Select Page

Music Without Borders: An Interview with Brendan Perry of Dead Can Dance

Photo Credit: Jay Brooks

Music Without Borders: An Interview with Brendan Perry of Dead Can Dance

While working on his studio in France, I spoke with Brendan Perry of Dead Can Dance about their new album Dionysus. Dionysus is the Greek God of Wine and Dance, Fertility and Theater. In the two acts and seven parts, Perry and Lisa Gerrard create a story without words, a narrative using percussion, strings, synths and voices as well as many cultures’ instruments to draw the listener into a world of emotion and ecstasy, transporting our hearts and souls far away in time and place.

One of the many things I am interested in is all your instruments and where you keep them. At home or in the studio?
They’re in the studio, yeah. Of course, they have to be close to hand. When the inspiration comes you don’t want to be messing around, you want to seize the moment so I keep them close to me.

I imagine you having some friends over and having a drum and instrument circle and just jamming.
Those days are long gone. I have a handful of friends here. I had to kind of pretty much make new friends since I’ve been here. My daughter has gone to college, and it’s a real new beginning for us. I have a few musician friends but none of them play percussion. They’re all guitar-orientated.

You must have many instruments you learned to play, the kind you don’t just pick up and know what to do with.
It depends. My forte is fretted string instruments. I obviously started with guitar. Once you have that basic rhythmic coordination and finger to eye coordination then it’s not a huge, giant leap to learning more exotic fretted instruments. Like saz’s, baglamas and bazouki’s. The basic techniques are the same. It’s really the ear and becoming accustomed to tunings. In the case of oriental instruments the real kind of like learning curve is developing any of the quarter tone scales.

What is the instrument you feel the most adept at playing and what song we’ve heard it on?
Oh, hmm. The berimbau perhaps? It’s not very complicated, really, to get sounds from. The bowed instruments are from sample libraries anyway. The album and things we’ve done in the past are a combination of real acoustic instruments and also big libraries of instruments, sampled instruments.

When you started out was it all analog, instruments that you played by hand?
Yes. I suppose once I got into sequencing was when everything changed, really. Then, by MIDI you could have a synthesizer or sampler part of the musical tapestry. You can communicate ideas with keyboards, use them as a medium to write for samplers. Once you could sequence them then put them into loops, then it can open up a whole new world. The Ensoniq Mirage sampler was my entry point back in ’85, I think.

It sounds like technology aided you in being basically a one-man-band, right?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s been very liberating in that sense. It’s really just down to your imagination, your ideas. To take it to whatever level you want to. But having said that, there’s a craft to it as well. I go to great lengths to not just use the stock samples but actually go in and craft each sample meticulously so it expresses what I want it to.

With regard to the voices, the choral treatments on the album, half of them are sampled libraries that use these engines called Syllabuilders and basically, it’s a directory of syllables that you can put together. You can write sentences and phrases and then play them polyphonically. So you have these choral groups singing your sentences and phrases but in harmonies. It is very powerful now, what you can do.

That Syllabuilder reminds me of when I was a kid and we had a Commodore 64. I’m talking 64 kilobytes…
That’s what I had, that was my first sequencer.

My friend and I used the word processor, it was supposed to sound like a person talking, though we had to spell it out phonetically to actually make it sound human, and we used it to crank call his older brother.
I never used it for the sounds, purely as a sequencer.

Now here you are decades later using technology that allows you to create what we would hear as people singing words, or something like words.
Yeah, it’s a combination of that plus my and Lisa’s (Gerrard) vocals. In order to create a simile of a chorus, of people singing.