His first album, Pathways and Dawns (Projekt), garnered reviews which compare him favourably with Brian Eno, Depeche Mode, Syd Barrett, John Cale and Dead Can Dance. Medieval, ethnic and folk influences are lifted up beyond their roots, developed through the inclusion of electronic instruments, and skim the borders of rock, pop and gothic. Brendan Perry of Dead Can Dance arranged, recorded and produced six of the eight tracks on Pathways and Dawns.
Enter The Mysterium (City Canyons Records) is Peter's second album. It's dark and mysterious, explorative and compellingly haunting, with a rich combination of medieval, ethnic and electronic instruments. Each song comprises a story within a story, with themes culled from the context of the extensive library collection of 16th century doctor, John Dee. The track "Through Those Eyes" features both of Peter's daughters. "The Scryer and the Shewstone", which is also on the award-winning John Barleycorn Reborn album (Woven Wheat Whispers and Coldspring Records), has an up-tempo melody which complements the depth of the lyrics, while "The Witch Bottle of Suffolk" is a forbidding tale that brings to mind the witching hour and Hallowe'en.
Our interview began with an exploration of the background to Enter The Mysterium. Although some reviewers of Peter's albums have assumed that he is taking a spiritual perspective in his music, Peter had already told me that he doesn't view himself as spiritual, more as an observer and an explorer of ideas. Enter The Mysterium is a compelling multi-cultural, philosophical auditory journey through the mysteries of 16th century doctor/scientist/astronomer/astrologer John Dee's library. I asked Peter what gave him the idea for the album and the title.
PETER: OK - I'm afraid there's no short answer to that question, so here goes...
I think most reviewers tend to be aware of my past connections with Dead Can Dance, whose music certainly does possess a spiritual dimension, so when I put out an album of songs - 'Enter The Mysterium' - exploring various mysteries and beliefs, many reviewers naturally made the assumption that I was attempting to write spiritual music. But this is not the case.
I look to many different areas for sources of inspiration for songs. There were a couple of personal songs on my first solo album, 'Pathways and Dawns' - for example 'Life Amongst The Black Sheep' is about my early years of parenthood and 'The Springs of Hope' mirrors my generally optimistic outlook on life - but for the most part I find it difficult to write directly from personal experience. I dislike the blandness, cliches and superficiality of the bulk of modern lyricism. I have great admiration for songwriters like Jarvis Cocker and Guy Garvey who write wonderfully incisive, witty and emotional takes on the loves and lives of the ordinary man - I can appreciate that, but I can't do it. Similarly, I love the strange and abstract world of Thom Yorke. But, I'm too pragmatic to be comfortable writing in that kind of territory, so I have to look for areas where I do feel comfortable.
I've had pretty much a life-long interest in other cultures - the more different the life to mine, the more it fascinates me. These could be other contemporary cultures in locations far from where I live (and have lived most of my life) in the metropolis of London, or they could be historic. I've always been attracted to magazine articles, books, TV documentaries, etc on such subjects - as well as to exploring the musics of all 'alien' cultures.
Sometime in 2001, I went to a concert at the South Bank Centre in London by Joglaresa, an intriguing early music group led by Belinda Sykes who is both a musician/singer and a professor of medieval song and authority on Arabic music. The concert was of music recreated from the time of the Crusades, and the programme notes included mention of a phenomenon I had never previously heard of - 'the True Cross'. I subsequently researched this further and discovered a very colourful history surrounding the travels and ultimate fate of this wooden artefact, believed to have been the central section cut from the cross on which Jesus was crucified and which came to be a potent symbol of the conflict between Christians and Muslims in the wars over control of the Holy Lands.
I felt moved to write my own song specifically about The True Cross and musically reflecting the historic setting, and this became the first song written for my follow-up album to Pathways and Dawns. Having completed it and started to think about song number two, the idea occurred to me to write an album of songs about different mysteries and beliefs, with each subject inspiring a different musical setting. I set about researching potential song subjects and became thoroughly absorbed in the whole process.
In the summer of 2002, when I was about half way through writing the album, I was browsing in a bookshop for a couple of paperbacks to take on holiday and by chance came across 'The Queen's Conjuror' by Benjamin Woolley and instinctively bought it, mainly because I liked the cover. It turned out to be a biography of a 16th century doctor called John Dee who was simultaneously a member of the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England, by virtue of his position of physician to the Queen, whilst being widely treated as an outcast and held in deep mistrust because of his dabblings in alchemy, clandestine experiments and his obsessive pursuit of answers to the great universal mysteries through meetings with angels. As part of his quest for knowledge, Dee accumulated an extraordinary library of ancient and contemporary texts at his house in Mortlake, creating one of the finest libraries of its time outside the major religious and academic institutions.
Up to my discovery of the Dee book, I had felt slightly uncomfortable that the album I was writing was a little too disjointed and needed some kind of central thread to pull together the disparate parts. By making the album an allegorical visit to a latter-day Dee's library, where the visitor can dip at random into any tome plucked from the shelf and enter the world of some mystery or belief, I felt I had a more cohesive form.
I then wrote the album's opening song - 'At Mortlake' - to set the scene, and its second song - 'The Scryer and the Shewstone' to specifically explore an aspect of Dee's life, following which the songs appear in the order in which I felt the album best flowed musically, but always (in my mind) staying in the context of the library of discovery.
The title I then chose for the album - 'Enter The Mysterium' - came partly from a series of books which Dee wrote called the 'Liber Mysteriorum' (Books of Mysteries) and partly to convey the idea of entering an 'emporium of mysteries'.
Having completed the album and given it its context, however, I was acutely aware that I did not want to overstate the importance of the research behind the album and potentially distance the music from anyone not interested in that aspect. Thus the CD cover booklet merely reproduces the lyrics and says nothing of the context.
If people want to listen and enjoy the music as it is, or want to read and interpret the words in their own way, I am very happy about that. But for anyone who wants to read the explanation behind each song, my website at www.TheMysterium.info will reveal all.
And, as you point out in your question, it will also demonstrate that my role is one of 'observer'. I am not a spiritual person writing from spiritual experience. But I am passionately interested in my subject matters, and I hope that I therefore treat them with the sensitivity and impartiality that I strive for.
LISA: What were your early influences, and how have these impacted on your music from the days of Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil through to your solo albums?
PETER: I was a child in 60s London, so my earliest influences would have been the obvious groups and artists of the time - The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, Bob Dylan, Elvis, the great Tamla Motown era, and so on. My parents were avid radio listeners so I was also exposed to a lot of light and mainstream classical music, and my aunt Barbara was an operatic choral singer who was in many 'west end' musicals which I loved being taken to, especially when I got the opportunity to go backstage.
The first single I ever bought was 'Urban Spaceman' by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, and the first album was a hits collection by The Move. The first band I formed (age 11) was called The Vibrations (after the Beach Boys' 'Good Vibrations') and the first song I can remember writing was called 'Cuckoo Hill' which totally ripped-off Donovan's 'Jennifer'.
In the early 70s I was into Ziggy Stardust era Bowie, followed by getting heavier with a Deep Purple phase. By the age of 14 or so, I was rejecting the mainstream commercial charts music and searching for greater stimulation. I found this in progressive rock which, at that time, was the obvious home of the white, middle-class teenage wannabe intellectual. So I immersed myself in Genesis (strictly Peter Gabriel era only!), Pink Floyd (including catching up on the Syd days that I'd previously missed) and then searched out the bands that became my real favourites of the era such as Nektar, Caravan and Man so that virtually all the other kids at school didn't have a clue what I was on about.
In the late 70s I was as thrilled as most anti-bland-pop people by the emergence of punk and the transition into the highly fertile 'new wave' era that followed and gave rise to so many influential bands that I couldn't begin naming them, with the exception that I always loved Talking Heads and the creativity of David Byrne. I also got into reggae - the harder, underground political reggae - stuff like Steel Pulse, Misty in Roots, Linton Kwesi Johnson and (long before their awful pop reincarnation of later years) Aswad.
The turn of the 80s heralded the arrival of two huge influences - firstly the amazing sound of Joy Division, and secondly the release of the first WOMAD album alerting me to some of the extraordinary sounds which are now absurdly lumped together under that daftest of categorisations 'World Music'.
So it was with a mix of Joy Division on the one hand and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and The Burundi Drummers on the other floating around in my head that I first met Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard in 1982 and was invited to join Dead Can Dance which had just arrived from Australia minus a drummer.
The way these influences impacted on my joining DCD was simply that without these reference points, I would have been too far removed from Brendan and Lisa's wavelengths to have been of any use to them. However, that's as far as it went. I did not contribute to the creation of the DCD sound - I was rather a VERY lucky participant in the performance. Everything about the DCD sound was created by Brendan and Lisa, and their ideas, their passion and their creative processes would become far and away the biggest influence on my future solo works.
It's difficult to say exactly how my early influences have impacted on my solo albums, but I've had comparisons drawn in reviews with Syd Barrett/early Floyd, John Cale, Alan Parsons and Peter Gabriel. One review of my first album even called it the album The Beatles would have made had they signed to 4AD rather than Capitol, so I guess those early influences must be all wrapped up in there somewhere.
LISA: Your songs in 'Pathways and Dawns' and 'Enter the Mysterium' are very atmospheric, and the background information about each song on 'Enter the Mysterium' that you have on your website is detailed and fascinating. What motivates and inspires you?
PETER: Just simply any music that moves me. I think that's probably the same for most people who do anything creative. When you hear film-makers interviewed, it seems to me they nearly always recount childhood experiences of going to the cinema and being enthralled and deciding "I want to do that". I've always had that kind of response to music - when I hear something I love, it can often make me feel like going and writing something.
I think you also have to feel that you have something to offer, that in approaching creativity you don't just set out to imitate what has inspired you, but you are motivated because you can see a different angle, a different direction in which to take an idea and thus craft it into something of your own.
I do find myself very drawn to atmospheres in music - I like to be enveloped by the sound of a piece rather than just tickled by a pretty tune. So when I write, I am also trying to paint pictures and create moods. Before I met Brendan, I had no idea how to achieve that - and he is still the master - but from him I picked up the basics that I now use and which, hopefully, I will continue to develop.
LISA: Your first instrument was a pair of bongos that you were given at the age of 10. Did you feel at that early age that your goal was to be a musician?
PETER: No. I never had an ambition to be 'a musician'. I just wanted to be involved in music - listening, writing, playing - whatever and whenever the opportunities arose.
My first instrument was actually the piano, or at least it was the family piano that resided in the living room, but which had been bought specifically for me to practise on. It was a family tradition in both my mum's and dad's families that there was a piano in the house and the kids all took lessons. I struggled with it for a couple of years, and learned some useful basics, but never really took to it.
The bongoes were a surprise holiday gift one year from my grandparents - only a cheap pair sold to tourists in Acapulco - but the gift was really a life-changing moment for me. I absolutely loved them - everything about them - not just the sounds, but the look, the feel and the smell of them. So that really fired my interest in drums and percussion, and I got my first drum kit a few years later.
I taught myself to play drums, as well as some basic guitar, but all within the confines of the teenage bedroom. I went away to college when I was 18 and hardly played anything until after graduating. I still loved music - I was buying loads of records, going to gigs, helping out with gigs and discos at college, and so on. But I wasn't playing, and never really thought about it.
It was a couple of years after leaving college, when my girlfriend and I got our first flat in East London, that I replied to an advert in a newsagent window and joined my first band - a soul and blues band playing the pub circuit on and around the Isle of Dogs. We rehearsed a couple of times a week and played for beer.
The opportunity to join DCD came about by pure chance. As I mentioned earlier, Brendan, Lisa and original bassist Paul Erikson, came to London from Australia in 1982 in search of a record deal, but their original drummer couldn't make the trip. They ended up in a flat close to where I lived, put word out they were looking for a drummer, that word reached me and as they couldn't even afford to place a small ad in the NME at the time, they had no option but to give me the drum stool. Within six months we had a deal with 4AD, and suddenly I was 'a musician'!
LISA: The instrument list on Enter the Mysterium is an impressive collection of tribal, renaissance and modern that ranges from djembe to hammered dulcimer. Was the attraction to each instrument initially through an interest in the culture or the music of that culture, or purely the effects that you could get from the combination of sounds?
PETER: It's exactly the same as with that first pair of bongoes. I just have this massive attraction to musical instruments. It's everything about them - look, sound(s), feel, smell - only the sense of taste misses out. There is a magic about an instrument - every instrument is so full of possibilities, the starting point to a beautiful melody or a rousing rhythm. I also find it really interesting to know about the culture from which an instrument originates.
I feel a bit of a fraud with that instrument list for 'Enter The Mysterium'. I do genuinely play a lot of different instruments on the album, but mostly only very simple parts. I'm not trying to fool anyone into thinking that I'm an amazing multi-instrumentalist, because I really am not. But if you go into the studio with an armoury of different instruments, you can always find something to add a different colouration or texture, maybe just with a couple of notes. But then I think it's interesting to tell people what all those different sounds are.
In 'The Scryer and the Shewstone', there is a part which should be played on a renaissance wind instrument - probably something like a serpent or (more likely) a crumhorn. But I don't have one and don't know anyone who does, so I improvised and mimicked the part by humming into a kazoo (remember them? - like a posh version of putting a bit of tracing paper over a comb). The studio engineer added some effects to the sound and we thought we'd done a damn fine job of disguising it. The first person I played the demo to - an old compatriate from my Isle of Dogs pub band - immediately said "Blimey, I 'aven't 'eard a kazoo for years!" Can't win 'em all.
LISA: You've had some (literally) hair-raising adventures while touring, especially when you were gigging in Amsterdam in the early days of Dead Can Dance. What happened there?
PETER: Well, yes, Brendan had a literally hair-raising experience. That was our first ever gig abroad, when 4AD put us onto an 8-date tour of Holland with the Cocteau Twins in late 1983. The first date was at the Paradiso in Amsterdam and when we were called to do our soundcheck, we discovered (in glorious naivety) that nobody had realised that they have different electrical plugs in Europe. All our equipment was fitted with UK 3-pin plugs, so someone had to run out and get a load of European 2-pins which then had to be fitted in a mad rush. The soundcheck went OK, but once the show started, we were about four songs into our set when there was suddenly a huge 'bang', big flash of blue light and Brendan appeared to jump about three feet into the air. The audience thought it was some cool pyrotechnic effect and applauded, and at first Scott (then bassist) and I continued playing (having been drilled by Brendan NEVER to stop in the middle of a song) and not realising at that point what was happening. Brendan started shaking alarmingly and Lisa ran to help him. Luckily the on-stage sound engineer realised immediately that Brendan's guitar had gone live and was now stuck to his body with the full mains current surging through him and earthing into the stage. He ran over, pushed Lisa back (had she grabbed Brendan, she would have been sucked into the circuit) and managed to spectacularly kung-fu kick Brendan's guitar off him. Brendan staggered off stage, severely shaken. It was only afterwards that we discovered that the replacement plug had been wired incorrectly, resulting in Brendan nearly being killed.