Andy Cairns: “We always tried to leaven the pain through our way of dealing with life itself – and that was to laugh at it”

On the release of their 16th album, Therapy? mainman Andy Cairns reflects on his introduction to punk, growing up in northern Ireland, overnight success, and determinedly doing things his own way…

Andy Cairns: “We always tried to leaven the pain through our way of dealing with life itself – and that was to laugh at it”
Nick Ruskell

“We had no plan,” says Andy Cairns. “We were totally naïve.”

As a teen in Northern Ireland at the tail-end of the 1980s, Andy and his friends in a fledgling Therapy? thought they’d never break out of anywhere. By the mid-’90s, they were one of the biggest and most creatively fecund bands in Kerrang!’s world, after 1994’s enormous Troublegum and its singles Nowhere and the immortal Screamager sent their fortunes skyward. They’ve written some of the finest anthems in British rock’s storied history, just as they’ve made some of its pointiest, heaviest, most jarring and awkward noises.

Not fitting anywhere, Therapy? could (and still) often do both on the same record. In 1994, they appeared at Donington. Despite a friendly warning from then-Kerrang! Editor Phil Alexander that their short hair might be a problem, they won the day. Returning the next year, the K! review praised them for having the nerve to bring out a cello onstage, even if many in the audience were left confused. Always, though, with all their contrariness and willingness to go the opposite way than one might expect, they remain a band with something to say. Often, it has been brilliant.

As a lyricist, Andy regularly does a similar job. Tales of darkness have often been delivered with a biting wit, or coming out with lines like ‘I’m twisted, I’m bitter, James Joyce is fucking my sister,’ or the brilliant opener to Femtex: ‘Masturbation saved my life’. In a time of nu-metal, where the world of personal darkness was a free-for-all, he remarked that it would have been “easy to call an album Suicide Pact, but it would be too easy. We have to be contrary.” Instead, added a sneering, “You First” to the title of their sixth album.

Today, as the band release their 16th record, the excellent Hard Cold Fire, these things all remain very much in place. The angst of a teenager has become the biting observations of a man in his 50s who still has plenty to say, both musically and otherwise. Here, we catch up with him about his punk education, music in The Troubles, becoming enormous without knowing how, and getting your name from messing up your own gig flyer…

What was it that made you pick up the guitar and want to be a musician?
“I always liked music. When I was a kid, seven, I heard Blockbuster by The Sweet, and was running around the house singing it. My dad bought me the record, and then he ended up having to hide it because I wouldn't stop playing on the little Dansette record player. Then when I was 12 I remember hearing The Buzzcocks’ Ever Fallen In Love on the radio. I really, really wanted it, and I hadn't got any money, so I got my first paper round to afford to buy the album it was from, Love Bites.

“I remember my younger brother being like, ‘That's a punk band! Punks razorblade grannies, and they spit on children!’ That was a media outrage. Then I got into The Clash and the Sex Pistols, I got a little tiny spiky hair cut.

“One day there was a knock at the door, and it was the mum of one of my mates from school. She said that one of her relatives had died and left this guitar, so I got given this Sheila semi-acoustic, almost like a jazz guitar. I didn't know anything about it, but I used to belong to a thing called the Boys’ Brigade, which is a bit like Scouts, where you’d meet once a week and they would teach you skills to try and prepare you for life. One of the older leaders taught guitar lessons. I turned up with this kind of semi-acoustic and said, ‘Can you show me how to string this and tune it and how to play it?’ So he taught me a few rudimentary things.

“But the moment that changed my life, and why I'm talking to you now is, he was in a Status Quo cover band called Piledriver, and he could play Deep Purple and all this kind of stuff. So I'm sitting watching him play all these blues licks, and going ‘I could never do that’. I told him I liked Buzzcocks and Ramones and Sex Pistols, so he showed me a barre chord and said, ‘Go home and put that through an amplifier.’ I did and I was like, ‘Oh my god – punk rock!’

“I always thought to be in the music business you had to look like an alien from another planet, like David Bowie or The Sweet or T. Rex. Being someone that was from the north of Ireland, in a council estate, I never thought I could be in the music business. But learning chords, and hearing The Buzzcocks, and hearing punk, it all gave me a bit of a boost. So that was my introduction.”

What was the music scene like in the north of Ireland when you were a teenager?
“At that point, it was during what they call The Troubles, and there was people being killed, bombs going off around the city centre. The city centre used to have a ring of steel around it, so that people wouldn't set off incendiary devices late at night. There was an exception made for places like the orchestra hall or the student union at Queen's University. That's where you would see gigs. Now, the reason why I think myself and Michael McKeegan [bassist] have such eclectic taste that’s gone into our music is that we would see anybody who came to play. A lot of people were too terrified to come to the north of the country. They’d go and play Dublin and Cork, but they'd see the news and say, ‘I'm not gonna play Belfast’. The bands that did come to Belfast tended to be punk or metal bands, because, hey, what speaks more to kids than agitated guitar music? We would go and see Metallica, we'd go to see the UK Subs, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Jesus And Mary Chain, The Smiths – anyone that came with guitars. And there were bands in Belfast and music like the Buzzcocks – The Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers.

“There was Good Vibrations, the record label as well. I started going up to the Good Vibrations shop in Victoria Street in Belfast every Saturday afternoon and spending my money on punk records. And they got quite a lot of local stuff. And what was good about punk was it was a fully inclusive, so any sectarianism, any religious or political debate, didn't really matter. When I was too young to go to gigs, I could go to youth club gigs, where local punk bands would put on the gig themselves. So that was what I liked about it. And that's how I got to know other musicians. And I got to know friends of mine from the other side of the political divide that, had it not been for punk, I would never have met.”

Is that how you and Michael met?
“Well, I initially met Fyfe Ewing, the first Therapy? drummer. There was this charity gig for Africa, a fiver, and all the money went to charity. There was a punk covers band on, who had a drummer who looked like a kid, but they did Dead Kennedys and The Damned covers. What stood out to me was the drummer, he was on this four-piece kit going absolutely nuts. So I approached him at the bar afterwards, and it was Fyfe. He said he wanted to do a band that had their own material, we got chatting and we both liked Sonic Youth, Big Black, Butthole Surfers, all that kind of stuff.

“He lived in a council estate in Larn, which was about 15 minutes drive from where I lived. He said, ‘On Monday my dad works late, and I’ve got the host to myself til nine o'clock at night. I've got a drum kit set up.’ So I brought my guitar and we put the amp up in his room. We wrote basically the first Therapy? album in his room when he would come home from school. I was about four years older than him – I would turn up and he'd be still in school uniform behind the kit.

“We needed a bass player. And he said, ‘Well, there's a guy in my geography class. I don't really know him, but he wears Public Enemy and Voivod T-shirts. I think he's in a black metal band called Evil Priest with his brother.’ So one day Michael turns up and he looked about 12. And he was just one of us, because we were in thrall to The Minutemen and Hüsker Dü and Black Flag. These people didn't look like rock stars. They just look like what we did.”

Tell us about where the question mark came from…
“We were given our first gigs by a DIY not-for-profit punk organisation called War Zone in Belfast. You would do your own posters, they would photocopy them in their office, and then you'd go around town and pin them up on telegraph poles. I was doing the poster in Fyfe’s bedroom, using a Letraset. which was a sheet of transfers that looked like typeset. We started doing it on an A4 piece of paper, and realised we’d started far too far to the left. Fyfe went, ‘That looks really odd, there’s a big gap.’

“We both loved the comedian Kelly Monteith, and there was a sketch he did about American subliminal advertising. He said, ‘Whenever you're driving down the road, you see a neon sign saying ‘Hungry?’ with a question mark.’ So to fill the gap, we put the question mark there. We gave it to War Zone and they went, ‘Are you guys not playing?’ And then we did another gig, where we did the poster without the question mark. The big clincher was when we did our first single we were going back and forth about it. And some guy that had been to a couple of our gigs had actually made a Therapy? T-shirt himself, and he put the question mark on it. And we thought, ‘That guy's got it on his T-shirt. We can't let him down.’ So it stuck!”

When did you realise you could actually make something out of the band?
“We’d been touring for four years around Ireland, but we didn't ever think we get out of the country. The very first time we thought that we could actually do this; there was a record shop in Belfast called Caroline Music, where you bought all the cool records like West Coast hardcore that you couldn't get anywhere else. They had this local bands section, and he agreed to stock a single we’d pressed up. Four days later, he called us and said he’d sold out and needed more. And someone from the Art College, like 300 capacity, where bands like Snuff and Nuclear Assault would play, asked if we’d like to play there. We asked who with, and they said, ‘No, you headlining’. Which was unexpected, because every time we did a gig, we were used to seeing the same four people down the front losing their shit, and this time there was all these people that came up.

“Concurrently with this we'd also got the single to John Peel. We’d got on our first tour with The Beyond, and went to London. I found out where the BBC was, drove to the BBC, double parked, and went in. I had long hair and a nose ring at the time, and the concierge went, ‘Sorry, can I help you?’ ‘I'm in here to see John Peel.’ ‘He's not here.’ He wasn't gonna let me get in, but the receptionist went, ‘What does that young man want?’ I explained and she said, ‘Are you the plugger?’ I was like, ‘What's a plugger? We’re a band, we saved some money and made a single and wanted to give it to him.’ She said, ‘It doesn’t really work like that.’ I was crestfallen. And then, as I was walking off, she said, ‘Give it to me, I’ll see what I can do’. And the next week he played it, and we went from selling two or three copies of that single very, very quickly. And that's when I think things began in earnest really for the band.”

How did things change for you when Troublegum became massive in 1994?
“We’d been incrementally chipping away at Ireland, getting bigger and bigger gigs, and then we signed to a major and we did a few UK tours. It was getting bigger, but when we did Troublegum, it got a lot bigger very quickly because that was a success all across the globe. What hit home was we were doing a German tour in 1992 on the album Nurse, we played to probably about 120, 130 people a night. When Troublegum was released, I remember going into the first gig, which I think was in in Dortmund, and it was about 1,200 capacity. I said to the guy, ‘Where’s the second room?’ And he went, ‘This is the venue. It’s sold out.’ It was the same thing when we went to France. And Nowhere was in the charts in Scandinavia.”

Where did you feel you sat in music at that time? There was grunge, there was Britrock, there was really heavy stuff coming from America…
“We didn't feel that we fit it anywhere. It's a strange psychology, coming from the north of Ireland. We're from mixed backgrounds in the band: one Protestant, one Catholic, someone of mixed parentage. And we were apolitical. We just wanted peace. But there's a kind of mongrel culture that comes with that, because, you know, I grew up in a Protestant household. So whenever I went to England, I was still seen as Irish. But in certain areas of Ireland, I was seen as British. With music as well, we went to see everybody that came to play. We liked hip-hop, we liked metal, hardcore, bits of avant-garde jazz. Punk, hardcore, noise rock and metal was kind of what brought us together, we always felt like there was no rules. We thought that was part of our charm. We're intelligent people, but we were very naïve. Growing up in Belfast during the troubles, there wasn’t a music industry as such. We didn’t meet people who were particularly influential or anything. When Troublegum came out, that’s when we saw the real machinations of the music industry, and that it was about how you look and present yourself. I was like, ‘Okay, there's a reason why it’s called the music business…’”

You’ve always been a lyricist who talks in plain language, but with a lot of very sharp wit and insight. Is that the Irish coming through?
“To speak clearly is a very, very Irish thing. The north of Ireland's got this very dark way of dealing with conflict and strife. You look at people like James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, even people of Irish heritage, like Spike Milligan, and there’s always a way of dealing with the darkest parts of your life with the kind of maudlin humour. I can only sing about what was in front of me. I mean, if it wasn't influenced by a book or a movie, it would be characters that we’d met. Troublegum was written about experiences that had happened in my life whenever I was growing up, and that just happened naturally. I couldn’t have done the dragons and sorcery thing, I picked things up from my punk background. Sham 69 didn't sing about Camelot

“I think whenever nu-metal kicked in, people almost retrospectively looked back and misinterpreted our lyrics, they didn't get what [most Therapy? fans got], which is exactly what you've just described of our lyrics. But in this shadow of nu-metal, it's became this giant, dark behemoth. But we always tried to leaven the pain with what we thought was our way of dealing with life itself. And that was to, through gritted teeth, laugh at it.”

As well as the new Therapy? album – which well get to – you’ve got new music from your other band, JAAW, coming up.
“Yeah. The record comes out on Svart records this month. And we're gonna do I think four shows near the end of September. The name is all our initials – Jason, Andy, Adam, Wayne. Wayne plays in Petbrick with Iggor Cavalera, he’s in Big Lad, and Wasted Death, which is a kind of a hardcore thrash crossover band, Jason’s in a band called Muugstar, and Adam played with Squarepusher and Goldie. They got in touch and said, ‘Do you want to do some music together?’ So I went down to Wayne’s studio and he wanted to do something like industrial music, but like psychedelic industrial. The whole record took four days. It was nice. It was good fun for me.”

You’ve just released Hard Cold Fire, your 16th album, and you’re 34 years in now. Would young punk Andy Cairns be surprised at all this?
“Absolutely. I mean, we only ever thought ahead to the next thing we were doing. As I say, being from County Antrim in Northern Ireland, there wasn't a music scene. Not an industry. Whenever we came over to the UK, or we went to America, we noticed people had all these plans. People would maybe have a background in PR, they play a bit of guitar, and they've got these plans and sat down and said, ‘This is what we want to do.’ And that was just what people did, because they've worked in the business for a while. We didn't have any of that structure. We were naïve.”

Is that why you did some of the things you did, like purposefully not making Troublegum 2 and adding cellos to Infernal Love?
“Sort of. I mean, we’ve had a few years in the wilderness. And as you say, we did Troublegum, then we changed the style overnight. You talked about our sense of humour, we did the Infernal Love album with stick-on moustaches, cellos, and not particularly heavy guitars, but with a lot of gothic majesty in it. We thought, ‘Everyone's going to love this.’ And we lost half a worldwide fanbase overnight! It took many years for people to come back to our way of thinking.

“But yeah, we do have that feeling where there's not a threat that we have to be contemporary anymore, because we're just comfortable in our own skin. We know that if a record that we release like the new one, if people like it, great. If not, there's no point in our 40s and 50s losing sleep over it, because it's not anything we can do.”

Therapy?’s album Hard Cold Fire is out now via Marshall. JAAW's Superclust is out May 26 via Svart

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