Andy Cairns of Therapy? The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview

Andy Cairns of Therapy? Interview

Feature Photo: Courtesy of Andy Cairns of Therapy?

An Interview with Andy Cairns of Therapy?

By Andrew Daly

Of all the bands to emerge from the late-80s and early-90s U.K. alternative scene, few possessed the intrepid bombast of Nothern Island act, Therapy?.

Formed in 1989, Therapy? burst upon the scene, garnering a cult following and a fierce reputation as unrelenting live performers. But the group’s live shows weren’t the only thing that Andy Cairnes (vocals/guitars), Fyfe Ewing (vocals/drums), and Michael McKeegan (bass) had going for them; they were also in possession of utterly deft songsmith, which was waiting to be unleashed upon the masses.

After releasing its debut record, Babyteeth (1991), and a heinous sophomore follow-up, Pleasure Death (1992), on Wiiija Records, Therapy? was scooped up by A&M Records at the onset of the grunge era. The label wisely left the band alone to do its work, which was good news as Cairnes and company unfurrowed two records that remain iconic to this day, Nurse (1993) and perhaps their best-known album, Troublegum (1994).

As the ’90s progressed, Therapy? continued doing what they did best, but sadly, shifting commercial tides saw to it that struggles were ahead. Infernal Love (1995) and Semi-Detached (1998) fell on def ears, who were primarily tuned-into brit-pop and other forms of jangly indie pop. Soon, Therapy? found itself abandoned by A&M, and as the ’90s shifted toward the 2000s, with no major label support in sight, Therapy? chose to push forward with a creative mindset rather than a commercial one.

Twenty-three years and nine albums later, Therapy? is still at it. A new album, Hard Cold Fire (2023), is afoot, and the early returns have shown it to be a doozy. While some things have changed (Fyfe Ewing is gone, and Neil Copper, as of 2002, is in), Cairnes and McKeegan remain, as does their chemistry.

Moreover, their will to move forward in the same unrelenting fashion that gave them early fame hasn’t left them. Nor has the utterly unique ability to craft punky yet pop-grungy, metal-laden cuts that stay with listeners for days. And by the looks of it, that’s not something that’s about to change.

And honestly, why should it? Therapy? was, is, and shall always be a band of anti-hero desperados more apart to roam the Northern Ireland countryside with a beat-up guitar on their backs than the types to beg or pray for anyone to give them approval. For Andy Cairnes and Mike McKeegan, as was the case in 1989, the only approval they need is their own and each others.

In support of Hard Cold Fire, Andy Cairnes dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to dig into Therapy? ‘s latest record, recollections of Northern Ireland’s music scene, the formation of Therapy? and more.

Therapy? is working on a new album, right? Tell us more. 

Yes. The album is recorded and ready to go. It’s called Hard Cold Fire and is hard-edged melodic empathetic propulsive music. It was produced by Chris Sheldon, who did our Troublegum album. The album deals with hope and hardship in equal measure. The name Hard Cold Fire comes from a quote by Irish poet Louis MacNeice when describing the psyche of people from the north of Ireland: “The hard cold fire of the northerner—frozen into his blood from the fire in his basalt—glares from behind the mica of the eyes.

This is the band’s first record since 2018’s Cleave. What’s the progression?

This album has a lot more melody than the previous few albums. We wrote a lot of material during COVID, some of which were too dark to release to a public in need of a positive direction. It’s got great rhythms and energy. All our albums have different qualities and reflect where we were at the time of their creation. This album verges on euphoria but under the guise of intense rock music.

Describe your songwriting process today compared to the band’s very early days.

Today, with age, life, and different lifestyles, writing is done in my writing space during the time I set aside. We also share ideas by email and Zoom, as we don’t live near each other. In the early days, songs were written very quickly and quite often at soundcheck on tour.

What are your earliest memories of music in your life?

My earliest memories of music were from the radio and television when I was a child. Sparks, David Bowie, T-Rex, and Sweet, who I loved, their single, “Blockbuster,” I had when I was seven years old. The first record I bought with my own money was “Ever Fallen In Love” by Buzzcocks. At school, I learned the trombone and played it in the school orchestra.

Growing up in Northern Ireland, what sort of scene were you exposed to in terms of rock music?

A wonderful punk scene. One of the few cultural events that was all-inclusive. Stiff Little Fingers, Undertones, Rudi, and Outcasts were all bands I loved. They were amazing punk bands with great songs.

How did Therapy? form?

I was at a charity concert to raise money for Africa and wanted to form a band. A punk cover band was playing, and the drummer stood out. That was Fyfe [Ewing]. We decided to meet once a week and write our own material. We needed a bassist, and Michael [McKeegan] was at school with Fyfe. We asked him to come to our weekly session, and he liked the songs, so he joined the band. We came up with the name quite early on.

How did the band’s name with its infamous question mark come about? Is there an origin story?

I was designing a poster with Letraset transfers for a gig and mistakenly misplaced the band name. I added a question mark to balance the look of the poster. After that, people assumed it was part of the band’s name, so we kept it.

Do you remember Therapy? ‘s first gig?

We played at the Art College in Belfast, opening for Decadence Within. It was put on by the Belfast punk collective, Warzone. We had given Warzone our demo tape looking for gig opportunities. The gig was an afternoon show for all ages. We loved the experience, as did the crowd, which was really encouraging.

How important was John Peel to Therapy? ‘s early success?

Before John Peel, local Irish DJs had played our first single, “Meat Abstract,” but his influence was huge at the time and opened up our world a lot. We began to travel outside Ireland for shows.

Early on, you pulled double duty working in a factory. How did that lifestyle manifest itself in your music at the time?

The factory job gave me money to buy guitar strings, amp valves, petrol for the band van, etc. Its shift work, unsociable hours, and monotony helped drive me to work harder with the band.

After two records, Therapy? signed with A&M Records. What sort of pressure did the band feel going into the recording of Nurse?

I’d say that Nurse and Troublegum were ok; A&M let us do as we pleased. It was Infernal Love where the problems started, as by that time, we had started selling a lot of records, and they sensed we could have the potential to make money for them.

Troublegum remains iconic. Take me through the sessions.

The sessions were apart from each other. “Screamager,” “Turn,” and “Nowhere” were written quickly and at different studio sessions. “Unbeliever,” “Femtex,” and “Isolation” were done at another session. And the rest were completed in a final session. There were two days of rehearsal in London with producer Chrys Sheldon before we went into any studio. The drums were recorded very quickly on this record. Michael got his bass lines down in a few days. Guitars were done with rhythm first, then lines/solos later. Vocals were added last. We used a 24-track recording desk, but no track uses more than 16 tracks.

Can you give me the backstory behind “Screamager?”

The riff had been around a long time, but I ended up trying to write a song in the style of my punk heroes from back in Northern Ireland. The riff at the start was inspired by the New York band Helmet. “Screamager” is the place where Metallica meets the Undertones. The lyrics were how I felt growing up. Always outside looking in and seeking solace in cheap, easy excitement to numb despair.

In the face of grunge, Therapy? moved in a more punk direction. What went into that bold choice?

It wasn’t a choice. It’s just how we were and still are. Open-minded musically and unwilling to be placed in any genre.

Infernal Love wasn’t as well received but, in my opinion, may well be the band’s best record. How big of an effect did David Holmes have on that record?

In fairness, we only gave David the album after it was recorded and asked him for ambient links. He had no influence on the tracks themselves but plenty on the atmosphere of the final album, as his contribution gives the whole experience a unique tone.

Then why do you feel it wasn’t as well received?

The guitars weren’t heavy enough; it didn’t sound like Troublegum, and the ironic photo shoot was misunderstood.

Do you feel A&M gave Therapy? the proper support to commercially succeed before dropping the band?

After Infernal Love didn’t take the band to stadiums and Britpop was everywhere, the label started to lose interest. We were seen as being yesterday’s news. Unless we’d become the next Metallica, it was always inevitable that this would happen. We were ready for it.

In the years since, you’ve forged on, always experimenting. What album or albums in the post-2000 era are most meaningful to you, and why?

Crooked Timber is a favorite of mine as I loved being able to add all the influences of my listening habits. Mingus, Burial, Neu, Stravinsky —some time signatures in “Bad Rxcuse for Daylight”— and Samuel Beckett.

Why has Therapy? seemingly refused to settle one particular sound? Do you feel you’re something of a musical wanderer in that way?

Yes. As a band, we listen to a broad range of music and pick up influences from everywhere. I can think of nothing worse than being stuck in an era or genre.

After 34 years as a band, what does Therapy? owe its longevity?

Simple. The music has always come first. We love playing music and adore live shows. Fame, money, and adulation are all something that doesn’t hold any weight to us.

The new Therapy? album will be released on May 5, 2023.

Andy Cairns of Therapy? The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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