Heartbreak You Can Headbang To: The Inside Story Of Therapy?’s Cleave

With their 15th album, the alt.rock legends are back on a war footing with the world.

Heartbreak You Can Headbang To: The Inside Story Of Therapy?’s Cleave

It seems like the world has come around to Therapy?’s way of thinking. At the start of the year, guitarist Andy Cairns, drummer Neil Cooper and bassist Michael McKeegan planned to self-release Cleave, their 15th studio album. They’d paid for the studio and producer Chris Sheldon, with whom they’d worked on Troublegum (1994), Semi-Detached (1998) and High Anxiety (2003). They had a record they were excited by and looked forward to 19 springtime tour dates with the Stranglers. Then Steve Tannett, an old acquaintance and head of the newly-formed Marshall Records, called out of the blue.

“It’s a two-album deal with one album optional,” says Andy. “That’s unheard of in this day and age, so we thought, well, we know the guy working on it; Steve had worked to promote Suicide Pact – You First. And, we thought, if you can work on that – our so-called most difficult album – you can work on anything."

Cleave came out worldwide on September 21, the day before Andy’s 53rd birthday. And while the Marshall deal means a little more promotional clout and guaranteed distribution, there’s one aspect that Cairns find particularly exciting. “As a guitarist,” he says with an unrepentant laugh, “there's amplifiers! Whenever I go onstage I've three Marshall amps: two of them play a big massive huge classic Therapy? sound, and another one is hidden behind the drums.”

Before writing began for Cleave – the 10 tracks were freshly written since October last year – drummer Neil Cooper found himself utterly rejuvenated by the Wood And Wire acoustic tour and the double-disc Communion: Live At The Union Chapel. He was shocked by how many ideas came from the change of pace and playing with brushes. “Just invigorated,” he says. “I was writing, I was so excited, and it was strange telling friends who don’t play instruments. They’d say, ‘What do you mean, you’re going acoustic for the new studio album?’ I’d say no: it's going to be full-on. I got a little keyboard for riffs and I'd drum across them. One of those riffs became Dumbdown.”

Dumbdown, the penultimate track, has a squiggle of a riff with a stark yes or no, black or white, in or out edge to the lyrics, which makes it sound like some kind of mad hokey cokey. But, as with the rest of Cleave, the words are entirely serious, and like, say, Idles or Sleaford Mods, amount to a poetic yet merciless examination of 2018. Nepotism. Hunger. Disillusion. Accusation. Michael McKeegan is not surprised that Andy turned in lines like ‘A nation on the verge of a nervous breakdown’ or ‘The cream of this country – rich and thick – will always rise to the top.’ Cleave looks at the UK and sees an unkind, corporate, consumerist and increasingly panic-stricken piss-bin of a place where 250,000 people are homeless and 4.1 million children live in poverty. Hope? Hope is a fairytale.

“These are things that people like to brush under the carpet and we’ve quite strong opinions on them,” says Michael. “But then again, you don't want to get into sloganeering either. With us, there always has to be a personal in-point. Dumbdown, for example, comes from a specific incident.”

That incident is a meal that Andy was sharing with neighbours in Cambridge in July 2016. Like Michael, Andy was born in Northern Ireland. When he happened to say that he disagreed with the result of the referendum on leaving the European Union, he was told, “If you don’t like it you can always go back home.”

“Where?” said Andy. “You mean next door?”

“Dumbdown sounds like sort of a Teethgrinder, or Chemical Brothers rhythm but with big huge guitars,” says Andy. “Neil sent me his idea for a riff, playing the keyboard with one finger. I transposed the synth line to guitar, and it sounds like Therapy?.”

Not many bands do sound like Therapy?. There are two broad strands to their discography; the melodic and heavy Cleave sits closer to Troublegum, High Anxiety and Disquiet, albums that owe more to the Buzzcocks than to, say, Einstürzende Neubauten. That side of things finds more expression on Babyteeth, Never Apologise Never Explain and Crooked Timber.

“I probably shouldn't even mention this,” says Michael, “as I'm curious to see if people notice. But when there's a lead break on Cleave, there are no rhythm guitars. This is very Van Halen, Pantera, Led Zep: no rhythm guitars on any of those recordings. On Troublegum there's probably four rhythm guitars under a lead, but this time around Chris’s idea was, ‘It sounds good in the room, and let's give it that space because you're a three-piece. Let's really exaggerate that.’ We took quite an old thing and kind of did our spin on it.”

As an example, he mentions the middle eight of the phenomenally bleak and heartfelt final track No Sunshine. His distorted bass moves around under a hypnotic, driving drumbeat while Andy’s guitar grows almost ornate in its picking. The song offers no resolution nor happy ending while the lyrics try to articulate the terror of depression. The album finishes with the words ‘My heart is so heavy – my peace has gone.’

“In songwriting terms, No Sunshine doesn't resolve either,” says Michael. “It hangs on quite an odd chord to end a song with, and that was completely intentional. It's quite theatrical not to resolve it. That's one of the rules you can't break. But we thought, ‘Fuck it. Why would you resolve it?’ The Therapy? of 25 years ago might have felt the need to say ‘Only joking! It’ll be Okay!’ But it’s serious subject matter, a serious album. Bizarrely feelgood. Like heartbreak you can to headbang to.”

As bleak as life is becoming, Andy says plainly that he hasn’t ever taken antidepressants.

“I've refused to,” he mentions, saying that he’s grateful to have been able to emerge from dark periods under his own steam. “I've had problems with all kinds of alcohol and drugs over the years, and I've dealt with them myself. Certainly as regards alcohol.” No member of the band has had to stop drinking by any stretch of the imagination. While recording they swapped a bottle of Jack Daniels for an emergency loan of a Telecaster belonging to a Madness tribute act. But antidepressants and alcohol directly inform two songs; first single Callow, and Crutch. “What first got me thinking about Callow was Lil Peep,” says Cairns. Gustav Elijah Åhr, the 21-year-old rapper, died following an overdose of the opioid Fentanyl and anxiety-suppressant Xanax, after which his debut album entered the Billboard 200 chart and peaked at number 38. Andy’s son is a big fan and had gone to Peep’s last London show, at the Islington Academy, in September 2017. Therapy? will play on the same stage in November. “I realised this was my son’s John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis moment. He's completely touched by his death. But I’ve noticed that for an awful lot of his generation, Xanax is the big drug.”

Still, Andy wasn’t sure whether Callow was a good fit with Cleave’s emerging themes of duality, and worried that it was lightweight compared to Wreck It Like Beckett, which is full of Strap It On-era Helmet bludgeon, or the …And Justice For All-style weight of I Stand Alone. Andy has always been the pop guy in Therapy?, saying it’s his dirty little secret in contrast to Michael’s lifelong love of every strain and subset of metal, and Neil’s twin pillars of Public Enemy and Reign in Blood by Slayer. In the past, Andy has been just as inspired by the beat of Madonna’s Justify My Love (incidentally sampled on Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back) as by ABBA, Cheap Trick or early R.E.M..

“When I was younger I would've been listening to Buzzcocks,” he says. “I never liked ABBA because they were a pop band. But then I read that Pete Shelley said ‘I think you can listen to ABBA and the Sex Pistols.’ So I started listening to my friends’ ABBA records. And I think, a lot of Therapy?’s problems – or perhaps why people like us – is we've always fought against it. The first thing we do is try to bend things out of shape as much as we can. It's a difficult arc to get right, because if you get it wrong it'll sound like asinine pop punk. You don't want to sound like a fourth-generation Dashboard Confessional or Brand New. You want to sound like the band that made Meat Abstract.”

Meat Abstract, Therapy’s first self-released single, came out in 1989 long before the first major-label deal, the million-selling Troublegum, the collapse of A&M Records and the arrival of Neil as drummer in 2002. Before then, he had played with Derbyshire quartet Cable, and toured alongside Therapy? while playing with The Beyond. More recently, Neil played a one-off fundraiser show with The Beyond along with singer John Whitby, who now wears the livery collar as Lord Mayor of the City of Derby. “Looking back at The Beyond makes me very happy,” says Neil. “It makes me proud. I just remember the days of really hating what was going on around me musically, and disagreeing with it, and wanting to do something different. Derby must have been similar to the outskirts of Belfast, and you can't comprehend how bad the metal market was, the rock scene. Bands like Faith No More hadn't become what they did, Nirvana hadn't broken at that point. A lot of people were… not laughing at us, but Derby didn't get us. We would sell out venues in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow. We couldn't sell out anywhere in our hometown.”

Neil, whose grandfather was a drummer and pianist, has this year been named as one of the UK’s best rock drummers by Rhythm magazine. He remembers a mentor who raises a smile even to this day. “I had a drum tutor called Andy Boris in Derby. He says he doesn't think he actually gave me drumming lessons. He says what he taught me was how to really appreciate music, whether it was traditional jazz, fusion, through to great pop drummers like Clement Burke from Blondie or Stewart Copeland. He phoned me recently. He’d just seen Whiplash and walked out of the cinema shouting ‘Neil! Neil! You gotta go see it! It's amazing!’ My mum and dad were also massive gig-goers. They didn’t play, but they’d travel for shows. You get comfort in following that route.”

Like Andy, Neil also identifies some unlikely background listening including Happy, the 2004 track by classically-trained drummer Max Sedgley who has played with producer/DJ Roni Size.

“It’s at least 10 years old now, and it's a bloody classic,” says Cooper. “Loads of brass samples and this big groove with a chiming ride cymbal. When it drops it’s just like ‘Fuck me.’ It's not fast and frantic, but it's so full of energy because you've got the tasty shuffling between the bass and the snare drum, and the ride cymbal's just nailing it down. That's where I got the Wreck It Like Beckett thing from.”

“I think it's a combination on Wreck It…,” says Michael. “There’s the beat, and the fact that Andy and I are playing kind of a Slayer-esque mid-tempo riff all locked together. And there's also an 808 boom on the top of the bar, which you'll hear on big speakers. That all blends together, so it's got that drop. Which is Chemical Brothers, Prodigy – that big oomph. That extra kick in the bollocks!”

The song is a call to clear the decks, reset, start afresh – and to listen to one another. Cairns is reflective about the band’s current position, as hopeful as any act that the deal and unlikely chart appearance will bring the band to more people.

“The thing is about Therapy? is that we have and do sell records outside Britain,” he says. “I think quite a lot of bands, because they didn't tour as much, really don’t sell any records elsewhere. Our label know that we work hard. We will book lots of tours and we will go out and play them. It's not like they're taking a risk, giving us a three-album deal only for us to do only eight UK gigs before saying we're not feeling it and taking two years off. We’re not suddenly going to be headlining Wembley Arena either, but importantly, with a band like us that's sold three million records, we want to bring a few people that have wandered off back into the fold.”

Words: Kiran Acharya

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