23rd May 2018

Therapy?: How Three Small Town Outcasts Became Alt-Metal Icons

Therapy? bassist and resident old school heavy metal fan Michael McKeegan has lost count of how many festivals his band have played over their 29-year-career, but he estimates it’s somewhere the upper reaches of triple figures.“Literally every summer we’d do a minimum of 15, sometimes we’ve hit 20 or 30,” he says. “You see how a certain festival has progressed over the years, from something that’s a bit rough and ready to a really slick, well put together event.”

The Northern Irish trio – McKeegan plus vocalist/guitarist Andy Cairns and drummer Neil Cooper – are pulling double duty at this year’s Ramblin’ Man, headlining the Friday Night Live show at Maidstone Leisure Centre on June 29, and follow-up it up with late afternoon Main Stage slot on Saturday June 30. “One of the good things about us is that whether it’s a club show, a theatre show, and arena show, festival show – we’re up for it,” says McKeegan. “At a festival, there are a lot of different things out of your control – the elements for one, the weather, onstage sound. There’s all kinds of things thrown at you. But we’re a roll-with-the punches kind of band. We thrive on that situation.”

What can we expect from Therapy’s two different sets at Ramblin’ Man?

The Friday set is a headlining set – obviously, we’ll be able to spread it out a bit more, get into more deep cuts and obscure stuff. Saturday, you’ll get the Hour Of Power – 45 or 60 minutes of hit after hit, heads down, see you at the end. Both are perfect, and it’s lovely that we get to spend a bit of time there rather than arriving at the last possible minute and leaving at the first option. It’ll be nice to soak up the vibe.

You started in the late 80s. What’s your abiding memory of those early days?

It was very much a DIY, get-in-the-van thing. A lot of it was a wing and a prayer. This was pre-mobile phone, pre-internet communication, so if some guy rang you and wanted you to play in a boxing club on Tuesday night somewhere you’ve never been to, you’d make that happen. It was very much a case of taking the music out to people.
At the time in Ireland, north and south, there wasn’t really a place for a band like us who had roots in punk and metal. There was still a hangover from the show band era, and there were a lot of bands that sounded like U2 – we were very much an anomaly. We put out our first single ourselves, because there wasn’t really any other way to do it.

Was that exciting?

Oh yeah. It was a very steep learning curve as well. But it stood us in very good stood, which is why I think we’re still around and sane. Reasonably sane.

Was being an outsider a badge of honour?

Not necessarily. It was a very small scene where we came from. The goths, the metallers and the punks would all hang out, but if you didn’t look like Peter Murphy, Axl Rose or James Hetfield, you were kind of excluded.
And because we were from out of the city, a lot of the scenesters up in town were suspicious. That just makes you more belligerent. We though, ‘Well, we like what we’re doing. We know it’s not for everyone, especially when we started the sound was quite uncompromising. But we kind of thrived on that. But you find like-minded misfits along the way.

When did you find rock fans really embracing you?

It was probably with (Therapy?’s 1994 album) Troublegum. One of the massive turning points was when we did Donington in 1994. We’d been on Top Of the Pops by that point and we’d seen a build up of Pantera shirts in the crowds building up. The record label at that point were, like, ‘You’re doing Donington, and do you realise that this could go so horribly wrong? And we were, like, ‘Why would we not do it? We love that music, we love those bands.’ And you know what, it was absolutely brilliant, absolutely fantastic, and the crowd were right behind us. I think that was a big tipping point for a lot of people.

Which band were you most impressed with meeting at Donington?

We had really good fun hanging out with the Pantera guys, which was lovely, cos we were all big fans and they were all real sweethearts. And Sepultura were great guys too. We had bumped into Aerosmith while we were doing European festivals, and they were super nice as well. They lent us gear when we had issues. All those bands were class acts.

Did you know you were sitting on something special with Troublegum?

We’d released three EPs in 1993, and they’d done quite well, and some of the songs were going to be on the album anyway. So we’d broken the back of the direction of the album with those EPs. But I do remember getting on a plane to go to a festival somewhere, and I had an old Walkman, and Andy had brought a cassette of with rough mixes of Stop It You’re Killing Me, Hellbelly and Unbeliever on it. I hadn’t heard them with vocals before, and I must have played them 15 times on that flight to Germany. I knew it was going to be good, but they far surpassed my expectation of what our band could sound like.

How crazy was it being a member of Therapy? at that time?

There was all sorts of clichéd rock’n’roll behaviour on the go – partying and all the rest of it. But one of the enduring memories I have is that at one point we had two full-sized Subbuteo tables on tour with us. You’d turn up in Leipzig, Germany, and go backstage, and there’s Therapy? playing Subbuteo. I’m sure there’s probably more ostentatious things we could have asked for, like ice sculptures or something. But we were, ‘No, we’ll bring the Subbuteo tables.’ God bless our road crew who humoured us by taking that stuff along.

Who was the king of Subbuteo in Therapy?

You know what, Andy Cairns was brilliant at it. He played it a lot when he was younger. But I remember in Cardiff, our tour manager managed to get in touch with the UK Subbuteo champion, and he actually came down and did a showcase thing during the afternoon. And it was insane what that guy could do. (Laughs) I can’t believe I’m waxing lyrical about Subbuteo.

You covered Joy Division’s Isolation and Judas Priest’s Breaking The Law. That’s kind of thing is normal now but it wasn’t then. Were you aware of how strange that was?

Do you know what, not at all. Because we would listen to Judas Priest and Joy Division. Breaking The Law and Isolation were both great pop songs to our ears. At the time, Joy Division maybe weren’t a band you would hear about that much, and I think Rob Halford had left Judas Priest by then, so they weren’t seen as being as big and brilliant as they are now. It wasn’t a cool thing to do, actually. I suppose there was an innocence to it.

How did things change for Therapy? in the late 90s and early 00s?

There was a bit of a sea change from 1995 onwards. It was all about Britpop and nu-metal. People would go, ‘This is new and this is fresh, and it’s got samples and dance beats.’ And I was thinking, ‘Listen to [Therapy single] Teethgrinder – it’s not a million miles away, and that was back in 1992.’ But I totally get it – we’d probably had our time for that kind of commercial and media focus. But it was nice to be able to keep on doing our own thing, which goes back to that DIY upbringing. When we started the band we weren’t on the front covers of magazines, so if we weren’t getting front covers any more, no one dies, let’s move on.

Was ever a point where you’ve thought about quitting?

Probably the closest we’ve come is when we did [1999’s] Suicide Pact – You First. I remember our drummer at the time, Graham, had broken his arm, and me and Andy were rehearsing in Putney, wrestling with the drum machine, trying to put songs together. It was January, it was raining outside, and you think, ‘Really?’ But we had a bit of a chat about it and thought, ‘This is far too good and we’ve got far too many good ideas and we like it too much to let it go.’ Our benchmark is if we stop enjoying it, or don’t want to go onstage one night – pretentious as it sounds, if we’re not feeling it, that’s when we’d have to have a serious chat about. But so far it hasn’t happened yet.

You and Andy have been in band together for nearly 30 years – you’re the Morecambe and Wise of alternative metal. What’s the secret?

It’s really just a case of listening to each other and taking on board stuff. A lot of people see being in a band with other people and taking on their ideas as a compromise. But my take is, it’s a collaboration. And it works. But we’re very good friends as well, and we’re honest with each other. People say, ‘Yeah, but being in a band is a compromise.’ If you don’t want to compromise, you can go solo.

If you had to point someone towards a Therapy? album from the last 15 or 20 years, which one would it be?

Never Apologise, Never Explain, from 2004, I really like. It’s a gnarly, take-no-prisoners album. It’s a nasty album in a good way. The title reflects on the approach we were taking.

A decade ago, you were on the panel of TV show in Northern Ireland, ATL Rock School. What was that about?

It was basically where bands would submit demos and you would listen to them. It was all done very above board, every tape was listened to, everybody had to write notes and put it in the pot. There was a televised final. It was good, I enjoyed it.

Were you a Simon Cowell figure or were you more of a Louis Walsh?

I’d like to think I was like Simon Cowell, but I was probably Louis Walsh. I’m more lukewarm water than fire or ice. It’s that bass player thing.

You’re releasing a new album, Cleave, this summer. What can you tell us about that?

The first track, Callow, is one of the first songs we had for the record, and it’s got a lot of those classic Therapy? elements in there, but it’s got a different kind of energy to it. It’s a good calling card for the album – there’s more hooky stuff on the album and there’s heavier stuff on the album, but this is a good guide. I If you like this, you’ll like the album. If you hate it, don’t buy the album.

2019 marks 30 years of Therapy?. Does that feel weird?

Yeah, it’s very scary. People keep saying, ‘What are you doing?’ I’m, like, ‘I don’t know!’ The day to day from the last 10 years has been so busy. There’s been a few anniversaries of big albums, we’ve done tours, and Troublegum and Infernal Love have been reissued as special editions – there’s always something going on. Right now, all I can think about is Cleave, and what’s happening this year. Once we get our feet under the table with the tour, we’ll start throwing ideas about. But yeah, it’s mad. I never thought we’d see three years, let alone 30.

Therapy? play Friday Night Live at the Maidstone Leisure Centre on Friday June 29 and the Ramblin’ Man Fair Main Stage on June 30. Buy your tickets here.