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Therapy? – The Hard, Cold Fire of the Northerner

Northern Irish rockers Therapy? released their sixteenth studio album, “Hard, Cold Fire” in 2023. We spoke to guitarist-vocalist Andy Cairns at the start of their UK tour about the new record, collaborations with James Dean Bradfield (Manic Street Preachers) and Ricky Warwick (The Almighty, Thin Lizzy), being special guests of Metallica at Donnington Park and Mayhem quoting Alan Partridge.

Northern Irish rockers Therapy? released their sixteenth studio album, “Hard, Cold Fire” in 2023. We spoke to guitarist-vocalist Andy Cairns at the start of their UK tour about the new record, collaborations with James Dean Bradfield (Manic Street Preachers) and Ricky Warwick (The Almighty, Thin Lizzy), being special guests of Metallica at Donnington Park and Mayhem quoting Alan Partridge.

Text: Anne-Marie Forker
Photography: Tom Hoad

Hi Andy! You were in Norway in August, at a festival in Horten called Kanalrock – how was it?

It was brilliant. We haven’t been to Norway a great deal. We used to go a lot in the ‘90s but we haven’t been a lot in recent years. We were aware of what Kanalrock was because it’s quite famous now and it’s getting in these brilliant bands. And we were told it’s quite a small festival, everyone’s really friendly, you’ll enjoy it, and it’s a lovely location. All those things were exactly true. Gorgeous, gorgeous part of the world and everyone was helpful.

Any chances that you’re coming back next Summer for a festival or two?

Well, if we get asked, we’ll come to Norway, maybe even for club shows next year. We’re always up for it. Thing is, with Norway, like with anywhere else, Therapy?’s toured all over the world, and we were more popular in some places than in others, and in some places like Norway our popularity maybe waned in the 2000s, so will they ask us back, because people aren’t interested? But we got quite a lot of radio plays in Norway of our album on rock radio, compared to recent years, if that’s made anyone sit up and take notice then we’ll come over.

What inspired the title of the new album, “Hard Cold Fire”? It’s such a rock’n’roll title.

It is, but it isn’t rock’n’roll at all, actually.  It’s by the Ulster poet Louis MacNiece.

He’s amazing.

He talks about what it was like being from Northern Ireland, and he has a good quote about the resilience of the people from the North of the country.  There’s basalt that’s prevalent in the rocks of Northern Ireland, and in the quote he says “the hard, cold fire of the Northerner”.

Ah, I love it.

I might have it in my phone, the very quote. But that’s where we got it from. He said: “The hard, cold fire of the Northerner, frozen into his blood from the fire in his basalt glares from behind the mica of the eyes.” So, he talks about the landscape of Northern Ireland and implies that it’s very similar. So, yeah, “hard cold fire” sounds very rock but it’s not, it’s from the Carrickfergus Ulster poet Louis MacNeice.

That’s wonderful. I remember seeing a clip on YouTube – two-minute footage of a homeless man in Dublin reciting the “Dublin” poem by MacNeice. He is talking about Dublin’s “seedy elegance” – just such a fantastic way with words. So, you’re a big fan of Louis MacNeice?

Sort of, but I kind of come more from the Beckett school of things, when it comes to Irish writers. There’s Mark Rylance reading one of his poems in London, on YouTube, and it’s outstanding. And it was on a deep dive one night, whenever Stewart Bailey told me I should listen to him, and went on and looked for his work and got some stuff from a local bookshop in Cambridge where I live, and then I discovered this amazing thing on YouTube with Mark Rylance just reading some of his work, which is gorgeous. The “hard cold fire” thing I just discovered by accident, a happy accident. And we had it as a name for quite a few years now, and I came into rehearsal one day and said I had an idea for a song and an album title and explained it to Michael, and we’d kind of forgotten about it, and then we were doing this album before we even started writing it, I found a box of all my lyrics, and I brought it up again, and we had it up on the wall of the studio even before we started writing the music, and maybe it subliminally guided us a bit.

That’s interesting that you had the title before you wrote the music.

Yeah, that’s very unusual for us!

So that’s not something you’ve done before?

Well, maybe a couple of times, but normally what we do is – I’ll either have a lot of words with no titles and the titles are usually the last thing to come, that’s why with quite a few Therapy? songs the titles don’t have any relevance to the song lyrics. Our most famous song is called “Screamager” and there’s no mention of a screamager anywhere in the song.

Speaking of titles, one which stood out to me was “They Shoot the Terrible Master”, which despite the dark title and the dark lyrics, is uplifting. Was it your intention to create an album which had uplifting music?

Well, it was in the end, because we’d started writing in COVID and we had something like twenty-six pieces of music and we were developing them all, and we said from the start “we don’t want to write a COVID album, we don’t want to write an album about plague years or anything like that” and in fact our mantra was “People have been through enough” so we needed to concentrate on the uplifting and positive. So, the subject matter of “They Shoot the Terrible Master” comes from David Foster Wallace, the writer, and he gave a speech at the university called “The weight of water” and he talks about the prevalence of young suicide among men. Now, at this point in time in Belfast, the suicide rate among young men was right through the roof, and he said “you know, they say the mind is a terrible master” and it’s unsurprising then that the most common form of suicide among young men is death by firearm to the head – they shoot the terrible master. That’s where that came from. So, then we thought, we want to try to stay positive, and have it as a kind of warning, from what we have found out from our own experiences of depression, and that way, we thought, whenever we get that song finished, we thought “we can do this, we can deliver our message but upbeat and with energy.” We’ve some songs which are very slow and dirgy – and strangely beautiful – which we didn’t think were relevant for a post-COVID record by Therapy?.

Because I’m from Belfast, I know that’s still an issue there among young men. My mum’s next door neighbour, her son was only about twenty years old and he did that recently. It’s still an issue there.

That’s awful. I think there’s a lot of things you have in growing up, through Northern Ireland, that a lot of people from the North don’t like to talk about what went on in the country, and it’s almost like this unsaid thing, and I’m sure it reverberates through the younger generations that weren’t around when there was any full-on sectarian violence and murders. I’m sure that that reverberates through a whole generation that has had to deal with whispers through cracked walls and murmurings of what went on in the past. Because parents don’t want to put children through that kind of thing but they will overhear things. And there’s another thing you experience if you’re from Northern Ireland, I always find – and there’s another song on the album called “Mongrel” – that regardless of what your politics are, you’re always meant to feel slightly “othered” if you’re from the North of Ireland, I find.

Yeah, I find that too, absolutely.

It’s like you’re not one thing or the other. My generation, especially – Michael that’s in the band and I, we grew up thinking “well, we don’t care about sectarianism, we don’t care about religion or politics. We come from the North, but then you go somewhere else and there’s a barrage of “Have you ever seen anyone blown up? Are you protestant or catholic?” and all this. And that was something we had to face. There’s a line that I’ve got in “A Flag to Hide Behind” – if you go to watch Wales play rugby, they’re all very proud of it, but for us it’s kind of hard, because then you’re nailing your colours to one mast, and that’s stressful for a young protestant growing up, especially if you don’t want anything to do with it.

Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. “Mongrel” makes perfect sense to me. Another track which stood out is “Days Collapse”, the last track.  I heard, with the guitar bits of early The Cure, there, and I wondered if they were an influence on you.

Ah, well spotted! Completely! It was the first, I think, the “Seventeen Seconds”-era Cure. And I love The Cure, I still do. Whenever I was a punk-rock kid, there’s only so many revved-up Chuck Berry riffs you can listen to, and I went into Joy Division and stuff like that. The Cure were the one that, up until the “Pornography” album, they were my band, and I think a lot of that stuff is stuck in there. And the bassline that Michael plays, it’s completely “Cure”. Stuff like that, “Seventeen Seconds” and “Faith” and “Pornography”, that’s the three for me that meant the most to me. “Disintegration” is great as well. I’ve always loved The Cure.

Ah, that’s a great album. Have you managed to see them live, recently?

Oh, loads of times, though not in the last few years.

They do these three hours shows…

I know, they’re like Pink Floyd now, it’s brilliant. I was talking to a friend recently who had been to see them a while ago, who said the three-and-a-half hours was just mesmerising, it was amazing.

Yeah, it was. I wanted to ask a little question about your gear – what guitars did you use for this album?

Well, it was very Spartan. I’ve always used Gibson SGs since 1993, and I’ve got something ridiculous like twelve different SGs, but I like this cheap model they made in 1997-98 called the SGX. It was meant to be affordable, entry level, one pickup, and it’s got twenty-four frets, so it’s got an extra-long neck on it, which I like. And it’s got a T-500 ceramic pickup which gives it an extra punky vibe. So I’ve got three of them, I managed to get them on eBay, and that’s what I mostly use. Chris Sheldon, the producer – I’ve got a lot of guitars, I’ve got a telecaster and all that, and I brought them along – and Chris went “Hmmm….. just go with the SGX again, that’s what you use most of”. I think there are a couple of bits where I use a telecaster where we needed a brighter sound. So, a Marshall 800 with an SGX. And then various effects pedals.

Interesting. So is it the having one pickup that gives it the extra punky sound or is it the longer neck?

I think it’s a bit of both.  The pickup is savage. A lot of SGs, famously – and it’s what so brilliant about them – don’t sound distorted, they sound amplified, like AC/DC is a good example. It sounds like a very amplified guitar rather than distorted or overdriven. But the SGX has a very chunky, punky sound to it. It’s one of these things. Whenever I moved first to England in 2001, and I wanted a new guitar, and the only music shop I would use was called “Peach Music” which was forty-five minutes down the road. And I wanted an SG but they had one in rust, it looks like this awful brown colour. I played it in the shop, it was £600 and I asked the guy if they had it in any other colours and he said no, they’re mostly green and brown, it’s a weird thing. So I said I’ll take it, and I knew it wasn’t the kind of guitar I wouldn’t use on stage but it sounds amazing, and ever since I got it it’s been on all the Therapy? albums since 2002.

But you don’t use it on stage?

No, because I’ve got a tech that used to work for us, he’s brilliant at sourcing guitars – he’s found me two black ones on eBay, and they sound exactly the same. But the other one I just use in the studio. It’s a superstitious thing, I think, because it’s always sounded so good.

You mentioned Chris Sheldon.  He also produced “Troublegum” back in ’94. Why did you choose him again and is anything different now in how you work together?

Whenever we first signed to Marshall Records, which would be since 2017, we were chatting to our A&R guy, Steve Tanner, and whenever we were signed to Universal, he used to work there, and then he went on and did other things, he’s working for Marshall Records now, and we were talking about producers, and he said “What about Chris Sheldon?” and we said “yeah”, and we would see Chris occasionally but we’re not sure if he works any more. Chris was a family man and he was very happy just mixing people’s records, and he likes to spend time with his family, and the idea of going away for two weeks to a month, sometimes longer, with a band, and living with them 24/7 wasn’t something that appealed to him. Which I can understand. Then we said – why don’t we get someone else to produce it and get Chris to engineer it? We got in touch with Chris and he said “yeah, that sounds great.” And then we got a call and he said “I’ve had a thought, you know, I’m very fond of you boys, it might be good fun to do this, so why don’t you just let me produce it too?” “Oh, okay!”. So, the first one we did up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and we were there for three-and-a-half weeks. We rented this house out and the four of us lived in this house, and it was brilliant. And then at the end of it, we said, before the record was released, let’s do it again on the next record and Chris said “That’s a brilliant idea.” So whenever we went to make the current record, we just called Chris up and it was great.

Brilliant. Do you think you’ll work with him going forward?

As long as he wants to work with Therapy? we’ll always work with him. He’s brilliant, he’s one of these people, you can not see him for two or three years, and then when you do see him, you’re at exactly the same spot that you left off if that makes sense. Some people have friends like that, where you just jump in where you were when you last saw them. That’s good, and that’s something that, having been around for about thirty years, there’s only three or four people in the business that I’ve got that relationship with, and Chris is one of them.

Yeah, they are the precious ones. And you’ve now amassed a huge amount of material, sixteen studio albums. How hard is it, when you’re putting a set list together, to choose tracks when you have that much material?

It’s hard, because we will always leave something out that someone will get heartbroken about. The worst thing is social media, so the three of us between us take turns to do Twitter or X, Facebook and Instagram, we all take turns doing it, and the number of times I’m heading down, say, to Brighton and someone will say “Oh, I can’t wait to see you, I’m coming down tonight, it’s been a few years, I hope you play…” and it will be some song that’s not in the set.  We decided a while ago that we have to make a harsh decision that we couldn’t just start doing that because when people find out you’re doing requests, you’re getting into wedding band territory. What we try and do is, whenever a new album comes out, we play the entire album. Now, “Hard Cold Fire” is thirty-one minutes long, we normally play for an hour-and-a-half at the very least, so we’ve another hour to fill. So, what we’ve tried to do is to pick songs which are thematically or melodically similar and that will set well with those songs. And to be honest there’s a couple of songs we wouldn’t get out of the venue alive if we didn’t play them, some of the biggest, well-known songs have to get played. So, with things like “Screamager”, “Nowhere”, and “Die Laughing”, they always have to go in the set because people always want to hear those. But, yeah, they get the whole album and we’ve got the very first song we ever wrote called “Bloody Blue” which we recorded for a demo tape in 1989. It’s back in the set! It’s not like anything off “Troublegum”. We’ve got a song off “Semi-Detached” because it was re-released recently on vinyl. And then we’ve got a couple of tracks off “Nurse”.  We’ve got a song from 1993 which was a B-side from “Screamager”, because that’s thirty years ago this year, we thought we’d put in something like that.

Nice touch.

It’s good for us. It’s challenging. We will change it a bit as we go along. Little things happen, like somebody will suggest a song and we’ll try it at soundcheck and it might end up in the set.

Are you playing much from the new album?

We’re playing all the album! We don’t play it all in one go. Ever since 2009 when we’ve released an album, we’ve played all the tracks off it. The only time we did that in the past was “Troublegum” because it was such a popular album. So, the show would be all the songs off “Troublegum” and other songs people knew, and then we stopped doing that, and then with the “Crooked Timber” album in 2009 we brought it back. And it took our hard-core fanbase a while to get their head around it. Now, the hard-core fans know when they come and see us, they get to hear the whole new album. But we don’t play it all in one go, we put it between other songs that they know. So, as I mentioned earlier, it will sit well with other tracks.

To come out with an album of this quality and sounding so fresh, after thirty years together – what keeps you motivated?

Well, wanting to do it. It’s simple. We’ve said this quite a lot over the years. Myself and Michael, a few years ago, we were walking into a concert hall about ’93, ’94. We were excited about the gig and we were going “this is brilliant, this is”. Because by that time we’d been around about five years. People always seemed to think that “Troublegum” happened overnight, but we’d been on the road since 1989, so that was five years. So we said “Let’s make a promise, that if we ever get out of this bus and one of us turns to the others and says I don’t really fancy this tonight, then that’s it, we leave it, knock it on the head.” And then when Neil joined in 2002, we told him this and he said “I totally agree”. And the thing is, it’s not difficult. I know quite a lot of musicians who actually hate being musicians. Honestly, it sounds bizarre, and it sounds counterintuitive, but I know a lot of musicians who when they have to go on tour, dread it – they don’t like playing live, they’d rather be back home in the studio. Or I know a lot of musicians who love playing live but don’t like writing songs. And I think we’ve hit that nice sweet spot where we enjoy doing what we do. And also, now that we’re a lot older, as Harold Pinter says, the older you get, one of the beauties of it is that grudges go and bad feelings towards things go, and I think with us, we almost enjoy doing it more than we did when we were semi-famous.


Yeah, yeah. It’s a lot more fun now, because we all get on, because we don’t put ourselves under pressure.

Even the touring and all that?

I love the touring. We don’t do the tour bus thing anymore, because being older we like to get a bed to sleep in. We all have our own hotel rooms. As my wife said, she did it once, I think she travelled from London to Manchester, just after we got married, and she turned round to me after – because beforehand I think she thought it was glamourous – so just after we got married I said “well, come with us” and she said “Never again!”

I wanted to ask you about a couple of collaborations you’ve done.  One of them was the song you wrote with Ricky Warwick. You wrote “Celebrating Sinking” together. I’m guessing it’s about Northern Ireland or Belfast, but I wanted to ask you, as the writer, what was the inspiration behind that song?

Well, Ricky called me up, because he said he wanted to do some writing with me. Ricky and me have been mates for a long time. It was Chris Sheldon who introduced us. I always knew he was a lad from the North of Ireland, but I’d never met him and then when we played Brixton Academy on the “Troublegum” tour, Chris Sheldon, who was just about to do the Almighty album, brought the entire band backstage to say hello, and that was the first time I had met Ricky, I got his number and we stayed in touch. And then a couple of years later, he moved to Dublin where I was living – that was before I was married and he had just got divorced from Vanessa – and the two of us just hung out all the time and got to know each other. So he rang up, says “I’m writing an album and I’ve got this idea, and I was chatting to some friends about Northern Ireland and the attitude and the psyche.” And we thought – Hurricane Higgins, George Best, there’s a sort of anarchic self-destruction. And the most famous thing, culturally, about Belfast is the Titanic that was built and we celebrate the ship that sank. So we were talking about, why are our heroes people who manage to self-sabotage their futures? So, I came up with the term “Celebrating sinking” and had written the chorus and Ricky really loved that, and he wrote the rest of it. We did it over the phone, you know. It was literally “look, what ideas have you got?” and I’d record a bit on an acoustic guitar on an iPhone and send him it, and then he’s saying “and what if I add this?” and he sent it back, and then he recorded it.

Another collaboration, though it was a performance and not writing together, was with James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers on your greatest hits in 2020, “Die Laughing”. How did that come about?

I’ve always liked the Manic Street Preachers. Famously, whenever Therapy? was just starting out, Nicky Wire had been quite uncomplimentary about the band, saying we were ugly and all this kind of stuff. And I said “Ah, it’s a pity he said that because I actually love the Manic Street Preachers – I think ‘Generation Terrorist’ is any amazing pop-rock record.” About a month after I had said that, we played in London and James was backstage, he knew somebody from our record company and I got chatting to him. So every time I was in London and he was in London, we’d hang out. We’ve got quite a lot in common. And then I think what really sealed it was in 1994, “The Holy Bible” was out, “Troublegum” was out, and we were popular in Europe and we took the Manics to open for us in France on a three-week French tour. So, we got to hang out with James every night, and I’ve always been friends with him, even after he became massive. He came down – I did a solo show in Cardiff a few years ago, and me and him went for coffee, and I said “do you want to come down the gig tonight?” and “Die Laughing”, he loves the song, and he said “yeah, I’ll come down and do it”. And then when we did the album, I just gave him a shout and said – would you be interested in doing this. It was kind of paying him back as well because he’s been so complimentary about Therapy? over the years, and I think in “The Holy Bible” reissue, he asked me to do something for the sleeve notes. So, I know James very well and it’s a bit like the Ricky thing as well, we’ve got an awful lot in common. He’s not unlike Ricky as a person when you get to know him. He’s very down to earth, there’s no airs and graces about him, and he’s just a really incredibly talented musician.

Back in the ‘90s you were special guests of Metallica at Donnington Park. What are your memories of that day and how did it come about?

Well, that was quite a bizarre thing, it was one of those things where when you tell it to people, it still doesn’t seem like it happened. We got a call from A&M – we were at A&M Records – and they said “Lars Ulrich wants to meet you” and we were all Metallica fans, we said “What’s this about, then?” “Well, this is going to sound a bit bizarre, but the only album he knows is ‘Troublegum’ and he really likes it – he would like to put you on Castle Donnington but he’s never met you guys and he wants to see what you’re like.” And we thought it was a wind-up from the record company guy. “So, tell you what, Slash is playing a show at the Elysee, Montmartre in Paris, and we’ve arranged to fly you and Michael over to Paris, to meet Lars backstage at the Slash gig, have a beer with him. If he likes you guys, you’ll likely be on the bill.” I kid you not. So, Michael and I got flown off, and we were paraphrasing Alan Partridge on the way over – an audience with Lars Ulrich! And it was exactly what they said on the tin, we went upstairs, backstage, he had a room to himself at the Elysee, he asked for a beer, we went and got the beer, we had a beer together, and then “Lovely meeting you guys” and that was it. We watched the Slash show, went out in Paris after that, and then we flew home, and two days later we got the call from A&M records that we’d got the gig, Lars liked you. And on top of that, I think two nights before that gig, they did a meet-and-greet at a club called Heaven in London.

Oh yeah, I’ve been there.

Well, we got invited to that! And then we did the show with them, and they were lovely, and afterwards they had an aftershow at Cinderella’s Rock Pub in Birmingham, which we also got invited to. So, we had a full-on week of Metallica. Which is good, because, funnily enough in the band, I was always the punk guy, I really don’t know that much about metal, but all my mates when I was growing up were really into metal, so they would like The Damned and UK Subs and stuff like that and Stiff Little Fingers and I would like stuff like early Iron Maiden and Motörhead and stuff like that, stuff that was a bit aggressive. Then I kind of lost interest in that kind of thing, and I think it was the fact that I saw one of them wearing a Misfits shirt – and somebody said to me “I think you’ll like them ‘cause they’re really fast” and I think the first track I heard was “Ride the Lightning”, because I hadn’t got into them through “Kill ‘Em All” and I thought “Oh my god, this is amazing, it’s like GBH or Discharge. I think my favourite record is “Master of Puppets” or “Ride the Lightning” but to actually meet them was nice. I can’t say a bad word about any of them, they were all brilliant and all really accommodating.

The band that are supporting you tonight, Bokassa from Norway, I saw them in Sweden and they were supporting Metallica as well. Do you approve personally the support bands for your tour or is that done elsewhere?

Well, we already knew Bokassa, not as people, but the music. When we played Wacken, our agent in Germany is also Bokassa’s agent, and funnily enough we were playing Wacken in Germany and they had two stages near to each other. We were going on in, I think, thirty minutes time, and we were mooching about our stage and I went “that band over there’s really good” and he said “it’s also one of my bands – that’s Bokassa and they’re really good.” Then I was looking at something online and we really liked them. What’s hard is, when you’re getting the band to share the stage with you, there’s always a promoter, someone from the record company saying “can you take this band out, we’ve just signed them and we need to get them in front of a few people” or the agent will go “can you take these people out?”. Because we liked them – they were the first name that was mentioned to us, about the UK tour and the European tour – we just said yeah, we’ve got the same agent and it’ll be great to the have them, and I do think our fans will like them too, because they’ve got enough melody and riffs and they’ve got that good sense of humour as well, which they will enjoy.

My final question is about the thirtieth anniversary of “Troublegum” next year. Are you planning anything?

Yeah! There’s like twenty-six gigs provisionally booked across Europe for next year. That’s so far. We’re also going to Australia for two weeks, we’re doing two weeks of “Troublegum” in Australia. I think for the first half of the year, we’re still doing “Hard Cold Fire”, we’re going to Serbia, Turkey, Greece and some places in Belgium we haven’t played yet, and then the summer festival season will start, but I think from about August until the end of the year, it’s going to be all “Troublegum”. It hasn’t been announced yet but I can safely say it is definitely going to happen. So far we have twenty-six, twenty-eight European gigs booked and we’ll be adding more, so it will happen. Can’t tell you about Norway yet, I don’t know yet. It would be nice to Bergen, Stavanger, Oslo, it would be great.

Yeah, that would be wonderful. Have you ever done Sweden Rock Festival?

We have, yeah! We enjoyed it actually. We did it a few years ago. Michael was really excited, Michael loves black metal and Mayhem were on the bill.

Ah, they’re huge in Norway.

He was talking to them, and I like them as well. Mike was excited and he came back afterwards, and he said “they’re really friendly, but I didn’t realise they’re all really into British comedy like The League of Gentlemen and stuff like that”. Mike had taken some old records to get them signed and they were signing them and quoting Alan Partridge and League of Gentlemen. And he thought it might have been quite intense!

Black metal gods are quoting Alan Partridge?  That’s hilarious. Thanks very much, Andy. I’ll see you down the road, have an amazing night.

Lovely to talk to you – bye!