Anathema: Exploring their past, their present and their future

a portrait of anathema
(Image: © Will Ireland)

The day Anathema released their eleventh album, The Optimist, Danny and Vinnie Cavanagh were in different places. Not physically – the brothers were gearing up to play a show that evening in Russia, one of the many overseas strongholds their band has built up across their sometimes turbulent, frequently triumphant 28-year career.

But mentally, they were in separate headspaces. Danny, the band’s guitarist and chief songwriter, was online, scanning reviews of the new album. He was keen to see what people were saying about an album that he had poured heart and soul into. Most of the notices were positive, but there were one or two bloggers who were unimpressed.

“Yeah, I looked to see what people were saying,” he says, his Liverpool accent undimmed after several years of bouncing between other cities and other countries. “And anyone who doesn’t like it, I think they’re stupid. Because I know it’s brilliant. But at the end of the day, there are far more important things in life. Like health, family, mental well-being. They’re the things that really matter.”

By contrast, Vinnie – Anathema’s vocalist and guitarist, and Danny’s younger brother by 10 months – wasn’t remotely interested in what anyone else had to say. He knew the band had produced their best album yet, one that was simultaneously epic and intimate, tumultuous and cathartic.

“I have a different outlook,” he says. “No nerves. If I’m happy with a record, I’m bulletproof. We try to make albums that are a reflection of who we are and where we are and what we can do. If we can get that right, I’m happy. And I know we got it right.”

That’s as perfect a snapshot of the relationship at the heart of Anathema as you’ll get. Danny is Anathema’s emotional core, a man who wears his heart on his sleeve and gives the band the personal edge that many of their peers lack. Vinnie is the one who helps make those emotions real, the pragmatist who keeps things anchored, who holds things together when they threaten to fly apart (and they have threatened to fly apart more than once over the years).

It’s a combination that has worked for them. The Optimist isn’t just the best album in a career that has been marked with great records, but it’s also the best album of the year according to our Prog Readers’ Poll.

(Image: © Will Ireland)

But their journey hasn’t been without its trials. There have been periods of personal and professional darkness, when it looked like they weren’t going to make it through. The Optimist itself was born of a troubled time in Danny Cavanagh’s life, though like the character at the centre of the record, both he and Anathema have emerged stronger and better.

“There’s personal pain and anguish, sure,” says Danny. “It doesn’t have to be about that. It can also be songs about gratitude for life – I’ve done them before. This one had that pain, cos the songs are all autobiographical. So if we’re singing about being in Springfield, feeling lost, that’s because I actually felt lost.”

We’re sitting in a pub in Paddington, just around the corner from the Prog offices. As we talk, Danny nurses a coffee. He gave up alcohol around 2005. “It was really easy,” he says of the initial decision behind his abstinence. “I just decided to have a month off. I’m still living in that month.”

Danny, Vinnie and co-vocalist Lee Douglas have just finished their photo shoot (the remaining three members of the band, drummer/keyboard player John Douglas, keyboard player Daniel Cardoso, plus Danny and Vinnie’s younger brother, bassist Jamie Cavanagh, are absent). The guitarist recalls a moment during the shoot that struck a chord.

“There’s one bit we did, a staged photo, where our hands are interlocked and Vinnie is pulling me up,” he says. “He’s literally done that at times in the past. John and Vinnie, they’ve saved my life. Where would I be without them?” He laughs. “And where would they be without me…”

The Optimist is a continuation of the events of 2001’s A Fine Day To Exit, the album that found Anathema shaking off their extreme metal past, expanding their horizons and their ambitions. Its picks up where AFDTE left off, with its troubled central character dragging himself out of the sea where he’d planned to end it all, then charts his physical and mental journey from the brink of oblivion to some kind of redemption. Its central theme is bleak, undoubtedly, but there’s hope in there too.

But The Optimist is really Danny Cavanagh’s story. Its moments of darkness and moments of light reflect his own life. “I had a couple of dark years on a personal level,” he says, then pauses. “It was a breakdown, basically. I was addicted to Valium, and it was fucking horrible.” He breathes deeply then exhales slowly. “That’s the most candid thing I’ve ever said in an interview, it really is.”

Danny says he doesn’t want this to be “a depression interview”. He’s done a lot of those recently, especially on the back of his recent solo album, Monochrome. Still, it’s hard to avoid the subject that weighs most heavily on The Optimist, and on Danny himself.

In the period between Anathema’s last album, 2014’s Distant Satellites, and the new record, Danny found himself struggling, mentally. He became a father for the first time just over four years ago, and the combination of parental responsibilities and the pressures that come with being an ambitious musician began to take their toll.

“I had pretty permanent anxiety, I couldn’t sleep, my mind was racing all the time,” he says. “I got prescribed these pills, but instead of a week it was for a month. And then I stopped taking them, and it was even worse – there was a rebound. So I got some more. And that was it for a couple of years.”

This wasn’t the first time Danny has struggled with mental health issues. In the late 90s, he suffered an LSD and magic mushroom-induced breakdown. (“It was an accident, but it was horrendous,” he says now.) But sleeping pills, he says, caused another level of anguish.

“It was the most addictive thing I’ve ever known,” he says. “It never stops feeling good, but if you haven’t got it, if you run out for a couple of days, it’s fucking horrible. It’s like having a mini-nervous breakdown.”

He reached rock bottom in 2016. “I went to the doctor and said: ‘This is happening, help me out,’” he says. The doctor gradually reduced his dose. “I just tapered off over the course of a few months,” he said. “It got less and less, and it just stopped.”

He broke free of his addiction around Christmas 2016. These days he’s on anti-depressants, which help both his state of mind and his general levels of optimism. “Things have definitely taken a step in the right direction since then,” he says. “Health and happiness is on the up. I feel much better, cleaner and leaner.”

Vinnie Cavanagh can remember watching his brother going through his personal hell. Even though he was the younger of the two siblings, he says that he felt protective of Danny.

“There are no two brothers who are closer than Danny and I,” he says. “So it was important for him to realise that I was there for him as a brother and as a mate before we even thought about doing music together.”

It was music that helped set Danny on the road to wellness. In late 2015, at Vinnie’s behest, the band’s management cleared their touring and promo schedule. The singer then set up a studio for the pair to play music simply for the sake of playing music.

“It got him out of the house, it gave us something to do,” says Vinnie. “Danny and I would meet up and have coffees and talk about everything. But actively working together as well, it was a form of therapy. And that was the beginning of The Optimist.”

Prog is speaking to Vinnie a couple of days later, in a hip, concrete-chic café in East London, close to where his artist girlfriend has a studio. Where Danny is candid and unfiltered, Vinnie is serious and thoughtful. He chooses his answers carefully, though there’s spikiness just below the surface (his response to whether he’s planning a solo album is an amusingly sharp: “You’ll know about it when I’m ready. Until then it’s none of your business.”).

When asked to describe his brother’s strengths, Danny doesn’t even pause to think: “Vinnie’s got insight, intelligence. He’s pragmatic and practical. He’s caring and loyal. He’s talented and supportive. And he’s daft and funny. He’s fucking amazing.”

“I’m just a brother, mate,” says Vinnie with a shrug, when it’s brought up. “Just a good brother. I hope I am, anyway, to both of them. And to my friends as well.”

Vinnie concedes that he’s less emotional than his older brother, and he’s managed to avoid the mental health issues that have plagued Danny. “I’ve always been the strong type – more self-reliant and self-contained,” he says. “Danny lives and breathes music, it’s in his every pore, it’s in his soul, and I’m the guy who facilitates it because I’ve got the studio. He’s sitting there, recording bits on his phone, but they’re going to stay on his phone unless he comes and meets me and I go, ‘Right, let’s do something…’”

Anathema, circa The Silent Enigma album (1995)

Anathema, circa The Silent Enigma album (1995)

The Cavanaghs’ closeness isn’t surprising. They have certainly endured more hardship than most family members. They and Jamie were born and raised in working class Liverpool. Their mother was an alcoholic, and their dad was frequently violent.

“Our childhood, our whole lives, was absolute chaos for a long time,” says Vinnie. “But I was able to deal with it in a certain way, which was by being self-reliant. It was a sort of defence mechanism to begin with. I remember just being able to deal with the chaos around me a lot easier.”

Anathema was an escape from all that. Before the band formed as Pagan Angel in 1990, Vinnie had never been “more than two hours’ drive from Liverpool – I literally had no money to do anything”. The first time he stepped on a plane was in 1994, when the band flew to Romania to play some shows and generally act like a rock band in their early 20s should.

“We were kids acting like dickheads,” he says. “Innocent dickheads, but dickheads. But we were just having fun.”

The brothers grew up listening to The Beatles and Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Queen, Black Sabbath and U2. But their initial incarnation – featuring Danny and Vinnie, John Douglas, singer Darren White and bassist Duncan Patterson – was a world away from those bands, and just as far from what they themselves would eventually become. Anathema’s first few releases found them pinning their colours firmly to the extreme metal mast, but there were occasional glimpses of a different future, such as the 23-minute ambient-leaning track Dreaming: The Romance, which closed their 1993 debut album, Serenades.

“Our influences were evolving rapidly, but our music wasn’t following suit to begin with,” says Vinnie. “But eventually you strip away those layers of adolescence and get to the truth of what it is you’re trying to do. It was natural that the more experimental would come to the fore.”

Anathema began to change direction after the departure of Darren White in 1995. Previously just the guitarist, Vincent took over vocals duties on their second album, The Silent Enigma, but it was the follow-up, 1996’s Eternity, that marked a watershed. That album found them starting the process of phasing out their extreme metal past in favour of a more expansive sound that nodded to their beloved Pink Floyd. Vinnie was a reluctant singer at first. “I was learning on the go, and you can hear that,” he says (Danny is less critical: “Vinnie becoming the singer changed everything,” he says).

Anathema’s metamorphosis continued with 1998’s Alternative 4 and the following year’s Judgement, but three things happened in quick succession that threatened to derail things. First, John Douglas left the band due to personal issues (Douglas doesn’t do interviews, but he rejoined the band before A Fine Day To Exit). A year later, longtime bassist Duncan Patterson followed him out.

Between these two events, something even more devastating happened: the Cavanagh’s mum died. It’s an understandably emotional subject, and in this case a complicated one too, but Danny doesn’t shy away from it.

“It wasn’t the death, it was the 10 years before that,” he says. “She was very, very badly psychiatrically ill, and she was a horrendous alcoholic. But it was cos me dad battered her like fuck for 15 years and put her down and persecuted her. She had all these kids, no phone, no money and nowhere to go. In October 1990, three days after my 18th birthday, she had a complete mental and emotional breakdown. She died then. It took eight years to die of alcoholism after that.” (He’s less sympathetic towards his father, who passed away a few years ago: “Fuck him, I barely cried for him.”)

The Cavanagh brothers dealt with their mother’s death in their own individual ways. The healing process was long and sometimes painful. Inevitably, it impacted on the band.

“After our mum died, we tried to rebuild, but it took us a few years to get there,” says Vinnie. “But then any bad times you go through in life, it’s important to recognise how you react to it and learn from that reaction, and to understand that if anything like that was to happen again, you’re more mentally equipped to deal with it.”

Vinnie Cavanagh: Anathema’s frontman. Or is he!?

Vinnie Cavanagh: Anathema’s frontman. Or is he!?
(Image: © Will Ireland)

Vinnie says he’s the only one who has “never spent any time out of Anathema”. According to the singer, Danny walked away from the band for a few months between A Fine Day To Exit and its follow-up, 2003’s A Natural Disaster. Ever the pragmatist, Vinnie wasn’t about to let his brother’s (albeit temporary) absence ruin things. He did what he did best: started organising things.

“I got a studio together in Liverpool and said, ‘Okay lads, let’s get some music together,’” he says. “Cos the focus of this band has always been the music. That’s what we do, that’s what has got us through some of the tough times.”

Danny returned, of course, though the mid-00s were a strange time for Anathema. Between A Natural Disaster in 2003 and 2010’s semi-comeback album, We’re Here Because We’re Here, the band stepped back from recording. This was in part due to the fact that their record label at the time had been closed down and they had no management. But there were other reasons too.

“The musical chemistry was disrupted, and I couldn’t really function within the group,” says Danny. “A manager or a record label could maybe have sorted that out. The wisdom at the time was that we didn’t need them. Fucking big mistake.”

“I think it was bravado,” says Vinnie. “We were still writing music: ‘Yeah, we’ll be alright.’ It wasn’t stubbornness, it’s just that we were on our own.”

It wasn’t quite a hiatus – they still toured, and even released an album, Hindsight, that featured acoustic versions of older songs – and both Cavanagh brothers are insistent that the band never split. But the impetus they had built up began to dissipate. “It held our career back big time,” says Danny.

There was one unexpected positive that emerged from Anathema’s years in the wilderness. In the mid-00s, Danny started to see a therapist in order to try and help untangle his past mental issues, his complex family background and the death of his mother.

“I was still drinking at the time, and I’d started reading this book about alcoholism, and how it runs in the family,” he says. “I had breakthrough therapy in 2005, it was wonderful. It was a beautiful, cathartic experience. Then I quit drinking. I started writing all the material that appeared on We’re Here Because We’re Here. It just took five years to get that out…”

When it did emerge in 2010, We’re Here Because We’re Here was the sound of a band replanting their flag on top of the mountain. More than anything that came before it, that album set them on the path that brought them to The Optimist. There was barely any trace of the band they were a decade-and-a-half before left. Now, they were truly channelling the visionary spirit of the great acts of the past – from Pink Floyd to Tangerine Dream – and adding real life emotion to it.

“That core of emotion is exactly what this band’s about,” says Vinnie. “If you were to have one definition of what this band is, it’s emotional music. There’s a melancholy in there, which can be joyful at the same time. You interpret the big things, the big emotions through music.”

There are other emotions you could associate with Anathema, and with the Cavanaghs specifically. At various points over the years, there has been plenty of conflict between the brothers, even if it’s never quite hit Noel and Liam Gallagher levels.

“Yeah, the relationship has been fairly combustible,” concedes Vinnie. “Especially in our 20s. Danny and I didn’t get on for many years. But then we grew up and we realised that we had more in common than not.”

“It got much better after I got clean,” says Danny. “And as we got older. If we have a slanging match now, which isn’t that often, it’s gone the next day.”

Have Anathema ever properly split up?

“No,” says Danny. “It’s not even come close. It’s just a way of life. There’s been times when it’s been a strain, and I’ve thought, ‘I could do without this bollocks.’ But you get over it, cos this is the best thing in the world.”

Would they still both be in the same band if they weren’t brothers?

Vinnie: “It’s possible. It all depends. I don’t think there’s anyone better to sing Danny’s songs than me, apart from himself.”

Danny is less cautious. “No,” he says simply.

Why not?

“Some of the things that have been said in private over the years. The kind of things only brothers can say and get away with.”

When the band played London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire last autumn, there was a moment when the tension between the brothers appeared to be playing out in public. At one point, there was an onstage conversation between the two of them about who was the band’s frontman, while the show ended with a song from Danny’s solo album. While it wasn’t testy enough to count as an argument, it still suggested that it’s a question that preys on their minds.

“Ah, that was a joke,” says Danny emphatically. “Banter.”

So who is the frontman in the band?

“[Laughs] Well, officially it’s Vinnie, but really it’s me.”

Will he agree you on that?

“No, of course not.”

So is Anathema your band? He’s suddenly serious.

“No, it’s our band. Not just mine and Vinnie’s, but John’s and Jamie’s and Lee’s and Daniel’s. We’ve been through too much together for it not to be.”

A pause and a smirk. “But I’m behind it all.”

Despite Danny’s reservations, Anathema’s period away from the frontline in the 00s turned out to be a smart decision on more than one level.

“2005 to 2009 were magic years for me,” says the guitarist. “I’d come out of therapy, stopped drinking. I’d got out of a bad relationship. It was the first time I felt free.”

That sense of freedom fed into Anathema. By the time of their comeback, We’re Here Because We’re Here, they sounded like a band reborn, utterly unrecognisable from the “dickheads” who had crawled out of Liverpool 20 years earlier.

“David Bowie put it best,” says Vinnie. “He always said that he liked to walk out into the ocean – he knew where the shore was, but his feet weren’t quite touching the floor. He was out of his comfort zone but not too far. That’s fucking spot on. You shouldn’t pander to your record company or the radio or even your audience, cos that’s fucking dangerous if you want to stay true to yourself as a creative person. That’s the true spirit of rock’n’roll.”

Subsequent albums have built on the artistic the success of We’re Here…. Commercially, too, each one has outsold the one that came before. Yet Anathema still find themselves in a strange place in 2018. Their career is on an upswing – the album sales, chart placings and gigs all say as much. But Anathema haven’t quite made the leap to the next level of acceptance in the way that Opeth or Steven Wilson – two artists who started out at roughly the same time and broadly exist in the same musical space – have. Sure, it’s not a competition, but it’s odd that they’re lagging behind in commercial terms – their music is more emotional, more welcoming, more direct than either of those bands. Are they happy being under the radar?

“No,” says Vinnie emphatically. “I don’t think our music is so complicated that a mainstream audience wouldn’t find something in it. A song like Untouchable (from 2012’s Weather Systems), for example, there’s a huge audience for music like that. When we were kids, we grew up on songs with great melody, and melodies are always the most important thing for us. We write catchy music as far as we’re concerned. Granted there are experimental parts, but on the whole it has broader appeal.”

Vinnie has a theory about why Anathema aren’t more successful in mainstream terms. He thinks that people still judge his band by their distant past. “I think there’s a stigma around us because of our earlier records,” he says. “You never get away from it. Even the name makes us sound like a 1990s metal band. Ironically if we’d have stayed on that path we were on years ago, we’d have been much bigger than we are now. The metal scene is fucking massive. But you paint yourselves into a corner.”

Vinnie says that he pushed for the band to change their name in the long gap between A Natural Disaster and We’re Here Because We’re Here, to no avail. “I couldn’t get enough support for the idea from the people around us at the time,” he says. “Every fucking year I’d bring it to the table: ‘Just change the band name.’ But no one was having it.”

Danny insists that the band did talk about changing the name “years ago”, but couldn’t find anything that would have worked. Anyway, he gave up on the idea of Anathema connecting with a broad mainstream audience a long time ago.

“There’s a glass ceiling for this band,” says the guitarist, “and it’s the Royal Albert Hall. To do a headlining show in that place and fill it is about as good as it’s going to get.”

That’s a bit unambitious, isn’t it? He shrugs.

“I’m just being realistic. I think it dawned on me about 2005, around the time I stopped drinking. It used to make me unhappy trying to break through all the time. When we did A Fine Day To Exit, it was like, ‘When are we gonna tour with Muse?’ or ‘When are we gonna tour with Radiohead?’ Never, is the answer to that. I just chilled out and gave up trying to be Radiohead. I think it was Lemmy who said that unless you’re in the right place at the right time, no matter how good you are, it won’t happen. And we weren’t, and it didn’t.”

Do you feel like outsiders?

“I don’t think we’re outsiders as such, but I am not as connected as some of those other people. They manage their careers better than I do. [Laughs] They have less to put up with. But on the other hand, we’re better than anybody else in this scene. Nobody else can touch what we do. Fucking no one. Name one.”

Steven Wilson?

“Too clean.”

Opeth?

“They’re great at what they do, but nah. Radiohead are better than us. U2 at their best. Nirvana. Pink Floyd. Led Zeppelin. The Beatles. Kate Bush. Dire Straits. All the greats – they’re all better than us and always will be better than us. But in this scene? Nah.”

Light And Shade: Danny goes deep.

Light And Shade: Danny goes deep.
(Image: © Will Ireland)

That kind of bullishness would sound ridiculous if it didn’t have a ring of truth to it. Even in a year in which prog’s new gods have served up an array of stellar albums – from Steven Wilson’s To The Bone to Big Big Train’s GrimspoundThe Optimist certainly stands out. Few bands in recent memory have matched its emotional resonance, the way it displays its moods – desperation, hope, everything in between – so openly without actually feeling the need to spell everything out.

“Yeah, it’s not black and white,” says Vinnie. “Anyone can interpret how they want, but the way I see it, there’s some resolution, finally, but The Optimist character has to go through some very intense… things before he can get there. You’ve got to go there to come back.”

“Is it an optimistic album?” says Danny. “I would say so, yeah. I’ve never really said the way I think it ends, but I personally think it’s a happy ending – to be continued, anyway. He didn’t dive in the water at the end and sink.”

It’s a typically open-ended and ambiguous finale, one that would lend itself to an extension of The Optimist’s story. This is something that both Cavanagh brothers have thought about.

“I was considering an EP to close up the story, about The Optimist’s childhood – our childhood,” says Danny. “What made him this person. But I don’t know if that will compromise the next album. You might end up putting songs on it that are good enough for a full album. That’s what happened with (2012’s) Weather Systems. It was gonna be an EP, and it turned into an album cos we thought, ‘We need to put more songs on it.’”

If they do go down that route, they already have one potential song in the bag. There’s a secret track hidden in The Optimist’s intro track 32.63n 117.14w, or at least a snippet of one – as the title character fiddles with a car radio, an Anathema song suddenly comes into focus, then disappears just as quickly. This is Dreaming In Reverse, recorded for The Optimist then held off at the last minute. It takes confidence for a band to do that.

“That’s a full fucking song,” says Vinnie. “We spent a good few days on that, putting it together, recording it, then we just put it on the radio for 10 seconds.”

Another potential future could see Anathema playing the album from start to finish, maybe even with an orchestra. Given The Optimist’s narrative structure and ambition, it would make sense. “I think we will at some point,” says Vinnie. “We’ve played virtually every song so far – the only one we haven’t played so far is Close Your Eyes, the jazzy one. We haven’t done that one yet. But if we go down that route, we’ll have to do something special musically and visually.”

If the future isn’t quite carved in stone, then the recent past is. Last September, The Optimist was crowned Best Album at the Progressive Music Awards, a culmination of the respect that Anathema had gathered over the past few years. While he’s happy with the accolade, Danny insists that it’s not the be all and end all of everything.

“It’s not that I don’t care,” he says. “I am proud of the recognition, and I am proud that people like it. And I’m proud that even in the difficult years, the band managed to keep creating these things. But that’s not the most important thing. The biggest deal to me would be health and happiness.”

The Cavanaghs are keen to dispel the idea that life in Anathema has been a quarter century of doom and gloom. “The start, when we were all innocent and a bunch of kids, yes, that was amazing and fun and eye-opening, especially for a bunch of kids coming from where we came from and the life that we came from,” says Vinnie. “But we’ve always had fun, despite the hard times. You shouldn’t think we’ve had years and years of misery, because it’s not like that. We’ve had an incredible laugh.”

For Danny, life in Anathema – and out of it – is better now than it has been in a long time. “Right now, I feel some contentment with how it’s going,” he says. “The music’s getting better and better, the togetherness of the group is incredible. Music is healing for me, and it’s healing for people who listen to it. But it’s also the healing power of family. It’s the band that’s healed me, not the music. It’s being with them that’s cathartic.”

The Optimist is out now on Kscope. See www.anathemamusic.com for more information.

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