“I’m not expecting people to like this record that much, honestly,” Andrew Curtis-Brignell tells us when discussing his latest record under the Caïna moniker. He is, of course, wrong. The record is a thrilling bout of chaotic and frightening metallic noise, and anyone who craves that unsettling feeling that comes with terrifying music is bound to adore it. But regardless, this statement is testament to a DIY creator who creates music for himself first and foremost, and whilst you’d think that may mean that the quality of the content is thus inconsistent, in truth this expressive bent elevates the material.
Gentle Illness is the latest offering from Caïna, and as fans of the project have come to expect, it’s unpredictable in its experimentation and cathartic in its tackling of issues that affect Curtis-Brignell personally. It ranges from black metal and noise to jazz and dub in a haphazard manner that its creator tells us is a natural reflection of his symptoms rather than a measured reaction to them. As such, this is a record that’s uniquely human within a genre where so many aim to appear larger-than-life. It conveys the alienation and despondence that can come with being trapped inside your own mind, but there’s also an apocalyptic feel to the album, one that feels apt in modern Britain. The album’s lyrics touch heavily on the UK’s lack of mental health provision and the metaphysics of suicide, but also explore otherwordly themes such as extraterrestrial psychics and demonic possession.
In both sound and concept it is a fascinating release, so we got in touch with the man himself to discuss the record, his musical career so far and much more.
As someone who consciously moves forward with your music and who is careful not to repeat themselves, what is your relationship like with your back catalogue? Do your past releases have a role in documenting your personal journey and how easy is it to listen back to them?
[2013’s] Litanies Of Abjection (which contains my suicide note over the course of three of its songs – an attempt my then-girlfriend now-wife saved me from) and [2007’s] Mourner, which is just another example of a horrible time in my life that was intrinsically connected to the making of the record, are both extremely difficult for me to listen back to. I’m quite intensely self-critical but I have learned in the last third of my career to enjoy listening to my own work again. I like [2011’s] Hands That Pluck, [2015’s] Setter Of Unseen Snares and [2016’s] Christ Clad In White Phosphorus a lot, mostly because they were all, in some way, collaborative efforts that broadened my horizons in a few different ways.
If the cliché of a one-man black metal act is an artist living a hermit-like existence in a log cabin, how does that compare to your own situation? Is autonomy a necessary part of your creative process?
I’d say it was pretty accurate, honestly, but due more to my mental illnesses than my 20 year love of tremolo-based sketchy panda rock. I think autonomy is one of the only things necessary for me to create. I work okay with others, but it has to be within a framework of total trust, which is something I find increasingly difficult. When it goes right, such as Laurence Taylor’s [Cold Fell, Natural Orthodoxy] time in the band, it can be incredible. We’re still great friends and he sung for Caïna again on my birthday this year. When it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and it doesn’t work a lot.
As an artist whose work is intensely personal and rooted in a very singular view of existence, do you have listeners in mind when writing for Caïna, or is how your music will be received a secondary question compared to realising your own vision?
Honestly, almost none. I make music exclusively for self-expression and the second releasing it or performing live ceases to satisfy a part of that urge then my public life will immediately cease again as it has a couple of times in my fifteen-year career of making music semi full-time.
You’re very open about your struggles with your mental health and, as someone who’s neurodivergent myself, it’s quite a humanising process to see artists speak about these issues in an everyday sense, as well as an artistic one. With that in mind, what role does taking time out from music play for you, in terms of self-care and managing your own and other people’s expectations of what a working band should be like?
The making of music, sadly, takes up very little of my actual time vs the logistics of music as I no longer have a booker, PR team or a manager. So between being a parent, other commitments and my health, music itself is a refuge. It’s the business and logistics of music which make it increasingly unlikely for me to return to doing a full tour – the rest of my life is difficult enough without artificially increasing that difficulty to mostly play to empty rooms. I may have released albums and demos at the same time and with the same people as Alcest, Fen etc. but I’m not them. My audience is very small, and it probably deserves to be. I’m a remarkably self-indulgent performer in every aspect and it probably takes a lot simply not to want to punch me let alone listen to me. Hence the constant heckling, I guess.
Reading your lyrics, there is a combination of introspection, alienation, myth and physicality that seems to fit with modernists like T.S Eilliott, Virginia Wolff, Sylvia Plath etc. Does literature form part of your lyrical influences and are there any themes or imagery that are particular to Gentle Illness compared to previous releases?
Literature is central to the way I see the world and absolutely at the centre of the way I construct narrative both musically and lyrically – I think very memetically and constantly refer mentally to books, films, music when I’m going about my day. I don’t know what else to think about to be honest. I wouldn’t dare to personally compare myself to them but all three of the writers you mentioned are hugely influential to me, as well as some other important (but really kind of random – I’m actually not the most well read even if I adore reading) figures such as E.E. Cummings, Rimbaud, Borges, Shirley Jackson, the Lovecraft circle, as well as a lot of late 19th century/early 20th century ghost stories. M.R. James in particular has a knack for a phrase that feels like it has meaning even in total isolation, which is a quality I have in my writing. However with all that said, whilst I don’t bother much with connective phrasing it’s less of a deliberate super modernist touch on my part and more the fact that I feel lyrics should fit the music percussively rather than really needing to make much narrative sense. Which I guess is a bit contrary given my predilection for narrative in music but I think the two concepts don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Mental health provision is one of the themes touched on in Gentle Illness. Given that effective healthcare is an important factor in keeping mentally ill people alive, does the withdrawal of services feel like a deliberate attack on neurodivergent people and if so, how does that reflect on the politics and stigma around mental health in the UK?
I believe that, in the words of Killing Joke, the great cull has begun. Authoritarian regimes routinely purge the neurodivergent along with their earliest enemies – ours has simply decided to deal with us in the same way as they have the homelessness problem. Withdraw services. Punish related infractions harshly. Increase difficulty to access remaining services. Withdraw more services. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Neurotypicals pay lip service to the idea that it’s okay to be mentally ill now. It’s okay. You can talk about it. Just talk about it, it’ll be so much better. We’ll share a World Mental Health Day meme.
Go look at the comments on any news article about a mental health related crime. Fuck, about the withdrawal of mental health provision – if it’s covered at all. They despise us. They truly, truly despise us and we are in a culture was to remain represented. That’s why I will scream my symptoms into a microphone, why I’ll answer any question about it as long as I can, why I will champion the work of fellow neurodiverse artists, and it’s why I won’t shut up when it’s politically convenient for a fair-weather friend to cosy up to fascists.
As someone who went on record to call out the sexism in heavy metal and its fandom in 2015, do you feel like things have moved forward at all, in terms of how a fairly male-dominated scene views and treats women?
I feel like it’s first important to note that both the original piece’s author and I were harassed and threatened for months following the incident – this was not something the community accepted with anything like the grace it may pretend to in 2019. It’s difficult to say, honestly. I think due lip service has been paid by the boys in charge. I think the women, femmes, POC and marginalised groups we were discussing at the time themselves have been doing incredible work in the intervening period but I do not believe that this necessarily represents a seismic shift in the largely male, largely white world of metal as a whole. Not yet. Not when you consider the amount of sexual and sexist violence both textually and in reality, the sheer overwhelming amount of acceptable shit that still slides. Tim Lambesis has been signed to a new record deal. Young And In The Way have come back under a new guise. People continue to support the work of the murderers and rapists of women largely en masse. Until it is the exception, the absolute exception, then I don’t believe that progress has been made beyond those communities learning to work together and stand up for themselves, which is happening.
If it’s not too reductive to talk about your music in terms of Englishness, there seems to be a thread of identifiably English influences running through it, from Joy Division to Killing Joke, to The Cure and Godflesh. Does that canon of post-punk and industrial artists hold a special place for you, or is it more a case of coincidence and geography that they come to mind?
With specific reference to the bands you mentioned, The Cure and Killing Joke are hugely influential for me (Joy Division and Godflesh not so much, but Jesu are one of my favourite bands and the shows we played in ’08/’09 were crucial in helping me raise my profile) – both have the magic combination of the pastorally mythopoetic, the intensely melancholic and the decayingly urban which I have always felt is at the core of my own music. I used to feel that my work was intensely English in this way, particularly the albums Mourner and [2008’s] Temporary Antennae; however that word has been so corrupted, so hijacked and twisted by bad faith xenophobic “patriots” and grandly manipulative, capital obsessed slum masters that the concept now makes me shudder. If I feel in any way English now, it is as a buzzing, burrowing fly on England’s stinking corpse.
What role does a sense of place have in your music, particularly with being located in the post-industrial North-West and working within a stereotypically Scandinavian and pastoral genre?
I’ve always been majorly influenced by the psychogeography of wherever the music I make is written and recorded. I think you can hear Brighton in those early albums – you can literally hear the sea in Mourner, and a lot of the acoustic guitar for Temporary Antennae was recorded outside, in nature. Christ Clad In White Phosphorus, on the other hand, was directly influenced by my hermit-like existence in an apartment block in the middle of an area being aggressively gentrified. By that I mean we have had residential construction going on continuously within direct earshot of us for over four years. A constant clamour of rhythmic and arrhythmic noises: jackhammers, plant machinery, excavators, cranes, a dizzying riot of high frequency noise and almost infrasonic rumbling – I found it annoying until one day it suddenly became inspiring. That’s why a lot of the “drums” and “cymbals” on the album are actually directly sampled construction equipment, at superhuman speeds. I translated what was happening outside a little too literally in some places, maybe, but fuck it.
In my personal life I have moved from quite a pastoral setting in my childhood to living in a number of different and varying hostile urban environments so my human trajectory really does match that of my art. I have pretended to be a real band at a couple of different points in my career but I now fully realise that I am a musical diarist and very little more. I’m not always telling my own story, all the time, but the story I’m telling is always a metaphor for something in my own life. Mourner was my grief for youth, mine and others, lost in melancholy and suicide. Temporary Antennae is about the slow drifting of imagination in adulthood and its replacement with religion and other dogma. Hands That Pluck about my microcosmic and macrocosmic lack of control over my own destiny. Setter Of Unseen Snares shows my terror of both personal and ecological collapse, and so on and and so on. Gentle Illness is very much about my relationship with my mental illness and the extraordinary experiences that science attributes to it.
On a personal level, do you view the link between bipolar disorder and creativity as being a romanticised view of a more complex relationship?
Absolutely. The idea that you are somehow more effectively creative when you want to fucking die is absurd, and lazy, and a substitute for personal growth. However creativity is the ultimate refuge for when you’re inside that experience. I firmly believe as a completely essential alchemical component of the human creature that nothing truly significant is achieved without some level of suffering and sacrifice, but that we must be the masters of this sacrifice – this is absolutely unrelated to the day-to-day reality of the level of suffering living with mental illness elicits and I wish this dichotomy were more firmly understood. It’s why I try not to romanticise my illness in any way – Gentle Illness has a song directly written by my own intrusive thoughts, including the side affects I suffer(ed) when medicated (I am currently not) and songs about the experiences of a psychotic break from the point of view of being absolutely terrified, which is the truth of that experience.
Are there any particular ways in which BPD works with your creative process, or is a barrier to it?
I would say almost exclusively against. It saps my energy and motivation, gives me a hugely boosted sense of performance anxiety, and when manic I start things, burn myself out and never finish. I would say I have my neurodivergent perspective to thank for the way I think about things, which I absolutely concede informs my work in a fundamental way, but I reject and despise the notion that it’s some sort of fucking superpower to be autistic and bipolar. It’s human. It’s fucking human and that’s what we need to normalise.
What has it been like working with Apocalyptic Witchcraft and Seasons Of Mist again and how has it compared to your previous experiences with record labels? Going back to your thoughts on the labels that have previously released your music, to what extent do you think artists should be accountable for who they choose to release their music with?
I’ve had no actual direct involvement with Season Of Mist beyond them distributing the record with Apocalyptic Witchcraft. The AW experience has largely been fantastic, which I think is down to being run by fellow working musicians at a similar kind of tier. I have only experienced exploitation, deception and theft from the larger labels I as a musician and Caïna specifically have been involved with, so I currently have no plans to look for anyone else to release my stuff – they’re growing all the time, understand the work and allow me an almost unprecedented degree of freedom.
I feel as though bands are accountable for who releases their music, regardless of whether there is any truly ethical consumption under capitalism (there isn’t). I’ll be plain: if I had my time again I would not release my music on either Drakkar or Profound Lore, in particular. I will add that the climate ten-fifteen years ago was somewhat different and I think artists and audience were somewhat more naïve and forgiving. I am not airing my dirty laundry in public, but ideologically, attitudinally and in practice I regret my involvement with them. I’m not casting the first stone – some people consider me cancelled for that Di6 cover in 2004. But I think we’re allowed to learn from our mistakes and be honest about them.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about Gentle Illness, the plans for releasing it and any upcoming Caïna shows?
I’m not expecting people to like this record that much, honestly. It’s obtuse, it’s about my brain and UFOs and the ultraterrestrial invasion of the forces of the mythopoetic penetrating the soul of a child and destroying it; it’s got jazz in it; it’s got dub in it; it’s recorded in a haphazard, varied (i.e. shitty sounding) fashion because it was recorded in tandem with my symptoms and not as a measured reaction to them. It’s honest, but it’s not for everyone. I guess that’s a decent enough epitaph for me, too.
I hate playing live except for the exact time I’m on stage, so please come say hi and buy me a drink because I’m poor.
Gentle Illness is out 1st November on Apocalyptic Witchcraft Recordings. Purchase here.
Interview: Andrew Day
Intro: George Parr