you do, the more these things become possible.

Q&A is after the jump. Please enjoy.

It’s been five years since The Garden of Unearthly Delights and there is a lot of experimenting on The Guessing Game, a lot of changes in sound. Are you surprised there are still places to take Cathedral musically you haven’t been before?

I suppose we are. If you think about it, five years is quite a long time. The band’s been together for 20 years, so five years is a quarter of that time we’ve been together. Music changes so fast these days, trends and climates and all that kind of stuff. If you do relate the fact that there is a five-year gap between albums, things to change within that period of time. We approached this album a little bit differently, but we had such a long time to write it. We started writing properly about two and a half years ago. We just took a year away. We did touring commitments and all that stuff for the Garden album, which took about a year and a half, and then we just took a year to decide where we were going to go next, to not think about the band, really. In terms of getting busy and doing stuff again, we wanted to reflect on the past, really. Me and Gary started writing songs two and a half years ago, and we had a whole album’s worth of stuff we hadn’t recorded, and when we first started coming up with stuff, the material was much more in the vein of our first album than anything else. Very slow, extreme, heavy doom metal. We got to the stage where we’d written a whole album like that – which is all good stuff – but we kind of thought, well, where is that putting us at the moment? What’s the point in doing something that we’ve already done? Which is kind of the philosophy we’ve always tried to have anyway. Myself and Gary just thought, why don’t we just make the album we’ve always wanted to make? Instead of just hinting at elements of psych and prog and stuff like that, folk, why don’t we just bring those to the fore and just add them more strongly into the sound? Instead of an album with a few mellotron notes here and there, why don’t we make the mellotron more pronounced, more orchestrated, almost the lead instrument? There’s quite a few things that make the album sound different to previous records. One of the others is the guitar tone changes quite a lot on this record, as opposed to being his solid heavy barrage the whole way through. On the other records, when there’s been more mellow moments, they’ve sounded too heavy. This time, we just wanted to make sure the dynamics were as they should be. Gaz experimented quite a lot with different guitar sounds, different amplification, pedals and stuff, just to try and get an individual sound to each song. Of course, vocally, I probably experimented more this time than ever before. So that as well, probably more than anything, makes the record sound different. Again, that’s something I wanted to do as well. I got a bit tired of doing the shouty stuff. It’s just time for a change in that respect, and hopefully this album’s a good indication of where we will go next. I think we broke a lot of molds individually. We’d became almost caricatures of ourselves in some respects. Essentially, we were very happy with the last album as well, but we were a bit stumped really as to where to go after it. The last track on it was 28 minutes long, “The Garden.” We thought, shit, how do we follow that? When we got to the stage where we’d worked so hard coming up with all these songs, when we started to feel relaxed with the stuff we were coming up with, more relaxed in general, that’s when the album materialized how it is.

And that was after two and a half years?

Well, probably a year and a half of writing. Me and Gary took the songs to Brian and Leo March last year, about a year ago. It was about a year and a half we spent writing. The songs were pretty much there, so we just started rehearsing them a year ago. I guess in essence it took two and a half years to get them where they are on the record, yeah.

Did you know all along you wanted it to be a double album?

No, not at all, actually. The problem with that – whether you call it a problem or not; it’s probably a good thing – is once we knew which direction, and it’s not one specific direction, but once we knew where we were going with the songs, we couldn’t stop writing songs. We went into the studio and we were still coming up with songs. We wrote another four once we were in the studio. I think Warren, the producer, wanted to kill us by the end of the first week, because we kept coming up with more stuff. It’s just because we felt more confident as we went on with it. As I said, we scrapped a hell of a lot of stuff. There was one song we were playing live, we didn’t even record it properly.

Was that “Open Mind Surgery?”

Yeah. That one was a bit more clunky, Discharge, Celtic Frost kind of way, and we thought, okay, we’ve done that before, let’s just try a different approach. Especially vocally, wanting to steer clear of that for the time being.

You played the song last year at Roadburn.

Yeah. We recorded it, but it never got finished. It’s still on the tape somewhere, but it just didn’t get finished. We didn’t finish the album as we had planned anyway, because once the backing tracks were done, we only had five days left to do the vocals and mix the record. We just spent four days doing the vocals until four, five o’clock, six o’clock in the morning, and then Warren had to take the tapes home and mix them back in the States. That wasn’t the idea. They were supposed to be recorded and mixed in the same session. I think we just got a bit carried away with trying to make the best record we could. (Laughs) So we didn’t get it finished as it should have been, but Warren knew what he was doing with the tracks, so we trusted him to do good mixes and stuff.

It also wasn’t the first time you were working with him.

It was a breath of fresh air, really, working with him on the last album. The last album was probably a bit more experimental as well, in a different way. Cathedral, as a band, we do come up with some ideas that are probably not the most conventional ideas, and producers will either scoff, or laugh, or say, “Forget that, that part’s not going in,” where Warren will say, “Hmm, that’s interesting. See if you can make something out of it.” He’s the easiest producer we’ve ever had to work with, and therefore we trusted him. It allowed us to get that one step further on this album.

Which of the tracks were written in the studio?

“The Running Man” was one. “Edwige’s Eyes” was another. “Casket Chasers” was another. “Casket Chasers” we had the music for, but we hadn’t rehearsed it, and we had a couple riffs for “Edwige’s Eyes,” but we hadn’t rehearsed that either. And also the title track, “The Guessing Game,” that was made up in the studio. I just wanted to make full use of the fact that we had the mellotron again. Instead of a couple notes here and there, I wanted to make a whole song with the mellotron as the lead instrument, which is “The Guessing Game,” the title track. That was supposed to have vocals on it, but we didn’t have time to do it (laughs).

I think it works as an instrumental.

I do too. We could do a reworking of it at some stage, but the thing is, Gaz, our guitarist, comes up with so many bloody riffs. He just keeps coming up with riff after riff after riff, and they’re always usually good, so it’s kind of hard. There used to be times – before, we had a four track recorder, and now you can use GarageBand to come up with and work on songs on your computer – before that, in the ‘90s, Gaz used to just send me four CD-length tapes full of riffs and I’d have to just sit through hours and hours of riffs and just try and pick out which ones I could see for a song. The process of elimination was pretty hard work, actually (laughs). He’s still got them. He keeps all these tapes.

Actually, “The Running Man” was a track I wanted to ask you about. Is there a story behind the lyrics for that song?

It’s kind of just people who run through life, can’t wait to get to the end of it. They’re on their way. Just the plight of materialism in man. Instead of people just taking their time and enjoying their life and dealing with things that come their way, there’s this urgency to be materialistic. The only thing that matters is material stuff, and then the whole association with religion, that goes hand in hand with that too. The theme that runs through the album has a lot to do with people’s questioning of their existence. The Guessing Game, meaning, what is there beyond this existence? Why are we here? What is our purpose? Where did we come from? Where do we go? And the lengths that people will go to to try and justify their existence, whether it be through religion, or power, or material wealth or whatever. Those kind of things. Growing up essentially having an anarchist viewpoint on life, those things I’ve always found to be bewildering to me. I’ve never understood why people can’t just enjoy this life and try and get on with each other, instead of creating division. It seems like most people’s only ambition is to get to the next life, if there is one, as opposed to enjoying this one we have here – which makes it worse for you and me and everyone else that lives in this world. All I know is what I see with my own eyes.

I was wondering if you had a neighbor with a particularly awful garden gnome or something that sparked that.

(Laughs) That was just a bit of humor put in there. Just having these kind of symbols, these little plastic people, and you’re the giant guy in the castle looking down, having these mimicking characters in the background. Just saying, when you’re dead, they’ll still be there and you’ll be sleeping underneath them probably. And they’re plastic as well, which is a plastic reference to the plastic materialism that’s involved in those kinds of people’s lives.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about the theme of questioning, because you ask in “Journeys into Jade,” “In a hundred years’ time, how will our music seem?” You include yourselves in that.

The thing is with the album, with most of our albums, it all comes down to the artwork. The very first notion I have of what the theme through a record’s gonna be is when the ideas for the artwork come up. For this one, The Guessing Game, I gave to our artist about a year and a half ago. It took him six, seven months to do it. I’ve had the actual painting in my place for over a year. I don’t suppose you’ve seen the whole painting.

No, just the cover.

Yeah, because it folds out to a massive question mark. You’ve got the start where things look kind of tranquil and it’s got all this serenity around it, and life to look forward to, but it opens up to a sprawling mess of evolution. All this story of evolution is contained within a big question mark. Hence The Guessing Game. Having the artwork at the time just helped me solidify the subject matter in the songs. “Journeys into Jade” fits into that concept without it being relevant to it as well. Like you rightly said, it’s a question, but it also goes into 1,000 years from now, when we’ll be dead and the person I’m talking about isn’t even born yet. It’s just quite a trippy way of thinking about your music. There’s a lot of bands that I explore and have discovered from years gone by, from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and stuff that meant nothing at the time. A lot of those guys even forgot they were in bands because of their lack of success. I suppose the way I find some of these underground bands from that time so spectacular, you do wonder, “Well, I wonder if in a hundred years’ time someone hears our record, what will they think?” It’s just one of those passing thoughts.

It’s also a way to reflect on what you’ve accomplished as a band.

It also closes the door on that period, really. 20 years is quite a long time. Hopefully this new album’s just a new starting point for the band. Like I said, I think we broke a few of our stereotypes about ourselves on this one. It’s just putting a seal on it and moving forward.

After you scrapped all that other material and were writing these tracks, how conscious were you in bringing in those psych elements?

Probably very conscious, but not in a way that we wanted to make something obvious or cliché. All I listen to, pretty much, at the moment and for the last god knows how many years, is music from that period, because I find contemporary music to be very stale at the moment in many respects – apart from the bands I like and band’s we have in common with. I think modern production and modern songwriting, it’s all very one-dimensional from what I see and hear of it. Of course there’s still some groundbreaking bands around, but I’m just generalizing. I just think it’s important for a band like us, if we have all these influences and aspects of things we like, to be a bit more adventurous and make it interesting for ourselves as much as the audience. It might confuse a lot of people, I understand that, but that’s not a deliberate intention at all. We just want to make good music to the best of our abilities. We’re not the most musical band in the world, I admit that. We just want to push ourselves and stretch ourselves and contain an element of freedom of expression in our sound. I guess that’s why we look back on a lot of older bands, because they were so unrestricted, and things are too restricted and categorized these days. If you think about a band like Cathedral, how would you categorize us? I don’t know. I don’t know what box you could put us in, and that’s something I’m quite happy with. Try and put me in a box and I jump out of it.

I guess what I’m asking is which came first, the song or the experiment?

Oh, the song. If you listen to a song like “Funeral of Dreams,” all the quirky elements of that song were in my head, but when I conveyed that to the band, they didn’t quite get it at first. Initially, they just thought the idea was to play the song all the way through, heavy. I saw way in advance of it being recorded how it should be, with brass mellotron in the choruses and female vocals, backups and the spoken bits. Those were all things I had in my head, yeah. They weren’t properly realized until we went into the studio, because in rehearsals they weren’t really like that so much. All the elements were there, but not as pronounced, really.

Initially, “Cats, Incense, Candles and Wine” wasn’t included on the track list I saw. Was that song another late development, or did you just decide to throw it in?

This is what I hear. Whether the record company were too scared for that track to be on there, I don’t know, but it was never discussed that that was not gonna be on the record. I think because they sent out one CD and cut one track off, maybe that was the track they took off. Maybe they thought we’d gone a bit too far (laughs). I don’t know, really.

The song is pretty out there. I like that song, but if you guys are going for something different, there it is.

Yeah, but is it though? If you look back at the records I’m talking about, there’s no weird thing at all to having a song like that after a heavy song back in the early ‘70s. But this is what I say. I think it’s great that people don’t expect that kind of thing, but I think it’s a shame there’s not more of it in music in general, a bit of surprise. I don’t think it’s that out there or that over the top personally at all, I just think it’s a cool song. Especially those breaks in the middle, those jazzy breaks. They’re kind of Sabbathy as well.

I just meant you come to expect – and maybe this is what you’re talking about as well – an album to have a single musical idea and to go with it, and then something like that comes up.

After all this time, I think music’s hit a brick wall in many respects. Where’s the sense of adventure anymore? It’s lacking extremely, I think. So many records are so predictable. I don’t want to be a band that is that predictable. Okay, that almost sounds like you deliberately try your hardest not to be predictable, but not really, it’s just celebrating the music we like, and if that’s weird, I’m weird, I guess. (Laughs) It’s not intended, we’re just music fans. We don’t just listen to one style of music. Why should we be afraid to incorporate what we like into our style of music? Having said that, I don’t think we go too far. I don’t think we’ve gone too far. It’s not like we’re doing reggae or soul or something like that. The elements in the music we have are essentially heavy metal, but we’re influenced by prog and psych and folk, and those elements just come into it. To me it’s the most natural thing in the world, but when you’re conditioned to listen to stuff these days that’s so one-dimensional, of course you’re going to listen to this and go, “Well what the fuck’s going on there?” But that’s something I don’t understand. Hopefully that makes sense.

It absolutely does, and it’s an interesting perspective on the album, because not only do you incorporate these influences from ‘70s prog, psych, folk, like you say, but the flow of the album, the structure of the album, has that too, where it’s not just one thing.

We’re not trying to make a record that sounds like it was recorded in 1971 or something. We’re not that purist.

You’re not doing the retro thing.

Totally. We’re trying to make a record that has our influences that is relevant to now. Maybe this is why the question, “In 20 years’ time, what will people think of it then?” Maybe they’ll understand it a bit more then. They’ll probably understand it a bit more then than they do now. I get a bit frustrated when people say, “Oh, they’ve gone more stoner rock this time” or something. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t even know what stoner rock is. People just think they hear a ‘70s influence and go, “It’s a stoner rock band.” That’s not what we are at all.

Not saying I think you’re a stoner rock band, because I don’t…

Thank you (laughs).

But where do you see Cathedral fitting at this point, or don’t you?

If you look back on the history of the band, there’s been times where we’ve been so unpredictable that it’s become predictable, because you know it’s gonna be unpredictable, it’s safe. Up until Caravan Beyond Redemption, albums like that, that’s when we had to do Endtyme, which smashed all that apart, I suppose. And then we started again. In terms of where we fit. If we ever sat down and really analyzed that, we wouldn’t be around today. The fact is we never sat down and said, “We have to be this type of band to gain this much success, or this much popularity.” We’ve always pretty much made the records we wanted to make, and after 20 years of doing that, hopefully you find your own area in which you exist. I can’t really think of another band you could compare Cathedral to. That’s not a showoff thing to say, it’s not a positive or a negative thing to say, but I think it’s a fact. I can’t think of another band that sounds like Cathedral. I don’t know where we exist. In our own universe, maybe. I don’t know. What do you think? (Laughs)

There’s so many subgenres of heavy metal that you can apply a tag to any band and all you’re really doing is mixing words. Especially as someone who reviews albums, I find most of the time it’s meaningless, because you never really find something that captures a sound anyway. It’s the kind of thing I hate to do but almost have to do.

You have to do it, of course, because people have to get an idea where you’re coming from. It’s just an idea.

Exactly. So if I say Cathedral is “progressive doom,” then at best, you can only hope to give someone a foothold by saying that.

“Progressive doom,” I haven’t actually heard that one before (laughs). The thing is, what you’re saying is something I agree with. There’s millions and millions of subgenres. Doom metal used to be just doom metal. ’88-’89, you had Obsessed, Pentagram, Candlemass, St. Vitus, groups like that. You knew what they were. And doom metal didn’t even exist apart from that handful of bands. Now there’s about 200 subgenres of doom metal. There’s so many different variations, but each one of them doesn’t break out of their own little variation. That’s what I find frustrating about it all. If someone says they’re “funeral doom,” you know exactly how they sound. If someone says they’re black metal doom, you know exactly how they’re gonna sound. If someone says they’re symphonic doom, you know exactly how they’re gonna sound. Gothic doom. In these little categories, which there are many of, no one seems to stray from the category. That’s what I find disillusioning. I suppose when Cathedral did Forest and did whatever we did afterwards, I suppose we did stray from what people consider the stereotype doom metal thing. But I don’t think we strayed from it at all, I just think we expanded on it.

Well, that’s been the legacy of Cathedral, hasn’t it? Rather than switching and saying, “We’re this now,” you kind of take the elements that you built the band upon with you as you go along. This record is heavy. This is a heavy album still, but it has all these other elements too.

Yeah, well thank you. I’m glad you noticed. A lot of people will hear it, and they’ll say, because the vocal style’s not so heavy as it normally is. There’s a reason for that. I turn the vocals down a bit more to make the sound of the band heavy. If you’ve got a vocal style that’s fighting against the guitar all the time, it’s like haywire, mayhem. If you can bring that down a bit and have the vocal contrast with the guitar, I think it makes it a heavier experience, myself. But that’s just me.

That could be another vibe from ‘70s prog. It’s a little more dynamic that way.

Dynamics are everything. If you can strive to get dynamics and get them right. There’s been times, I admit, we haven’t got dynamics right at all. There’s been times where our songs have sounded so different to the next one that it’s just been a mess. Sometimes. But I think hopefully this time we got the dynamics right. Hence what you said, the album does flow, even though there’s so much variation in the songs going on, it flows. That’s what we’ve always been looking for. I like to listen to records that take you on a journey. The songs are as much about escapism as they are about reality. I’m not in Napalm Death anymore. I don’t feel like I need to shout at the world anymore. I’m just as much into entertainment and escapism as I am into reality. If you have too much entertainment and too much fantasy, you’re gonna go mad, and on the other hand, if you have too much reality you’re gonna go mad. It’s going for that balance in between really, that equilibrium zone.

Do you feel like The Guessing Game is that balance, or is it too early to tell?

Too early to tell, but I think, instinctively, this record – although not everyone may get it at first – feels to me like the one where every song on there we’re happy with, as opposed to before, there’d be two or three songs on an album I personally wouldn’t like, but Gaz really wanted to do them or something, and probably the same the other way around. You always have this feeling like, well, it would have been better if we didn’t do that song or this song, but I think collectively this time we’re pretty much happy with all of it, which is a first. That’s a good indication at least to the question you asked.

Are there any plans for a US tour?

Not at the moment. I guess it depends on what the demand is, really. The last time we were in the States was eight years ago, eight or nine years ago. That was with Strapping Young Lad. I won’t deny it, it’s been a struggle for us to tour the States in the past. The first couple of tours we did were cool. It seems like we’ve got a following in the States, but it’s just been hard for us to tour successfully. Again, I’m only being honest here. I wouldn’t say, “Oh yeah, we’ll come every year,” because I have to be honest about it. But if the right tour comes up and it seems worthwhile doing, we definitely would like to do it. It’s been too long. I don’t think it’s beyond the realms of possibility, just at the moment there’s nothing concrete.

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6 Responses to “Cathedral Interview with Lee Dorrian: “Put Me in a Box and I Jump out of It””

  1. Gary Rosas says:

    Thank you very much for that informative and in-depth interview. Cheers!

  2. Jonas Adackione says:

    Great interview, congrats. Lee is a nice fella. Gotta love Cathedral!

  3. Jeffmetal says:

    Well, Lee Dorrian is always genuine, cut to the chase and is, without any hype about it or doubt, the most underrated icon of Heavy Metal from the past 20 years. The Guessing Game is an album which was perfectly crafted and has all the dynamics that 90% of bands around don’t have anymore. If this album doesn’t getthe recognition it deserves, it’s just because the public is as narrow minded as the bands.

    Come to Brasil and I think you can sell out a venue for 1.000 people, easily. It’s been a long time we’re waiting for you to come. VIVA CATHEDRAL!!! \m/

  4. R says:

    Lee is an amazing guy as are the rest of the guys in cathedral. Great interview one again!

  5. Angela says:

    I just wanted to say thank you for the Lee Dorrian interview. That was the most intriguing, informed, well conducted interview I’ve read in a long time. Also one of the best blogs out there. DOOM ON!

  6. The goAt says:

    I stumbled upon this site when I did a search for UFOMAMMUT…this is exactly the kind of interview I look for…I saw that SYL tour, and I think I was the only one who knew who the hell Cathedral was!!! Great band, great album, great bloke.


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