Happiness Is a Worn Gum
by Steve Lamacq for NME (November 7th, 1992)
Nurse, the screams! The days of being forced to get out of it on cough medicine are well behind Irish grunge superstars-in-the-making, THERAPY? With a Top 30 single—featuring a gross-out gum shot on the sleeve—in the bag, and American ready for the taking, STEVE LAMACQ jumps aboard their tourbus and tries to convince them everything isn’t really a big, strange, dream.
Two blocks away in New York’s Greenwich Village, Creation’s Alan McGee is one of the invited guests at the star and leather-studded party which marks the launch of Madonna’s Sex.
What an astonishingly long way he’s come, eh readers? I imagine him sidling over to Madonna herself with the words: “I see, right, you and Bobby Gillespie, right, remaking Like A Virgin, totally naked with a 36-piece orchestra, right.”
Meanwhile, less than a mile away, Therapy? are happily getting as drunk as newts in a British style pub bar celebrating yours truly’s latest bastard birthday. The wine and beer flows as guitarist Andy Cairns talks openly and without embarrassment about ’77 punk bands like Eater and Sham 69 (“I wanted to do a Sham medley at Reading but the others wouldn’t let me”).
… contestants from the band and crew have to go to the bar and order a drink in the manner of a named personality. Picture guitarist Michael McKeegan jerking his way back to the table in the style of Gary Numan!
The scenes are chaotic, to say the least. The band’s guitar tech, Mole—so named because of the way he squints through his rounded spectacles—punches a continuous barrage of Ramones hits onto the jukebox, and drummer Fyfe Ewing models a beret he’s liberated from Lord knows where.
Therapy?’s latest game is ‘Whose Round Is It Anyway?’ in which contestants from the band and crew have to go to the bar and order a drink in the manner of a named personality. Picture guitarist Michael McKeegan jerking his way back to the table in the style of Gary Numan!
Little do we know that this drink will shape the course of the rest of the tour. But that comes tomorrow. For now, Therapy? are at the start of their first proper American jaunt, glad to take a break from the pressures of Britain and their debut major label release, and swap them for the promotional chores of the States.
My key word for the next three days is born here out of a conversation with the increasingly vocal and 45-degree angled Fyfe. ‘Significance’ is the order of the day. I keep coming back to the idea that everything can have some significance attached to it.
Right from indie godhead McGee’s Madonna invite to the fact that Therapy?—once a hopeless band from Belfast—are on the verge of becoming one of the three most important new bands in Britain.
They are a significant great rock hope. Not just because their popularity has grown naturally and without cartloads of bullshit, but because they’ve wheedled their way out of Northern Ireland with a snarling guitar sound that benefits from an invigorating spread of influences—from techno to rap and ambient house to reggae. The way they joke about their LP going to 207 “with an anchor”, the way they break down the myths of the American Dream and the Troubles back home… Everything about them is significant. Right down to the question mark at the end of their name, right? “Erm, well no. We’ve lied and said it is, but we’ll tell the truth for once,” says Cairns. “On the sleeve of the first record it was meant to just say Therapy, but I started the logo too far over to the left—and we only had enough money for one sheet of Letraset—I couldn’t start again so I just added a question mark to make it fit. And then we thought, well maybe we can bluff our way through when people start reading into it.”
The worst thing was that there was a poster for one of our gigs which said ‘Coming Soon: Therapy?’ And someone said he didn’t go because he thought it meant we weren’t confirmed!”
“We’ve told people, journalists in Europe, that it’s really deep,” adds Michael, “that we’re trying to ask people the question: ‘DO YOU NEED THERAPY?’ But that’s a lie. It just looked good. The worst thing was that there was a poster for one of our gigs which said ‘Coming Soon: Therapy?’ And someone said he didn’t go because he thought it meant we weren’t confirmed!”
Do you need Therapy? Of course you f——ing do! The new single is a surprise Top 40 record, and Monday sees the release of their latest album Nurse—their most well-drilled LP to date. Significantly, it’s their first album for A&M, who they signed with in the summer, and sounds not so much sterilised and clean, but better laid-out. Instead of the grunge-led holocaust of their previous two LPs, Babyteeth and Pleasure Death (still both good records), the new LP brings out more of Therapy?’s subtleties.
It’s a long way from the post-punk Big Black noise of old that first did the rounds of Ireland, which they confirm themselves the following day when, nursing Alps-sized hangovers, the threesome spill out stories of their past as we head through New York to the photo-shoot in the Bronx.
At one gig in Cork they were so skint they couldn’t afford to buy beer, and instead took the crusty way out and raided the local chemist for three bottles of cough mixture. (Fyfe: “We couldn’t finish the gig because we were hallucinating!”). At another, the resident thrash fans accused them of “being too clever” because of all the stops and starts in their fledgling hardcore sound.
It’s also ironic, I guess, that as our hired mini-bus travels through Harlem, the Belfast-bred trio should feel so intimidated by the threat of violence. At one point Andy says: “I’d rather walk down the Falls Road with a Union Jack wrapped round me than I would get out here.”
The driver of the bus, meanwhile, cheerfully informs us, as we pass the theatre where Malcolm X was assassinated, that round the corner “there’s a good hospital you can go to if you ever get shot”. We’re also buzzed by two cops in a police car who spot our New Jersey number plate and think we’ve come down here to score crack in Washington Heights.
The most noticeable aspect of Therapy? now—as opposed to a year ago—is that the anger and tension of their sound is mixed with a fresh waft of cool and poise onstage.
Back in Manhattan, after the photo, erm, shoot, the mood of the day begins to change. While doing some promotional work at the A&M offices, Cairns’ left arm becomes paralysed. A doctor is called and he’s diagnosed as having a minor case of blood poisoning, caused by drinking too heavily (a three-day stint which started on the transatlantic flight and ended in the White Horse Tavern). He has an injection of concentrated Vitimin B so he can play that night’s gig at CBGB’s, but he is put on a special diet for three weeks—with strictly no drink.
Soundman and producer Harvey Birrell is another casualty—this time with a stomach complaint, at least party brought on by overwork in the last six months. None of this, however, can spoil the gig, which sees Therapy? uncomfortably sharing a bill with former Blake Babies frontgirl Juliana Hatfield.
To a fascinated crowd, who loosen up midway through the set, they construct 40 minutes of provocative noise-pop, culled from all three LPs. The most noticeable aspect of Therapy? now—as opposed to a year ago—is that the anger and tension of their sound is mixed with a fresh waft of cool and poise onstage.
The music, instead of becoming overly contorted, has moved into more malleable areas too—confirming their own identity with tracks like Neck Freak, the rifling beat of current single Teethgrinder and the retching grunge of Nausea. They finish with Potato Junkie from the Pleasure Death album with its now immortal, gutteral refrain of “James Joyce is f——ing my sister”.
From the live show—and the lyrics—you imagine Therapy? to be obsessed with the menacing recesses of the brain that even some horror writers would baulk at. They could be serial killers, joyriders, arsonists or hitmen. But significantly, they are really pussy cats. Or at least pussy cats with attitude.
“Honestly,” says Cairns, soberly gathering up speed again, as the Therapy? tour van departs the next day for Boston, “you can’t take yourselves too seriously. A lot of people think we’re going to be these po-faced people talking about the dark realms of the psyche.” “And in reality,” adds Michael, “we’re talking about Gary Numan and skinny ties.”
There is no doubt, though that Therapy?’s chief fascination is with people and their characteristics. It’s one of the most rewarding attributes they possess—discovering and articulating the weird mutation in the human race. The single Teethgrinder was born out of a program called American Conversations, which in one episode dealt with a girl who ground her teeth down to her gums in her sleep, while Nurse also features Accelerator, the tale of a joyrider which was written after seeing a police chase in Manchester—and later recalled images from the film The Driver.
… I love vacuum cleaners for some reason. If I put on a vacuum cleaner and lie beside it, I go into a complete trance … When I was young I used to spend hours lying beside a vacuum cleaner.
Cairns and co focus on the oddities of human nature with a certain morbid curiosity. Fyfe: “It’s not exactly studying people, that sounds too calculated. At the end of the day, we’re just fascinated by people in general. People-watching is great fun. I hate the tube in London, but the one redeeming feature is staring at the faces… We all do it. And standing in lifts wondering what people are thinking and watching how they carry themselves. It’s all to do wit the way different people’s minds work. That’s what we talk about all the time.”
Andy: “Like there was this man I know in Ireland who swears this story is true. This guy used to be a skinhead and sniff glue in Green Island, which is just outside where I used to live. He was out in a field one day sniffing glue and after he’d finished he’d stumbled home. Over the next couple of months he got his life together and he met this girl and they got engaged. Then a few months later he got a job with a trucking company, moved into a new house and eventually got married. He’d been married about two months when he went to bed one night and woke up the next morning and he was back in the field and 17 again. But he swears he lived those 18 months and that they were actually real.”
Another great Therapy? story revolves around a character called Eddie Faith, who found religion at a Christian meeting one night, and the next day walked into the local police station and confessed to 24 robberies he’d committed in the previous year. Andy: “In the same series where we got Teethgrinder from, there was this American girl who snorted so much cocaine in the ’70s that now, when she breathes in deeply, it sounds like a gust of wind blowing through a haunted house in her head. I’m fascinated by these small traits. Like, I love vacuum cleaners for some reason. If I put on a vacuum cleaner and lie beside it, I go into a complete trance because the one not ringing inside the machine seems to relax me and hypnotise me. When I was young I used to spend hours lying beside a vacuum cleaner. Seriously, James Johnston from Gallon Drunk is the same. And Spaceman J tried to make a career out of it.”
Significantly, again, Therapy?’s diverse new sound shows their individual characters emerging through the previously influence-heavy sound. This is one of the reasons why they’re already far more interesting and demanding than the wave of both American and British post-Nirvana types. The mixture of sounds and ideas comes from Fyfe’s vehement defence of dance music, now moving from techno to Consolidated; Michael’s travelling CD collection, which finds Carcass nestling next to House Of Pain; and Andy’s belief in belligerent guitar sound, tempered with tunes (a throwback in part to his early teen encounters with punk and new wave).
We wanted to experiment with different sounds and all kinds of music. We could never understand why we were being compared to Nirvana—OK there’s three of us—but we’re nothing like Nirvana.”
The resulting clash of styles has resulted in a forthright, moody range of sensations certainly capable of setting your teeth on edge, if not grinding away in your sleep. At times they can be nightmarish—screaming and hollering through Side One of Nurse—and elsewhere they have the ability to make a laid-back sound without ending up horizontal like Teenage Fanclub. All this brings us—significantly—to the conclusion that the potential of Therapy? is huge and frighteningly unpredictable. Who knows where future tangents might lead them, but for now Nurse—which will surprise and confuse even their most ardent fans—is a very fine record.
Andy: “We never wanted to be the U2 it’s OK to like—like Nirvana are the Guns N’ Roses it’s OK to like. That’s why on the new album we did the ambient song and the dub reggae number. We wanted to experiment with different sounds and all kinds of music. We could never understand why we were being compared to Nirvana—OK there’s three of us—but we’re nothing like Nirvana.”
I started wondering out loud about the irony of Therapy? being in the States, when one of their new songs, Disgracelands, deals with the cracks in American culture. Fyfe: “Yeah, but it’s not that we hate America. Most of our favourite music, literature and films come from here.” Andy: “the whole song is an observation about the way everyone seems f——ed up, like the line ‘Mickey Mouse needs speed’. Mickey Mouse is the symbol of healthy American children, but underneath that there are kids—like yesterday on the TV news—who are shooting their teachers in school.”
Fyfe: “And the opening line ‘F—— Columbus, he was lost’. People embrace him as an all conquering hero, but they miss out the fact that a lot of Native Americans were butchered along the way before old Whitey took over the country. Allegedly, I read somewhere that the killing of native American Indians was the biggest genocide in world history. And this is all under the surface of America. The way it works these days is just so divorced from everything we’re familiar with back home. I mean New York never stops, but Northern Ireland never starts, let alone stops.”
Funnily enough, hailing from Belfast has actually done them some good, I believe. Despite the initial problems of having nowhere to play and no real contact with the industry, outside of listening to John Peel, the space and time to manoeuvre and mature outside of the media’s glare has given Therapy? a concrete foundation to work from. It was first spotted by Gary Walker at Wiiija Records—currently championing Huggy Bear and Cornershop and one of the ‘90s’ most underestimated talent scouts—who flew to Belfast with the last of his money to sign them in the early days.
… Andy, Mr Agreeable and Fyfe, Mr Invisible (“I was sitting in a cab with someone from the record company and they turned to Andy and said ‘Where’s your drummer?’”) …
However, Walker—and Southern Distribution’s—lack of cashflow finally left Therapy? with no option but to accept the financial massage of a major. So far so good. A&M have left them to it, stumping up the money for recording and a sampler along the way. They even seem keen on a new pop-art-piss-take EP which the band are planning in February.
In the meantime, the band themselves will be pressing up a limited edition single in December for their two Irish dates in Dublin and Belfast. The first 500 people through the door at each gig will—if they get recorded in time—receive a free seven inch featuring mutated covers of Teenage Kicks and With Or Without You. part of the idea is to encourage the audience to arrive early to see Irish supports such as the sand-storming In Dust.
And if that sounds very magnanimous, then don’t forget we’re dealing with another in the line of self-deprecating Irish bands, who have about as much fashion sense and arrogance as The Undertones. They are ‘nice’ blokes, if you like.
Michael, at a push, will admit to being the most sensible of the three; Andy, Mr Agreeable and Fyfe, Mr Invisible (“I was sitting in a cab with someone from the record company and they turned to Andy and said ‘Where’s your drummer?’”) The trouble with presenting Therapy? as such is that you can paint to damp a picture of them.
The most significant point here is that, while being ultimately sharp, quick witted and astute, there is an alarmingly modest side to them as well (maybe to be expected seeing as they’ve barely put a distance between themselves and their former life in factory jobs and college courses). The Boston gig re-emphasises all their widely engaging, amazingly LOUD qualities. Playing the same set as at CBGB’s, there’s less of a crowd reaction in terms of dancing, but they have the crowd spellbound, with Michael jerking his frame back and forth while Andy ends—first by starting Potato Junkie with the opening chords of Paranoid and Stiff Little Fingers’ Alternative Ulster and then by putting his guitar through the ceiling. Harvey has managed to drag himself from the van, still clutching his stomach, to add extra effect to the barrage—and the audience features members of Screaming Trees and Dagnasty. We put this one down as a result.
Back at the hotel, the soul-searching goes on. Much of it would be out of place here, but something Andy says is typical of their down-to-earth outlook. “I don’t like letting myself get too wound up in all this. I love making music, and I’ve always wanted to travel, but in the end I’m like the Glueman. I could wake up tomorrow, and I’d be back where I started, working in the tyre factory trying to save up the money to release a single.”
Somehow, Andy, I think you’re safe. Do we need Therapy? With a difficult and sometimes exceedingly shallow 1992 drawing to a close—I think we need them now more than ever.
- Interview with Andy and Michael (NME, 1994)
- Interview with Andy and Michael (Convulsion Magazine, 1992)
- View all interviews >