Therapy frontman Andy Cairns on the highs and lows of the band's time at the top
The Co Antrim band are preparing to play their landmark 1994 album Troublegum live once again
Twenty-five years ago, three disillusioned, disaffected young men from Ballyclare and Larne formed a band and started a ripple that before long would become a tidal wave. For a time during the mid-1990s, Therapy? were feted as the next Nirvana, rubbing shoulders with Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers at festivals and in TV studios all over the world as their album Troublegum gatecrashed the top five of the UK album charts.
More than two decades on, they are still here, gearing up for the release of their 14th studio album and the latest recipients of the Oh Yeah Music Centre’s Legends Award, following in the footsteps of their Northern Irish heroes The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers, among others. “We are all thrilled to bits,” says frontman Andy Cairns, a proud Ballyclare man, now long resident in Cambridge (though bassist Michael McKeegan still lives in Belfast).
“It means more to me than if it was from anywhere else,” says Cairns. “I can honestly say, and I think Michael would agree with me, that this place is what shaped us and what made us the characters that we are. Psychologically and geographically, it’s responsible for the whole ethos behind Therapy? starting in the first place.”
East Antrim in the late Eighties was not an inspiring place. Aside from the obvious issue of the Troubles, which Cairns neglects to mention (Therapy? have always been more concerned with the personal than the political anyway), there was precious little support structure for kids aspiring to be the next Stiff Little Fingers, and few contemporary role models. The drabness of their surroundings, perversely, acted as a catalyst.
“There was nothing going on in Northern Ireland,” Cairns recalls, “the music business was very quiet. We were very much into the Ulster punk scene, and the Warzone scene — the anarchist centre and the bands from there — but there was nothing to do, no gigs. There was the Limelight, Giro’s and the Warzone Centre and nowhere else to play unless you were fortunate enough to get on the bill at the Ulster Hall or the Mandela Hall, opening for somebody from overseas. But that made us really determined; that made us try so hard.”
Try hard they did, though they got their share of breaks too. In 1990, John Peel played their very first single on his radio show and the band sold out the Art College in Belfast before they had even released anything else. They signed a major label record deal two years later and then, in 1994, there was Troublegum. Containing hit singles Screamager and Nowhere, it remains the band’s most successful and best loved album.
“We’ve basically got our career to thank that album for,” says Cairns. “Before that, we had a cult following around Europe, and that’s the one that broke us over — albeit for a couple of years — into the mainstream. That meant that we’re able to do what we do now.”
Next weekend, the band will revisit the album in full as part of the Northern Ireland Music Prize ceremony at the Mandela Hall in Belfast, when they will also accept their Legends Award. “We wanted to do a whole set as if it was what you would have seen if you went to see Therapy? in ‘94,” says Cairns. “So it’s got all the B-sides and tracks that were only played around the time of the Troublegum tour. A lot of those tracks, we hadn’t played in 20 years, so we sat down and rehearsed and worked them all out.”
Therapy? are still sometimes pegged as a metal band, but key to the success of Troublegum was how accessible it was. The band was undoubtedly helped by the huge success at the time of Nirvana and their ilk, and by adding plenty of pop hooks to their anguished lyrics and buzzsaw riffs, they were able to take the UK rock scene by storm.
“For someone who doesn’t really like rock music there’s tunes on it that maybe remind them of stuff they liked when they were kids, like The Clash, Buzzcocks and Stiff Little Fingers,” says Cairns. “And for the younger, more aggressive kids it’s got songs like Knives and Femtex which remind them of Metallica and Pantera.”
But did Cairns and the band have any idea that the album would be a huge breakthrough success? “Absolutely none whatsoever,” says Cairns. “We were very pleased with it when it was finished, and then when critics started hearing it and people started playing it on the radio it began to really snowball. It completely took us by surprise.”
What followed was a whirlwind 18-month period of endless gigs, festivals, TV appearances, and press engagements that took its toll on the band and ultimately led to the departure of drummer Fyfe Ewing in January 1996.
“In 1994 and the first half of 1995 we did four American tours, three European tours and about six UK tours,” says Cairns. “We were always on tour. At the end of that period in time, it completely crippled us. We were all exhausted. But we felt so grateful. I think it was the Northern Irish thing in us — we thought ‘My God, we’ve moaned for years about never getting gigs and here we are playing 280 gigs a year. We cannot moan about this!’.
“People said to us, ‘It must be amazing getting gold discs, being on Top Of The Pops, being on the cover of the NME’. To be honest, with hindsight, we never thought about it. When the album went into the top 10, we were in America touring with Helmet and we got a phone call but the most important thing in our minds was getting to the next gig that night. It was a mixture of exhaustion and probably partying too hard. All of us were drinking too much and by the time we got to the end of the Troublegum tour, all of us were just exhausted.”
Cairns admits that the next album, Infernal Love, was a deliberate attempt by the band to extricate themselves from the mainstream and arguably it worked too well, as it was panned by critics more interested in the Gallagher brothers’ latest escapades. Britpop was in, bad vibes rock was out.
“In a way it was good for us, because it meant that we did draw a line from where I thought we were heading,” says Cairns. “Some people think it was a bit of a misstep but I suppose I’m always proud that at the height of Britpop’s retro stylings and really awful pub-rock, we made this record that begins with a song in 5/4 and with a free jazz workout in the middle.”
Undeterred, Therapy? carried on recording and touring, through highs and lows, some albums by Cairns’s own admission better than others. But lately they have been on top form, their worldwide cult following remains strong, and above all they are sustained by their still-burning passion for what they do.
“(Michael and I) are exactly the same, we’re mad about music,” says Cairns.
“Both of us are very open-minded musically, and so was Fyfe and so is Neil Cooper, the current drummer.”
That passion has now been passed down from Cairns to his 15-year-old son Jonah. So would he be happy for Cairns Jr to follow dad into the business? “I think it’s healthy that kids rebel against their parents, and until about six months ago I thought he was more interested in swimming and computers,” Cairns laughs. “Now that he’s right in the full throes of teenagehood, he’s got into hip-hop and soundtrack music. I caught him the other day on his laptop, he’d downloaded some software and he’s making some beats. Apparently a crowd of them at school are all really into it. So you never know.
“Whatever makes him happy, really. I suppose part of me is thinking that I don’t want to stick my nose in.
“I want him to find his own sound if he does get into music, but if he doesn’t I’m equally happy for him.”
And as for Cairns Sr, there are no plans to slow down just yet. Not as long as Therapy?, the band that defines his life, is still around.
“I’ve always been really besotted with the band,” he says. “You asked earlier if it felt like 20 years (since Troublegum came out) and it doesn’t, I think because we’ve never broken up and got back together — it’s always been there. I’d be a liar if I said it had been a comfort because sometimes it’s been a pain in the a**, just trying to get stuff done. Back in the early 2000s when some of the sales had gone really bad, you felt as if you were Sisyphus constantly pushing this rock up the hill. But then other times, you think, ‘This is fantastic’. It’s always been there for us and we always appreciate it.”
- Therapy? will be performing at the Mandela Hall, Belfast, on Saturday, November 15, as part of this year’s Sound of Belfast week, which kicks off today. For details, visit www.soundofbelfast.com
Tied to the Nineties...
Therapy? were just one of several Northern Irish exports to make their mark in the 1990s. Others include:
- Ash — famously, the Downpatrick teenagers signed to Infectious Records during their school holidays, aged just 17. With boyish good looks and an arsenal of pop-punk hits, they usurped Therapy? and rode Britpop’s coat-tails to chart success.
- The original trio is still together and frontman Tim Wheeler is releasing his first solo album
- The Divine Comedy — arched of eyebrow and sharp of suit, bishop’s son Neil Hannon was always an unlikely pop star but he too was co-opted by Britpop, and had hits in the ‘90s with National Express and Generation Sex. Their 10th album — a top 20 success — was released in 2010, while Hannon also moonlights in The Duckworth Lewis Method and as a writer of opera
- D:Ream — Londonderry man Peter Cunnah’s group will always be remembered for their huge hit Things Can Only Get Better — and its role in Labour’s 1997 General Election win. They had two successful albums in the ‘90s (and included a certain Brian Cox PhD on keyboards), and are back in action, having released a third album in 2011
- Joyrider — the Portadown power-pop band were initially signed to Andy Cairns’ Blunt record label, and released a string of singles and EPs leading up to their big chart hit in 1996, a cover of Jane Wiedlin’s Rush Hour. That was about as good as it got, however, and they disbanded not long after. Bassist Simon Haddock now plays in Trucker Diablo