Troublegum At 25: An Oral History Of The Therapy? Classic
In 1993, Northern Irish three-piece Therapy? were touring their major-label debut album Nurse to ferocious crowds in the USA and Europe, but they couldn’t have predicted the success that was yet to come. Troublegum, their 1994 follow-up, would sell more than a million copies and produce the hit singles Screamager, Nowhere, Turn, and Die Laughing, songs which still elate fans to this day.
They began working with producer Chris Sheldon in 1993, releasing the EPs Shortsharpshock, Face The Strange, and Born In A Crash – records that became Troublegum’s foundation. They recorded in bursts between gigs using four studios, but the album remains a focussed and finessed collection mixing metallic riffs, punkish melody and a boatload of high-energy introspection inspired by singer Andy Cairns’ love of Husker Du, the Buzzcocks and Joy Division.
‘I was nervous,’ says producer Sheldon. ‘I loved Nurse and Teethgrinder, but I was so worried that people were going to say, what has this idiot done? I was so worried that it was such a radical departure that people would say I’d ruined the band. But of course, people loved it.’
Twenty five years to the day since starting Troublegum, Therapy? would rejoin Sheldon to make last year’s victorious Cleave. But for now, join Andy Cairns and Michael McKeegan as they reflect on the record that brought Therapy? to worldwide acclaim, a Mercury nomination, and a Record of the Year prize at the very first Kerrang! Awards…
Andy: The music was written first, and what I basically did was, I was listening to [Elvis’] Jailhouse Rock over and over. For some reason I flipped it back to front. This is the kind of thing I got up to whenever I started writing songs. If I ever needed inspiration, I would pick an oboe part in a movie orchestra and try to play it on guitar. I was listening to loads of Big Black at the time, and if you take away the chuggy rock chorus, Knives could be something like Texas, or Cables.
Michael: There’s a lot that we all felt really good playing, and I know Knives is one of those ones. Just dynamically it all made sense, even before there’d been any vocals or lyrics on it. And when we did the original demo, I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is going to be fantastic.’ It was just screaming out to be the album’s opener.
Chris: It’s almost like Andy’s breathing in your ear, sort of whispering, ‘My girlfriend says…’ It was like, ‘Who’s this scary motherfucker? He’s got knives! I don’t want to be in the studio with this guy.’ But that’s exactly what we wanted. I remember I double-tracked Andy’s vocals, so when you’re listening on headphones, suddenly he’s drilling into you like the scary bastard you do not want to meet.
Andy: I had the riff before I was even part of the band. I’d written it, I think, when I was 16 or 17, on bass. In the various bands I’d been in I’d never had the chance to use it. When we wrote a song called SWT, it was a riff at the end. We recorded that in a studio in Lurgan. The guy had a Fender Twin and I was completely obsessed with Bob Mould’s guitar tone. I said, ‘Look: here’s the closest I can get to Bob Mould. Can you help me out with this?’ I always thought, ‘This riff doesn’t go on enough.’ I’m a bit of a pop guy; I always think if you’ve got something really melodic it should feature prominently at least a couple of times.
Michael: Screamager was a case of just getting things a bit more direct, with the Helmet thing on the main chords. We loved Strap It On, and Meantime had just come out at that time, so it kind of made sense. But, the progression itself is a lot more melodic than maybe a Helmet track would have been. So it was a good happy medium, where we didn’t just try to shoehorn a Helmet vibe onto what was a really good song. It kind of just toughened it up and made the chorus bigger and and sweeter-sounding and also kept the grit in the verse, which is exactly what we wanted.
Chris: When we did Screamager, a normal reel of tape was 24 tracks. I didn’t even fill it up. It was it was just drums, bass and three tracks of guitar because we worked out a sound that we liked. Maybe there was a solo guitar, a lead vocal, and a harmony vocal. That was it. Boom. Done.
Andy: So the stabs; da da da, da da da, we got that from Helmet – we were huge fans – but we still needed something else. I remembered the SWT lead guitar track was over the same chord progression. So I just said, ‘Can we try this?’ And Fyfe Ewing [then-drummer] and Michael said, ‘But that’s SWT. That’s another song.’ And I said, yeah, but I think we could appropriate our own music for this track. We all said, ‘Yep, that’s fine: let’s do it.’ Chris loved the riff, and it ended up being the main thing about Screamager.
Andy: With Hellbelly, and Lunacy Booth and to a certain extent Unbeliever, my reading material was Flannery O’Connor. I was completely obsessed with O’Connor and that Southern Gothic style. With Hellbelly I had the lines, ‘Jesus without the suffering’ and ‘Dead crow on a fence is your style’. I had the lyrics before I actually had the music.
The music was inspired by the Pixies album with Planet Of Sound on it, Trompe Le Monde. It didn’t really go down as well with a lot of the hardcore fans as their earlier material, but I really liked Planet Of Sound. With Hellbelly, I was trying to write a Pixies-esque, slightly bizarre, off-kilter riff.
So it starts off with this kind of Metallica chug, goes into the Black Flag bit, and the lyrics had that Flannery O’Connor ‘Ulster Noir’, with ideas of Protestantism and ‘suffering is an artform’ and all the things that really ardent Christianity, growing up in Northern Ireland, can hide. Like child abuse, money laundering, things like that.
Stop It You’re Killing Me
Andy: Body OD was an early and very rough version of the song, and with Stop It You’re Killing Me, I had written the verse and chorus on an acoustic guitar. It was very similar in terms of the chord progression. Again, we decided, ‘Well, we could actually make this a lot tougher.’
Michael: Andy’s a bit of a master of feedback, and there’s a very distinctive rich-with-harmonic-overtones feedback that Andy does at the start of Stop It You’re Killing Me.
Chris: I remember, we were at Chipping Norton and there was a part where it was supposed to be, like, a solo or something. I’d sit at the desk working with Andy behind me, playing guitar. And then suddenly there was this unbelievable noise and crazy racket. I turned around and he’s holding the whammy bar and just bouncing the guitar up and down. Which is not normal behaviour. I fully support that. I love it.
Andy: Initially we just tried to record Body OD as it was, and it sounded a bit unfinished, if truth be told. So we added a few more riffs, we made the harmonic Morse Code bit in the intro and verse more prominent, and we gave the double-time in the chorus a lot more urgency. The outro is still the same, although the outro on Troublegum isn’t as Butthole Surfers as outro on the original demo was.
Michael: Get your head around this: Andy was in a band called Catweazle, which was kind of running in conjunction with the start of Therapy?. It was Andy playing guitar and singing, Paul Chapman playing bass and singing, and my brother Charlie on drums. I think they actually supported Quicksand quite early on, in about 1991 in Belfast. But they had a song called Unbeliever, which the chorus, ‘Unbeliever! Unbeliever!’, is kind of the same chorus as Nowhere.
Andy: I’ll be the first to admit, it’s one of the most hackneyed chord progressions in the world of rock’n’roll. It’s Another Girl Another Planet, it’s Just What I Needed by The Cars, it’s Someone Like You by Adele, it’s With Or Without You by U2. But I had it from whenever I was young, and I always thought it was really catchy. But I always felt guilty. Whenever Therapy? started I’d never even dare bring it into the rehearsal studio. When we were doing Babyteeth, I would never have dared play Michael and Fyfe something like Nowhere.
Chris: I remember very distinctly, when we were doing Nowhere, which has this two-note sort of siren, Andy had bought a delay pedal with a sampler built into it. We’d be practicing, he would play and stop and it’d keep going and he’d be able to play rhythm underneath it. We were doing all these things to try to sketch it out, and work out the arrangements. He’s very clever, Andy, a lot of Bob Mould influence. He’s much cleverer musically than people give him credit for. He taught me a lot, actually, in production. We were learning from each other. A lot of people I work with now say, ‘Yeah: I learned to play guitar to Troublegum.’
Chris: It’s a great melody. It took me a while to get used to; I was thinking, ‘Is this right?’ It goes to that very odd middle eight where it goes to double time, and I was quite concerned about it for a while because you have this great riff and a really cool groove and it was just the right tempo. But we worked hard on the transition going back into the chorus, and again, the little things you remember: there’s a part where we got Andy to follow the drums down. Those are the exciting little moments that you want to capture.
Andy: With Die Laughing, we had the demo version, which we liked, and had played live quite a few times. I think when we wrote Die Laughing everyone agreed it was completely Fugazi; that swing with playing the fifths on guitar from G down to Em and palm-muting them, it had that real Fugazi feel to it, which we were huge fans of.
Michael: You know I think we even did Die Laughing, which was previously known as Reality Fuck, for a radio set or an RTE session quite early on. And probably every band goes through it, when people perceive you as drifting away from your roots or whatever, but we were playing these songs at our second gig.
Andy: In 1993 we’d done some shows with Helmet in America, and I’d said to Page Hamilton a few nights over beers, ‘I’d love you to play on one of our tracks.’ Initially we were going to put a sample in there, a dialogue, I think off Wiseblood, the John Houston film based on the Flannery O’Connor short story, but we thought, ‘Well, it’ll be a bit anomalous putting a sample on a record where there aren’t any others apart from the beginning of Isolation.’ I tried a solo, but again, my soloing, it’s either too gonzo and to the left and bizarre-looking and sounds quite freakish – or it’s a bit too trad. Chris said, ‘Why don’t we ask Page Hamilton himself?’
Chris: I saw Helmet at pretty much their first UK show, at the Underworld. I went to see them a couple of times. I was blown away. It was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard – and I’ve been to a lot of loud shows. Fucking hell, that was loud.
Michael: We were working on songs on tour, and that’s when stuff like Unbeliever came about. Helmet played in that drop-d tuning, and we’d an acoustic guitar on the bus and I remember Andy playing the riff. By the 14th of July we were in the studio in Chipping Norton and spent 10 or 12 days doing the basic tracks. In that time we asked Page if he would do the solo.
Andy: I got an awful lot of criticism in the press for Trigger Inside. I was reading at the time The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer, about the Jeffrey Dahmer case in Milwaukee, by Brian Masters. And this is going to sound very convoluted, but there’s a bit whenever he was young – I’m paraphrasing here – that he brought a present to a teacher at school. The teacher thanked him for the present, and as he left the he saw the teacher put his present in the bin. I actually had exactly the same experience at Ballyclare Primary school, whenever I was really young, of giving the teacher a gift and seeing her put it in the bin. With Jeffrey Dahmer, his reaction is all part of an enormous complexity in the guy’s character or whatever, but the line ‘I know Jeffrey Dahmer feels’ came from me relating to that incident. Not relating to his killing spree, but relating how you can feel, even at the age of eight or nine years, as if your whole world has been a lie when someone does that to you. We had a penchant for writing about serial killers in the early days, and Trigger Inside became a companion piece for Knives, or Dancin’ With Manson, things like that. What does it take to push someone from feeling abject by being rejected by an authority figure like a primary school teacher to become what Jeffrey Dahmer became? In my case the gift was that my Mum had made little cakes and put them in my lunchbox saying, ‘You might like to give one to Mrs Such-and-such.’ As I walked out I saw her putting them in the bin. They were Rice Crispy cakes.
Andy: The ‘lunacy booth’ was the title we gave, from the very first days of the band, to the vocal booth. We would have recorded music for Skyward, or the music for Potato Junkie, or the music for Teethgrinder, and one of us would then say, ‘Right: time for the lunacy booth.’ The song deals with religion, and it’s a riff on the confession box as well.
Chris: We got Leslie Rankine from Silverfish doing backing vocals, and that was an interesting thing – we got a few sort of ‘celebrity cameos’ across Troublegum, and Leslie was great. She was fantastic.
Michael: Sometimes people think Troublegum is all Nowhere; that style of uptempo melodic chuggy punk. But it’s really not. If we sat down and looked at it we probably would have been tempted into thinking that we needed more songs in the same ballpark. But then, we probably wouldn’t have songs like Lunacy Booth or Unrequited.
Michael: The original has that ornate high keyboard, and it’s possibly one of Joy Division’s less ominous-sounding songs. But we were approaching it from the standpoint of ‘Joy Division do ominous’. The bassline, there’s a lower bass overdub down an octave which you can hear on big speakers. The original Martin Hannett production is so influential, and we had a lot of fun mixing it – that’s the joy of a cover.
Andy: In recent years Joy Division has been retrospectively analysed, but I think we were still close enough to the original time. A band covering Joy Division in the last 10 years would have been big news, but when we did it, it sounded so different from the original that it made sense. Richey from the Manics didn’t like our version when he first heard it. But my history is as a bass player – when I started playing rock music I started as a bassist – and I was playing the bassline from Isolation on a guitar. A bit like Diane on Infernal Love, it came from a jam session. We took a bit of time and care with it, and aesthetically it sat with the rest of the album.
Andy: There’s one part of Turn which I’m a completely red-faced about. I was trying to write something like early period R.E.M, of which I’m a huge fan; Reckoning, and Murmur. I’d come up with this little riff. We’d built it into a big huge chorus on top. I was reading Storming Heaven by Jay Stevens, and one of the chapters was called ‘Turn and face the strange’. Which, at the time, I did not know was a David Bowie lyric, from Changes.
Michael: I didn’t know it either. I just thought it was just a cool line. Then obviously I heard it later, and it was something I’d obviously heard before, but it hadn’t really sunk in. The Bowie version had been around forever, but I hadn’t consciously heard it, if you know what I mean.
Andy: I took it naïvely, and god bless him, in 1996 we played the Werchter Festival and Bowie was headlining. We were on the same day. I thought, ‘He’s never going to have heard of us. I might have gotten away with this.’ We’re three songs in, in front of 40,000 people. And I look around to my right to the monitor desk and Bowie is standing there watching. I thought, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God.’ I look over two songs later, before we play Turn, and he’s gone. I went up after to the monitor guy and asked, ‘Was that Bowie? Did he say anything?’ The guy said yeah, that was him, and all he said was, ‘Great band. Lots of energy.’
Andy: It’s very simple, and it wrote itself. The germ of the song, though, came from the right place. One of the first proper tours we did was opening for Babes In Toyland, and we’d come back to London most nights and stay in a house in Wood Green. I would do a lot of the driving, and Lori Barbero would drive too; she was living in London. We did then a lot of shows with Silverfish. Leslie was such a brilliant person and such an inspiration. We toured with Hole, and Daisy Chainsaw.
Quite a lot of the people in the world of alternative rock were intelligent, brilliant females, and we saw first-hand how people talking down to them, patronising them – whether it be a bus driver, local people, or people at gigs. We were always very much aware of the of the unfairness of situations in the world of rock – especially for female musicians and songwriters. Then the ‘Femtex’ title, that was just such an easy goal especially given the name Troublegum, which we had decided at that point, being from Ulster, ‘Femtex’ and ‘semtex’. It’s a bit daft, really, and it’s very simplistic in its lyrical approach, but it did come from a good place.
Andy: One of the lighting guys that worked with us, Nick, he was really into Peter Gabriel. He had mentioned Peter Gabriel expecting and everyone to shut him down, but I’m a big Peter Gabriel fan – I didn’t really like Genesis – but there was a cassette player and Nick brought the first two albums and I brought the third and fourth. We just sat for about five hours solid and tried to convert everyone else in the band. To Peter Gabriel’s early work. I’ve always been a huge fan of the song Salisbury. so unrequited, the main riff, came from me trying to work it out really badly on guitar. The pre chorus riff is me trying to play unrequited in the wrong key with the wrong position on the fretboard.
Michael: Chris Sheldon sings the part at the end; there’s a high voice saying, ‘I know that you’ll understand’.
Brainsaw (Including You Are My Sunshine)
Andy: We had a song called Window Wall which never got recorded, in the early days of the band. It was about houses around the Holylands in Belfast. Some of the houses had concrete windows because they were all bricked up. Whenever we used to rehearse and go up into Belfast and do gigs and hang about we used to say, ‘You know, for a city centre, there’s too many window walls everywhere.’ That song was more or less Brainsaw.
Michael: I think Troublegum was done by about September time. I remember we were going out on a European tour, and Andy bringing like a tape of you know full tracks of the latest stuff we’d finished off. Quite a few of the songs I’d only really heard the guide vocals. And the amazing thing about working with someone like Chris Sheldon was I would hear things in their most basic form, and then Andy would rewrite lyrics, rewrite melodies, and work on different guitar parts. He and Chris would bring that to fruition. And I’d hear the tracks thinking, ‘Oh my god. I can’t believe this.’ It was an amazing time for me, because I was hearing a lot of the stuff for the first time. And it was kinda blowing my mind.
Words: Kiran Acharya
Therapy?’s latest album Cleave is out now on Marshall Records. The band are on tour in Europe now.