“I do get a perverse kick out of the longer we keep going. It almost gives me more energy to keep doing it.”
Even if you are not a follower of their almost three decade spanning career – a landmark to be reached in 2019 already – you will at least remember the crazy years of Therapy?‘s amazing rise to superstardom, with their landmark ‘Troublegum’ and ‘Infernal Love’ records selling by the truckload in the mid-90s. Remarkably, even when the mainstream moved on to the next shiny object to consume and discard, the Northern Irish band soldiered on and kept releasing inventive, challenging and diverse records that blur the lines between rock and metal. Boasting a rock-solid lineup since drummer Neil Cooper joined them in 2002, the band is going through a particularly rewarding high point in their career, following the very well received ‘Disquiet’ album and the amazing success of the acoustic Wood & Wire shows, and they are right now in the process of writing their 15th (!) studio album. This solidity, perseverance and downright fighting spirit of the band accurately reflects the personality of its members, namely the core songwriting duo of Andy Cairns and MICHAEL MCKEEGAN. Nicknamed Evil Priest on account of the band he had with his brothers before he joined Therapy?, bassist McKeegan is a relaxed, super nice dude with an exquisite taste in heavy music and a whole bunch of stories to tell, therefore directly contradicting the famous chorus in one of his band’s own songs which bitterly repeats “happy people have no stories“. He does, and here are a few of them.
You’ve mentioned a few times that you’re a firm believer in happy accidents, so… what series of happy accidents lead to you becoming a full-time musician?
We were always quite into music when I was growing up. We weren’t a musical family but there was always music in our house. Simon & Garfunkel, The Dubliners, The Rolling Stones, stuff like that. Elvis too, he is the biggest thing apart from religion in Ireland [laughs], he’s like a demigod. So I listened to a lot of things from a very early age. I remember here was a friend’s elder brother, some of his mates were bikers, we heard AC/DC and Iron Maiden with him and it blew our minds, the whole energy of it. I suppose we were about ten or eleven years old. At one point my elder brother went to Holland to visit an old school friend, and he came back with Deep Purple‘s ‘Made In Japan’, and this was like a whole other level of rock music, with all the jamming going on, that huge extended version of ‘Space Truckin” that kind of went up into space and came back again, that was a big thing for us. He also brought a Focus record with him.
So around that time we kind of decided we wanted to be in a band – I wanted to be a guitarist, but to make the band we needed a bass player, so I did that. Didn’t really draw the short straw, but we wanted to make it sound proper. My younger brother played drums, I played bass and my older brother played guitar, and it was that simple, everything fell into place. It was good, because we were all quite close in age, we were all into record collecting, into the same bands, there weren’t many differences of opinion. We started off with Maiden covers, got into Venom… my brother actually went to Canada on a rugby trip and he came back with ‘Hell Awaits’, the Canadian Banzai Records version, and we hadn’t heard anything like it before. Obviously we’d read about Slayer in magazines before, but we’d never really heard them, and that crazed, feral, early thrash sound was a big turning point from all of us.
Do you think it was some kind of rebellious spirit that was at the origin of that attraction for the more extreme stuff?
I suppose we were into the energy of it… I can’t say that we were really into the lyrics, but I think that goes hand in hand with getting into metal and rock. Videos were important too, the VHS revolution had just hit the UK, and with it the whole “video nasty” thing, so we were into movies as well. This was before the BBFC got involved and banned a lot of things, so we saw a lot of hectic stuff, like a lot of gore and exploitation movies, those Japanese assassin movies too, that was a big favourite. Where we lived, right outside Larne, in Northern Ireland, it was a bit isolated, so that was our entertainment – listening to proto-thrash and proto-death metal and watching video nasties! [laughs] It was a very rural kind of place, a little village, literally just a crossroads and a pub. About a mile from the sea and a mile from a mountain. There was not a lot to do, there was no youth club in town or anything, you had to go over 10km to go to whatever place where things happened. At that stage, we didn’t really go into town to hang out on a whim, we were just at home making noise, listening to noisy stuff and watching crazy movies.
At the same time, listening to the Evil Priest demos, the sense of humour is very obvious, you didn’t go for the super serious we’re-so-evil approach, even if you were at the right age for that.
I think that we got a bit of that from the whole Venom thing… Kiss, too, early Kiss was a big thing around the time of AC/DC, and it was very cartoonish. If you figure in the sense of humour that movies like ‘Evil Dead’ had too, it was quite slapstick in a way, we loved that tongue-in-cheek approach, how over the top can you be, how ridiculous, you know? With Evil Priest it wasn’t completely intentional, it wasn’t really satirical, but we were meant to be absurd. There was a song called ‘Bloodbath’, and the chorus was just “bloodbath at the hillbilly hotel“. [laughs]
Did any of your brothers follow the musical path like you did?
I was the only one, really. Charlie, the drummer, was in another band that was more like noise rock and they put out an album, while my elder brother got into full-time employment soon after, so I was the only one who pursued it as a career. They all still play a bit. I play with them occasionally, just jamming and stuff. But it was great fun, since we were so isolated it was good. There were three of us and it was so easy, we could just get up on a Saturday and by 10am we could be practising in the shed, just trying to do a blastbeat. [laughs] We progressed pretty quick and we were such a tight unit, it was a very good thing to have so early on.
Have you tried to put Evil Priest together again properly, even if just for fun?
Yeah, before Andy’s 50th birthday he asked us if we’d play at his birthday party, both Evil Priest and also Neil’s first band. We did do a little bit of rehearsing, it was quite good. I actually played guitar and we got someone else to play bass, but the thing about it was, it would take us a little bit of time to get up to speed physically, especially for my brother who hadn’t seriously played drums in fifteen years or so. Eventually the gig part of the party didn’t happen, but it definitely gave us all a taste for doing it, it was good fun to play. We looked into the old stuff, revamped it a bit, so we will definitely do it again some day, if I ever get any time to do it that is!
Think of the difference between the state of metal in 1982 and 1988. In six years it went from being ‘You’ve Got Another Thing Comin” to ‘…And Justice For All’.
It feels like that band might have turned into something cool for you too, even if Therapy? hadn’t happened.
Yeah, maybe. To be honest though, at the time Therapy? came along I had definitely drifted off thrash and death metal and I was more into black metal, and more interested in seeing how those influences could work with a more industrial or electronic type of sound. I was also into noise rock, and the American hardcore scene as well. At that stage, around 1989, there was a much wider range of bands that I was getting excited about, more than the straight death and thrash. But it was great to come from that background, and it was a great time to be into that sort of thing, too. When I got into AC/DC I was eleven, that was in 1982, and that was a great time, I still caught the tail end of the NWOBHM, post punk with all the great 80s pop in there as well, electronic music was also getting a great foothold, obviously hip-hop came into its own around there too. I wouldn’t say it was a golden era, but there was just so much going on and it moved so quick, it was crazy. Think of the difference between the state of metal in 1982 and 1988. In six years it went from being ‘You’ve Got Another Thing Comin” to ‘…And Justice For All’, you know? [laughs]
Things moved a hell of a lot faster, it seems. I interviewed Tom G. Warrior a few months ago and he was talking about how, from the end of Hellhammer to releasing ‘Into The Pandemonium’ with Celtic Frost, it was just over three years. Three years!
That’s crazy, isn’t it? The ambition and the progression. That’s one of the scary things when you look back. Take Thin Lizzy, for example, they were (are!) one of my favourite bands. Their golden period happened around 1975, then they split up in 1983, that wasn’t even ten years! It didn’t span a decade.
That’s just about how long Metallica take between albums these days.
Yeah, that’s like an album and an EP for a lot of today’s big bands. [laughs]
Legend has it that Andy Cairns and Fyfe Ewing started Therapy? together and you joined shortly after. How were those first days?
That was pretty much it, really. It was in 1989. Fyfe and Andy had played in other bands and had been on the same bill, they obviously would chat and they realised they had more in common with each other than with the bands they were in, so they decided to put something together. I was at school with Fyfe, and he told me he had met this guy and they were going to do a demo and they needed a bass guitar, so he borrowed my bass guitar to use in the demo. After two weeks or so Fyfe showed up with the tape and asked if I wanted to hear it, and it blew my mind how good it was. The songs, the sound, everything was great, I was very impressed. It had a lot of elements from several things I was into, there was a lot of Hüsker Dü to it, it had also a Ministry vibe in there somehow, and they very kindly just invited me to go up and practise with them sometime. I did, and we just got on straight away. I got on really well with Andy from the off, and it felt really good, the three of us. We played the songs from the demo, jammed a bit, it was all very easy. They told me they had a gig in six weeks’ time, asked me to plaY with them, and I agreed. It was all baby steps at this time, there was no plan at all, no manifesto, we just played what we liked. We rehearsed quite rigorously, because we like doing it, so it all just grew from there.
Was that material Fyfe showed you the ‘Thirty Seconds Of Silence’ demo already?
Yeah, it was basically that demo. ‘Skyward’ was on there, ‘Bloody Blue’ too, and what then became ‘Stop It You’re Killing Me’ was on there already as well. The fact that one of the songs became that one, appearing in ‘Troublegum’ five years later, shows that it was pretty strong. [laughs]
When did the whole thing start feeling serious, when did you realise that you really might have a shot at being a professional musician?
I always wanted to, and the dream was to be a musician, but I didn’t know what that entailed or what you really did. There was no real scene, not in Northern Ireland especially. Or rather, there was a scene but we couldn’t really relate to it, U2 were huge at the time, Guns N’ Roses were very big too, and those were basically the two things that all the bands wanted to be. That’s not where our heads were at, at all. That moment was probably when we did the first mini-album, ‘Babyteeth’, when we actually got a copy, on vinyl. That was mind-blowing. When we did gigs and stuff, there was always an element of just doing it, you know? We didn’t really think of it. When we got the record, we were like, whoa, this is unbelievable. We thought we can probably die happy now! Then we started to get good reviews and people were actually buying it, we were flabbergasted.
Not wanting to sound like the old man screaming at clouds, because it’s not necessarily a good or a bad difference, but this is a common memory among the older bands – holding that first physical record meant something that is a bit lost for the bands of today.
Absolutely. And I’m going to sound like that old guy too, but you couldn’t just google pressing plants either. You’d go through your little music papers and ring one of the guys, and get probably despairing answers regarding the budget that you’d have to come up with. We did that, with studios too, we rang them up, we explained the budget we had was x amount of money and they laughed and put the phone down. It was very disheartening in a lot of ways, which is why I’m glad that in a lot of ways those things are demystified and you can just go and get 700 red vinyls pressed, or get a great-sounding record for an affordable price. It’s all much easier and much cheaper, and I’m glad those things are more balanced, and not this weird little club that you need to be on the inside or have loads of cash just to get your record made.
Having gone through that probably entitles you to feel like you’ve “paid your dues”, as it were, even if that side of it wasn’t a lot of fun at the time.
But I’m still glad we paid our dues, because we appreciate more the things that are easier now. That’s the positive part of it. We were around before mobile phones and before the internet and stuff like that… before budget airlines too, there’s another one. The playing field is considerably levelled now.
I get the feeling that having gone through all that also helped you cope with the period right after your huge commercial success, when the band returned to planet Earth after those years of craziness.
I think it was a good time of grinding that prepared us for a lot, yeah. And it’s what we talked about earlier, about those four Celtic Frost years – from ‘Babyteeth’ to ‘Infernal Love’ it was just five years. When I look back, that seems insane to me. In the beginning, we would literally play anywhere. I mean, we were the guys who would play the boxing club on a small village on a wet Tuesday night. We would get in the van, go down there, and regardless of the reaction we’d do our set. It was good, because once you get to the stage where you’ve reached your commercial peak, and then suddenly when you hit that town again maybe the venue isn’t as big, you don’t get all bent out of shape. You’ve done that kind of groundwork and you realise you’re in it for the long game. At that point, other bands might go, yeah, the sun isn’t so shiny on our side of the street now, let’s go to the other side… we don’t, we’ll just stay on this side and keep on trucking. It’s that mentality. It’s also a very Northern Irish kind of mentality, we deal with things in quite a positive way. It’s about forward motion, and trying not to get too bound up in the here and now, and in the past especially. Both me and Andy are quite like that, so we’ve been lucky in that aspect. Tomorrow’s another day.
There’s also another thing – lots of times you go to a gig, and people are like, oh, the PA’s crap, and it’s wet outside, and it’s a Tuesday, and blah blah blah. We’re more of the kind that says, okay, this might not be ideal, but let’s make it great. Let’s make it brilliant. There’s no point in falling into a negative pit. Even with the bands themselves – oh, we had to travel so much to get here and get up at 6am and go on a plane… my theory is, we didn’t come all this way to play like idiots! [laughs] We’re going to play extra good because it was a chore to get here and a real hassle and everyone’s tired. I think that, as you said, comes from that very DIY mentality that we’ve always had. Let’s play little squats in Germany and we might get paid and we might not, or we’ll take the van and we might have somewhere to sleep and we might not. When all the extremist trappings that latch on to you when you’re big sellers like we have been with ‘Troublegum’ and ‘Infernal Love’, when those drops away, you realise it’s all superfluous anyway. If the core’s intact, you just keep the band intact. At the time Fyfe left, of course, he couldn’t quite hack it, we got Graham and Martin in the band for a while, but now especially since we got Neil the core three of us are as strong as we’ve ever been, and that’s really nice.
When did you realise it would explode comercially? Was it right before ‘Troublegum’, or did ‘Nurse’ already point in that direction?
There were some signs with ‘Nurse’, ‘Teethgrinder’ went into the Top 40 charts in the UK. We were actually in Chicago at the time, I remember we got a fax… [laughs] Well, it was 1992. I think they had been trying to send it to us for the whole day until we found a fax machine in Chicago that worked. Then we did ‘Screamager’, the EP that came out in early 1993. A lot of people, especially the label, became very interested in what was going on. The track got a lot of radio play, it charted in the Top 10 in the UK, which was a very big deal for us obviously. ‘Troublegum’ didn’t come out for almost a whole year after that, which is mad if you think about it. We were touring all the time as well, we were doing festivals and every show we did there was literally an extra 500 to 1.000 people there, it was getting bigger and bigger. It was an indicator that ‘Troublegum’ was the biggest thing we’d ever done, but in no way we could think that it’d be that big. In the UK we had more of a notion of it, because we could quantify it. We’d go out for a drink and people we’d never met would come up to us and ask for autographs. The music press that we had read religiously for years, now we were in it, all the time. In the rest of Europe it took a little while more to pick up, but it did and it was mental, we did all the festivals and we did two full European tours too. We really hammered it in 1994, towards the end of the year we had sold around one million copies, which is mental.
I talked to Greg Mackintosh from Paradise Lost about the ‘One Second’ reissues and he told me hilarious stories of how major labels used to spend their money, like seeing himself on the side of buses unexpectedly and things like that. Did those things happen to you too?
First of all, I think ‘One Second’ is a fantastic record! Those glorious little keyboard bits. I’m a big Paradise Lost fan. And that’s actually interesting to think about now, I think their demos were out before ours, but we crossed paths in the 90s many times. We played Rock Am Ring, we also did a South American festival tour with them where we hung out together a lot as we were kind of the new guys in that circuit, still wondering what the hell was going on. [laughs] Anyway, so yeah, I get that experience. I remember a lot of the conversations we had with people were a bit ludicrous, with American labels and their A&R and stuff. I remember one, at the time when Green Day got really big, they wanted Andy to cut his hair and dye it. They seemed to be obsessed with his hair, it was either too short or too long. This could be all in the same day, either too short or too long, they didn’t know what they wanted us to be. We were just like, well, this is what it is, we never really sold an image of ourselves. When we did the ‘Die Laughing’ video, too, that was just outside of New York, we were there on tour. The stylist wanted to come down and meet us to talk about what we were going to wear… The video is very darkly lit, very abstract, you can barely see us at all, so any kind of black t-shirt and jeans would have done us perfectly, but there was this whole conversation about it. There was an American magazine called Details, it was like a man’s lifestyle magazine, and there was one around where I had seen this pair of trousers, so I pointed them out and said yeah, those are pretty cool, I could wear them, get something like that. But the stylist actually went and bought those specific ones, which were like $400 designer trousers! [laughs] I was thinking of something like that, but maybe at a normal price? So I wore them in the video, although you can’t really see it, and I think I wore them on stage twice until they got lost. They went missing in Europe somewhere. I’m thinking I should have picked a really nice leather jacket instead! All my fashion dreams could have come true. [laughs]
It was also crazy when we were on tour while we had something being mixed, there were couriers all the time – we’d get a courier hand us a tape in the middle of nowhere, we’d listen to it and we’d fax the comments back to the producer. I always thought, that was probably really expensive! We’d be in London in three days and we could have gone down to the studio and have a listen, but there was this kind of people justifying their jobs and expenses accounts and stuff like that. We never took advantage of any of that because in the end we knew the bottom line stopped with us and it was all coming out of our pockets eventually. We’ve been very lucky that we’ve had the same manager since day one, he’s never been a showbiz manager, he’s always been very mature and we’ve worked together to know where everything’s going, trying to come up with ways to make things more affordable. That means the money is going into making other things, into the artistic side of things, and that’s good. He understands that balance. Of course there were some stupid nights where the bar bills for after shows might have been a bit crazy, but there were no red sports cars or supermodels or anything like that.
I love how the records that followed your super-popular period were so oblique and experimental. ‘Suicide Pact – You First’ sounds nothing like a band that had sold a million records just a couple of years before, and I say this in the best way possible.
Maybe I’m naïve, but I think there’s nothing on those records that… well, I suppose ‘Suicide Pact’ is a bit more extreme, but still, all the elements on that record, there’s similar things like ‘Unrequited’ on ‘Troublegum’ and ‘Bowels Of Love’ on ‘Infernal Love’ already, and there’s loads of ‘Babyteeth’ and ‘Pleasure Death’ on them too. You know what I mean? I can see where it all comes from. Maybe not as exaggerated, and sonically it was a lot rawer than what people might be expecting. Also at the time they came out there was the whole nu-metal thing and everyone was very polished and staccato and Pro Tooled to death, whereas those were more garage rock kind of records, ‘Suicide Pact’ in particular. That one was done live, and in a lot of ways it was very experimental. It was a “vibe” record. We didn’t want to play until midnight, so we didn’t, and the producer was totally open to that. Head, the producer, he was like, if you want this to sound like you’re having a mental breakdown, then wait until midnight and then you can start playing, sure. If you want to sound unhinged in the vocals then maybe you need to get a bit demented so roll around the floor with a handheld mic and hurt yourself a bit. It was those things, and I quite like that way of working.
You’re the one in the band with the most extreme tastes in music, generally speaking, do you ever feel the need to go a bit further in that department? Have you ever felt like a side project where you can expel those things in a different way?
You know what? No, not at all. Andy, interestingly, is a master of melody, and he has a way of juxtaposing the two sides of things, melody and noise, in ways that I would never think of. And he’d be the one to push it to make it more… extreme, if that makes any sense. Because I will hear a really nice melody and I’ll go like, so why don’t you just do the harmonies and triple track that, and then he’s like, no no no, we’re going to do it like this, and put this different guitar counterpoint here, and that’ll make it more weird. Andy wrote ‘The Buzzing’ on ‘A Brief Crack Of Light’, he came up with the whole thing and it took a mad Converge kind of turn, with the noise bit and then the dub bit, it wouldn’t have been something that I’d come up with. ‘Deathstimate’ on the last record, too, he came up to me and showed me this riff he had, that he said was kind of doomy, and I went crazy, that’s like the best doom riff ever! [laughs] So yeah, absolutely, I’m happy with my input to the band, which I think is a bit more generic to start with. I’ll come up with an idea that’s really simple and then it’ll be added on to, and twisted to become something else, and it works really well like that. That’s why you’re in a band, I suppose?
A lot of my favourite songwriting pairs are actually like that, there’s always an opposition between the two people who then complement each other perfectly.
I think you need that. Otherwise you might as well be doing solo album after solo album, right? Compromise is not the right word because it makes it sound weaker, but it is, and in that compromise there’s a massive amount of strength. Every idea I’ve had has been made much, much better by Neil and Andy’s involvement. And I hope it’s the same for them! [laughs] I think that’s the only way you can function as a band.
“In the end, we might be the oldest and the ugliest band on the bill, but it’s going to be the best sounding and the best played set. That’s all we can do.“
How would you define your relationship with Andy? It’s been a long time, longer than many marriages last.
In two years’ time, it will be 30 years together. And it’s good, it’s great, it’s really healthy. I think we even get along better now than we did when we were younger. Some people don’t like to hear that, they want to hear about fistfights and tensions and whatnot, and you do meet so many bands like that… I just think life is too short for that. There is a bit of leeway because we’re both doing something we love, so there’s a massive vested interest, obviously, but we’ve been through a lot together and he’s really been there for me quite a few times. Likewise, I like to think I’ve been there for him as well, he’s a really good sounding board. Not just for music, but for life, in general, you know? Obviously we like similar books and movies, we have a similar sense of humour, and fortunately Neil also falls into that bracket, so it’s great. We all hang out together, and me and Neil hang out a lot, and Andy and Neil hang out a lot too, so there no weirdness at all. It’s never gotten to the stage of having to think about if we’re friends, because for me that’s kind of a given – I wouldn’t be in a band if we weren’t friends. I don’t think I could see a future there, I think it would… not the songs, but it would taint the band, for me.
You’re a family man, has that made touring even harder to cope with?
We’re actually all family men in the band, so if you put that into the pot as well, the good thing about it is that everybody’s got an understanding of what it’s like to struggle for child care, take care of loved ones and stuff like that. There’s never really a good time to go on tour, so we just make it happen as best we can. So far we never had to miss or cancel or do any ridiculous scheduling. Our wives are also absolute saints, so that is probably the biggest factor. A good wall planner, you know? Clearly labelled. That’s essential. We played a show in Holland not so long ago, a festival, we played for around 20.000 people and my wife was there with the kids. She brought the two boys to the side of the stage and watch the show, and get a little freaked out by the huge crowd.
Do the kids have the notion that daddy is in a band and what that means already?
Yeah, the eldest boy will be six next year and he’s got a good grasp of it, he knows when I’ll have the band over on the weekend and play guitar and all that, and the youngest knows dad plays guitar, he’s three and still getting his head around it. They’re all clued in, and they’re not freaked out by it, it’s just what dad does. They like to make noise themselves, it’s funny. They have a little drum kit and a guitar and they like to do some freeform noise, it’s like some deconstruction going on. It’s like Burning Witch meets Royal Blood.
You should record it. I’d totally listen to that.
If I saw that description somewhere I’d probably buy it too! [laughs]
Therapy? has occupied your whole adult life, professionally speaking. Can you imagine a future without it?
I can’t, because I’m 100% really into this. And I don’t like to do things half-cocked. It frustrates me when things get in the way and things that we want that we know are going to be brilliant don’t come out like we wanted them to. It does happen sometimes. But I think we kind of… I wouldn’t say this is a golden age for anything, really, but I do get a perverse kick out of the longer we keep going. It almost gives me more energy to keep doing it. These minor issues are just that, minor niggles, and we’re in a position where we can deal with them mentally and we can talk about the problems, things that would fester between band members and ex-band members just don’t with us. I think people respect that, and I respect that with us. In the end, we might be the oldest and the ugliest band on the bill, but it’s going to be the best sounding and the best played set. That’s all we can do.