Andrew Curtis-Brignell

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I like to think that nothing can be said about my records by a negative critic that I haven’t already thought about myself.

If you follow extreme music at all, you will surely have come across ANDREW CURTIS-BRIGNELL at any point before. The man behind the relentlessly innovative entity that is/was Caïna (besides his participation in several other projects like Crowhurst or Ritual Object) has been responsible for several unforgettable records, while at the same time also finding himself caught in the eye of a couple of non-musical storms raised by others. After a glorious few months in which the tenth year of existence of his most well-known record, ‘Mourner’, was duly signaled and celebrated, culminating in a fantastic appearance at Roadburn, Andy has announced his retirement from music. And this time, it’s for real.

You were still a teenager when the first Caïna demo came out, so you must have started to be interested in music at a really early age.
Music really runs in my family in a lot of ways. My dad has been a church organist for 50 years, he’s really into ecclesiastic and liturgical music… I was a choir boy, actually. A proper choir boy, really into it. But this is protestantism, not Catholicism, so it’s kind of less intense. But yeah, I sung in cathedrals and stuff when I was seven and eight years old, and by that point I was already obsessed with music. My older brother has been a huge influence on me, he’s six years older than me and I was able to get into a lot of great music at a very early age because of him. I was born in 1986, so I was at the cusp of a lot of really cool things in culture, which I got to experience second hand through him while still ridiculously young. When he got into The KLF, I got into The KLF. When he got into Metallica and Pantera and stuff, I was into it, and I was like six years old or something like that. There was a lot of music that I got into like that, and it really informed my tastes early on. Eventually my tastes diverged from his, it happened quite early on too – I was more interested in extremity, and in lots of different ways, not just with music. I was obsessed with horror films and extreme imagery as a kid already. So that’s mostly where all the rest comes from, although my parents will tell you that I was writing songs already when I was three years old. [laughs] There are audio tapes of me making up songs on the fly at that age. It’s great for them to bring out at parties, because it’s just nonsensical garbage, set to weird renditions of Michael Jackson tunes.

That sounds strangely awesome, actually.
It’s kind of like my earliest demo. And my influences haven’t changed that much, you know? [laughs]

You’re joking, but in terms of not doing what people expect or want of you, that sentence is probably true.
When I was a kid I did a few months of piano lessons and drum lessons, but I’m really bad at taking instructions, at dealing with authority or taking any kind of directions. I’m not nasty, sometimes people get really defensive when they’re asked to do things, but I just get a palpable unease when someone asks me to do something. It’s not out o trying to be punk rock and defiant, though I guess that’s why a lot of this stuff always appealed to me, but I’ve always had this streak of “…no, actually!“, you know? I hate people presenting me with zero options. So, when I moved away to the university, I was still only seventeen, and I bought a started guitar set. With all my shit at the university, I couldn’t bring a drum kit – which was my main instrument, the one I practised at home where I had a kit – so I just bought a started amp and a guitar, because a few months prior to that, I discovered Burzum existed.

I had literally no fucking idea, none whatsoever, even if I knew about people like Brian Eno and DJs and stuff, that you could have a rock band set-up, a metal set-up, with just yourself. That idea alone, even beyond the fact that Burzum‘s fucking amazing, was mind-blowing. I was like, wait wait wait, why haven’t I been doing this for ten years already? Why didn’t I get a portable recorder at seven years old and start doing this? It was a lightning bolt, and I got a lot into stuff like Judas Iscariot and things like that. This was something people could do, something I could do! So becoming a “musician” as I am today, was really all down to discovering that band. There’s no other influence that’s been larger in terms of showing me possibilities I had never thought of before. Listening to ‘Hvis Lyset Tar Oss’, it just sounds… beyond the production, it’s this kind of expansiveness of the sound and the tones, you forget who’s playing it. And in this case it’s actually very good that you forget who’s playing it! [laughs]

In this case it’s a very good plus, yes. I’ll listen to any music guilt-free, I can make the separation in my mind and in my heart, but sometimes I wish I had never known who it was, behind some amazing music that exists.
I’m terrible at listening to the wrong people, and it gets me in trouble. As it did. I’m impressed with things, I look at the bigger picture and then I’m like, shit, I should have paid better attention to this. I think I’m kind of naïve like that. I see art as “one”, as a one-dimensional kind of space where every single human being on the planet can interact, and then people abuse that and it kind of shocks me every time. That moment when I realise, “oh, you’re actually a terrible person,” it devastates me every time.

I guess it’s all in the way that you perceive the music you listen to. For me, it’s like, I don’t have to agree, or even like, the people who are doing art that I enjoy. But I get it that it’s not like that for many people, especially in today’s social climate.
Unfortunately I think time has a part to play in all that, too. Had I gotten into black metal in 1993 I probably would feel much more strongly about all this. But that’s not my cultural context. My cultural context is coming at it from a purely musical point, I suppose. That doesn’t seem to be something you’re allowed to do anymore…

Yeah, that’s what I meant when I mentioned the social climate. You’re an example of how the witch-hunts do go a bit far sometimes. You’ve suffered from accusations from both sides [Andy was caught up in the infamous “Metalgate” issue, and a couple of years later he was banned from a festival for having covered a Death In June song once]. Do you ever wish you existed at a time when the relationship between artist and listener was different?
I’ve spent the better part of my musical career getting the absolute shit shredded out of me by the wider metal community, and funnily enough not that many people ever knew who I was, in the scene. Most just saw me as a “hipster liberal”, and I never really wanted that to be the focus of anything. But at the same time, if people asked me what I felt about anything, I wouldn’t lie. That kind of shaped the persona that people saw in me for years, some kind of asinine liberal that they could shit on. So I had that spectacularly public thing with Metalgate, and then, to have that completely reversed on me… To be honest, I don’t think I have recovered from that. As an act, and as an artist, I was just crushed by that. There was no consultation, I didn’t hear about it until they had already announced it and I had a message on my inbox a couple of minutes later. There was no consultation, no discussion, nothing, it was just “this guy is this”, end of story. That fucking crushed me. At that point, after almost ten years of getting ripped for believing in stuff that I thought was the right thing, to get accused of that… I just don’t think I quite recovered from it, mentally. It didn’t send me spiralling into some kind of thing and I didn’t have a breakdown about that specific event, but it changed the way I felt about everything in the music industry, to be honest. It acted as a kind of catalyst for a lot of shit that went down after that, and that led to the breakup of the band. Because there was a band, when I decided to retire. It wasn’t just me, we did have a band that was affected by everything.

You have retired in several ways before, most notably after the release of ‘Hands That Pluck’ [I wrote a thing on my old blog about that at the time] do you want to talk about it? Do you regret any of those positions you’ve taken previously?
[pause] I think the problem is that I’ve acted on emotion a few times, when lacking options or feeling frustrated and ending something is the easiest and most available action in those cases. When faced with a brick wall, it’s a dramatic kind of thing that will solve your problems temporarily. So yeah, I absolutely regret the posturing that I’ve been responsible for in those occasions… but at the same time, until earlier this year, I’ve been very ill most of the time, and my decisions haven’t always been informed by logic. It doesn’t excuse it, but the only person I’ve hurt is myself, really. Doing it the first time really killed the momentum of my career, that I had built throughout the years and over the course of a few very well-received records, including the one I had been working on at the time, which was ‘Hands That Pluck’. I had built a certain amount of momentum, I had many things planned, and then I bailed on everything for eighteen months, and that made me extremely unpopular with several people. In hindsight, I do regret that, although I reached out to a few people around that time, told them what was happening, that I needed some support, and none was forthcoming, until it felt like giving up was the only thing I could do. This time around, however, it’s felt much more natural. It wasn’t a result of outside pressures, it’s a result of something I have actually thought about for more than five seconds.

I get that. I didn’t feel the need to write something this time. It feels like it makes sense for you.
I can’t pretend that my fan base didn’t move on. We had this kind of strange thing happening with ‘Setter Of Unseen Snares’ – because I made a hardcore record, it became quite popular with the hardcore community, with whom I was hanging around at the time. Through word of mouth, that record sold really well, that was probably my best selling album, though I might have sold more copies of the Profound Lore stuff, that one is now actually completely unavailable in most forms. But the problem with that was that I didn’t make another hardcore record with the follow-up, ‘Christ Clad In White Phosphorus’, it was completely different. Pretty much like I’ve done with every other record in my career, I don’t think I’ve ever made the same one twice… and the fan base that I created with ‘Setter…’ didn’t necessarily know that. [laughs] After that release, we played three shows and immediately disbanded that line-up in preparation for the next album. I was making Crowhurst too, with Jay Gambit, at that point, so I was split in a lot of different directions. In all honesty, it was all really done in a sense of… most people stopped paying attention, so what do I do to gain it again? And it didn’t really work. I feel like I sort of fizzled out.

“I’ve always tried, with each album, to do something that’s radically different from everything else I’ve done. If I feel there’s repetition, I’ll fucking excise it. I don’t understand why anyone would want to make a record 20 or 30 times.”

However, looking at your discography, it all seems to make sense. There’s an adventurous kind of continuity, a permanent identity, even. Do you recognise that?
I do, absolutely. But I think the reason it makes sense to you is that you are one of the few people in my demographic who will get the vast majority of the music on those records. I’m a magpie, I pick a lot of different, disparate things and put them together just to see how they sound like. There’s a really small percentage of people who will like all that shit, and you’re one of them!

Thank you, first of all. But there’s probably more of “us” out there than you think. Is there truly any record among those that you feel doesn’t belong?
Honestly, I think ‘Litanies Of Abjection’ should never have been released, or at least it should have been released as a solo record. I think it doesn’t fit with anything else… I just don’t like it, basically. I have no memory of making it, it was done in a total blackout period. I forget that it exists. But otherwise, I’ve always tried, with each album, to do something that’s radically different from everything else I’ve done. If I feel there’s repetition, I’ll fucking excise it. I don’t understand why anyone would want to make a record 20 or 30 times besides that you can make a living off it. Which I can kind of understand, but still. Beyond that… it just doesn’t compute for me.

‘Mourner’ is special though, that’s undeniable. Why do you think it became like that?
I’m relentlessly self-critical, I like to think that nothing can be said about my records by a negative critic that I haven’t already thought about myself. But ‘Mourner’… it’s funny. I’ve had a changing relationship with that album. When it came out, it was the first time anyone had ever paid attention to me, so I thought it was great, it must be a really amazing album. Then, when I tried expanding on that, see where else I could go with it… I actually think ‘Temporary Antennae’ is a far superior record. But ‘Mourner’ is the one that most accurately reflects who I was at the time. If we go back to this idea that every album is kind of a bullet-point list of what’s going on in my life, ‘Mourner’ is certainly the one that has this kind of psychic geography that’s exactly like what was happening. It’s as close to possible as ripping out the sound from my soul to the record. It’s imperfect, a lot of it is ugly, it’s got really rough edges that appeal to certain people but put off several others. As the years have gone by, and as I’ve revisited the songs that people have asked me to play live – which I had done a few times before Roadburn, never the majority of the album like I did there though –, when putting those songs together again, I found myself thinking, actually, that’s probably when I peaked. At the end of the day, me saying that it’s the most literal record I’ve done, means that it’s also the most honest. And that’s the absolute number one thing for me. Honesty, as a general concept, is the only real kind of anchor to which I lash myself, and the people around me. Being quite severely mentally ill for a long time, I’ve learned to say “fuck this, this is what’s happening,” because otherwise, it’s over. So, with that in mind… basically, I think ‘Mourner’ is the one people will remember.

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The special one.

It’s probably the most noticeable part of your legacy, yeah. Legacy is a good word, actually. Your name has, at the time of this conversation, 41 discogs entries. That’s incredible. How do you deal with that? Is it a burden sometimes, too?
A major failing that I’ve had over the course of my career is that I’ve incorporated every idea I’ve had into that one project. That’s the thing. Until I started doing Ritual Object, when Laurence [Taylor] joined Caïna and I wanted to still have something to do on my own, everything I did had that brand slapped on it. The problem is that you end up with people liking one period better over another. I don’t regret having other people in the band, though. We’ve had some great times, and some great experiences. I don’t praise myself easily, but for example the noise/industrial shows we did on a UK tour were awesome. Looking back is easy,  you know? Looking ahead is a lot harder. When I was over in L.A. with Jay last November, I played a pretty disastrous show there. I didn’t have any equipment, and it was just a shit show. But Jay was saying to me that I have this legacy, and that people are going to keep talking about it and asking me about it, but to be honest, that kind of legacy feels like a stone sometimes. That sounds really melodramatic, but it’s like that. I started out my career when the sort of atmospheric/post black metal stuff was getting off the ground, I was one of the first people to do it, at least as a kind of serious thing rather than demo projects, and the problem is that when I moved on, I don’t know if everyone else did. Who knows? That’s the thing, I’m now second guessing everything I do because there’s this huge “legacy” that I don’t want to fuck up more.

And I have actually seen that discogs page, yeah… The thing is, I’m 31, and I got proper, proper therapy this year, and I really feel centred and good for the first time in my entire adult life. I converted to Buddhism this year too, and that’s been taking a lot of my time, and that’s why I haven’t been doing so much music stuff. So, I’m “only” 31, and it feels like it’s a totally different guy who’s done all those things listed there. My life has transformed so much in the last couple of years, I’ve had my last major breakdown, then I’ve finally gotten some help that’s actually worked this year, and it’s completely transformed everything in my life. It feels that I’m looking at my little brother, now. I’m really not that dude anymore. And I kind of feel sad about that, as well. Take ‘Mourner’, for example – it was written and recorded in twenty-hour days. I was manic, and not on medication, so I would stay up for two or three days at a time. Some of the tracks on that album have 146 tracks of instruments. For just one song. Tiny little things, I’m doing this on 8-track and bouncing on to my computer. For 146 tracks, you can imagine how much waiting around, then coffee, drugs, smoking, that’s how that record was made, and every record up until ‘Hands That Pluck’. And I kind of miss that manic creative energy, as much as it wasn’t good for me.

But feeling good is… better, isn’t it?
Being happy is weird and cool, and it’s a very unusual feeling for me. I’m still in what’s called the maintenance phase of the recovery from my breakdown, and I find myself thinking, “wait a minute! I haven’t been miserably for over three weeks now! What am I missing? What are they doing that I’m not seeing?” [laughs] It’s amazing that this is happening, but it’s also kind of weird that it happens in the anniversary year of my biggest record. It’s like, “ha-ha! Your past is literally coming back to haunt you!

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Andy, being happy in 2017.

But it wasn’t that bad a visit. The Roadburn shows were great.
The last few years were just passed in a fog of… mostly just misery, honestly. It was so weird that this year, the year that I’m retiring – I planned the retirement from as early as February last year, it wasn’t a rash decision, it was decided well over a year before that this was going to be the last year as a musician –, is the year that I finally got to do Roadburn and celebrate the 10th anniversary of ‘Mourner’. I didn’t want to use Roadburn as a platform for “this is my last show!“, I’ve done that so many times now [laughs], but internally it was a very nice way to close that chapter. It was almost poetic. We couldn’t have had a better experience there, it was this golden afternoon that went on for four days. Every minute of Roadburn 2017 will remain in my memory, it was the best weekend of our whole lives.

So what’s your current position, as a musician?
I have no position. [laughs]

But can you imagine yourself never playing any music again?
I can certainly see myself getting bored in another few years, maybe. If it will be anything with the same kind of intensity or ambition that I approached Caïna? No. As many amazing experiences I’ve had, as many great people I’ve played with, as many friends as I’ve made, most of my friends really, they have come from my involvement with music… at the same time, it didn’t make me happy. It was tempting, I admit it. To just put a new band together and go “it’s 2.0 now bitches!” Of course it was. But I always believe in going forward. Never do the same thing twice. So I didn’t do it. And I will have no messianic comeback with Caïna either. Absolutely not. I’ve had my shot at doing that. You get one of those, not more, then your right for sympathy is up. But I love playing music. I love playing instruments, the whole kinetic feel of it. So the idea of never playing an instrument again, that’s out of the question. But for the moment, I’m writing a novel, like everyone else seems to do when they run out of ideas. [laughs] And that’s going well. I’m doing that full time-ish at the moment, it’s gathering pace, and hopefully I can get someone who wants to read it when it’s done.

Can you reveal a little of what it’ll be about?
The way that I pitched it to the wife: it’s Waterworld, but with mud. [laughs] It’s basically Mudworld, though that’s not the title of course. It’s a post-apocalyptic fantasy set 5.000 years into the future, where the entire face of the earth is covered with landslides and mud canyons and everything, and people have adapted to living life dredging through shit. The idea is a big, sprawling kind of fantasy world, not necessarily what people would expect from me. I know it doesn’t sound promising and that’s why I try to undersell it.

Find Caïna/ACB:
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