It was 1994 and just as British rock was struggling along came a young trio from Northern Ireland with one of the most infectious rock albums of the year. “Troublegum“ was released and Therapy? made their way onto the bigger stages across the world.
Almost thirty years into a blistering career there’s no sign of Therapy? slowing down and when they made a stopover in Hamburg, Messed!Up’s Mr. Schmitz caught up with Michael McKeegan to talk about their latest album, growing up as the “weird“ thing from Northern Ireland and being on the scene for almost thirty years.
Although they’ve long since become known as one of the UK’s most obstinate and indestructible bands, Therapy? began life when guitarist/vocalist Andy Cairns formed the band in 1989 and shortly after released debut mini-album “Babyteeth“.
The band swiftly became known for their gritty and twisted blend of angular riffs, clattering percussion and hostile noise and soon got radio time enough to reach out to people, especially after being endorsed by John Peel himself.
“Babyteeth“ was followed by another mini-album, “Pleasure Death“, in 1992 and the same year saw the arrival of full-length debut “Nurse“ before they had their major breakthrough and stormed the charts with “Screamager“ from the “Shortsharpshock“ EP in 1993.
A huge hit in the UK singles chart, it became one of the biggest rock club anthems of the early nineties and an accidental blueprint for what would become Therapy?’s breakthrough album one year later when “Troublegum“ was released.
Fastforward to 2018 and Michael McKeegan recaps an almost thirty year long career and how it was to be a band in Northern Ireland in the beginning of the nineties.
30th anniversary coming up
Therapy? started twenty-nine years ago. Tell us a little bit about the music scene and subcultures in Northern Ireland at the time you started the band.
Northern Ireland is quite a small place. Because of the troubles, as they called them, a lot of people didn’t really like to come there. It wasn’t a creative, artistic place on a lot of levels but when bands came to play people always went to see them.
Because the scene was so small the metal fans hung out with the punks and the punks hung out with the goths. Since we were the outsiders everyone was very much open-minded even though it was a small scene. If Siouxsie & The Banshees came to play you would go and see them wether you were a punk fan or not; if AC/DC came to play you would go and see them. So it was good in that respect although it was quite limited.
Also, it was very expensive to buy records. These were the days of vinyl and you had to wait for the new Hüsker Dü album or the new Black Flag album to come to the record shop, and sometimes it could’ve been six or eight months after it was released. We were always a little bit behind but it made everyone quite creative to make their own scene.
A lot has changed in the music industry in the last decades. You became successful in an era where bands would sell millions of hard copies. Today it’s a lot about streaming and less sold albums. That very often leads to higher ticket prices and it has become essential to bands to sell merchandise. What do you think about this development?
We always had a good fanbase that like to buy physical copies, and we come from a background selling a lot of records and have been very lucky in that respect. If you’re a young band now I wouldn’t even know where to start. Do you give away your music for free?
But now there’s a lot of more options to get your music out there and people can hear it 24/7 across the world. We always say as long as you hear our songs we don’t care how you hear them. That’s the main thing, it’s all about the song. We always toured and therefore have a good live reputation, people come to concerts anyway. It’s not like we hide for eighteen months and then make three hundred concerts to make as much money as we can. That would be a short thing.
But for us it’s an ongoing thing and our fans respect that, and it’s a mutual respect, we’re not going anywhere. We’re always moving forward and do our own thing and take them along. It takes some time to get to this point obviously and we were very lucky.
We had a promotional push with a big major label which got a lot of people to hear us that maybe wouldn’t have heard us before. I think it’s great that you can go to YouTube and check out a new record and just make up your own mind. You don’t have to read a review or a critic going “This is good or bad“, it’s a lot more levelled.
Twenty-nine years is a long time obviously. One thing that kept the band alive, I read, was that Andy and you had this pact that if one would say “I don’t want to go on stage tonight“ you instantly put it to a halt. I think it’s a very healthy way to talk about issues and I guess it was a process getting there and realise that. Was there any point where you were close to split up?
Like you said you learn all these things over the years and you work out what is the best way to deal with problems, because being in a band is a weird reality anyway. There’s a way relationships work and the dynamic in this creative thing where you have to feel fulfilled in what you’re doing, but you also have to work together as a team. This is really important.
We just became really good saying “This is not for me“ and saying no to more things just like when you‘re offered certain tours or when people want you to re-record a song with different lyrics. We now say “No, we don’t want to do that, that’s not what we feel comfortable in“. It’s what we learned over the years.
We’re all great music fans and really into what we’re doing, but if you get to the point where you don’t want to do it that’s when you probably should go and take a year off or go and do something different, or maybe seek another creative art.
We’ve been very lucky, there has never been those kind of moments. We‘ve had critical moments, probably the last time when Graham, the drummer before Neil, left and we were in a weird limbo. We had no record deal and no drummer, so me and Andy thought “What’s next?“, because we are the band, we are the business, we drive it and have to say what we’re going to do. Then Andy met Neil and it was the best thing ever happening to us.
There’s always something good coming out of these situations. It’s been great and because of those kind of experiences over the years, we’ve been able to say if something’s going a bit wrong, “No one died, it’s not the end of the world, we move on and we learn from our mistakes“. You can normally put stuff together in a much better way than it was before.
I guess you’ve been asked the next question many times before, but I just need to ask. Have you planned anything for next year’s 30th anniversary?
There are a few things planned, but we’ve been focused on the new album and we were like “Yeah! New album! Touring, touring, touring!“. I think we want to give the new album a good run. Sometimes you release an album and six months later you’re working on the next, but this time we wanted to do it after “Disquiet“ which we toured about eighteen months.
Which will take us right through into the 30th anniversary year and we hopefully do some things. It would be great to have a nice party. Thirty years; not a lot of bands get to do that. It would be crazy if we wouldn’t do some kind of celebration, but nothing’s definite yet.
After almost 30 years are there still any things left on your bucket list?
No, not really. I think we by far exceeded any ambitions we ever had regarding touring, travelling, meeting and working with our heroes and do very cool things like that. Primarily now there are a lot of countries we haven’t been to in a long time, especially North America, South America and Canada for example. We’d love to go back there again because we have a lot of fans there, but now the promoters don’t seem to be keen to bring us over.
Obviously North America has such a great live metal and punk scene. Why do they want the Irish guys to come over (laughs)? That would be a big ambition but if we can do this all of us we would be absolutely delighted. We’re really big fans of American punk and metal music and it’s nice to go there and tour.
Speaking of buying records and vinyl; nowadays it’s mainly mp3’s and streaming. When I started buying CD’s I loved to have something in my hand, look at the artwork and go through the lyric sheet. I think that is also important to you.
Yes, that’s where we come from, being collector’s and being fans of music. I like to collect the back catalogue of bands on vinyl, the coloured vinyl, different editions and stuff like that. It’s so different now.
I listen to a lot of music on Spotify or on YouTube, but I always want to have my favourite bands on vinyl or a proper hard copy. The fans have been with us for a long time now and they want that as well, so we always try to have a vinyl or at least a proper hard copy for most releases, which sometimes is very hard because it‘s expensive to do.
I was wondering, do you get the full picture of your music when you only listen to it on a mobile device?
I don’t know, I have never thought about it. Our music is for everyone and you don’t need to know everything about the band, it’s not exclusive. Some people are really into lyrics, which is an important aspect because the lyrics are really good, they’re not the standard rock ’n‘ roll lyrics. I find them very reliable and I‘ve talked to a lot of fans that seem to find them quite reliable as well.
But there’s also people who think there are cool riffs and they can sing along and that’s great. But if you want to read the lyrics, see things and self-reflect that’s also good as well. It’s there, but it’s not essential. Sometimes it’s just about a good drumbeat or a good riff that make you go “Yeah!“ (laughs).
The politics of “CLEAVE“
“Music has been a persuader, an agitator and a peacemaker in Northern Ireland – it changed the direction of my life in seventies‘ Belfast and I’ve seen it happen to hundreds of other people. I absolutely believe that music made a difference“ Stuart Bailie, the author of “Trouble Songs: Music and Conflicts in Northern Ireland“, said at the day of the book release.
Growing up in Northern Ireland, a country ravaged by conflict in the sixties until its resolution in 2000s, the conflict theme is the leitmotif of their 2018 album “CLEAVE“. Although the conflict in Northern Ireland is over, the world is plagued by clashes between left-wings and the rise of right-wing forces, basically in every modern democracy. And “CLEAVE“ is a social history as much as a musical one.
Let’s talk about the new album “CLEAVE“. It’s a lot about ongoing conflicts in the world, like Brexit for example. And musically it’s very compact, ten songs and thirty-three minutes.
Yes, ten songs, thirty-three minutes, no messing about. That wasn’t really an intention, it was just that when we wrote the songs they were quite energetic. We actually wrote twelve songs and we recorded them and then went to do a sequence of the album, and there were two songs that we couldn’t set in properly. It was either wrong tempo or that they just didn’t set right, so we did the sequence with ten.
I think with regard to the last five years it has been really weird politically in Europe and in North America. We talk about politics a lot, we all have young children and always think “What kind of world is here and how did we get to this point?“.
Coming from Northern Ireland we have seen the very negative side of conflicts. People beat each other for crazy reasons and fight for no reason. It has a lot to do with paranoia, fake news, media representation. Obviously everyone has got a device in their pocket that’s telling them something. You don’t know whether what’s true or not anymore. People will literally say the opposite of what exactly happened.
And with the whole Brexit thing in the UK it’s the worst thing that happened to the United Kingdom in my lifetime or in the last couple of hundred years. It’s a terrible thing, especially for the European Union, we’re all on board of that. It’s just scary times but our take on it is either to cling together or to pull apart.
What I find since the Brexit thing and the rise of Donald Trump and the right wing, and the Russian interference in the elections and so, is that it’s mere the good people that stick together. People in my social circles think we need to fight this and it brought a little bit of good that people would go “Fuck this!“, that’s bringing together.
“CLEAVE“ is about taking apart but also bringing together people, and in the end of it it’s just embarrassing every time we come to Europe and everyone asks “What is going on with Brexit?“ and I say “I don’t fucking know.“ I voted remain for the referendum, but wherever the propaganda worked they manage together a swarm. And it’s crazy, they have no plan, it’s a fiasco.
I have two young children, I don’t want them going in their twenties “What did you do, dad?“. You need to do your best and we try to do that. Obviously, we’re not really Rage Against The Machine, we don’t go for political slogans or one-liners. But that is just the jest of the album, it’s confusion and turmoil and try to find some kind of sense in all the madness.
It’s a constant bombardment; you turn on the news any time of the day and there’s something more crazy, more sexist, more racist. It’s everywhere and it’s exhausting (laughs).
I think that’s the plan, they’re trying to wear you down so it becomes the new normal. In England we have a phrase “You get people to benefit from the doubt.“ I think intrinsically people are good but there’s also a bad side and it seems to be winning in the UK. Something needs to change and we got to move onwards otherwise we go back five hundred years, it’s crazy.
Especially when looking at the border issue in Ireland.
I don’t think they understand it. But Northern Ireland has always been a little bit of an embarrassment for the British Government, because they don’t know how to deal with it. You need to hear what politicians say, they make it such a simple thing, but it’s not. It’s hugely complex.
If you go to Northern Ireland and you talk to a hundred people and ask them what the problem is and what the solution is you’ll get a hundred different answers and solutions. Everyone got their unique take on it. We are that weird. We’re not really Irish, but we’re on the island of Ireland. We’re not British, but it’s British money and British laws.
I think what is good is that a lot of people live in their own level of weird identity, but people don’t know what that is and you don’t know unless you’re there or grown up there. It’s bizarre.
When creating an album do you still think in a- and b-sides since you grew up with vinyl?
Yeah, that’s how we sequence the album. As I said we recorded twelve songs and it didn’t work with six songs on one side, so definitely yes. We do that, it’s all there for a reason.
A very good friend of mine who is a big Def Leppard fan and had their album “Pyromania“ said he only played one side of it for about six months because he was so happy with it. He didn’t even feel he needed to turn it over, because he was so glad with the first five songs. It can only happen with vinyl, a CD plays on and the stream plays on.
Also, what if you start with the wrong side first or someone tapes the album and you know the album in a different sequence? This happened a few times with a band called Slint. They are American and they got this great album “Spiderland“. A friend of mine taped it for me but put the b-side first, so for years I thought it was in a complete different order, that‘s a whole different dynamic.
We do spend a lot of time doing that; the easy bit is recording the album, the tricky bit is getting the sequence right. You want a good opener and you want it to be a bit of everything of what’s happen in the album; the opening song has to represent what’s to come. And then you want to go a little bit different in the middle. It’s like writing a setlist for a concert. You want to do it as a “Whoo“ journey, at least that’s what we try to do.
“Google your own tab“
For a few years ago I watched a music documentary about music memory and how vocalists being on the scene for severeal decades remember the lyrics from all the songs they‘ve written during their career. The answer was simply “Repetition!“.
“CLEAVE“ is their fifteenth album and with such a huge back catalogue the simple question is if they still remember those first songs they made in the beginning of the nineties that’s not on the setlist that often anymore.
You have a huge back catalogue after thirty years. Do you still know how to play all your songs?
We could probably play them all but we might need to spend a long afternoon rehearsing. We’re quite an honest band, everyone is a good player. There’s not so much studio trickery and most of it comes from three people in the room making noise. It’s always easily translated to the record and then, thankfully, on to the stage. So, nothing really that we couldn’t play.
You may heard of a German punk band called Die Ärzte. They’re the reason why I‘m asking.
They’ve been around since 1982 and a few years ago they published a songbook so everyone could play their songs. On the following tour every night someone from the audience was ought to pick a random song he or she would like to hear and sometimes they needed their own songbook to play a song.
I see what you mean (laughs). We used to feel kind of rusty. Sometimes it’s “How does it go? I don’t know“, but pretty much all of them we can play. We always play songs from “Babyteeth“, “Pleasure Death“ and “Nurse“ and we practiced a lot before the tour.
Normally we play the whole album when we tour and at least we play every song once, five times maybe, so we always can play them live. And there’s muscle memory, you always have it if you learned it. Of course, there are songs where you go “What tune is that in?“ (laughs). Then you have to go, and I’ve done this, and google your own tab.
Did it really happen?
Yeah, I had to do that. Sometimes it just felt a little bit wrong and I thought “I didn’t play that“. It happened a few times for b-sides.
Do you have a ritual before you go on stage?
Normally a group hug and [low voice screaming] “Woah, let’s go!“. That connects us and what we do. Nothing superstitious or something like that. You go to the toilet, have a glass of water, but nothing too fancy (laughs).
How often fo you change the setlist on tours?
It depends. Tonight it’ll be more focused on the new album and songs that work good with the new album. We haven’t changed it that much this tour, but we’ll surely change a little bits of pieces. We’re focusing on the new songs because we are still exploring them.
As far as I remember you played a lot of songs from “Disquiet“ when I saw you here at Knust three years ago.
I think we played all twelve of the “Disquiet“ songs that night. It’s the first tour after the new album so we play the new songs. But then you do a festival, you got sixty minutes and not everyone knows the new album. There’s no point in playing nine new songs (laughs) because it wouldn’t be so much fun for the audience. We try to mix it up and we’re doing eight or ten songs most of the nights. It’s good and it’s fresh for us when we play them.
How soon during a show do you know if it’s going to be an amazing night or if the audience won’t be that enthusiastic?
(laughs) If you had asked me this question twenty years ago I had said “Yeah, you know by the first song!“ But now; you never know!
We played on Sunday night in Utrecht. You know, on a Sunday night people are very quiet and tired from the weekend. We were “That’s cool, we play ninety minutes and see what happens“, and literally from the first song people were going crazy, threw beers and there were stage divers. We played Alkmaar two nights beforehand and it took about forty minutes for them to warm up even though it was a Friday night and all were hugging their beers. They were like “We like it, we like it“ but they were really not into it before halfway through the set.
You honestly never know, it really depends on the crowd and the atmosphere, which is great because I wouldn’t want it any different. It would be awful when within thirty seconds you go “Oh, dear!“ (laughs).
There are certain things that you can do when you toured as much as we did to get the audience on your side. There are these little rock’n’roll tricks; stage craft and things like that (laughs). It’s good because you got to dig in the bag deep (laughs). Normally it works.