Therapy?: “A New Lease on Life, Really”

Off the back of their biggest album and European tour in years, Northern Irish legends Therapy? take on a five-date Irish tour in March, including the brand-new Cyprus Avenue on March 23rd. MIKE MCGRATH-BRYAN talks with frontman and guitarist ANDY CAIRNS about the band’s new album ‘Cleave’, and the tensions that brought it about.

Millions of units shifted, thousands of road miles on the clock and fifteen albums deep into a wide and varied discography, Ballyclare/Larne-originating trio Therapy? have, over the course of nearly thirty years, gone from noisy upstarts, to mainstream superstars, to gatekeepers of the Irish underground, approaching touring and recording with the same grit and gristle as they always have. A few days removed from a month of UK and European touring, though, and it’s a relaxed yet chipper Andy Cairns at the other end of the phone, audibly happy with how things have gone. “We did two-and-half weeks in Europe and two-and-a-half weeks in the UK, both of them were sensational. We’re really buzzing at the minute. A lot of the gigs in Europe, the venues were moved up, and were bigger than we’ve played in years, and in the UK, if we didn’t sell the venue out then attendances and tickets were better than they’ve been in years, so it was all really positive. We’re playing really well as a band, y’know. We’re all really fit, we’re all up for it, and we’re getting a good mix in the crowds. It’s a good night out and it’s given us a new lease on life, really.”

This upturn in fortunes comes off the back of the release of the band’s newest long-player ‘Cleave’, the band’s biggest mainstream success in years. Greeted with critical acclaim and an enthusiastic response from the band’s fanbase, ‘Cleave’ is the band’s highest-charting LP in years on both sides of the Atlantic, and has done well across the continent. “The first thing we’ve noticed is the punters love it, a lot more than any other album recently. I felt they liked ‘Disquiet’ a lot, and I felt they liked ‘A Brief Crack of Light’ a lot, but the punters seem to like this more than any album we’ve done in years. Something about it, I don’t know if it’s the sound, or if it’s the attitude, or whether some of the songwriting adheres to those classic Therapy? tropes, there’s something about the whole package that seems to resonate with people this time around.”

The record is Therapy? in prime alt-rock form, a handful of serrated shards of distortion and volume, bookended by melody and refrains the likes of which will be instantly familiar to lapsed fans revisiting the band after their major-label years. No surprise, then, that they were joined behind the desk by a longtime collaborator in Chris Sheldon, producer for some of the band’s most immediate and impactful records, including 1994 Mercury Prize nominee ‘Troublegum’. “Chris, we’ve known on and off since 1992, and even when we weren’t working with him on a regular basis we would still see him occasionally, socially. And he kind-of knows, because he was there near the start, when we were making records in the ‘Troublegum’ mode, he knows what makes us tick. He’s really, really good as a producer in that he’s bulls**t-free. He doesn’t hide behind anything. He won’t waste five hours using a Chinese gong on a track just to placate the drummer. He will literally say, if the song’s not ready, ‘guys, this isn’t ready, go back and finish it.’ If the song’s too long, he’ll say ‘this needs cutting out’. And we’ll argue the course with him, and we’ll get some middle ground, and it’ll all work for the record, but he’s about making sure the record is really, really good. The other thing, too, is with the amount of time we’ve been around, working with someone you respect and get on with means an awful lot, because it means the whole recording process and creative process goes a lot more smoothly.”

A constant in the band’s discography has been adhering to loose concepts across an album, a creative trait that has allowed them to explore social alienation, political divisions, mental health/illness, and philosophy with consistency while the band’s sound has morphed across line-ups. No time like the present, unfortunately, then, to examine the fears and anxieties of modern life, than the current hellscape of reactionary politics and resultant social issues. “I can pinpoint exactly where the album lyrics came from. Nine times out of ten, when Therapy? writes an album, we’ll write the music first, and I will concurrently write the vocal melody. But lyrics aren’t normally done until we get an idea of what it’ll be all about. We have certain themes running through all our records, but we hadn’t had a theme for this one yet, we had all the vocal melodies, the music was finished, but I was having trouble finding something to hang a theme around the album with. We were having dinner with some friends one night, a classic middle-class English dinner-party. Someone mentioned Brexit, someone brought it up, and I said, ‘y’know, as someone that’s lived in a divided Ireland all my life, as someone that’s seen sectarianism, I really don’t see what benefit we can have from separating ourselves from our European cousins.’ At which point a middle-class Englishman turned around to me and said, without any irony, ‘if you don’t like it, you can always go home’ (laughs). And I said ‘I beg your pardon? Do you want me to go home two doors up the road?’ He said ‘no, you can always go back to Ireland’. So, this is what it’s done to people, and that’s when I started writing about division. And I tried to write from the point of division, I didn’t want to write a specifically ‘Brexit’ record, I used that comment from that pretentious buffoon to jump off and write about division within ourselves, within our countries, and the emotions we give and take from each other. At no stage on our fifteenth album did I want to write a Rage Against the Machine or Stiff Little Fingers agitprop album, because I wouldn’t be very good at it.”

Leadoff single ‘Callow’ is possibly the most immediate example of where the band is at in 2018, addressing the burgeoning issue of prescription medication abuse in a knockabout, almost poppy fashion. While the song was approaching completion, the passing occurred of rapper Lil’ Peep, sadly taken at 21 years of age by an accidental overdose of anti-anxiety medication prescribed for mental-health issues. The reaction of Cairns’ son to Peep’s death spurred on the song’s lyrical content. “Unfortunately it tends to happen, whether it’s Jim Morrison dying, or the suicide of Kurt Cobain, a glorification of the use of Xanax came in the wake of Lil’ Peep’s death, certainly some of my son’s circle of friends were buying Xanax online, and people were nodding off and passing out at parties, seventeen-, eighteen-year-old kids. The whole Soundcloud rap thing, face tattoos, emo crossed with hip-hop, Xanax went hand-in-hand with that. It was all over the press, all over the Internet. But also, whenever you find out that loads of Xanax is being bought online, it’s being prescribed, to kids, which is quite horrifying. One thing I do want to clarify, though, I’m not anti-antidepressants, I think some people see that as the only course that will work for them, and certainly my father had a horrendous breakdown about twenty-five years ago and Prozac was what saved his life. But for certain people it can be like putting a Band-Aid over an enormous scar, and I think talking to people works better.”

Following the band’s touring success on the continent, it’s time for the boys in black to take it home, with a five-date tour in March playing the country’s non-capital cities for a change, including their first all-electric gig in Limerick in nearly two decades. The band’s Leeside stop takes in their customary gig at Cyprus Avenue, playing the newly-constructed ‘new’ room in the venue complex, but also a flying visit around the city. “We’ve been badgering away for a year now to get fully electric shows in Ireland, and it’s never been the right time. And obviously, we’ll have to come back and do Dublin and Belfast at some point, and there’s a few more places we’d like to play, like Kilkenny and Waterford. But, y’know, we’re very, very excited to be coming back. Cork is one of our very favourite cities, and favourite venues, on the entire planet. We always manage, quite rightly, to turn the gig at Cyprus Avenue into a weekender. We normally get over the day before the gig, get out to the gig, go out with friends, and then spend half the next day there getting dinner. So, in March, we’ll have a big star on all our calendars. We’re going back to Derry to play an electric show, Galway, in the Roisín Dubh, which we love, Dolan’s is always a brilliant gig and I love Limerick as a city, and of course we’ve been to Dundalk numerous times but it’ll be good to come back with a full electric show.”

Therapy? play the new Cyprus Avenue on March 23rd, 2019. Tickets are on sale now from cyprusavenue.ie and The Old Oak. The band’s new album ‘Cleave’, is available now on CD and vinyl from Golden Discs on Patrick Street, and across all digital services via Marshall Records.