“It was the best thing I’d come up with for years – it vanished off the recorder and I could never, ever remember it. John was like, ‘Just tell yourself it was crap!’”: How Anathema made Distant Satellites

(Image credit: Press)

When Anathema delivered 10th album Distant Satellites in 2014, it was already a project with a story stretching years into the past. That year brothers Vincent and Daniel Cavanagh told Prog about lost songs, family tensions and the arrival of electronica into their music.

Do you believe in fate?

In 1984, when he was 11 years old, Vincent Cavanagh, quite rightly, thought he’d be going to the same school as his older brother Danny. You know the score – keep it in the family, etc. It’s something Anathema as a band have long done. Yet instead, young Vincent found himself at Anfield Community Comprehensive School, sat next to a pupil whose name came after him in the alphabet. A young lad by the name of John Douglas.

And thus began a friendship from which the roots of Anathema would grow. From a time when, fuelled on a musical diet as diverse as Celtic Frost, Dire Straits, Metallica, Marillion and Paradise Lost, the Cavanagh brothers would strum their guitars in their front room while Douglas would strike up a beat on any surface his drum sticks could hit out a rhythm on. From a time when they thought calling themselves Pagan Angel was a good idea. Oh, such heady days…

Today is a long way from the Thatcher-ridden 80s when the then prime minister considered consigning Liverpool to “managed decline;” and both the city itself (European Capital For Culture in 2008, no less) and Anathema have thrived in the ensuing years. Today a beamingly proud and confident Danny and Vinnie Cavanagh greet Prog at their record label offices in North London, cheerfully goading your correspondent about our respective football clubs. Liverpool (them) are sitting atop the Premier League at the time of writing, and they host Chelsea (me) at Anfield the coming weekend. “I think we’ll be having the bragging rights,” grins Vinnie as we convene to the label’s boardroom to talk. Prog smiles back, but suspects he’s right…

Football aside, Anathema have every right to be pleased with themselves. Since reactivating as a recording unit with 2010’s We’re Here Because We’re Here after a seven-year gap following 2003’s A Natural Disaster, they have pretty much been in the ascendancy, their hauntingly melancholic and highly atmospheric brand of progressive rock finding new fans all over the world. 2012’s equally elegiac Weather Systems upped the momentum, the band not only walking off with an award at the inaugural Progressive Music Awards, but winning Band Of The Year in the Prog Reader’s Poll. Their all-round showing the following year proves their heightened popularity. 

In between, 2011’s sweeping, orchestral Falling Deeper added real musical weight to their canon, and last year’s live multimedia extravaganza Universal again won its category in the corresponding Prog Reader’s Poll.

All of which beings us nicely to Distant Satellites, the band’s 10th studio album, and one which finds the core of the group that recorded We’re Here Because We’re Here all firmly in place. Only keyboard player Les Smith is absent, his role now filled by John Douglas, and Portuguese musician Daniel Cardoso – who joined as, ironically, keyboardist in 2012 – is now behind the drum kit. They lineup alongside three Cavanaghs (bassist and Vinnie’s twin Jamie completes that trio) and two Douglases (John’s sister Lee occupies the lone female role).

The line-up might have fragmented and reconvened occasionally and for various unspecified reasons (the fact that John Douglas became a father explains his absence for a period of time), but when it comes to doing what Anathema do best, they present a strong, united front born of those childhood friendships long ago, forged between the Cavanagh and the Douglas clans.

We let each song write itself. We let them arrive by themselves. If you look at our albums throughout our career, you can see that’s how we’ve worked.

Vincent Cavanagh

Distant Satellites – housed in a typically emotive and abstract cover, courtesy of Korean artist Sang Jun Yoo – is Anathema doing what they do best, albeit this time with a twist. If it’s grand, melancholic, emotive and atmospheric musical gestures you want, look no further than the three-part The Lost Song, the sweeping Ariel and the stridently uplifting Anathema, the latter easily the album’s high point, and an exquisite piece of music to challenge the likes of Thin Air, Untouchable or Dreaming Light as the band’s finest ever moment.

And yet no sooner has Anathema run its course than the music changes tack, veering off into a more exploratory world of proggy electronica through songs like You’re Not Alone, Firelight and Distant Satellites, which offer a more challenging front to the listener, before Take Shelter collates the atmospheric rock, sweeping orchestration and electronic quirks into one compellingly comprehensive closer. 

No strangers to shifting their musical axis when the mood takes them – as anyone who’s heard the swing shift from 1996’s still doom-laden Eternity to the sombre, moody prog of 1998’s Alternative 4 will know – it is Anathema’s confidence in challenging their fanbase that allows them to take such steps with ease. And after all, what good would it do to release an album that sounded identical to the previous two?

“It appears we made a decision to change, but I’m not certain it was that contrived,” muses Vinnie between sips of coffee.

“Funnily enough, the songs that do sound different are the oldest ones on the album,” confides Danny. “The core of Distant Satellites is 16 years old. The core of Take Shelter is six years old; the core of You’re Not Alone is 10 years old. Now felt like the right time to bring them in. But after you’ve done an album like Universal, which is Weather Systems live, you can’t really do all that again.”

“We let each song write itself,” says Vinnie. “And we let them arrive by themselves. If you look at our albums throughout our career, you can see that’s how we’ve worked.”

For Distant Satellites, the two Cavanaghs and John Douglas took themselves off to Portugal for a fortnight with producer Christer-André Cederberg and worked their way through some 30 pieces of music, honing them down to the 10 that appear on the album.

Recording in the winter in Oslo isn’t great… You just didn’t see anything. No daylight, there was no social life, nothing outside the studio.

Vincent Cavanagh

Take Shelter and Distant Satellites were always going to be on the record,” says Danny. “And The Lost Songs were going to be there too. So there’s five songs; that’s half the album. The rest just came naturally. It was fun. Fun and easy. And as for the electronic stuff, well, that’s something that John and Vinnie have always been into, working on their laptops. So we’ve got the guitars, and the piano, and we’ve got the orchestration, and the laptop is just another part of it.

“It’s easy when I get together with John and Vinnie. I just have to look at John’s face and I know. I often defer to how he’s looking and I know. We’ve been together for 20-odd years, and growing up before that, and it’s easy. Put Christer in the mix as the figurehead who makes sense of it all. And then Daniel and Jamie and Lee all come into it and that’s how it works.”

There’s much mention of words like “easy” and “fun” in relation to the creation of Distant Satellites, and yet not every Anathema album recording might have been referred to thus. For all its brilliance, We’re Here Because We’re Here was a long, laborious recording process with the problem of no record label or management hanging over the band’s head. Add occasionally tempestuous siblings into a creative environment and… well, you sometimes end up with what one band observer once told me was “the Cavanaghs being the Cavanaghs.” It prompts a burst of searing honesty from Danny.

“Having John around really helped this time. He’s like the third creative brain and he’s just funny and we love him; and having him here really helped with this record. But I’ll be honest: this wasn’t that easy an album to make. I personally really enjoyed it, but we’ve been working pretty much non-stop for years now, and we’d been away from home for nine months. We got there in the end. I think we learned some lessons. I think I might need to be a bit more easy-going… I don’t think I’d like to make an album with me, to be perfectly honest with you!”

“Recording in the winter in Oslo isn’t great,” smiles his brother. “That’s my one stipulation. You just didn’t see anything. No daylight, there was no social life, nothing outside the studio. It’s dead expensive too. The place is nice though, and the people are fantastic.”

“Me and Lee loved it,” laughs Danny. “Just going for a coffee and working on the music. But I think Vinnie would like to do the next album in Paris in the spring.”

“Yes,” Vinnie agrees, laughing. “Or England. Maybe I’d like to do the next one here.”

It was such an outpouring of emotion… I knew he’d need someone. I put my arm around him and said, ‘That’s going on the album!’

Vincent Cavanagh

With the onus very much on the band’s songwriting ability, given the abundance of talent on offer, how exactly do they set about writing their songs? “He’s the filter,” notes Danny immediately, nodding towards his brother. “The songs go through Vinnie and he’ll more or less say how it should be done. He stops me from making mistakes. If I’m going in a certain direction that isn’t appropriate, he’ll know.”

“Sometimes, though, we’ll get something right from the off,” adds Vinnie. “A song like Anathema was like that. Everything was right from the off.”

“Without John, it’s not complete, though,” Danny adds. “Vinnie and I are close – a bit too close sometimes – and John’s so laid-back and easy-going. We had an argument in the studio and I went to John for an explanation and he just replied, ‘Tis bollocks, my lord!’ and it totally defused the situation.”

For all the band’s inherent musical ability, when it comes to the lyrics, Anathema don’t really do stories. It’s perhaps no surprise that the reason their music forms such an emotional attachment between band and audience is the often stark autobiographical nature of Danny’s heartfelt lyrics.

“I wrote the song Anathema in about 15 minutes. I was pacing around my room and it just all came flowing out because I knew what I wanted to say. And with these guys behind you, you can’t really fuck it up.”

It’s not always such a smooth path, though. “Ariel was written in Argentina when we were on tour,” says Vinnie. “Danny had a pretty rough night with no sleep and a lot of stuff on his mind. So I spent the day setting up the stage and stuff, to give him some time off; but he turned up, to my surprise, at the soundcheck. I could tell he was having one of those moments.

”He went straight over to the piano, put his hands on it and played that melody. He’d never played it before but it was perfect and he said, ‘Guys, join in,’ so I started recording it and the rest of the band joined in, and it was perfect. Me and Lee knew exactly how to sing it from the off. I’ve never seen anyone write songs like that.”

“I went and cried for about 15 minutes after that,” Danny recalls.

In trying to remember the song we came up with a beat that may have been like the original, and a chord progression that may have sounded like it

Daniel Cavanagh

“It was such an outpouring of genuine emotion,” adds Vinnie. “I watched where he went backstage after that and went after him – I just knew he’d need someone. I just put my arm around him and said, ‘That’s going on the album!’”

Equally intriguing is the story behind the three-part The Lost Song, the first two parts of which open the album in suitably emphatic style, with part three arriving towards the middle. “I had this little Boss recorder that had a little switch on the side, which says ‘Lock’ on it,” Danny explains.

”With that on, you can’t lose the information, and I recorded this riff back in 2008/9 – I was jumping around my flat going, ‘Fuck me!’ about it. I felt it was the best thing I’d come up with for years. But it vanished off the recorder and for the life of me I could never, ever fucking remember it. I checked through the hard drives of everybody’s computer to see if I’d recorded another demo of it, and I couldn’t find it. John was like, ‘Just tell yourself it was crap!’ 

“That worked for a while, but we ended up in Portugal and in trying to remember it we came up with these three songs. We came up with a beat that may have been like the original, and a chord progression that may have sounded like it…”

How can you come up with something you believe is so good and then not remember it? “I have no fucking idea,” he laughs. “Maybe it wasn’t that good in the first place…”

Alas, that’s something we’ll never know. What we do know, however, is that Distant Satellites is another strong and excellent addition to Anathema’s body of work. Having toured extensively on the back of Weather Systems, including several successful forays into America, the band will undertake some of their celebrated acoustic shows before an appearance at this year’s Download Festival. And then it’s back into the great wide open, touring what Danny calls “the most important album we’ve made”.

We went through some tough times, but we’ve figured it out… we’re out there making the music as family and friends and musicians

Daniel Cavanagh

As an addendum, five days after we chat, Chelsea travelled to Anfield and beat Liverpool 2-0, denting title hopes further derailed by the team giving up a 3-0 lead at Crystal Palace two weeks later. At the time of writing, the Premiership title is still up for grabs. Vinnie, however, graciously accepts a cheeky text asking, “What was it you were saying about bragging rights?” after the Chelsea game.

But the final word goes to Danny, who is talking of the bond between the band as they prepare their latest worldwide assault. “We went through some tough times, but we’ve figured it out; we’re comfortable together, and we’re out there making the music as family and friends and musicians.”

It prompts Vinnie to ask the question: “Do you believe in fate?”

It seems, quite rightly, that Anathema certainly do.

Jerry Ewing

Writer and broadcaster Jerry Ewing is the Editor of Prog Magazine which he founded for Future Publishing in 2009. He grew up in Sydney and began his writing career in London for Metal Forces magazine in 1989. He has since written for Metal Hammer, Maxim, Vox, Stuff and Bizarre magazines, among others. He created and edited Classic Rock Magazine for Dennis Publishing in 1998 and is the author of a variety of books on both music and sport, including Wonderous Stories; A Journey Through The Landscape Of Progressive Rock.