With the Dead Interview with Lee Dorrian: Matters of Life and Death. Mostly Death.

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It must be surreal in some ways for Lee Dorrian to be talking about fronting a new band. After a 23-year run, he put Cathedral to bed in 2013 following their final album, The Last Spire (review here), and despite contributing to the reborn side-project Septic Tank, his reported intent was to focus on his label, Rise Above Records, which has become a defining presence in underground tastemaking. Releases by the likes of Ghost, Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, Blood Ceremony and so on have expanded what the very notion of heaviness might encompass on a given release, and Dorrian has been at the core of that process.

Enter With the Dead. Guitarist Tim Bagshaw (also bass on the record) and drummer Mark Greening — both formerly of Electric Wizard and Ramesses — were getting together a new band with a clear intent toward raw, decaying doom, and they needed a singer. Tracks came together, they hit the studio, sent Dorrian the tracks, hit the studio again, and With the Dead‘s self-titled debut emerged — on Rise Above, obviously — living up to its promise of low-drama high-fuckall doom. To-date, I don’t think they’ve played in the same room together.

The album is a masterful churn that sludges up some of the ethereal ritualizing of Ramesses and finds Dorrian right at home in the dense, miserable, but somehow-still-atmospheric swirl. It’s a sound that makes sense as a logical extension of the work from those who made it, but it also pushes forward into territory not quite covered by anyone’s past work, its seven tracks digging into a tonal muck on songs like “Living with the Dead” or “I am Your Virus” and showing the band as immediately able to control the madness they evoke. That turns out to be one of its great strengths, but if With the Dead are to continue, no doubt it will also be the beginning point for a progression all their own.

So are With the Dead to continue, or is it a one-off? That and a lot of questions about starting a new band, recording, singing over riffs not written by Gaz Jennings and much more were on my mind when I spoke to Dorrian for the first time since 2010 (interview here) about the project, the potential of playing live, curating Roadburn 2016 and, of course, how the whole thing got started.

Please find the complete Q&A after the jump, and enjoy.

How did it all get started?

It didn’t come together like a normal band would, especially not from my point of view. Personally speaking I wasn’t intending to do another band after Cathedral. I had no desire to really dive full on into something because after being with Cathedral after all those years, I thought at least now I’ve got time to dedicate 100 percent – well, not 100 percent of my time but as much my time possible to the label, really because it needed to me to be overseeing everything. I needed to take control of it, really. I let other people be involved in some of the management side of it and they screwed it up and I was getting worried. I needed more time to devote to that.

Like I said, it wasn’t a plan of mine to be in another band or anything. Basically, Mark and Tim started talking earlier last year. There was a whole drama with Electric Wizard with Mark being booted out of the band and I think Mark contacted Tim, or the other way around, I don’t know. They just wanted to get together, have a jam and see what came of it. So this was earlier last year. In the meantime, Tim messaged me a few times – we stayed friends over the years – saying, “Me and Mark are getting a band together, would you with the dead 2be interested in releasing something?” I said, “Yeah, of course, in theory.” I said, “Why don’t you send me over a few tracks over when you’ve got them and we’ll take it from there?”

He wrote a bunch of stuff, and recorded it on his four track in his bedroom back, he lives in New Jersey now. So he sent me a few tracks over and I instantly really blown away by the tracks. I thought it was exactly what I wanted to hear at that time. It was totally unpretentious. Raw, stripped down and brutally heavy doom stuff. It just sounded killer to me. These were four track recordings done with a drum machine.

So I said, “Yeah, I definitely would be up for Rise Above doing something with you.” By which time it was almost an hour’s worth of material together so I said, “Why don’t you just come over to the UK and work on all of this material you’ve got with Mark? Go into a studio and record it all. At least then you’ve got something to build on for an album. You’ve got the backing tracks or at least the basic raw elements of an album.”

By this time, they kind of asked me if I would like to join the band a few times and I was a bit hesitant. Like I said, mainly for the reasons of work and Rise Above. But as he started sending me more tracks I got really into the idea and when I went down to listen to what they had done I was a bit disappointed by the way it sounded because the studio they recorded in wasn’t that good. It sounded a bit rushed. This was Halloween time last year. I said, “Look, I’m into doing stuff with the band and I’m into joining,” but what I said was, “Why don’t we just go away and use these recordings as more of a demo and let the material sink in a bit more and we just come back and do the whole thing again from scratch in four, five months’ time?” And that’s exactly what we did.

During that time I just let the riffs in the songs just resonate in my head and I thought a lot about how I was going to approach the tracks. I didn’t actually physically write anything until a few weeks before we actually recorded. I thought during this time it would give Mark a bit of time to think about different ways to approach the drugs and dynamics.

So that’s what we did. We came back and did everything from scratch. It sounded a million times better. We recorded in a proper studio. There was only one pact that we had between ourselves and that was, if we are going to do this, we want to make sure that we’re making the most depressive, soul-destroying heavy record we can possibly make between us. That was the only rule we had. When you got a focal point like that and you stick to it then it was quite easy for us to do what we did. I think personally speaking it’s the easiest record I’ve ever recorded or been involved in. We didn’t think it out too much. We just became very instinctive and spontaneous. That’s how we wanted it to sound as well. We didn’t just want it to feel that way, we wanted it to sound that way too. So hopefully that’s how it did sound.

So they did the backing tracks first – I guess this would be the second time making the record – and then you did the vocals? Were you there when they recorded the guitar, bass and drums?

Yeah, what do you mean the second time it was recorded? Yeah when I did the album, yes. I was there the whole time, yeah. But I didn’t have any lyrics written. I had lyrics written for “I am Your Virus” and the verses for “Crown of Burning Stars,” but I had all the ideas in my head. After they’d finished recording the backing tracks, I just sat with the recordings for a couple of weeks and then went into the studio and just recorded everything straight off in like two hours, in one evening. All first takes, a few double tracks and that’s it, really.

How full-on is the band going to be? With Tim living in New Jersey and you guys in the UK, how much can you really get together?

It depends. We’re not teenagers anymore. We can do what we like in terms of taking our time with things. We don’t have any major urgency to rush out there and go into this full-on. But at the same time, we don’t want it to be just like some crappy – well, not crappy – project band, but we don’t want to be seen as a project band who just did one studio album and then it’s over.

I’d like to think of it as being a proper band, and we will get out there and play some shows. It’s not going to be a full-time band where we’re doing touring out on the road six months out of the year. I can’t physically do that because of all my other commitments anyway. We definitely want to do key appearances and stuff. We want the band to be good. We want to do more records. It’s not something that’s just going to be a one-off thing, not as far as I’m concerned anyway

Does it feel strange, then, to start a new band? You weren’t looking to do this. Is it weird for you?

Yeah, but it feels good as well because it wasn’t planned. The best things in life aren’t planned, I think, generally. I like to be quite spontaneous. I like things just to happen or I like to be in a position, where if something comes my way and I just go with it, as opposed to spending years torturing about something, sitting around waiting for something to happen. I always like to keep busy and then if things come my way as a result of just getting on with stuff than I think – it’s great. First and foremost, I think the main thing is that I have been in bands for many years.

The majority of my life has been spent being in bands between Napalm [Death] and Cathedral. Cathedral was 23 years. It’s a bloody long time. To be in that band and do something kind of a bit more spontaneous and unexpected but still feel like of like it’s relevant, I feel like it is. The way it sounds and it’s approached, it’s quite exciting for me really. I don’t know where it’s going to go and I don’t know where it’s going to end. I don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s one of the most beautiful aspects of it, really. There is no definite gameplan and there is no definite, no definite antiplan either. We are in a fortunate position where we can do as we please. Feels good.

One of the things that stuck me most was how Cathedral it isn’t. Obviously with different songwriting and different riff styles, but even in terms of your vocals.

I wouldn’t say it was that different from the last Cathedral LP, really. Musically it’s kind of similar.

You think so? Okay. I guess you went back to the doom, but I guess I’m listening to Ramesses. It has that dirt to it.

It definitely doesn’t have something like Caravan Beyond Redemption, if you draw VIIth Coming or something like that, certainly not, no. I don’t know what to say, it’s not Cathedral and that’s the way I approached it. I didn’t have that – it’s not like I was in between like – Cathedral did 10-11 albums, it’s not like I was on album five and had to worry about these things like, “How did the last one compare to this one? What are we going to do after this?”

It didn’t have any of those worries because it’s a brand new band. In that respect I treated it as such. I didn’t feel like there was any kind of baggage or weight hanging over me. There weren’t other people that you had to, not compromise with, but when you’re in a band that’s been together for a long time, you have to give and take a lot. But in this band, the main objective was that we wanted to make the most skull-crushing record we possibly could. That just made it easier for everybody. There wasn’t any, “Well, what if we do it this way or that way?” It was very focused. All of music that Tim came up with, I didn’t ask for any of it to be changed. I liked exactly what he did and we kept it that way. It just felt right.

It felt instinctively right. There was a lot of, in Cathedral there would be time when I’d spend far too long working on lyrics. This time I just wrote the lyrics very fast. I wanted it to be more punk in its approach really. A lot more spontaneous feeling. I wanted there to be a lot more energy that was not too thought out, that just felt instinctive and spontaneous like you’ve said. Hence the reason why it sounds a lot more aggressive than the last few Cathedral albums.

Was it liberating for you to not have those expectations?

Yeah, absolutely, it felt fucking great.

You’ve got no one to worry about anymore. Being a partnership for a long time, there’s these invisible pressures. They’re not blatantly staring you in the face but you do feel them from outside forces or just people within situations you’re in. With this band, it was like, fuck everything, break the change and do something new from scratch.

It’s not radically different from things I’ve done in the past but then again, it’s not radically original either. That’s not the point. I just think it, the main thing is, we just wanted to do something that sounded fresh and not be a part of what everyone else is trying to do at the moment.

Did you get the chance to rehearse the songs together?

No, I only rehearsed two of the tracks. Mark and Tim, when they recorded originally they had a few days of rehearsals and then they recorded those tracks, the recordings we axed. But just prior to the album, they had about four days jamming together to get the songs tight to go in and record, so it wasn’t that long. If you think most bands spend several months writing together, we only spent four to five days rehearsing before they went into the studio. Now, it’s a case of when and if we go and play live shows, we’re going to have to – almost like rehearing from scratch again after the album is recorded already.

What went into the decision to leave “Celestial Suicide” instrumental?

That was going to be an instrumental track that was supposed to go on the album. We were going to leave “Screams from My Own Grave” off, until a later date. That’s the one song I didn’t have any lyrics written for, so I just thought, we put “Celestial Suicide” on and we leave that track which didn’t have a title, “Screams from My Own Grave.” We leave that and maybe do a split 12″ with someone after the record is out. But then the other guys kept saying that they thought that was the heaviest song, the best track.

They really wanted it to go on the album. So, the day with the dead with the deadthat Gomez [producer Jaime Gomez Arellano] starting mixing the record, he said that needs to go on the album so about 10 minutes before I left to go to the studio I listened to the track and wrote down four or five lines and went into the studio and recorded them straight off and just kept it like that. First take. Straight off the top of my head. When we recorded it everything thought it sounded really cool so we just took “Celestial Suicide” off and put that one on. So “Celestial Suicide” is now just a bonus track for Japan and the die-hards.

Oh, I didn’t know it wasn’t on the album proper.

It was, but now it’s not. I guess no one really knows that. You’re the first person I’ve said that to. [The die-hard] comes with a one-sided 7″ with that track as an extra.

[NOTE: Since this interview, With the Dead has been added to Roadburn and Hellfest 2016.] You mentioned not hitting the road. Are there any plans for any live shows?

Yeah, we’ve got nothing confirmed but we’ve been talking about it for the last few days, actually. Most of the interviews I’ve been saying no definite plans whatsoever because we haven’t really talked about it until the last few days. I think Tim‘s been quite excited about the album has been received so he’s quite into doing some live shows. We all are.

But like I said, we’re not going to go out in a van and tour around Europe for four weeks and then the road to the States for two months. It’ll just be one off appearances. Maybe a few short tours, four or five days or something but not like two and three months at a time. We just can’t do that. There are plans in the works.

Can you talk a bit about curating Roadburn?

Well, obviously my relationship with Roadburn goes back a very long way. Cathedral headlined the very first festival which was back in 1997, I think. Could have been 1998. I’ve been friends with Walter before that and ever since. Every year we have conversations about if there are any bands I think should play, or he’ll ask me about certain bands he’s approached and what do I think about it. So I am closely linked to the festival and the people who run it, have been for since day one, really. But being asked to do it, I was quite shocked because I didn’t really see myself as someone outside of it, I saw myself as someone inside of it so it was a bit strange. So I was like, “Okay wow, I’ll do it. I’d love to.”

I never thought of myself as someone that might be approached to actually curate it because Cathedral was in but I wasn’t in a full-time band at that point anymore. I was quite shocked and honored to be asked. So I’ve got some real cool ideas, but it’s been quite hard. You put a wants list together and then you try and contact some of these bands you’ve been a fan of over the years and you get in touch with them and you have some dialog for a while and then you realize it’s not going to be possible for them to play for whatever reason.

Maybe the band hasn’t been together for 15 years and it’s going to be too much hard work to get them back together. Blah blah, such is life. So far I’m very excited about the people I have been talking to, and I just want to make it a good time for everyone. I also want it to be quite eclectic in the way – I don’t want it to be all doom bands, I want it to be quite diverse within the parameters of what I’ve got. I just want it to be as interesting as it can be and make sure everyone has a good night.

Rise Above has had a huge impact particularly over the last years. How has the label has grown from your perspective? It seems that what has started as a doom label, has come to encompass these different styles that still capture something.

It started as a hardcore label, initially. At that point, my favorite kind of music was doom metal. But there wasn’t really an outlet for these bands like Penance and Revelation and a few English bands like Electric Wizard that were just starting. I thought, well, bands like Solitude Aeturnus, bands that I thought were the best bands around, I just thought, well here I am in this position. I’ve got this record label, no one gives a shit about these bands but I do, I really like these bands. So I take the risk and sign a couple of these bands and see if people get it.

I was in a position where I was the guy that used to be in Napalm Death, I was in this new band Cathedral. So I had a bit of – people kind of acknowledged me in the press, they knew who I was, so it made it a bit easier to present these kind of bands to people in the music press. People that I had a good relationship with, I was talking, go meet with drinks and talk about music all night. They started taking me a little more seriously, and it helped the overall initial foundations of the label – they were quite, it was outsider music.

I had inroads to make people more aware of this kind of style and then I did a compilation called Dark Passages and that opened everything up. It gave the doom metal scene a little bit of definition at last. But basically, as I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered more things and I’ve looked back further and further as well into the history and origins of heavy music and not just heavy music and through that, getting into folk music, jazz, blues, whatever it might be – I’ve become more open minded. I always think the position I’m in, my musical tastes in whatever kind of outlet I have to express myself should be a part of what I’m doing. That includes the label too. I’ve gradually wanted to expand the horizons of the label, not for it to be seen as some kind of doom metal label that has no other exciting – that’s held in by barriers. I want to break those barriers and explore as many different territories as I can.

At the end of the day, they do still come back around and somehow fit together. The roots of what we’re doing, I like to think of the releases we put out as being somehow timeless as opposed to in the moment. I like to think the records we release are more potentially classic records. I don’t think they necessarily think they fit into any time or place. They might be inspired by bands that were around in the ‘60s or ‘70s, but I still think they’re very much records that are relevant now because they have a timeless feel to them.

With the Dead, “Crown of Burning Stars” official video

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