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Brendan Perry: Cultural Explorer

Brendan Perry: Cultural Explorer

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Personally I would like to see music take on a more Realpolitik tone in the form of critically informed protest and awareness. We need to challenge governments and corporations in order to live in a world that is not dictated to us through controlling interests and mechanisms that continually see us simply as consumers. More protest songs please.
—Brendan Perry
Best known for his work with the iconic duo Dead Can Dance that he fronts with vocalist Lisa Gerrard, composer, guitarist, and producer Brendan Perry has always followed his muse, defied expectations and taken chances. As a result, his diverse output serves as a testament to his ever-expanding horizons. A rare and intriguing anomaly in today's music, this musical polymath has excelled in every area of music he has worked on. Many artists adept in one creative area in music wander toward other artistic pursuits as casual interlopers for pleasure, but not Perry. For the past 40 years, either with DCD or solo, he has explored various genres, geographies, classical and ambient music, and various folk music traditions which he has incorporated into his own music. DCD is a group that largely defined its own musical terms, achieving great success despite a career marked by an uncompromising musical vision. His music, either as part of DCD or solo, has been a music of connection as it has filtered different art forms and experiences.

When the pandemic scrapped the initially planned second leg of DCD's 40th-anniversary celebration tour in 2020 and 2021, Brendan Perry released a solo album Songs of Disenchantment (Music from the Greek Underground) (Holy Tongue Records, 2020) consisting of reworked old Rebetiko songs which he sang in English. Rebetiko music is the music that Greek refugees brought from Turkey during the 1920s and was considered the music of the poor, the broken, the disaffected, and the exiled. Often called Greek blues, the song's stories tell of love, loss, drugs, and refugee tales and is associated with the manga (outcasts and bohemians). The music on this record and other records by DCD such as Dionysus (PIAS, 2018) or Into the Labyrinth (4AD, 1993) reflect Perry's love of Greek and Balkan musical culture and legacy. We spoke about the ideas behind his new project and DCD's multicultural and multifaceted nature.

All About Jazz: The songs on Songs of Disenchantment are based on old Rebetiko songs only sung in English. What was it about these songs from one turbulent and colorful era in Greece (and its diaspora) that inspired you to record them for another turbulent era? What sort of stories do you feel they are telling now?

Brendan Perry: Well apart from the fact that these songs are incredibly beautiful they can only really be fully appreciated by people who have had similar experiences in life. This is true of all music that shares experience through song. I am sure that anyone who is marginalized by society because of their race, creed and profession and who challenges that authority will find a story that relates to them in Rebetiko today.

AAJ: What was your initial exposure to Rebetiko music and its background?

BP: In Melbourne, Australia in the late seventies. There is a very large Greek community living there and I would sometimes hear this music played in Greek tavernas and restaurants. I had no idea it was Rebetiko at the time. It was a decade later in London after hearing Roza Eskenazi and Rita Abadzi that I was able to categorically place this music in a specific genre and historical time frame.

AAJ: Did you conduct research on this music's background and its era associated with the manga (bohemians and outcasts)?

BP: Oh yes, as a matter of course, in fact. I spent months reading, researching and listening to Rebetiko as well as practicing the bouzouki before even deciding which songs I was going to cover. It's the same for any musical tradition that is adapted to my style of music making. The research is necessary in order to bring a degree of authenticity to the process.

AAJ: The album was published in the midst of a global health crisis. How has the pandemic affected you personally and artistically?

BP: Fortunately, I am still able to write and record music but sadly unable to perform in public which is my main source of income. Artistically it has been a time for reflection on what really matters in life.. it has been a wakeup call on so many levels and has particularly exposed the shortcomings of governments and global co-operation. Our world is strongly based upon competition at every level so when it came time for co-operation in order to defeat this virus we were woefully unprepared and ill equipped.

AAJ: We live in challenging times and the world is truly in a dark state. What is your view on the value of music and arts during these challenging times we live in?

BP: Well, I suppose the main value of music at the moment for most people is to help them escape from this very sterile and nullifying reality. There seems to be a strong attraction to music that fulfils a nostalgic yearning for better times and to cherish that memory in order to give hope for future times. Personally I would like to see music take on a more Realpolitik tone in the form of critically informed protest and awareness. We need to challenge governments and corporations in order to live in a world that is not dictated to us through controlling interests and mechanisms that continually see us simply as consumers. More protest songs please.

AAJ: Songs of Disenchantment is not the first in your oeuvre to be inspired by Greek music and culture. The previous album by Dead Can Dance was also inspired by the myth of Dionysus and the idea of creative renewal and rejuvenation. What was it about the myth of Dionysus in the modern era that compelled you to explore it so deeply in your music with DCD?

BP: Because the vast majority of people have become alienated from the natural world and have lost their connection with the earth. It's a hymn to nature as well as being a universal celebration of Dionysian practices still performed throughout the world today.

AAJ: All throughout its history, Dead Can Dance has really showcased an incredible diversity and a wide-ranging approach to music making. Where do you locate the genesis of Dead Can Dance's interest in mixing world cultures with modern sounds and sensibilities, resulting in such an incredible diversity of its musical output?

BP: Well, it most likely comes from being an immigrant, constantly moving from one place to another. I have always been curious about other cultures and after having travelled the world a great deal, have come to the realization that despite our cultural, linguistic and religious differences we have the same universal hopes and aspirations. DCD has always been a celebration of the universal as opposed to what divides us.

AAJ: How deeply do you personally explore the musics from various cultures, be it Greek, Macedonian or from elsewhere in order to make them all work together within DCD's realm of ideas?

BP: It's a form of symbiosis. I absorb and assimilate the culture through reading, listening, watching etc. until it suffuses my unconsciousness and then after this period of creative gestation begin to perform and write music. What occurs then is a kind of syncretism that unfolds quite naturally and is both felt and thought.

AAJ: A lot of people ascribe a spiritual presence in your music. What's your perspective on your music's relationship to the spirit?

BP: The spirit of life, the rhythms of life. it's all the same to me really.

AAJ: Lisa Gerrard is someone you have worked with for a long time. What makes her special as a vocalist and creative presence for you? How has the chemistry you both share evolved over the years?

BP: Well she is very spontaneous and unpredictable. Very brave in that respect, to be able to trust one's ability to improvise in the moment in deference to continual practice and rehearsal. It does not always work in practice but when it does she creates something truly unique and ethereal. She is a very free spirit in that respect. The chemistry has changed over the years simply because she does not contribute as much to the albums as I would have liked. When she sits down and focuses on performing with an accompanying instrument and spends time on constructing an arrangement for her song it can be wonderful, but I think she spends too much of her time guesting as a vocalist for other people's work and touring constantly.

AAJ: During 2019 the band went on a world tour to celebrate its 40th anniversary. What are some of the reasons that the band's music has endured so long? Why are people so hungry to keep hearing this material?

BP: Because we produce a very unique form of music that celebrates universality. A music that has depth and is heartfelt, that has soul. A music that can be experienced by both the head and the heart.

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