Peter Ulrich speaks out on the beginings of Dead Can Dance
This interview took place between
Peter Ulrich and Greg Beron
in August 2005.
Thanks to Peter Ulrich for his candid first hand look at the beginings of Dead Can Dance!
GREG: So Peter how did you get involved with DCD?
PETER: In 1982 I was living in the East End of London where I had been drumming with a local soul/blues/r&b covers band playing the local pub and club circuit.
We usually played for whatever beer we could drink during the gig. It was very relaxed, good fun and a good grounding, but there was no ambition to take things any further.
Although I enjoyed playing this music, it wasn't central to the music I chose to listen to at the time - which was mainly a mix of bands such as Joy Division, The Cure and Talking Heads, and artists from the emerging world music scene.
Dead Can Dance had been formed by Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard in 1981 in Melbourne, Australia, where they had been playing the local club scene. In 1982 they decided to move to London in search of a record deal. Original DCD bassist Paul Erikson also came, but their drummer couldn't leave his commitments in Australia. So, by chance, Brendan, Lisa and Paul moved into an apartment on the same housing estate where I lived and began the search for a new drummer, which led them to be introduced to me.
They invited me to audition and we booked some time in the community hall on the estate one December afternoon. When I heard what they were playing, I was amazed - it was like a kind of mix of Joy Division and some of the elements of world music that I was just starting to become familiar with - the two things I loved most - plus the two very different but equally wonderful voices. From a drumming point of view, I didn't really know what to do. I was only used to playing standards, and I couldn't play any of the things which Brendan was describing and asking me to try. But Brendan and Lisa seemed so relieved to have found a drummer who was excited about their music and who knew something about their reference points, that they were happy to invite me to join and give me time to feel my way into the set-up.
I had to really knuckle down and practice for hours to get to grips with some of the drum parts, but I was really up for it and Brendan and Lisa were totally focussed on their music and getting a release deal, which pulled everything forward at great pace.
We made some rough recordings in rehearsals and Brendan and I put together some demo cassettes which we sent off to a few labels. Almost immediately we received an expression of interest from Ivo at 4AD. In spring 1983 Ivo arranged for us to support one of his establish bands - X-mal Deutschland - so he could see/hear us play live. He signed us and by June we were in the studio recording the first album.
GREG: It seems like that all happened rather fast, from sending a few cassettes out in the spring to signing a deal in June! I also hear a fast progression in musical style from the first album to the second and third, what influenced such a rapid evolution?
PETER: It did all happen incredibly fast - though since answering your first question I checked back through some old press clippings and 4AD promo material, and it seems my memory is playing slight tricks!
The information I've dug up shows that we played two London gigs supporting X-Mal Deutschland in June and July 1983, following which we signed with 4AD and then recorded the first album in September. We then went on a seven date tour of Holland supporting the Cocteau Twins in November, and returned to record the first of our two sessions for the legendary BBC Radio John Peel Show. The first album was released in February 1984.
Once we had secured the label deal with 4AD, Brendan and I started looking for a publishing deal. We had discussions with two or three majors, but gravitated back to sign with Beggars Banquet which was (and still is) part of the same business group as 4AD. The publishing deal gave us our first financial advance, and Brendan used a significant portion of the money to buy his first keyboard/sampler and drum/percussion machine. This opened up a whole new world of possibilities for writing new material. Where he had previously been restricted to writing for the few instruments we possessed between us, he now had banks of sampled sounds available and wasted no time in exploring them. Almost overnight, Brendan was composing pieces with string sections, brass sections and orchestral percussion. This, in turn, gave Lisa more freedom to incorporate some influences from her beloved operas into her singing.
In addition, the recording of the first album had been a very difficult experience from the production point of view. The moderate success of the first album enabled 4AD to allocate more studio time for the recording of the second album as well as allowing DCD to work with renowned producer John A Rivers. Thus, for the second and third albums, there was a seismic shift both in the scope of the material and in the quality of recording and production.
GREG: What can you tell us about those two London gigs supporting X-Mal Deutschland in June and July 1983?
I assume DCD went on first what did the crowd think, what did you play, how did you guys sound?
PETER: The first gig was at The Ace, a former cinema in Brixton (south London).
It was a mind-boggling experience for me. As I already told you, my only previous live experience was being squashed in corners of various pubs playing to a handful of half-interested drinkers.
Now, here I was after a six-month intensive personal re-programming into DCD mode in rehearsals, thrust onto a big stage in front of a sell-out crowd of several hundred paying punters. My little drum kit was up on a big drum riser with mics all round it and now looked about six times its usual size, and when I started my soundcheck and hit the kick drum pedal, this huge explosion came out of the speakers which nearly gave me a heart-attack on the spot! (I'd never played through a PA before!)
For me personally, the gig became very much a case of coming to terms with my nerves and just getting through it. There was one point in the song Fortune where I lost the beat altogether for several bars, before managing to recover. I thought it would have been obvious to everyone, and I was amazed to discover after the show that nobody in the audience had even noticed.
Of course, the reason was obvious - everyone's attention was completely focussed on Brendan and Lisa.
They were an extraordinary stage pairing. Brendan was incredibly intense, building his guitar work into wild, thrashing crescendos, while Lisa was much the same as now - a startling, serene figure, all in white, floating out of the blackness and then raisng the roof with her voice.
We were also unusual because of some of the instruments - particularly Lisa's yang ch'in and a set of three oil drums which we used to perform Frontier.
The audience response was great right from the outset. Of course, they were X-Mal fans and they were principally there to see X-Mal, but they seemed to appreciate that they had seen and heard something genuinely new, different and interesting.
X-Mal themselves were very good to us and told us they enjoyed our set, and Ivo (head of 4AD) had loved it. He had been really taken with Lisa's voice from the tape we'd sent him, but once he heard her sing live he was completely bowled over... and he also couldn't believe what Brendan was capable of playing on guitar whilst singing simultaneously.
The second gig we did with X-Mal (at a club in a big hotel in Hammersmith, west London) was marred by sound problems. The performance was OK, but we were getting constant attacks of ear-splitting feedback from the PA foldback and it was very distracting.
It was a smaller audience as we played early and many had not yet arrived. Nevertheless, the response was very good again, and a rave review appeared in one of the national music papers describing our performance as 'a stunning musical landscape, a panorama sometimes of soft-hued tenderness, sometimes of almost claustrophobic power'.
As for what we played, I think it was pretty much all the first album (except for The Fatal Impact, which was a studio piece Brendan had recorded back in Australia and which we couldn't reproduce live) plus one or two other songs which never made it onto record. More than that I couldn't tell you now - it's over 20 years ago!!
GREG:As you said, "they seemed to appreciate that they had seen and heard something genuinely new, different and interesting." As DCD fans we all have our own suppositions of where this extraordinary new sound came from. But since you were there maybe you can give us the facts as you saw them unfold.
PETER: Brendan and Lisa each have a very individual approach to music and just naturally look to explore its widest possibilities and stretch its boundaries - that is undoubtedly what drew them to work with one another when they met in Australia. Their backgrounds are important - Brendan had learnt to play guitar amongst the Maori community in New Zealand before playing bass and singing with a punk band there, while Lisa had (pretty much by chance I think) discovered and adopted the yang ch'in and piano accordian as her instruments, both of which she played in an untutored and unconventional manner. When they met, Lisa had already rejected conventional singing and was using her voice as an instrument to convey atmospheres and feelings rather than enunciating recognisable words/lyrics, while Brendan was already listening to and exploring tribal drumming techniques (before the emergence of 'world music' as a recognised genre). Their passion and experimentation appealed to each other, and by working together they broadened each other's horizons further still.
When they formed DCD, I'm not sure to what extent they felt that they needed to package what they were doing into a recognisable 'rock band' format - but that is essentially what happened. Most early DCD material comprised guitar, bass and drums with either a Brendan or Lisa vocal. But that's where conventionality ended. When I joined DCD, Brendan told me that the first thing we had to do was to break all my bad and lazy drumming habits - I was very happy to go along with this as all I wanted to do at that stage was to become a part of this amazing music that he and Lisa were creating.
First off, I had to cut out all drum fills and cymbal crashes. It's a very simple thing - but Brendan had observed that most rock music contained the same old drum fills and cymbal crashes every time a song changed from verse to chorus or from chorus to verse. The effect was that it sounded tired and cliched. Later on, we would re-introduce a very occasional drum fill or cymbal crash, which would then have a very dramatic effect.
Secondly, I was never to play the role of a time-keeper. The drum part for every song had to be a unique and interesting rhythm pattern in its own right. Most of our songs started by writing the drum part - this was turning the world on its head for me, as I had only ever had the experience of putting a beat to a pre-written melody. It was the same for the bass guitar. The bass part would be written next - not just sitting comfortably on top of the rhythm, but weaving its way in and out of the rhythm so that the bass and drums created a song all of their own.
Then would come the layers of guitar (and sometimes the additional colouration of yang ch'in or extra percussion played by Lisa), whirling their way around the drum and bass parts, and thus these lush, complex arrangements developed.
Finally we had the wealth of vocal possibilities provided by Brendan and Lisa both having great voices which could work individually or together.
As soon as the first album was recorded, we started to move away from the rock band format. For the EP - Garden of the Arcane Delights, which was recorded in 1984 - Carnival of Light used the yang ch'in as lead instrument in place of guitar, with a drum part played purely on kick and toms, the rhythm for In Power We Entrust The Love Advocated used just a single snare drum beat at the beginning and was then played on just kick and cymbals, and the instrumentation for Flowers of the Sea was yang ch'in, bongoes, tambourine and Lisa's vocal. In live performance, our stage set was becoming more complex and we were increasingly moving around the stage changing instruments - this became a recognisable feature of DCD shows even quite early on, and also created dramatic changes of mood through the course of a concert.
These trends continued to develop and, by 1986, we were touring with varying combinations of drums, percussion, timpanis, bass, keyboards, violin, two cellos, two trombones, trumpet, euphonium, two yang ch'ins (different tunings) and several guitars. Also at this time, I had written and recorded a short, multi-layered percussion piece called At First, And Then which Ivo incorporated into This Mortal Coil's second album Filigree and Shadow. I was thrilled when Brendan suggested that we re-arrange it as a longer piece for inclusion in the live set. We worked out an arrangement in which all the band (eight or nine of us at the time) played percussion and we used it as the set closer with a dramatic very bright flashing white lighting sequence. The effect was amazing - audiences used to go absolutely wild over it. Although this was my piece, it was really a tribute to what I had learnt from Brendan - and that made it very special for me.
DCD's development continued unabated - there was never any question of sitting back on the laurels of what had been successfully established. Both Brendan and Lisa continued to restlessly explore further possibilities. We got into listening to a lot of early music and Brendan bought a hurdy gurdy which added a very distinct element to the DCD sound and in itself inspired new directions in the writing. Brendan developed a richer and more powerful voice, while Lisa explored more vocal techniques, including the eastern European open throat style. And so it went on. Everywhere we went, more instruments were collected, more musical styles explored and more influences incorporated. The DCD sound became ever richer and more varied - but always remained quintessentially DCD through the catalyst of Brendan and Lisa working together.
GREG: You're giving us an amazing musical perspective of DCD which is awesome, now I wonder what were the personalities like in the group? What were the dynamics like, how did everyone get along, can you share some interesting or even funny stories?
PETER: Funnily enough, I often wondered what members of our audience thought we were like when we were not performing.
We were very serious on stage, and DCD performances always required a deep level of concentration and focus. There was a tension (I don't mean a bad tension, rather an artistic tension) in performance which was an important part of the captivation of the audience - and Lisa in particular was very spiritual, almost on another plane.
So I always imagined that audiences would think that after a show we would kind of drift out to our tour bus and go into trances or read Edgar Allen Poe by candlelight.
Of course, this wasn't the case - we needed to unwind. I don't think we ever did anything particularly wild, but we had a lot of laughs together.
Lisa is actually one of the funniest people I've ever known. Her father is Irish and is a great raconteur, and Lisa has inherited the trait. I'm not going to try to retell any of her stories, partly because they are hers to tell, and partly because they need to be told by her to work - but I can recall occasions when she has had me in uncontrollable hysterics.
Brendan and I are devout football (i.e. soccer) fans and have whiled away many hours over the years discussing the subject. We both turned out a few times for the short-lived 4AD football team in the early days of DCD, and we once managed to talk our way into the crew's quarters on a cross-channel ferry while we were on tour in our desperation to see an England vs. Portugal game during the 1986 World Cup Finals.
Although I haven't been closely involved with DCD since 1991, I would think some of the funniest and/or most bizarre things happened to us on tours in the very early days. The later tours have all been much more highly organised, but the early ones were done on a shoestring budget and with everything very new to us.
I mentioned before that our first 'tour' after we finished recording the first album was seven shows in Holland supporting the Cocteau Twins. We went with five band members plus all our equipment crammed into Brendan's family's VW camper van with his dad driving, and when we arrived in Amsterdam, we were directed to a tiny, grubby hotel above a brothel where you could see the fleas jumping around in the beds - but we were on tour, and we didn't much care.
We had a frightening and near fatal experience at the first show. We turned up at a venue called The Paradiso and went to set up our gear - but nobody had told us that the Dutch electrical plugs were different from in England. Brendan's dad was despatched to buy Dutch plugs, and we had to rewire all the electrical equipment. It was a frantic rush and in the process, the plug for Brendan's guitar amp was inadvertantly wired wrongly. It worked OK during the soundcheck, but when it came to the perfomance, we were about four numbers into our set when there was a sudden big bang and blue flash and Brendan physically jumped about two or three feet into the air. His whole guitar had suddenly become live with the electric current and he was shaking violently. The audience was cheering, assuming it to be some kind of groovy pyrotechnics. Lisa screamed and rushed to try and help Brendan, who incredibly had the presence of mind to yell at her not to touch him. He managed to wriggle free of the guitar strap, looking like he was doing a Harry Houdini escape trick, and throw the guitar to the floor to break the circuit. We had to abort the performance, and we were all in a state of shock for a while.
There are always lots of strange and funny things happening when you're on tour, because touring is so very different from anything in 'normal', routine life. And the fact that you are experiencing those things together does tend to make the members of a band very close. There were so many different people involved in performing with DCD over the years that it's hard to pick out individual instances without explaining all the background and the personalities involved - and then we really would be writing a book rather than doing an interview. Generally, I would say that we all got on well and that there was a good camaraderie between the band members. One funny incident which is easy to isolate and recount took place, I would guess, in either 1986 or 1987 when we had a Maori didgeridoo player called Tony Waerea touring with us and performing the support slot for our shows. On one of our nights off, Tony, I and a couple of others went out for a few beers and when we returned to our hotel in the early hours of the following morning, Tony decided it would be a good idea to introduce the other hotel guests to the delights of the didge. Placing the bottom end of his didge into the plughole of the bath in our room, he began to blow. Gradually the sound of the didge started to build and rumble through the entire hotel plumbing system until it reached a point where the whole building was vibrating and the sound was filling every crevice and dark corner. The hotel alarms went off and the corridors were soon alive with people wanting to know if there was an earthquake, an aircraft about to crash, or what? Well, it beats the mindless, cliched violence of trashing a hotel room - which I'm pleased to say we never did.
An incident close to home for you, Greg, happened on DCD's first US tour in 1990 when we played Georgetown University Gaston Hall in Washington DC. We all know the heavy metal fan's penchant for a bit of air guitar playing, but never before nor since have I witnessed a line of air yang ch'in players in the audience. Despite what I said before about DCD performances being very serious, I have to confess to becoming consumed by a fit of giggles behind the drums when I saw that, and had trouble recomposing myself for a minute or two. Maybe DCD cardboard yang ch'ins should be added to the merchandising stalls for the next tour - or, perhaps inflatable hurdy-gurdies. Now there's a thought!
GREG: What was it that made you leave DCD when they were really starting to become popular?
Wasn't worth the effort at the time?
PETER: I had no wish to stop my involvement with DCD. The last tour I did was the first US tour and it was a fantastic experience.
But in April 1991 my second daughter was born. My wife has a full time and very demanding career and it simply became impossible for me to continue disappearing on tour for a few months at a time leaving her to cope with her work and two young children... so that was it.
I have no regrets - I wanted children and it was a decision I never thought twice about.
GREG: What forces finally broke up DCD?
PETER: Now that's a question I am not going to attempt to answer - because I can only speculate.
The decision not to continue in 1998, and the decision to perform again in 2005, were made privately between Brendan and Lisa.
All I can say is, like every DCD fan, I was very disappointed when they announced 'The End' and thrilled to bits when they announced 'The Second Coming'!
GREG: I often think that DCD was way ahead of their time, do you think that their popularity has finally caught up with them. Do you think this world tour will recharge them, can they continue where they left off?
PETER:The responses to the European tour earlier this year and to the forthcoming American tour suggest that DCD is now a bigger phenomenon than ever before. It seems that in the period between the end and the new beginning, awareness of DCD has continued to grow, and that the 2005 concerts are not only bringing old fans out of the closet, but are also enabling new fans to see a live show for the first time. I don't think DCD would have filled the Hollywood Bowl in 1998, but now it is part of the tour itinerary - that is quite incredible. Where things will lead from here I truly have no idea. All I can say is that Brendan and Lisa can't fail to be moved by the response this year's tours have generated, and (particularly having heard the new material included in the set for the European tour) I hope it will encourage them to resume recording and continue touring as DCD for many years to come.
GREG: So what's next for Peter Ulrich, we know you have two successful CD's out but what direction are you heading?
PETER: The simple answer to that is CD number three. I'll be starting on it as soon as we finish this interview!
As for musical direction, I think it will be a progression, but without any major change of direction - much the same as the development between the first and second albums.
GREG: 5.) I have spoken to many people who really like the vocals provided by your daughters on your last CD, will we hear from them again? Do they have any words for their fans?
PETER: I'm sure it was far more exciting to me to have my daughters perform in one of my songs than it was for them to do it. Like any teenagers, they view their father as a sad, old freak of nature who has to be humoured and tolerated - so if they're asked to sing on one of my recordings, they'll do it to keep me happy (as long as it doesn't take too long) and then get back to the much more important things that they were doing (surfing the net, watching TV... that kind of thing).
As for 'their fans', they don't actually believe that anyone listens to my music, so they certainly wouldn't believe that they had their own following as a result of my CD release!
Will we hear from them again? I hope so, but we'll have to wait and see.