You are on page 1of 6

Interview with Peter Ulrich for Serbian World Music Magazine Etnoumlje

January 2008.
Author: Nikola Urošević

1.You were a member of Dead Can Dance from the earliest days until 1991, and your last
official studio recording with them was on the"Spiritchaser"
album. From post punk sensation to the band which redefined the genres of world and
early music. How do you see the Dead Can Dance phenomena today ? Could you compare
the early and the last days of the band ? What was the atmosphere like during the
"Spiritchaser" sessions?

Firstly, I should just clarify that I wasn't quite a member of DCD from the earliest days.
DCD was formed by Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard in Melbourne, Australia in 1981.
They moved to London the following year in search of a record deal, but their original drummer couldn't
make the trip.
I met them in London in December 1982 and joined the band, and was in the line-up which signed to 4AD
in 1983.

DCD certainly changed enormously in many respects over the years, without ever losing the essential
components that make Spiritchaser every bit as much a DCD recording as the eponymously titled first
album.
The tangible constant is the voices of Brendan and Lisa; the intangible constant is the musical
atmospheres they create together.
The changes that took place are a direct result of both Brendan's and Lisa's insatiable desire to push
boundaries, to find new sounds and to explore new territories.

When I joined DCD we were a guitar/bass/drums band, with occasional exotic touches provided by Lisa's
yang ch'in (Chinese hammered dulcimer) and piano accordian.
Brendan was constantly looking for unusual ways to use the staple rock instruments, while at the same
time straining to break free of these confines.
Lisa, meanwhile, was experimenting with different ways of using her extraordinary voice.
Following the release of our first album, two critical things happened.
Firstly, with the money we received from our publishing advance, Brendan bought a keyboard with inbuilt
bank of sound samples - very primitive by today's standards, but nevertheless he now had the sounds of
an entire orchestra to work with, and a sequencer to compose with.
Secondly, 4AD head Ivo Watts-Russell licensed the release of the Mystere des Voix Bulgares album
which introduced Lisa to the Balkan folk tradition of open throat singing.

By the time of the second studio album - Spleen and Ideal (1986) - there was barely a guitar in sight, and
songs were being recorded with violins, cellos, trombones and orchestral percussion.
Then, as we began to tour and travel more, we gathered more influences and, critically, more
instruments.
We dipped into different cultures (particularly African and Middle Eastern influences), and different eras
(the influence of medieval music is particularly evident on the Aion album).

Following a European tour and then DCD's first tour of Canada and North America in late 1990, I made
my decision to leave DCD as my second daughter was due to be born and it was becoming unfair on my
family for me to be away for weeks or months at a time on tour.
Although I never regretted that decision, I did miss the involvement with DCD and naturally maintained
contact with Brendan and Lisa who have been tremendous friends and mentors to me.
It was a big thrill to be invited to participate in the preliminary percussion sessions in 1995 for the
Spiritchaser album, released the following year.
By that time, Brendan had built his studio in a deconsecrated church in a beautiful part of Ireland, and I
travelled over to be a member of a percussion group he was assembling which also included his brother
Robert plus Lance and Ronan from wonderful Irish band Kila.
We spent a week jamming and experimenting under Brendan's direction, combined with some serious
Guinness drinking sessions, and the atmosphere was great.
For me particularly it was a fantastic experience because I really hadn't played any ensemble music for
five years, while all the others were involved in music pretty much full time.
Ultimately, Brendan used the fruits of those percussion sessions on two tracks on the Spiritchaser album,
and also on a beautiful instrumental piece called Sambatiki which was presented in CD format in the tour
programme for DCD's 1996 tour of the US.

2. You also took part in 4 AD's "all stars" project This Mortal Coil . How did (This) Mortal
Coil come to life ? What was it like being the part of the 4AD family ? And what inspired
you to write "At first, And then" ?

I didn't really 'take part' in the This Mortal Coil project in the same way that most of the other contributors
did.
TMC was the brainchild of Ivo Watts-Russell whose founding concept, as I understand it, was to invite his
favourite musicians (both from within the 4AD roster and outside) to record cover versions of some of his
favourite songs, with him producing and occasionally contributing.
Brendan and Lisa were invited to participate from the outset, but were reluctant to record a cover version
and so wrote and recorded Dreams Made Flesh specifically for the first TMC album.
My involvement in TMC was less direct.

At some point in 1986, I made an arrangement to go to the apartment of Robert Lee, a musician and
sound engineer who was working with DCD at the time, to make a percussion recording.
I didn't have any strong preconceived ideas about what I wanted to record - other than that I wanted to
create a piece with the feel of an African tribal drumming group.
I turned up with an armful of hand percussion instruments and a small ocarina (clay flute), and Robert set
up his 8-track reel-to-reel tape machine.
Recording in his bathroom to make use of the natural reverb, I spontaneously recorded a root drum in two
parts - initially slow and spacious, then bursting into a wild, frenzied second part.
I had in my mind the idea of an animal peacefully grazing, then being startled by a hunter's gun shot and
sprinting away from danger.
I added multi-layered drum parts, some rattling percussion, the sound effect of a milkbottle being
smashed in the metal bathtub with a club hammer, and finally the ocarina.
Robert made a rough mix and when we sat down and listened we were really pleased with the result - it
had exactly the feel and dynamic lifeforce I was looking for.

Next I had to decide what to do with the recording.


We made a couple of cassette copies, and I sent one to Ivo - not with anything in partiuclar in mind, just
really to ask what he thought of it.
He liked the piece and suggested including it in the next TMC album.
I was delighted to get my own individual contribution into TMC, so it was agreed.
Robert's original 8-track recording was transferred onto 2" master tape at Blackwing Studios where Ivo
remixed it and added some atmospherics... and there I was on the Filigree and Shadow album.

Brendan subsequently offered me the opportunity to rearrange the piece with him into an extended
version for inclusion in the DCD live show, which was also brilliant.
We used the piece as a dramatic set-closer on the last couple of tours I did with DCD, and it proved very
popular.

You ask about the 4AD family.


There was a bit of a family atmosphere to the label in the mid-80s.
We were good friends with Cocteau Twins, Dif Juz, Wolfgang Press, Xymox, AR Kane, Modern English,
etc - we would tour together, turn up at one another's gigs, lend one another equipment, help out in studio
sessions and so on.
I have very fond memories of that period, but it was quite brief.
I think Ivo was the lynch pin of all that going on, and as he drifted out of the heart of the label he had
created, so that friendly, easy-going warmth seemed to disappear and become replaced by more of a
business machine.

3. On both of your albums we can hear a wide range of various musical influences.
From native African and Buddhist ritual music, through English medieval ballads
and folkish psychedelia to the modern, "post Peter Gabriel" ethno pop. Could you tell
us about your (musical) sources of inspiration ?

Quite simply, inspiration can come from anywhere.


I try to listen to the widest possible range of music so that my sources of inspiration are as varied as
possible.
I love discovering new sounds, new instruments, new rhythms, etc - this is something I had in common
with Brendan and Lisa when we met and was an important factor in creating the initial bond between us
and thus in me joining DCD.

There have been particular moments in my life where I have made discoveries that had an especially
strong impact on me.
My first serious encounter with a drum was when I was around 10 years old and my grandparents brought
me a pair of bongoes back from a trip to Mexico.
I was amazed by everything about them - not only the sound, but also the look, the feel and the smell of
them (they were clay pots with with natural calf skins).
A few years later, I discovered from a book on Voodoo that there were groups of tribal drummers who
could play themselves into a trance and drum for hours on end until their hands were shredded and
bleeding - this kind of thing fascinated me as such music was a million miles away from the pop music
which poured out of the radio in London.
When I met Brendan, he played me an album by New York-based Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji
called Drums of Passion - just drummers and singers creating the most incredible, vibrant, uplifting music
- and it was like discovering a sound I had been searching for.
It was this progression that led me to write pieces including 'At First And Then' and 'Evocation'.

Another momentous discovery was when, in the mid-1980s, just by chance I bought an album called
'Pilgrimage to Santiago' by Phillip Pickett and the New London Consort - just because I saw a review
which sounded interesting and I liked the cover design.
The album completely blew me away. It was the beginning of my love of medieval music - where
European folk absorbed the influences of North African and Middle Eastern musics which were
encountered by the Crusaders. It has beautiful, floating, ethereal songs created with just polyphonic
voices; it has frantic songs with wailing wind instruments and pounding percussion; and it has everything
in between.
Songs of mine such as 'Life Amongst The Black Sheep', 'The Scryer And The Shewstone' and 'The True
Cross' are inspired by such musical forms.

And then, yes, I do look to other artists from western pop/rock music who are on a similar journey -
looking to other eras and cultures for sources of inspiration to create backdrops over which to write
contemporary songs.
My biggest influence by far in this is, of course, Dead Can Dance - while other high profile artists I admire
include Peter Gabriel and David Byrne.
4. The concept of your second solo album, "Enter the mysterium" was inspired by the
figure of John Dee, Elizabethan intellectual and occultist. When did you first get
interested in Dee ? What was so fascinating about his personality and his work?

I had actually written around half the songs for Enter The Mysterium before I even heard of John Dee.
My starting point for the album was to write a collection of songs about different mysteries and beliefs -
but without any overall theme or concept to the project.
Then one day I was browsing in a book shop, looking for something to read while I was on holiday, and I
came across a biography of Dee called 'The Queen's Conjuror' by Benjamin Woolley which sounded
fascinating.
Dee was an extraordinary character in Elizabethan England who attracted respect and suspicion in fairly
equal quantity.
He was admitted to Court and became personal physician to Queen Elizabeth I of England, but he was
always a fringe figure at Court because his dabblings in alchemy, scientific experimentation and contact
with the spirit world unsettled the establishment.
Probably his greatest tangible achievement was the accumulation of a vast private library at his house at
Mortlake in London which was instrumental in his quest to discover the great mysteries of life, in the world
and beyond.
I decided to make my album a musical allegory for the idea of visiting a modern-day equivalent of Dee's
library and dipping into books at random to discover aspects of different mysteries and beliefs.
In order to give the album a context, I wrote the opening song 'At Mortlake' to set the scene of entering
the library, and the second song 'The Scryer And The Shewstone' to explore Dee's encounters with
angels in his 'scrying' sessions.
All the following songs are not specifically related to Dee, but are all subjects which he would either have
known about, or if they post-dated him, are subjects which I think would have intrigued him.

5. Could you tell us something about your collaboration with Pieter Nooten (ex Clan of
Xymox) and Michael Brook ? How did it happen ?

Well, really it is misleading to say that I 'collaborated' with Pieter Nooten and Michael Brook.
This was really more to do with the '4AD family' effect which we discussed earlier.
At the time, there were only a couple of bands on 4AD which used drummers - probably only DCD and Dif
Juz.
But sometimes, another of 4AD's artists would be in the studio and decide they wanted the input of a real
drummer.
Typically they would then contact Ivo and ask "Can you find us a drummer, quick?" and Ivo would call
either me or Richard (Thomas of Dif Juz) to see if we could do the session.
This way I found myself doing recording sessions on occasions for Wolfgang Press and for Pieter and
Michael, and on another occasion I did a week of rehearsals sitting in for Modern English (after which
they decided they much preferred their drum machine!!).
It was always interesting to get the opportunity to go and work with other artists in the studio, so I always
jumped at the chance.

I knew Pieter as we had met Xymox back in 1983 when DCD did our first overseas tour (8 dates in The
Netherlands supporting Cocteau Twins).
The members of Xymox introduced themselves to us and gave us one of their early recordings. We liked
it and Brendan passed on a copy to Ivo who subsequently signed them to 4AD.
Xymox came over to England to support DCD in a couple of shows, and they all stayed at my flat in East
London.
After that, our careers went in different directions and we hardly saw each other, so it was good to meet
up with Pieter again.
I really liked the music he was writing, and there are always interesting things going on in a studio when
Michael Brook is around.
However, I was only there to play one percussion part on one track, so it was really just a straight session
rather than a collaboration.

6. On your first solo album there is a track called "Evocation" , with the strong tribal,
almost primordial aura . On your second album, track called "Kakatak Tamai" is inspired
by the flood legend of Pima Indians, while "Through those eyes" explores the world of
Dogon's animistic beliefs. The whole Dead Can Dance story started with the Aboriginal
mask. What's your view of the so called "primitive religions"?

The great irony to me is that in 'western' culture today we consider ourselves an advanced and highly
developed society - and yet this supposedly great society is riddled with sociological problems.
Meanwhile, the cultures and religions which we refer to, often condescendingly, as 'primitive' actually tend
to exhibit far greater balance, stability and harmony, both within themselves and with their natural
environments.
Sadly, these 'primitive' societies cannot exist in the modern world.
Amazing 'land cultures' such as the Australian Aboriginals, the Kalahari Bushmen, and the tribes of the
Americas - from the prairies of Canada, through the deserts of north America, to the Amazon Rainforest -
have been damaged beyond repair by the unstoppable onslaught of 'progress'.
Now the best we can do is study the history of those so-called 'primitive' cultures and religions and learn
lessons from them which might help us adjust our modern civilisation for the better.

In the songs you mention - 'Kakatak Tamai' and 'Through Those Eyes' - it is the inherent spirituality of
peoples such as the Pima and the Dogon that appeals to me.
I don't have spirituality in my life. I was brought up in a suburb of a great metropolis in a materialistic
society and given a pragmatic education. Religion (for those who bothered with it) entailed going to the
local Church on a Sunday morning, reciting the same prayers from the same book, singing a couple of
hymns, and then having tea with the vicar afterwards. There was no spirituality.
Spirituality fascinates me and I feel something of a void in my life in that I am unable to attain it.
The second best option for me is to try to comprehend it through the experiences of peoples, cultures and
religions where I perceive that spirituality exists.

7. Is there a story behind "Taqaharu's leaving"? Who's "Taqaharu" ?

'Taqaharu's Leaving' is a fictional story of a 10 year old boy preparing to enter an armed conflict.
His mother, who has already lost her husband and other son to the horrors of war, watches as Taqaharu
is issued with his outsize boots, his backpack, his gun and his symbolic plastic key to heaven.
The boy is excited, thinking he is imparting on a great adventure which will be much more fun than
playing children's games; his mother knows there will only be one outcome.

The name 'Taqaharu' is fictitious and is not supposed to represent any particular state, race, religion or
regime.
The story is also fictitious, but I think and hope the message is clear.
The intention of the song is not to make accusations or preach at anyone, but rather to pose the question
"Is it right to involve young children in armed conflict?"
The United Nations is trying to put an end to the use of child soldiers, but there is still a long way to go.

8. In the last couple of years we have witnessed the great folk revival. Regardless of this,
I think that England has a very strong and continuous tradition of underground folk
music. Your song "The Scryer and the Shewstone" has appeared recently on the "John
Barleycorn Reborn" compilation. Could you tell us more about the secret life of English
folk song ?
England does indeed have a very strong folk tradition, but in the past few decades, that tradition had
become diluted.
During the 1970s, 80s and 90s, folk music in England gained a reputation for being whimsical and insular
- the typical person attending a folk club became stereotyped as a middle-aged man smoking a pipe and
drinking a pint of flat beer, and the scene became stagnant.
Fortunately now there is a big revival in folk music, with many different strands emerging which appeal to
slightly different audience sectors - so we have psychedelic folk, acid folk, neo-folk, folktronica, morbid
folk, etc which enables the folk sector to encompass many dynamic new artists as diverse as Seth
Lakeman, Tunng, Alasdair Roberts, King Creosote and Circulus.

What the 'John Barleycorn Reborn' project does is to go right back to the origins of British folk music (i.e.
to the earliest known forms which date to around medieval times) and create a link between those origins
and contemporary artists who are continuing those traditions.
The earliest folk music tended to be very dark - it was born out of a time characterised by plague,
disease, high infant mortality, abject poverty, lack of law enforcement, etc - and consequently many of
the songs were very dark.
The John Barleycorn Reborn compilation, curated by Mark Coyle who is a leading authority in this
subject, has gathered together 66 songs (33 on the double CD set, and a further 33 available as a free
download to anyone who buys the CD set) which provide a great overview of the link between the earliest
and most recent incarnations of dark British folk music.

9. Are you familiar with any artists/ performers of folk/world music from Serbia
/Balkans?

From the Balkan region, yes... though only a little.


For example, my music collection includes albums by the Bulgarian Voices, Muzikas and Marta
Sebestyen, Taraf de Haidouks, Ivo Papasov, Darko Rundek and various tradition Greek artists, but this
only touches the surface of a vast tradition of music.
Specifically from Serbia, I only have the CD which you sent me and which is beautiful, but I do not know
what it is because I cannot read the writing on the cover!! (“Pavle Aksentijevic i grupa Zapis”- edited by
Nikola Urosevic)
Also, I would take this opportunity to say that I am very much looking forward to hearing the new Kinovia
album!

10. Thank you very much for your time. Is there any chance of seeing you perform live in
the future? Third album ?

Thank YOU very much for inviting me to be interviewed!


Unfortunately, there is no prospect of me being able to arange any live performances in the forseeable
future for a host of boring reasons - both technical and personal.
As for the third solo album, it is definitely in the pipeline, but at this moment it is still a long way from
completion.
In the meantime, I hope your readers will check out my first two albums - 'Pathways and Dawns' and
'Enter The Mysterium', and come and say 'Hi' to me at www.myspace.com/peterulrich

www.worldmusic.autentik.net