Interview with Vincent Cavanagh from Anathema about the album, The Optimist


Rockmuzine spoke to Vincent Cavanagh from Anathema about the album, ‘The Optimist, released on June 9, 2017 through Kscope.

So, first things first, have you finally decided to clarify the pronunciation of the band’s’ name?
Yes, we’ve put our stake into the ground on how we’re gonna pronounce the name, finally. It’s Anathe’ma, and it’s a good way to make a distinction from the older version of the name (Ana’thema), and all the connotations behind it, from that kind of negativity attached to a modern definition of it, the Christian one. It had nothing to do with that and we don’t want it to. So breaking it into two words, ‘Ana’ and ‘thema’, makes you look into the original etymology of both words. ‘Ana’ means something raised up, ‘thema’ is, of course, a story, a theme and looking at it this way is way more interesting. So, fuck that, it’s still the same band, still the same name, but presented in a new way, that makes more sense to the band now. It was an endless debate within the band too, should we change the name, should we not, so we worked it out.

Since the announcement was made, you kept using the hashtag #whoistheoptimist. So, in your own words, who is he/she?
It’s still open to interpretation, it depends on your perspective. For us, as a band, it’s a surrogate of all of us, but it’s also something other people can relate to. As you know, what we write is very honest and autobiographical and universal themes, on human conditions, mental health, life, love and everything in between. So, the idea to put in a surrogate is advantageous, it gives us one visual way we can represent all of that without going too deep about ourselves, about reasons we wrote music and lyrics in the past, about extremely personal situations, that directly involves people in our immediate lives. We certainly don’t want to talk about it too much. How do you represent that visually? You put it into something universal, called the optimist, who is the best possible way to tell everyone the truth, everything he goes through is true, it’s all real, it’s all happened, and it’s visual and represents all that a person goes through, it represents human understanding of mental health. It also feels like a continuation to me, just because of the use of an artwork from a previous album, it’s not a new thing, it’s like ‘the optimist’ has always been there. He’s the guy on a boat on the artwork of ‘A Natural Disaster’, he’s the on a beach in ‘We’re Here Because We’re Here’. And on this album, there are lots of links in the lyrics and clips, that tie all records together. And we’ve done it before, on ‘We’re Here Because We’re Here’, where the artwork was linked to where we all come from and our relationships to each other. So we are one of those bands, that likes to acknowledge the history and the connections between all of the works. And using ‘the optimist’ as a third person is a really-really cool way of doing it now. It’s something we could continue with, but a bit differently. It won’t be a story about the same person, no, this is the closing of a certain chapter. What we might do is choose to still have that kind of representation, but sort of differently. I’ve got an idea about that and the title for an album.

So, is this the end for ‘the optimist’?
No, what happens is he ends up in a conclusion which is not the one he had set out, he ends up with only one option left and that’s not the option he had set out to do. He finds himself in a different place, but it was the right place for him all along, he just didn’t know it.

Why did you decide to tell his story now, after 16 years? Was there some trigger to it?
First of all, just the title of the album. We knew that’s gonna be the album title, we’ve been running with it for few months, getting songs together. I’ve been away for a few weeks, came back to work in the studio with John (Douglas) and one day Danny dropped by with this idea. He had a track listing and a story behind it, he asked us to first listen to track list and than a story. And only then give him our thoughts. So we listened through everything and we fucking loved it, it was great. And the link to ‘A Fine Day To Exit’, we’ve never told the story, he faked his own death, but what happened to him? He’s ‘the optimist’, he just gets back in a car and starts driving. From there we just run with everything and it fits together. The only thing we’ve changed is the track listing, we’ve removed two songs(‘GotYou To’ and ‘Bricks’), they just fell out of place, and then added two new tracks. What we were trying to do is to have an album to which you listen from the start to the end, and we did. And those two are not the only ones, there’s a whole song we recorded with drums and guitars, that was put into car stereo sound on the first track. That’s the actual song. But we had a visual, so we knew how it should be. We were shuffling pieces around, like a jigsaw, until the last moment. And it was one of those moments when you ask yourself is it done, did we forget something and then listen to it, and it’s fucking done, it sounds finished!

So Danny came up with a narrative for the album?
It was not a written narrative, but more like a visual thing. If you listen to the album, it feels more like a soundtrack to a movie. And if you take the 40-page artbook from the album bundle, that was done by Travis Smith (the artist behind ‘A Fine Day To Exit’ artwork), if you listen to the record, while actually looking through this book, it takes you on the actual literal journey. So all of the audio bits and clips we’re making now, all the artwork and videos we’re making, it’s all in that one location, that area of United States (West Coast).

Can you remember why exactly was that location chosen back in 2001, for the artwork of ‘A Fine Day To Exit’?
We always liked the idea, that this dark thing is happening in some sunny states. It’s a contrast when everything should be fine, but it’s not. If you look at the artwork of ‘A Fine Day To Exit’, it’s pretty obvious the person has gone through a huge breakdown, a mental breakdown and a breakdown of relationships, his whole life has gone “tits up”, as we say in the UK. It has led him to be forced into making a decision, most drastic of all, he’s faking his death and leaving his family and everything behind. So at the beginning of the new record, the track name is the coordinates for the exact same place where he was last seen on ‘A Fine Day To Exit’ artwork, that’s the coordinates for a beach. So from there on, the guy gets out of the water, you hear him breathing, he picks up his clothes, gets in a car, puts on the radio, starts hallucinating and hearing pieces of songs from previous albums. It’s his own life passing before his eyes, he goes through this whole experience. He thinks if he drives far enough and long enough, he will be able to outrun this impending psychological apocalypse, that will come and bring his whole world crashing down, but he can’t and he knows it. Eventually, he has to stop, because he does crash, he pulls over and goes into a motel, goes to sleep and (in a dream) someone from his past comes back, telling him “it’s OK, go back to sleep” and by that point, he knows he’s fucked. Everything starts to catch fire, his whole mind and his world are on fire. And at that moment he’s left with one choice only, the only choice he had from the start, and that’s to go back to where it all began.

Now, if you had to put coordinates on ‘Back To The Start’ track, where could that be?
VC: Well, at that point, we’re beyond coordinates, it’s all about a decision, more than anything. It can be the location where he is at that moment, it’s just knowing he’s got only one choice and one place to go.

So, at the end of that song, there’s a very positive recording of John (Douglas) and his daughter?
Yeah, that’s your optimist, if you want. He’s trying to write the song he just heard, but his daughter wants some orange juice, and his bird wants some seeds. And it’s a positive song, it was done totally on purpose. It’s a euphoric end of an album, aided by the recording of 1000 Argentinian backing singers.

Oh yeah, I remember there was a video on YouTube, where the crowd in Argentina was singing along. Is that the piece?
Oh, that song is gonna be on a next album. But, to answer your question, it’s yes and no. Yes, we sampled that crowd for this album. But no, the song Danny was playing on a piano, it isn’t on the record.

In a press release, the album is being described as “darkest, most challenging”. But the band has its history, albums like ‘Eternity’, some personal stuff that happened at some moment. Do you think it’s fair to call it like that?
I think it’s probably the darkest material we have released on Kscope label, for sure. Maybe they don’t own ‘Alternative 4’ album, maybe they haven’t heard it. It possibly is, it just depends on a perspective. I still think there’s some sort of euphoric feeling associated with dark music. At least I personally get it, while listening to Radiohead or Max Richter, for example. It’s not how I would describe this album, it’s possible, but I wouldn’t say it deliberately or as a ploy. What I would say is that this album appears to be the most complete work we’ve done so far, the most finished. Especially when you will see the artwork and come see the live show, you’ll see we haven’t done it before.

Back in November you mentioned the desire to work on band’s live show yourself. Is there anything set already for that?
We’re planning it right now and will go with it on a tour in October. The idea is to play the whole album, then come back and play other stuff. It’s gonna be a mix of performance, stage visuals, lights and all. It’s gonna be really-really good. I can’t wait for it, I can’t wait to be in that position when we’re playing a whole album.

It’s definitely a bonus for fans since you can listen to the whole album live, uninterrupted.
Exactly. It’s possibly the best way of even listening to the record. You get to see the band really doing it. And especially if there’s a visual aspect to it, you can immerse yourself in it, forget your surroundings and absorb everything. It ends, you breathe out and then we come back and play favorites? It’s perfect.
We’re looking forward to that. Thanks, Vincent!