Cathedral, from left to right: Brian Dixon (drums), Lee Dorrian (vocals), Garry “Gaz” Jennings (guitars), and departed bassist Leo Smee (Photo Credit: Joe Dilworth)
Kings of doom metal. Reincarnated 70’s rock gods. One of the hardest-working, longest-suffering bands in metal. Take your pick, Cathedral fit the bill. I sat down with founder/vocalist Lee Dorrian and guitarist Garry “Gaz” Jennings as they were wrapping up their U.S. tour with Samael and Strapping Young Lad, and we made our way through their views on the recent metal scene, how they’ve coped with being survivors of the “next best thing” curse (among others they seem to have endured), and what it truly means to be ‘eavy.
SC: On “The 7th Coming” as doomy as it is, you really come across like a band who are emerging from the other end of the tunnel. Would you say you feel that way?
Lee: Hmmm…hard to say, really, because…I don’t think it’s that much more advanced or different than anything we’ve done before, previous to the “Endtyme” album, really…that one was a lot more dark, a lot more primitive sounding, a lot more…doom, shall we say? We’d done five albums up to that point, and the band had been together for over ten years. There had been loads of highs and lows up until that point, and periods of time where we were kind of strapped. There were a couple of years where we were doing absolutely nothing. There were various lineup changes up until about ’95. Loads of things had happened.
After recording 5 albums in the same kind of way where production played a really big role…to go back a bit further, when we did “The Ethereal Mirror”, our second album, that was for Columbia Records in the States, and production on that was really big…there was a lot of money spent on it. I think we unwillingly set a standard of production with that album that we had to try and maintain with like a quarter of the budget. By the time we’d done our fifth album, “Caravan Beyond Redemption”, we just wanted to break ourselves of that kind of trap, that production kind of trap.
So with “Endtyme”, we wanted to go back to what the band meant to us in the first place, the whole feeling of intensity, and the whole reason and passion for doing this kind of music, without having to depend so much on production. That’s why we went for such a bombastic sound on that album. A lot of the internal dark, dirgy feelings of hatred came through us on that album. When we approached “The VIIth Coming”, we’d kind of rid ourselves of a lot of that angst, and we just approached it in a much more musical way, I suppose. It wasn’t really linear doom…we had a varied amount of different types of songs that seemed to flow better. They contrasted each other a little better.
SC: You sound relaxed on it.
Lee: I think so. I mean, a lot of the records we’ve done…since “Caravan Beyond Redemption”, all the albums have been pretty much prepared before we went into the studio. Before that, there was a lot of last-minute stuff. There were a lot of times when we were actually writing stuff in the studio five minutes before songs were recorded. A lot of it was very spontaneous and last minute. Since “Caravan”, we’ve been a lot more prepared, and I guess since we’ve been around for so long…the band’s been together for thirteen years, we don’t get so stressed out about writing stuff anymore. It seems to come to us more naturally these days.
In some ways, it’s easier to come up with material, but it’s harder to decide what material to use. I guess over the years, we’ve had so many different kinds of influences. You know what you’re going to get from Cathedral, but at the same time, we have experimented with different styles and different elements, where it’s been kind of extreme doom, or more 70’s-influenced hard rock or out-and-out heavy metal, or whatever you want to say, even proggy folk stuff. There’s been elements of all that in our music, so to have one specific direction running all the way through an album is kind of hard for us to…it’s harder than actually coming up with the material, shall we say?
SC: Even with all of the experimenting, you guys are still so goddamned heavy, especially live. When you’re playing, are you ever worried that the Earth’s going to collapse inward underneath you as you play?
Lee: We could always be heavier. That’s all we can say. On this tour in America, it’s weird, because we normally play a lot louder than we’re actually allowed to play over here. It seems like there’s a lot more restrictions over here than there are in Europe. For us, it’s kind of like we’re not firing on all four cylinders really, because we’re normally a lot more brutal live than we have been over here, as far as volume goes, anyway.
SC: I’m going to have to go to Europe, then.
Lee: So it can always get heavier, y’know?
Gaz: I think Cathedral has always strived to be as heavy as we possibly can be. We always strive to be heavy.
Lee: But without being stupidly heavy.
Gaz: Yeah, I mean, there’s heavy good, and heavy bad. A lot of these newer bands seem to just be heavy for heavy’s sake. I mean, there’s a knack to it. There’s gotta be some good riffs and good melody as well. When I was a kid, the heaviest band around was Sabbath. You always defined heaviness by what Sabbath were about. I’d say “Oh, I want to be in a band as heavy as Sabbath”, and it still bears true to myself, anyway, and I think the rest of the guys in the band. All I can say about us live is that we are pretty much a raw, heavy rock ‘n’ roll band, whatever you want to call it. We just go out and play our instruments, and it’s real, what you hear. It’s not computerized, it’s not processed, there’s none of that. There’s feedback, there’s mistakes, there’s tuning up between songs…
Lee: More of a punk attitude, really…
Gaz: None of this bloody fartin’ around with this, and getting up there with a big sort of introduction or anything, no “here we come”, we just get up there and ROCK. That’s what it’s about for us.
Lee: It’s like you say, you consider us to be very heavy, which is cool, but kids who are like 16, 17 probably wouldn’t consider us to be heavy at all, because we don’t use that technology. We don’t just play on an open E chord and scream and growl our heads off. To them, that’s heavy. To us, heaviness comes from more than that. There’s gotta be some kind of feeling and soul to it. That comes from riffs, I think, and that’s what I find lacking from a lot of heavy modern music these days is riffs.
Gaz: I mean, and no disrespect to some of the bands that have played with us, but a lot of the newer bands we’ve played with, as soon as they start the soundcheck or play the first song, you know exactly what they’re going to be like for the rest of the set. It’s all “dukka-dukka-dukka-dukka…” I don’t know. They think that’s heavy, just playing one note and doing it as hard as they can, but to me…
Lee: It’s just not adventurous…
Gaz: There’s nothing happening. Not exciting at all. Anyone can do it, really. We could do it on our next album. We could EASILY do it. We’d like to think that there’s a bit more thought going into our music than that sort of thing. We try to, anyway, definitely. Like Lee was saying, the riffs and all that…we strive to write good songs. That’s one thing we always try and do. I’m not saying every band doesn’t…every band does, but we always put a bit of thought into what we’re doing…where the song’s actually going, what the riffs are about and stuff like that, how catchy they are, how heavy they are.
Lee: It’s easy to be a band like Earth or something like that, kind of a straight-out linear kind of doom band. To me that’s heavy as hell, but we’re different than that, I think. We’re more about structures in our songs. Not essentially all the time, but mainly.
SC: Gaz, what do you use to make your guitar sound the way it does? It sounds like it’s simultaneously, rapidly detuning on all six strings, sorta like the first note of “Iron Man” cubed.
Gaz: *laughs* Well, it’s a big secret…nah, I’m only kidding. There is a knack to playing that kind of way. It’s not rocket science or anything, what I do, but when other people get on my guitar and play…you’ll hear it if we do a linecheck tonight, if the guitar tech gets on my guitar, it sounds like he can’t play a note. He can play a little bit, but when he gets on mine, it sounds out of tune and everything. When I play…because we have downtuned a lot…I know how to attack the strings and how to bend them. You get used to a certain thing. It’s like when you buy a pair of football boots, they’ve gotta fit you properly to make sure you play well. It’s the same with a guitar, in terms of how I play and how I attack the strings and bend the notes. I’ve been doing it for years.
In terms of the sound, I’ve just got an old pedal which I’ve had since about ’85, and I’ve got an equalizer. The Marshall that I’ve got is a Marshall 800, which I got in about ’94 or something like that, but I did have to shop around a bit. I was looking for an amp to give me a really good sound, and once I got that, I haven’t changed it since. Why change something if you’ve got a killer sound? Why keep messing around with different amps, and doing this and that when you’ve got a sound that, like you say, you instantly recognize as “a Cathedral sound”? There’s things we do in the studio to enhance things, but I’m happy with the guitar sound I’ve got. You’re not the first person who’s said that we’ve got a killer sound, and truthfully, it is a killer sound. We’re pretty much as heavy as hell. Like Lee said, though…we haven’t been really firing on all four cylinders because we’ve been restricted volume-wise, which is a bit of a shame really, because usually it’s a lot louder and we’re a lot more brutal.
SC: Yep. Definitely have to go to Europe.
Gaz: *laughs* Yeah. Like I said, though, I’m used to my equipment and how I play and how I attack it. Other people would get on my guitar and probably struggle. As soon as I get on it, I know how I’ve got to attack it and how I’ve got to bend it.
SC: When you write songs, how do you come up with the lyrics?
Lee: I’m constantly thinking about ideas. I’m not the kind of person that sits down and writes this stuff out, but in my mind, I’m thinking about stuff all the time. When the time comes, I normally have subject matter, but first, I come up with a title. I like to come up with a bunch of titles first, and then build a story around them. I only really do that when I need to, you know what I mean? It’s only when I hear the right riff that suits the right title and the right atmosphere and meaning of the song that I actually fit the words to the song. I may have a few verse ideas and a few basic riff ideas for songs and that’s when I start really working hard on them. The rest of the time I just spend with thoughts drifting through my head, building up things in my head.
SC: Have you started writing for the new record yet?
Lee: Not at all, really. We’ve got some ideas.
Gaz: I’ve got a few on tapes, but we haven’t gotten ’round to rehearsing as a band or anything like that.
Lee: We need to soon.
Gaz: We’ll just see how it goes. I mean, the riffs that I write, one minute, they could sound like Celtic Frost and the next, there might be one that sounds like Iron Maiden.
Lee: Mostly not.
Gaz: That’s what I’m saying. The Iron Maiden one will probably never get used. Sometimes I just write a riff and think “Ah, that sounds pretty cool” because I’m into it at that moment, then I listen back and think “That’s not right for what we’re doing.” There’s tons of stuff I’ve got on tape from years ago that is not Cathedral at all. I wrote it, but I just put things down on tape. But then you hear certain things that I write…I might like it at the time, but I’ll put it down and I won’t think it’s that good, and someone else, say Lee will hear it and say “That’s killer!”, where I just think it’s OK. Then I’ll write something that I’ll think is killer, and the other two in the band will be like “Eh…” You’ve gotta get a fine balance between what all of us like. A prime example is a song on the last album, “Empty Mirror”. When I wrote that riff, it was basically me trying to outdo Sabbath. If you actually hear the one I initially put down, the bends were just chaotic. I was so full of that song, like “We’ve gotta do this! We’ve gotta do it!” And the other two were just like “We’ve done that before. It’s just too Sabbath, anyway.” I kept pushing it, but then I thought “It’s pointless, you’re not going to get anywhere.” So about two or three months later, them two come back and go “Remember that song you have, that riff that sounds like so-and-so from Sabbath? We should do that.” And I was like “Cool, yeah.” I got it in the end. There’s certain songs that I write that I think would do really well, but not necessarily. One song in particular that we did years ago, “Suicide Asteroid”, I thought that was a really good song, but it didn’t come out anything like what I thought it would. It’s still a really good song, but it’s not one of the best we’ve ever done. It depends on how it’s recorded and everything.
Lee: I guess we’ll start working on new stuff at the end of October. Hopefully, we’ll be in the studio by June of next year. A year from now, the next album should be just about to come out.
SC: Cool. You guys have apparently had a pretty insane run of bullshit to deal with over the years. I was reading through your bio, and there are all kinds of horror stories. Have things been running a little more smoothly for you of late?
Lee: Well they were, until our last record company decided not to pay us our advance, and that’s when things fucked up for us. It’s probably why our bass player, Leo is not in the band anymore. It just seems like whenever something bad comes to an end and something good starts, something bad happens again and it’s like “Fuck.” The good thing is that we just signed a deal with Nuclear Blast and I think they’re going to be pretty good for us because they’re a very established label, and they seem to promote their artists really well. For us this far down the line to get a deal with a label like that is pretty cool, and we’re very optimistic about it.
Gaz: I mean, a band that’s been together for thirteen years, they’ll probably do four or five records, and if they jump from one label to the next, they’re usually sort of good labels, and then years down the line, you’ll see them on an independent you’ve never heard of. They’ll put one album out and then they’ll do another on another independent. So like thirteen years down the line, us signing to Nuclear Blast is not a bad thing. At least we’re sort of still believed in.
Lee: I think it’s a sign that we’ve got staying power. We’ve never been part of any trendy scene at any time. We’ve never been that high up in our career that it’s meant we’re going to fall right down. We’ve stayed on a consistent level all these years, mainly because we believe in what we do. I mean, we’ve been through so much shit. Just to let you know, that’s probably not even half of it, what you’ve read. So for us to still be here, it’s just testament that we believe in what we do more than anything else. I mean, God, we struggle like hell. Gaz has got two kids, works his ass off to pay for them to wear clothes and be fed…I’m livin’ on fuckall. We give up all of our life pretty much to do this band. The rewards we get out of it are putting records out, touring, being here doing interviews, and whatever.
Gaz: There’s no financial gain from it at all. Very rarely, now and again…
Lee: We did manage to survive off of it by the skin of our teeth up until about four, five years ago, but now it’s like we need day jobs and stuff to make it happen. And then of course if you get a day job, and you have to go away on tour for a month or two, then you’ve lost your job.
Gaz: But we’re still here, honestly, because we’re doing it for the music. Nothing else. We’re not one of these bogus bands that comes along and shouts from the rooftops that they’re this and that, and then three years down the line, they’ve cut their hair, and they’re in another band which is a different style. They were in a death metal band or whatever, or a heavy metal band, and then next thing, they’re in a sort of funk metal band. They’re all different, playing different things. We grew up listening to…whatever, and we still listen to it now. We’re still influenced by it now. We still believe in that kind of style, in what we do.
Lee: We’re just trying to further that kind of music, where we come from. I mean, great. There are all these bands that are doing something “new”, but just because it’s new doesn’t mean that it’s any better than what’s come before. I could fart, and put that out on a record. It’s new, no one’s done it before, great!
SC: Well, Derek and Clive have…
Gaz: Yeah, but it’s a fart from him! It’s not a fart from Dudley Moore!
Lee: Or Peter Cook, either one. We just believe in guitar, bass, and drums, really. Rock ‘n’ Roll. That’s what it’s all about. As long as there’s newer people coming into this world and newer people being born and newer generations playing music, it’s always going to sound new, because there’s always going to be new eras and new periods of time where people are playing that kind of music. It’s always going to be fresh and updated. I think people worry too much about it being a traditional formula, when in fact it’s only been fifty or sixty years that amplified music in that respect has actually existed. It’s not like it’s been thousands of years. I think there’s still a long way to go with rock ‘n’ roll, really.
SC: How did the tour with Samael and Strapping Young Lad go?
Lee: Oh, it’s been good fun! The pressure hasn’t really been on us, because we’ve been opening the show most of the nights, so for us, it’s been fairly easy, and relaxed.
Gaz: It’s just a case of us getting out there and playing.
Lee: And getting ourselves known over here as much as we can, really.
Gaz: It’s been seven years.
SC: I knew there was a reason I hadn’t gotten to see you guys yet.
Gaz: Well, ’96 was the last time we played, so it’s almost like a new start for us over here. There’s no pressure on us. We just go on, do forty minutes, try and pick some of the best songs from the albums…it’s hard, obviously, trying to pick songs from every album, but we do what we can, but we go out there and give it our best shot. Nine times out of ten, it works out for us. There’s the odd gig where it doesn’t happen, but that’s part of life.
SC: Do you get along with the other bands pretty well?
Lee: Very much so. We get on with everyone very well. This is actually one of the most relaxed tours we’ve ever done, I suppose.
SC: Are you fans of Samael and Strapping Young Lad, as bands go?
Lee: Yeah. I mean, Strapping Young Lad…Gene is just like…
SC: Gene’s not human.
Lee: He’s something else.
SC: He just makes it look so effortless.
Lee: He’s something else. Altogether an experience to watch him play. And the band are of course great. And also, Samael. We’ve known Samael for quite some time. We first played with them in ’94 in France. I also used to write to Vorph back in 1989, I think, so we’ve known those guys for quite a long time, and we’re really good friends with them.
Gaz: It was their suggestion that we do this tour. They asked us in Europe if we’d like to go to America with them.
Lee: Yeah, we talked with them in Europe earlier this year, and they just asked us if we’d like to do this as well.
Gaz: That’s a favor from them, that they asked us to do this thing. It was nice of them. I mean, obviously, they must like us as people as well to ask us to do a tour with them. You don’t really ask someone you don’t like that sort of thing, so we must’ve done something right. We get on with them really well. They’re nice guys. Never had a cross word with them or anything.
SC: What other recent bands have you guys been listening to?
Gaz: Last recent thing I listened to was Angel Witch’s first album. *laughs* (Editor’s Note: “Angel Witch” came out in 1980.)
Lee: There’s probably quite a few, but the ones that stand out in a major way, it’s hard to say, really. Witchcraft from Sweden…
Lee: You should check them out, if you like doom stuff, they’re awesome.
Gaz: I liked a band, I’m not sure how many people liked them, but Terra Firma from Sweden. I liked them, but they split. They weren’t doing anything drastically different or new, but I kind of liked what they were doing.
Lee: There’s a band from New York, actually called Unearthly Trance, and they’re pretty cool.
SC: I saw that you guys had High On Fire linked on your site. I saw them a couple of weeks ago…pretty cool, had kind of a Motorhead/Venom vibe…
Lee: They’re out with Andrew W.K., aren’t they?
SC: Yeah. What do you think of him?
Lee: I don’t know too much about him. All I know is a couple of hit singles he had in England, those are pretty cool.
Gaz: All I know is he’s everywhere on the cover of every magazine. He’s on the ads…he’s a lot of that stuff, isn’t he? The Kit Kat ad.
SC: Haven’t seen that yet. I interviewed him a few weeks ago. He’s a really great guy.
Gaz: I think he likes us, doesn’t he?
Lee: I read that somewhere.
SC: He’s definitely a fan of your kind of thing, and the things that came before it. Two of his favorite bands are Obituary (he’s got their drummer with him) and Napalm Death (Lee was the original singer for Napalm Death-Editor).
Lee: I read in Burn magazine in Japan that he’d mentioned us a few times. As far as the music goes, I don’t really know too much about it. I just remember that “let’s get a party going” song.
SC: As survivors of the great “next big thing” hype, what advice would you give to musicians who are in a similar position to yours circa “The Ethereal Mirror”?
Gaz: If they offer you lots of money, take it, because we didn’t!
Lee: Take it, carry on playing, and fuck ’em!
Gaz: Take as much as you can off ’em.
Lee: They need you. You don’t need them, at the end of the day. If you believe in what you do, then you’ll carry on forever. If you take everything that they say for granted, then you’ll end up disbelieving what you and your reasons for doing it, so always believe in what you do.
Gaz: Ignore all the hype that they tell you, but take the money! We should’ve done that. No, that’s…
Lee: That’s really cynical…
Gaz: That’s almost like going against what we said about being true to the music, but if we were in that situation again…we were young lads then. The money they were throwing at us, we were like “What if this falls flat on its face? Are we going to end up paying all of this back, and then split up, in debt for the rest of our lives?” So any money that they put toward us, we were like “Don’t bother. Take it back.” Then again, a massive company like that, they just write it off.
Lee: We still got stung with that bill…
Gaz: Well, yeah, that…but most of the time, they just don’t care. We were just totally naive. We didn’t know what to make of it. I know what you’re saying. Everybody was going on about “The Ethereal Mirror”…
Lee: Death metal had just peaked, and then the “Black Album” came out and that was really big. We were doing something a bit different, it had more of a 70’s rock element to it, but it was still brutally heavy. And then they had the Black Crowes around, and they tried to make us look like the Black Crowes in photos. Basically, they pulled us out of the underground scene, made us too commercial for the underground, and then we were too heavy for the mainstream, so we got kind of stuck somewhere in the middle. Then it was like “What do you do with us?”
But that’s not the deal…if you believe in what you do, that’s the main thing.