Peter Ulrich (Dead Can Dance) interview

Peter Ulrich and Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance, Den Haag, Netherlands,
supporting Cocteau Twins, November 1983. Photo : Tony Hill

Peter Ulrich and I are no strangers to each other.  Back in 2009, he was generous enough to not only guest (as percussionist) on my band, Piano Magic’s ‘Ovations’ album but to introduce me to his former band-mate and good friend, Brendan Perry, who, likewise, kindly joined us on a couple of songs.  Brendan formed the group Dead Can Dance with his then-partner, Lisa Gerrard, in Melbourne in 1981 but within a year, they’d relocated to London and quickly recruited their neighbour, Ulrich, on drums and percussion. 

Late last year, Ulrich’s exhaustive memoir about his time with the band and beyond, ‘Drumming With Dead Can Dance & Parallel Adventures,’ was published by Red Hen Press in America.  Peter and I caught up in the Barbican cinema café, London, on the 3rd March this year. 

Glen : There’s been a recent surge in musicians from the late ’70s, through to the ’90s or so, publishing their memoirs.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot – the fact that not just musicians but everyone, when reaching a certain age, can make a choice between one’s life and achievements disappearing without fuss or putting in a stake and saying, “This was my life and this is what I did.”

Peter : My theory on this is very direct and simple : COVID.  And lockdown. The reason why there’s such a proliferation at this moment is that COVID stopped the musical wheels turning, certainly in terms of touring. And so, all these musicians were sitting at home thinking, “What can I do with my time?”  Obviously, there was a surge in recorded music and there was also a surge in people writing memoirs.  

So, my own experience was that I’d written four draft chapters of this book about a decade earlier; I showed it to a few people, including Brendan and Lisa, who all thought it was good and encouraged me to continue. Then I put it aside and until quite recently, I’d not looked at it since because I’ve been so busy with other things. And then, lockdown came along and I suddenly found myself with spare capacity and thought the obvious thing to do is to pull the book out and finish it.

So, what was your catalyst for writing the book, 10 or so years ago, when you first started?

Peter : The catalyst at the beginning was that I thought I had a different story to tell because it’s, I mean, it’s probably not completely unique but I start off the book by trying to get over the fact that I was really just a bog standard pub drummer who didn’t have any aspirations to be a professional musician.  I loved music, listened to it all the time and physically played music whenever I got the opportunity but as a day job, I was working in theatre and imagined that my career was going to proceed through theatre PR and journalism, etc.

It was only this chance meeting with Brendan and Lisa on the Isle of Dogs back in the early ’80s, that set me on this completely different course.  I actually got this amazing opportunity to join a band that would almost certainly have become one of my favourites because they were in that sphere of music that I was listening to through John Peel and 4AD and all the indie stuff at the time.  That I actually got the opportunity to become a member of the band and tour with them and go in the studio with them still amazes me to this day and I just thought that’s an interesting start point.  Also, that it would, on the one hand, potentially interest Dead Can Dance fans but also I’d love to think that it would be an inspiration, in some way, to people who weren’t sure whether they had what it takes to seize an opportunity and follow a dream.

Dead Can Dance : ‘Garden of the Arcane Delights’ EP (4AD, 1984) :
the EP that inspired the name of this blog

As you know, I interviewed Brendan for Arcane Delights a while ago and there are a few things that I didn’t know in there but I had an even bigger reaction from the interview I did with Colin Wallace (Cocteau Twins/4AD/Jesus & Mary Chain, etc) because lots of people had never heard of him, although he was there right at the centre of it and not being in an actual band, he was a voice that you wouldn’t normally hear from. Similarly, the perception people had of DCD in the ’80s was that Lisa and Brendan were somewhat ethereal beings, existing on some otherworldly plain and that’s all you knew about them but thanks to your book, without really demystifying them, you get to know so much more. 

Peter : Yeah, I felt that very strongly when I was touring with DCD and it was clear that there was this very strong reaction from audiences who thought they were being presented with music that was on quite a different level, intellectually, spiritually, even, which was lovely. And it was certainly what I think Brendan and Lisa aimed for – to, you know, reach deep into people’s souls with their music.

But then, I think there were a lot of Dead Can Dance fans who imagined that we probably, you know, sat on the tour bus and just read Proust and pontificated or whatever.  Of course, you can’t do that 24 hours a day. You have to have a release valve.

So, it wasn’t like that. As I’ve said in the book, Brendan and I used to chat away about football all the time and Lisa is actually – Simon Harper (former head of International at 4AD Records) was quoted as saying this one too – she is one of the funniest people he had ever come across. Her father was a great raconteur and storyteller and she’s definitely inherited that and there have been times on tour when she’s just had me in hysterics. And you obviously don’t naturally assume that when you see that persona who glides on stage with her teacup and saucer.  So, it was nice to give something of the personalities behind the public persona.

I had a similar experience when I first met Brendan at his Quivvy Church home a few years ago.  When we’d finished recording his vocals for the Piano Magic songs, he said, “Let me play you this track.”  And I thought he was going to play me one of this new solo songs but instead he cued up a Limp Bizkit track, ‘My Way.’  And I was thinking, “Is he joking?  Is he testing me?”  But no, he actually genuinely loved it. 

Peter : Yeah, he will deny it to this day but my wife and I maintain that we can remember him dancing to Culture Club, at a party in our flat, on the Isle Of Dogs one time, you know, after a few beers.

But yeah, he takes his inspiration from anywhere and there’s no sort of illusions of grandeur about it at all. He’ll listen to anything and what he likes, he likes and what he doesn’t like, he doesn’t like.  And that’s one of the things that can partly justify DCD’s longevity –  that there’s no fashion element to it whatsoever.  They never latched on to anything that was going on at the time or became part of a scene or anything. I mean, we never really fitted into 4AD but then probably most of the artists on 4AD would say that and even Ivo (Watts-Russell, founder of the label) would say there wasn’t really a “4AD sound” as such. Apart from the fact that John Fryer perhaps gave everyone a hefty dose of the Lexicon (reverb effects processor), there wasn’t really a 4AD sound. They’re all very different artists.

I agree.  I think some people possibly perceived it as such but those are those people who were, you know, lumping together, Dead Can Dance, Clan Of Xymox, X Mal Deutschland or some vaguely, for want of a better word, “gothic” sound and look. But in contrast, there were things like Colourbox on 4AD, so it did change all the time.

Peter :  Yeah, totally. And you know, Ivo was also just following his instinct. He was in this lovely position where he could just go out and see a band or hear something and bring it to the fore.  ‘Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares‘ being a case in point.  So yeah, it was very healthy.

I always felt it was a real joy to be making music outside of fashion and the mainstream as well. It perhaps made it harder to become commercially successful but you’d take that every time, to preserve your artistic integrity.

Dead Can Dance rehearsing in the Barkantine Hall, Isle Of Dogs, London, early 1983.
Lisa Gerrard, Paul Erikson, Peter Ulrich, Brendan Perry. Photo : Jeffrey Earp.

Coming back to the longevity thing, I was going to ask you (and I asked Brendan the same question), what would you put down to the longevity of DCD? Four decades since their conception, they’re still selling out huge venues across the world.

Peter : Just that the music really, really, really means a lot to people.  It really reaches deep into people and never goes away. One of the reasons why Brendan would never release a 7″ inch single was that he – and Lisa too, for that matter – didn’t like the idea of the temporary, throw away nature of the single. They never considered their music as something that would just go into a chart, be popular for 10 weeks or 30 weeks or whatever.  They never looked at their music like that. They were always creating music that would stand the test of time, that it would sound as relevant the moment they wrote it, as it would in 30 or 40 years’ time.  

There’s nothing else on Earth that either of them would do than create music. It’s just completely in their souls so, whether together or separately, they’re always going to be making music.

Also, Dead Can Dance never became stuck in a rut. It never became boring. I mean, this is the one of the funny things which I bring out in the book, about people always trying to pigeonhole Dead Can Dance and say what style of music it is.  Because if you take, say, a track like ‘The Trial’ off the first album and then maybe something like ‘Host of Seraphim’ and one of the more recent tracks off ‘Dionysus’ or whatever, you just can’t categorise those together. It’s always moving, evolving. There are always new influences coming into play.

There are remarkable leaps very early on, between even the first and second albums.  Guitars were practically dropped by the second album, ‘Spleen And Ideal.’  Was that a conscious thing, to get away from the prevalent guitar-centric indie music of the time?

Peter : That’s really a question Brendan would have to answer but I don’t think it was. I mean, it was conscious to the extent that the music that was being written then deliberately didn’t feature guitars but Brendan has always had and loved guitars.  And all through that period, he would certainly have written parts on guitar that they would then be transposed onto other instruments.  Even when I first knew Brendan and we were a guitar-bass-drums band, his influences were very much, you know, John Barry arrangements, Nino Rota, Popol Vuh – these people who are writing symphonically and some were using guitars and some weren’t.

I think the main thing was that he wanted to write music that was inspired by things that he was listening to. At that time, those things were more on the orchestral side and later, on the early music side. And then, as we progressed, more World Music, more Middle Eastern music came into the records.

And it was, I suppose, slightly paradoxical, that in the mid ’80s, when people started throwing away their synths, we finally had enough money to buy the first sampling keyboard.  But he (Brendan) never used it like a synthesizer. There’s none of those sort of sounds that you’d associate with Cabaret Voltaire or Depeche Mode, or whoever, on DCD records.  He used them to access the sounds of orchestral instruments and be able to start composing orchestrally.  And that’s why the music took off in that direction. From the second album onwards, we still had a drum kit onstage but we also had timpani, the gong and a separate percussion kit.

Between songs at La Mèche Bleue, St Brieuc, France, June 1984.
Lisa Gerrard. Peter Ulrich, Brendan Perry.
Photo : Frédéric Abgrall-Detrézien.

Let’s talk a bit about the (eponymous) first album.  I know you’re all on record as being disappointed with it but a DCD fan perhaps wouldn’t focus on or really care about production values at all.  The first time I heard that album, I was probably in tears and this is rather interesting to me, being a recording artist myself : the artist is the last person to be emotionally affected by their own music. They’re too busy focusing on, “I think there should’ve been less reverb on that snare,” etc. 

Peter : Yeah, that’s difficult for me to answer because it wasn’t my music, although I was playing on that record.

But were you moved when you were playing that music?

Peter : Oh, very much. But I was moved more so when we were actually performing those tracks live. I also was desperately disappointed with that album for exactly what Brendan says : we were so much better than it sounds on that album.  Eventually, we did get it brightened up a little bit but compared to our live sound, it was really muddy and the dynamics weren’t there.  So, even if you listen to the John Peel (BBC) sessions of a couple of those tracks – ‘Ocean’ is a classic example – it’s so much more dynamic on the Peel recording than it is on the album and I would choose to listen to the Peel recording of that every time.  Even though that was done in a real rush – sessions were mad because you were having to record and mix four tracks in an afternoon.  Brendan suffered desperately during the recording and production of the first album. 

I suppose my biggest sadness is that the track that was probably my favourite to play live at the time, ‘Wild In The Woods,’ I can barely listen to on that album. It was such a great song, live.  It just really touched me when I played it, made me feel really exhilarated. The recording doesn’t capture that and unfortunately, we didn’t do that on the Peel sessions and we didn’t record that at any other time. That’s the only recording of it that exists. That’s it.

I’ve always wondered whether people like Lisa and you and Brendan did have that emotional thing when you’re onstage in front of thousands of people, and you’re playing something like ‘Host Of Seraphim’ or whatever…

Peter : Again, I can’t answer for them.  I can only say my perception of them onstage but they were, as anyone who’s seen DCD would realise they’re very different on stage and Brendan – which may be a little bit of a shame for him in some respects – is always assessing, while he’s playing, how the whole thing’s going. He’s dissecting it as we’re playing and his head is in two different places : he’s focused on the song and he gives a fantastic performance but he’s also focused on you. You can see it ticking in his mind – if there’s anything that slightly throws it or isn’t quite right, he’s processing all that all the time. 

But Lisa is totally different. Lisa goes off into this kind of different sphere. When she sings, it’s quite amazing how she can go into that space. And then, as soon as the song ends, she can just click out of there again and have a sip of her tea but she really does go off somewhere else.  So, emotionally, it’s a very different kind of performance but Brendan, when he’s in full flow, has certainly had the power on one or two occasions to move me to tears and some of the most incredible experiences I ever had were playing with the two of them. 

There were a couple of songs where I’d go and stand next to Lisa to play the yang ch’in alongside her. And when she takes off and you’re standing six inches away from that voice coming out…

You know the audience is getting an incredible experience but to be six to twelve inches away from that voice coming out when she hits the peaks on something like ‘Ocean,’ is mind-blowing.

Dead Can Dance first photo session, London, 1983.
Brendan Perry, Lisa Gerrard, Peter Ulrich.
Photos : Jeffrey Earp.

You went from obviously being in the actual band to being a huge fan and travelling all over the world to see them.  It’s quite a rare circumstance I think.

Peter : Absolutely. There’s no fallout so, you know, no bitterness or anything like that.  There never was.  And I also wouldn’t have had the solo career that I had after leaving the band, certainly without Brendan, and Lisa was always very supportive as well. Brendan offered me the opportunity and physically recorded and produced that first solo album (‘Pathways And Dawns’) just because we were mates, no other reason. And that set me on my path to getting that album released with Projekt (Records) in the States and then doing another album (‘Enter The Mysterium’) and then doing the collaboration projects and so on.  All the other things I’ve done since, none of that would have happened without them. So yeah, I owe them so much and I love them to bits.

Going back to the book itself. Can you tell me a bit about the reaction to it?

Peter : I’ve been overwhelmed by the positivity of the reactions. I mean, the reviews I’ve had have been amazing and people, like yourself, really genuinely seem to love the book.  People have contacted me again, who I haven’t been in touch with for years, decades even, to tell me how much they’ve loved it. And that’s been people who were part of the story, it’s been journalists and third party reviewers from all quarters. So, that’s been lovely.

I’m very happy that it’s touched so many people in that way. The reactions of Brendan and Lisa themselves were, you know, typical to their personas, quite different. Brendan went through it with a fine tooth comb and we had several Zoom meetings going over things and him saying, “That’s not quite right.”  And then us checking information which, of course, was a fantastic help. Whereas, Lisa sent me a series of emails over a couple of weeks or whatever, just usually a few lines and some of them were very funny and some were really very touching. Just little memories and things so, on the basis of what they both gave me as reactions to it, I was able to correct things and add little bits in and so on, which was great.

Book jacket design by Janet Gonzalez (Red Hen Press, 2022)

To start off with, I went to all the big publishers – Penguin, Hachette, etc – and it was a pretty universal response : “It’s really well written and very heartfelt” but they just couldn’t quite see the commercial potential of it. I literally approached probably 100 or so different editors in non-fiction.  And then, after three or four months, I was kind of a little bit disenchanted but not too much because the reactions I was getting were good and there was no reason for those people to say those things without meaning it. Then, I thought, “DCD’s most passionate, biggest following is perhaps on the West Coast of the States.”  So, I hit about half a dozen independent publishers over there and every single one of them came back to me and expressed an interest but I got this response from Red Hen (the eventual publisher) that said, “Oh my God! You know, me and my husband are DCD fans from back in the ’90s when we founded the press, listening to 4AD music,” etc.  Kate (Gale of Red Hen) said, “I’d love to read this.”  And then when she read it, she loved the book and within no time, we were all agreed. And for me, it felt a bit like getting the deal with 4AD back in the ’80s.  It was that same kind of gut reaction.

Yeah, I was going to mention that it sounds similar to the point in your book where you’re looking for a record deal for your solo album.  It’s difficult to find someone who is on the same page as you but although in this case you do, those people can be very rare.

Peter : That’s right. And the only way you’ll find that one person, that needle in that haystack, is by just chucking stuff out constantly. You might be lucky and just hit on that person straight away.  I think – I hope! – it was an interesting story in the book about how I eventually got the release deal for my first solo album, with Projekt Records.  I’d already sent it to Sam Rosenthal there and had no response. And then I was chatting with Gary Levermore (formerly of Nettwerk Productions) one day and he just said, “Send it again” and I mean, it sounds obvious but it had never occurred to me. So, I did and the next thing is, Sam’s got back to me saying, “Yeah, really interested in this.” Which just goes to show – persistence can sometimes pay off. 

Can we talk about some of the instruments you played on the early DCD records?  Sheltered teens like myself, who were into indie guitar bands or whatever, had never encountered the kind of instruments you were playing – hammered dulcimer, oil drums, etc.  Coming as you did, from a self-professed, pub band background, did the incorporation of these exotic beasts ever faze you?

Peter : Oh no, I absolutely loved that. I totally embraced it.  I thought it was completely fascinating and I loved the idea of being able to get up and move around the stage between the songs.  I was well up for the yang ch’in, which is the Chinese form of the hammered dulcimer. Before I met Brendan and Lisa, I didn’t even know what a hammered dulcimer was. I didn’t know they existed, though I’d probably heard them, without realising, in various musics.  Lisa had one from a band that she’d been working with back in Melbourne. And then she picked up another one second hand from somewhere in Hong Kong or had come originally from Hong Kong and had cost about £30, so they were not expensive instruments but the sound of them was fantastic. Tuning was a nightmare though! There’s something like 58 strings on the yang ch’in and you just have to tune them individually.  We used to use a handheld guitar tuner.  Also, you had this tuning key and you put it on the pegs at the side and you’d turn it by half a millimetre or so and the string would change pitch by about 2 tones.  And you had to do that for every string.  If you kept it in the case and didn’t expose it to extremes of temperature changes, they used to hold their tuning quite well though.  Of course, you had to check it and just make sure before each gig but also one of the things that gives that instrument its persona is that you’ve got courses of three or four strings that are all tuned to the same note and you can never get them exactly the same. There’s always a fractional difference between them, so that gives it that depth of sound.  You get that with choral singing as well, where everybody’s on the same note but they’re not all the absolute same pitch.  So, you get that slight variation and the depth of sound.

So yeah, that was interesting but the oil drums came from Brendan and Lisa.  They had done this track, ‘Frontier,’ out in Melbourne, just before they came over to London.  They had the opportunity to use the studio of this guy they worked with from time to time, who said, “Come over – I’ve got some free studio time.”   So, Brendan and Lisa just grabbed whatever they had handy. Somehow, Brendan had these two or three oil drums or found them on a skip outside and put them on a stand. They weren’t actually filled with water; that was a myth that came up at some point.  Brendan didn’t even have any drumsticks to hand because their drummer wasn’t involved in the session, so he had to pull a couple of legs off a chair to hammer this beat and of course, they were very heavy.  And as he was playing, it was knocking these things out of tune, so he had to do it in one take. He built this cyclical rhythm and then he put this kind of monastic chant based vocal over it.  Lisa did her voice over the top and then added these little flourishes on the yang ch’in.  That was the first thing they ever played to me, and I was absolutely gob smacked – totally blown away.

One of the other things that set DCD aside from all the other stuff I was listening to at that time was this very repetitive, cyclic drumming.  Not rock standard at all.

Peter : I have to be honest here. They are not my rhythms. They’re Brendan’s. One or two, you know, I had input in but essentially, he told me what to do.

In the book, you’re very honest about the occasions where you physically can’t play what Brendan asks of you.

Peter : Yeah. Especially once he bought the drum machines and he was writing stuff on those. He wrote drum parts that were completely at odds with what your limbs would do.  But I mean, it was fantastic training for me and I loved it. But yes, while I was trying to get the syncopation right to play those things, I was, you know, throwing drumsticks around the room. The drums nearly went out the window a few times. I’m generally quite mild mannered but I can lose it with things like that. Still, once I actually got one of those rhythms, it was such a buzz to then be able to play it.  And once you’ve programmed the brain, then it stays.

Before I met them, I was playing in this pub rock band and doing 4/4 standards. So yeah, my style changed completely.   Like I said earlier, I was listening to John Peel’s show on a regular basis and knew the Factory (Records) and 4AD stuff, etc but I never played anything resembling that kind of music, let alone what Brendan and Lisa were doing.  The band I was playing in were doing covers of ’60s soul and a couple of reggae things – great songs but a different world!

Did you feel any kinship with any other bands around that time. Were there any bands that you thought, “They’re doing something quite similar to us?”

Peter : Not really.  Two drummers who were very close to home were Richard Thomas in Dif Juz, who was always a fabulous drummer to watch and somebody Brendan and I also really admired was the drummer of Felt (Gary Ainge). 

Brendan turned me on to listening to things where drummers were doing things that were out-of-the-box.  Stephen Morris of New Order/Joy Division as well.  Joy Division was an influence and Brendan loved the way Peter Hook played the bass. 

Dead Can Dance press shot, early 1984.
Scott Rodger, James Pinker, Lisa Gerrard, Brendan Perry, Peter Ulrich.
Photo : courtesy of 4AD Records.

I was very happy that you covered my first DCD gig in the book – at Edgbaston Tower Ballroom on 6th August, 1987.  I found a complete audio recording of it on YouTube yesterday. 

Peter : Does it sound ok?

It sounds good. I was surprised that there weren’t many people clapping, which is really interesting because I remember it as being fairly busy. But the two main things I really remember about this concert were Lisa walking on stage looking like the Bride of Frankenstein, with a cup of tea in a saucer.  Also, I remember the guys in the brass section all playing percussion at some point, hitting flight cases and stuff like that. They looked like they were having their time of their lives.

Peter : Yeah, it was great. It was always a real buzz performing with Dead Can Dance because the audience responses were always fantastic, right from the very beginning.

Was there ever a negative reaction?

Peter : There was sometimes a negative reaction from Brendan when we came off stage but not from audiences.  There was one show where we supported The Fall in Milton Keynes. I think it was just a review that said we played to a handful of bemused Fall fans or something.

How did you come to play on the Pieter Nooten/Michael Brook album, ‘Sleeps With The Fishes?’ 

Peter : I think Ivo just called me one day and said, “Pieter wants a bit of percussion on one of the tracks and by that point, either I was the only drummer/percussionist left on 4AD or it was between me and Richard Thomas. I knew Pieter anyway, because – you’ve probably read the story in the book – it was through us meeting the Clan Of Xymox guys in Holland on our first tour over there that led to them signing for 4AD. Then they came over and played a couple of gigs with us and stayed with me and (my wife) Nicki.

I went along there not having any idea what to expect, just with my trusty old pair of bongos tucked under my arm. Pieter introduced me to Michael Brook, who’d come onto Ivo’s radar fairly recently at that time. He had all these little handheld Chinese or Japanese fans, but they weren’t the sort of fold-up ones. They were just a plain piece of very thin paper on a wooden stick and he had this idea that he wanted to record the rhythms for this piece on them.  I’m always up for anything, so I said, “Yeah, sure, we’ll give it a go.”  So, I’m standing in front of the microphone with one of these fans and tapping it lightly, so I don’t put my finger through it and there’s just absolutely no depth to the sound. There’s no tone at all. So, we persisted with this and tried different fans and in the end, Pieter’s standing in the control room behind Michael like this (gesticulating) and I’m trying not to laugh.  And so, we finally gave up with the fans.  I said, “Look, let me just try and throw down a couple of things on the bongos.” So, I just played.  Pieter said, “Yeah, it’s great.” 

I was only in the studio with them for probably two or three hours or something. That’s the only time I’ve met Michael but I got the impression that he was quite intense to work with and that Pieter had been together with him in the studio for quite a while and was perhaps looking for a bit of light relief. And so, whilst I was in the recording booth, he was looking at me through the glass, miming the motions of a rider galloping on a horse.  It’s the only track on the album that’s quite bouncy.  He was sort of bending his legs and then coming up again.  So, I’m trying to concentrate and Michael’s looking really stern at the desk. We were giggling like a couple of school kids. Michael looked pretty pissed off by that. 

That aside, it’s a very dark, melancholy record isn’t it?  It’s one of my favourite 4AD albums of all time. 

Peter : Yeah, it is. It’s beautiful.

‘Time’ by Pieter Nooten/Michael Brook feat. Peter Ulrich from ‘Sleeps With The Fishes’ (4AD, 1987)

You’re on some really amazing records. I mean, you’re on several of my favorite 4AD ones.  This Mortal Coil’s ‘Filigree & Shadow’ for example.  

Peter : It’s interesting, you know, how that music has touched a lot of people, so deeply as well because a lot of it is very different. You couldn’t really categorise This Mortal Coil. There are elements that are consistent throughout but there’s a lot of variation on that. 

Anonhi (formerly known as Antony Hegarty of Antony and The Johnsons) said that she only survived her teenage years because of This Mortal Coil. She wouldn’t have got through it if she hadn’t been listening to that.

‘At First, And Then’ from This Mortal Coil’s ‘Filigree & Shadow,’ written and performed by Peter Ulrich

I’ve heard other quotes like that, similar things from people, that this music has touched people so deeply and it’s incredible to hear that.

When I was in my teens and early twenties, 4AD at the time wasn’t just a label to me.  It was an inspiration on so many levels.  On a personal level, even though it still puts the occasional great release, I struggled a bit when it became more of an open house and as time went on, it lost the identity it had under Ivo, which I felt was one of its greatest assets.

Peter : It’s hard to say whether it was right that the Ivo era finished when it did. If right is the right word.  And also, in some respects, perhaps it’s good that it’s still going and didn’t just end?  A lot of what has come out on 4AD in recent years doesn’t do a huge amount for me but there are moments. I think Mark Lanegan’s ‘Blues Funeral,’ album is unbelievably good and I was lucky enough to hear him play pretty much all of that album live a few years back.

The music industry landscape. on the whole, has changed immeasurably since you started playing with Dead Can Dance in the early ’80s.  What are your thoughts on where we’re at now?  Artists sell fewer physical records now, for instance, and streaming appears to be taking over.

Peter : I’m quite ambivalent about that.  I think it’s very healthy, in the respect that now anybody who’s making music can put their music out there on these platforms like SoundCloud and YouTube and so on and reach a potential audience directly and you’re not in the hands of the whims of people at record labels.

But it saddens me that the downside of that is that it’s become so bloody hard to make a living out of music.  Back when we first started, even small bands, who never made it that big, could often just about sell enough albums, if they brought out an album a year and make enough from that and touring and a little bit of merchandising, to subsist. But you just can’t do that now and haven’t been able to do that for some years. Also, there’s that feeling of the first time you held a record or a CD in your hands that you made. Most new artists or bands still want their first album or first record to be something tangible that they can hold but at the same time, I think that’s watered down quite a large extent by the fact that it’s already out on digital format.   I think it’s a shame that a lot of people are listening to music in such a compressed form – MP3s and streaming, etc.  There are pros and cons but there’s no going back.  

We can’t ever get back to the essence of music as it was made in the 80s and sometimes in the 90s. But yeah, you know, that’s life.  And life moves on.

Do you still buy records?

Peter : Oh, totally.  I still buy mostly on CD but everything I listen to is on physical format.

What have you been enjoying lately?

Peter : I’m currently listening over and over to Lisa O’Neill’s album, which I think is really beautiful. I’ve also been listening a lot to Katherine Priddy’s album and The SmileSona Jobarteh’s latest album’s on my shopping list but I’m struggling to find it on CD!

I read that you might have a novel in the pipeline?

Peter : Yeah, I do. You know, I don’t know whether I’ll find any outlet for that but I enjoyed the process of writing the memoir so much that when I came to the end, I didn’t want to stop. So, I immediately started writing a novel and it’s all based around East Anglian folklore and superstition and legend.  It’s set at the turn of the 18th and 19th century and follows the adventures of a group of people who basically form a little band, playing the folk music of the time. So yeah, it lends itself to the possibility to writing a companion album to it, of songs that are inspired by it.

What’s your home studio like?  Have you kept any of the instruments that you’ve used in the past with Dead Can Dance?

Peter :  Yeah, I’ve got my own yang ch’in, which is the one that I played on (Piano Magic’s) ‘Ovations’ – exactly the same model that Lisa bought.  And I’ve got a few other instruments I imported from Hong Kong at the time – a big Koto, a moon guitar, stuff like that. I’ve got a balalaika that I picked up from a secondhand store in Norwich. I’ve got an oud that I bought when we were on holiday in Tunisia.  I’ve got a saz from a holiday in Turkey – none of which I can play but you can use anything like that for bits of colouration in songs.  And then I’ve got a little selection of thumb pianos, kalimbas and mbiras, a huge range of percussion, including the original barrel drum that we used to use in Dead Can Dance.  Brendan and Lisa actually brought it over from Australia and they left it with me. If they read this and they want it back anytime, it’s there for them! 

Do you enjoy collaborating more or doing your own thing?

Peter : Both, I mean they’re very different and they have obvious advantages and disadvantages. On the second solo album, I completely wrote and played virtually everything and it’s a little bit homemade in places but I’m still very happy with all the songs. And I really enjoyed the process but at the same time, it’s a lonely process and you don’t get any interaction and buzz off people.  So yeah, I enjoy both for sure.

Final question!  What’s your favorite 4AD record? Or records?

Peter : Aside from Dead Can Dance?  I pretty much love all the Cocteau Twins stuff.  I did love the Cocteaus and being able to go and tour with them and see them play every night was absolutely brilliant. And like you, I love all the This Mortal Coil stuff.  And Matt Johnson’s ‘Burning Blue Soul.’ And Dif Juz’s ‘Extractions.’

I somehow knew you were going to say that!

Peter : There’s so many, you know.  I love The Wolfgang Press. 

I read somewhere that Dif Juz really didn’t like the production on ‘Extractions.’

Peter : Yeah but they were never happy with anything were they (laughs)?  Funnily enough, I was talking to Ivo about this, just recently on e-mail.  I was briefly in contact a few years back with Dave Curtis, one of the two brothers in Dif Juz and he said, “Do you fancy getting together and doing something?”  I said, “Yeah, sure” but then he just completely disappeared off the radar. I never heard from him again.

Dif Juz ‘Gunet,’ from the album, ‘Extractions’ (4AD, 1985)

Did Ivo read the book? 

Peter : Yeah, he loved it.  Brendan got in touch with me and said Ivo was interested in reading it but he hadn’t been able to buy it in the States, which was odd. I said, “Oh, just give me his address and I’ll have a copy sent to him.”  So, then he read it and we had quite an e-mail exchange over a couple of weeks after that. There’s a really nice quote from him that says something along the lines of, “It really captures the unknown quantity of how everything worked in those days.” I forget exactly how it’s worded but both he and Steve Webbon at Beggar’s Banquet used the word, “serendipity” – ie : “You really captured the serendipity of the way the whole thing worked at that time.”

Thank you, Peter.

‘Drumming With Dead Can Dance & Parallel Adventures’ is published by Red Hen Press (US) and available from all good music and book retailers worldwide and directly from Red Hen

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