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The Dancing Dead

6 February 2013 | 6:00 am | Guido Farnell

“I really don’t feel that the albums capture my best moments. I always feel like they are my worst moments. I have never been happy with any of the recordings I have done – I hate them!"

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Last year Dead Can Dance surprised many by releasing Anastasis, which reveals that the duo, with their origins in Melbourne, have become stronger composers over the years and are more than capable of producing some of the most exquisite music imaginable. Armed with beautiful and powerful visions of what their music should sound like, Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard experiment with traditional music from the Middle East, Greece and the Balkans and bring these diverse influences into uniquely modern contexts to thrilling effect. It is simply a delight to be able to talk to Lisa Gerrard who is one of those often overlooked, iconic vocalists who has emerged from Australia in the '80s. Those who follow Gerrard's career as an accomplished recording and soundtrack artist would know that over the course of her 30-years-and-counting career her voice has lost none of its power, multi-octave range and capacity to astound listeners.

On the phone from her home in country Victoria, Gerrard is intense and passionate but also business-like when she talks about her work. We start by talking about life on the road with Dead Can Dance and it turns out Gerrard prefers performing live to recording in the studio. “Some of the baroque pieces, like Host Of The Seraphim, are so much more interesting live. They have the kind of magnitude of sounding like they are being played in a cathedral. You never can completely achieve that kind of sound on record. I find that exciting… The live shows give the work a weight, width, depth and a sort of dimension that I don't think you can achieve on an album.

“I really don't feel that the albums capture my best moments. I always feel like they are my worst moments. I have never been happy with any of the recordings I have done – I hate them! I always feel so much happier playing live. It is an extraordinary opportunity to work with the energy of live musicians. Then there is that wonderful energy in the room that is created uniquely by every audience. There are so many factors involved that bring light, excitement and electricity to a live performance. Even if the tuning isn't fabulous or whatever, it is so much more exciting. Recording in a studio is very sequenced and static. You keep doing performances over and over again that strive to be accurate and perfect in a sense, but sometimes I think [recording] lacks the magic of a live performance.”

The question on everyone's lips, however, is how Gerrard and Perry got around to working on a new Dead Can Dance album after all these years. “It was almost like an unfinished puzzle. I often think of music as a problem that you solve. You have a series of chaotic things that you put together to try to solve a kind of mathematical equation that leads you to a place with a wonderful bond of sympathy with soulful tissue, you know. So the thing is I met Brendan when I was seventeen, and when we started to think about music it was clear that we had such an incredible vision for what we wanted to do with the music. What drove us is that we formed this bond of sympathy for the work and that we have a very similar kind of excitement and passion for the music. We both were passionate about wanting to explore new ideas and music. Brendan had come from a post-punk world of Joy Division and all of that sort of thing. At that age I was more interested in quite dark things really, avant-garde music and even classical Japanese, Chinese and Turkish music, probably because I had grown up in Prahran. Brendan was interested in those things too but he was interested in finding a way of expressing himself by more traditional methods at that point. When we did actually write a piece together it was something called Frontier. It was recorded at Ron Rude's house in Belgrave. It was the first time we worked together and [neither of us really didn't knew] what would happen. It was recorded with some old kerosene cans, Yang Sh'in and some voices. It turned out to be a really magical piece and we realised that when we work together that something just happens and we are able to create something unique. It was the beginning and we wanted to explore this further and ended up going on to London.

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“I have done lots of wonderful things with lots of other composers. I have worked with many, many people from Morricone to Hans Zimmer but there is a rare and innate magic that Brendan and I touch on that we have never been able to explain,” Gerrard says, sounding emotional. “I know you can't understand me. This is what draws me back because being separated from the pieces you have written together, well you grieve those. You know the potential of what you can create together has not been completely fulfilled. You also feel, as an artist, that you have to overcome those things that ego brings. That between us – through neuroses or anxiety about wanting to create perfection, which is completely impossible – you strive for this ideal, but there has been friction. You reach a point in life where you want to leave a legacy of work that is not haunted by the memory of the problems you had because of your artistic vision. It should be haunted by the legacy of the wonderful work and how you overcame those problems.”

As Gerrard talks it seems that the pair's passion for music simultaneously draws them together but also has the capacity to drive them apart. Consequently it is hard not to wonder about their collaborative relationship and how the intricate and beautiful sounds of Anastasis were forged "There are so many variables when we work together. There are times when we work separately and times when we bring things together. Brendan had a very clear vision on this album in terms of the exotic dimension of what he wanted to create, that it is of the Mediterranean and there were scales and rhythms that he wanted to explore for the album. This was exciting for me because when you have to write something against those it really pushes the envelope because you go outside the boundaries of 4/4 or even 5/4. There are pieces on the album that are 9/4. It forces you to completely rethink the narrative you want to create. There was that side of it but Brendan also has a very strong sense of ballad. He always has a very literary and literal desire to communicate with pearls or kernels of wisdom from his own life experiences. He is not being imposing by doing that, he is being poetic. I think the wonderful thing about the combination of the two of us being together is that we both want to do the same things. I do it with abstract vocal expression. It makes the concerts that much more exciting because of various areas we have explored individually and together the palette becomes very broad and exciting. One piece leads to a completely different medium of work but ultimately or quintessentially they are linked because of the same desire to open up the pathway to the heart.”

Dead Can Dance will be playing the following dates:

Sunday 3 February - Opera House, Sydney NSW
Monday 4 February - Opera House, Sydney NSW
Wednesday 6 February - Palais Theatre, Melbourne VIC
Saturday 9 February - Perth International Arts Festival, Perth WA