Peter Ulrich

Mysterium Recently Peter Ulrich released his second solo album “Enter the Mysterium”, after his debut with “Pathways and Dawns” in 1999. No matter how many other albums he will make, I suspect Ulrich will always be related to his previous activities as drummer/percussionist of Dead Can Dance. Which is of course nothing to be ashamed about. In this lengthy and readworthy interview Ulrich tells more about his varied musical influences, his working process, his experiences with Dead Can Dance, his favourite music and much more.

Quite some years passed between your first solo cd “Pathways and dawns” and “Enter the mysterium”. Have you been working on the new album all that time?

Pathways and dawns After the release of Pathways and Dawns, I spent a long time working on publicity. Because it was my first solo album, I wasn’t really prepared for the period that comes after release – all the interviews, replying to e-mail enquiries, collecting reviews and trying to use them for further promotion, getting a website organised which I didn’t have at the time of release, and so on. I got very deeply involved with all this, and while I was working on trying to make things happen with Pathways and Dawns, I found it impossible to turn my mind to writing new material.
The next delay was finding a practical method of recording a new album. Much of the previous album had been recorded at Brendan Perry’s studio in Ireland, but Brendan’s commitments and changes in my own situation meant it wasn’t possible to do this again. So I had to find a new studio and get into a new pattern of working.
I finally got things organised, and the songs for Enter The Mysterium were written and recorded between January 2002 and May 2003. I presented the album to my label – Projekt – but Sam Rosenthal felt that my new material had moved away from what he felt was right for a Projekt release. I understood his reasons, and we parted ways very amicably, but then I found myself with an album recorded, but no label to release it.
I began the search for another label, and there was a lot of interest, but the process of contacting people, sending out demos, getting feedback, getting into negotiations, etc all took a lot of time, and it took until the middle of last year for me to sign to the City Canyons label in New York.
The release of Enter The Mysterium then had to be fitted into City Canyons’s schedules and we had a lot of work to do to prepare for a release on a completely different label. We also took time to get a proper licensing deal set up for Europe – which came about with the Music & Words label in the Netherlands. This has created a big advantage over my previous album, which was only available in Europe on import.
And finally the new album was released in April 2005.

Are you satisfied with how the album turned out and the response so far?

Enter the Mysterium Yes. I really enjoyed making the album – particularly using a lot more live instrumentation this time – and I’m very happy with it.
Following the release of Pathways and Dawns, I have made some great friendships with people who have contacted me by e-mail (via my website) from many parts of the world – and I was very excited (and a bit nervous) to get reactions to the new material from those people. The response has been quite overwhelming – everyone so far has been really enthusiastic about it.
The reviews so far have also been generally good, so I’m very pleased with the way things are going.

Does the album tell a story? Where does the inspiration come from?

Peter Ulrich It’s more a case of each song telling a story. Overall, I wanted the album to have the feel of going into a big library full of books about different mysteries and beliefs, and dipping into the books at random. The two opening songs are based around the life of Dr John Dee, an English mystic and alchemist in the 16th century who built an amazing library, and who had spiritual meetings with angels. After that, each song explores a different mystery or belief. The inspiration came sometimes from the music, sometimes from articles I found in newspapers, sometimes from books, and on one occasion from a photograph e-mailed to me by friends in America.

The album is quite complicated, with many styles and instruments. How do you usually work when creating a new song? Do you for instance start with a rhythm or with the mood?

There are many different starting points. Sometimes I start by creating a rhythm track and building up from there, sometimes by finding a big bass line (maybe on orchestral strings or organ) and working from there, sometimes by playing guitar chord sequences, sometimes from the yang ch’in, and so on – but very rarely from the vocal part. The vocal melody and lyrics nearly always come last.
I like every song on my albums to have a different feel to the rest – to have a very individual character. So it helps to take a lot of different starting points.

What’s your fascination with non-western music?

Oh, the sounds, the shapes, the smells of all the different instruments. I couldn’t restrict my listening to one genre of music and not be open to the huge variety of sounds. I love living in a multi-cultural society. I love making new discoveries all the time – whether it be in music, art, food – whatever aspect of life. My grandparents brought me back a pair of clay and calfskin bongo drums from a holiday in Mexico when I was about 9 or 10 years old and I was amazed by them – I’d never seen anything like that. I adored the sound and feel of them, and that really got me started. Then I discovered that there were African tribal drummers who could work themselves into trances and drum for hours (even days) on end. This absolutely fascinated me, and ever after I wanted to discover more and more music from all around the world. So when the ‘world music’ scene started to happen (I became aware of it in the early 80s), and suddenly opened up the whole thing and meant that albums of music from all over the world could suddenly be bought at my local record store, that was fantastic.

A few tracks, like ‘The scryer and the shewstone’, remind me of traditional British folk. Are you an experienced listener in that field?

I don’t have a broad knowledge of British folk, but I certainly include some folk music amongst all the various musics I listen to. The song you mention – ‘The Scryer and the Shewstone’ – is more specifically based on European Renaissance music. I listen to a lot of medieval and Renaissance music – particularly by specialist early music groups who use faithful reproductions of the original instruments of the period, and here again I find the sounds and structures very inspiring.

Your music is a mixture of various styles, from wave to folk to world to … music. Do you think you can help building bridges between various narrow subcultures?

I’m not sure. I’m not engaged on a mission to break down barriers and stop people being insular about music. As far as I’m concerned, people should listen to whatever turns them on. I just absorb the things that inspire me and then I go and write my music. If through my music somebody else discovers some new sound or new element which gives them pleasure or inspiration, then I’m very happy about that.

Did you receive any formal musical training? Or are you completely self-taught?

I had formal piano tuition for a couple of years when I was about 8 to 10 years old, but I didn’t really take to it. However, it was very helpful, and gave me elementary keyborad skills which are still very useful to me today. I also learnt recorder at school as part of class music lessons – and that was also useful. The recorder is a lovely and very under-rated instrument! But on drums, guitar and various other things I play bits of, I’m self-taught.

Do you feel confident as a singer?

Yes and no! I’m not naturally blessed with a great singing voice, so I have to be careful in what I try to do with my voice.
The music I make is not for people who love songs sung by a singer with a powerful voice and great delivery. My approach is to use my voice as just one of the instruments which creates the overall sound and feel of a piece.
So, in singing the parts I write within my own songs, I feel confident – and the poeple who like my music respond to it well.
But don’t invite me to the local Karaoke!

I believe there is something very special about the track ‘Through those eyes’?

Aha, yes. That would be the participation of my daughters. When that was recorded in 2003, Louise was 15 and Eleanor 12. I got them both to sing some backing vocals in the chorus sections, and Eleanor also plays a violin part in the bridges following the chorus. That was a big thrill for me to get them involved and to be able to put their names in the musicians credits on the CD cover!

The European edition of the album is available in the new SACD format. Was that decision something you have been actively involved in?

This was proposed by Hans Peters who runs the Music & Words label. Neither I, nor Trebor Lloyd who runs my US label, City Canyons, had heard of the SACD format before, so we didn’t know anything about it. But Hans was very keen to do the European release in this format, so we agreed to it. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t yet heard it played on an SACD system, but I’m told it sounds great! (I should stress that the SACD version does also play on any standard CD player – so don’t be put off buying it if you don’t have an SACD deck!)

How did you get involved with Dead Can Dance? How did you experience your time with them?

Dead Can Cance debut album It was a classic case of being in ‘the right place at the right time’. In 1982 I was living on a housing estate in east London when Brendan, Lisa and original DCD bassist Paul Erikson arrived from Australia in search of a recording deal, but without their original drummer who couldn’t make the trip. They asked around if anyone knew a drummer, and they were introduced to me. I was playing in a soul/blues covers band at the time, just knocking out standards, and my drumming was tight but basic. At first, I couldn’t play what Brendan and Lisa were looking for, but I loved the music they were making and also, luckily, we found we had a lot of common interests and immediately became great friends. So they patiently initiated me into the DCD set up, broke my bad and lazy drumming habits, and opened up a whole new world of possibilities, for which I will be eternally grateful.
Things then happened very quickly – within a few months we had made a demo which immediately grabbed the interest of Ivo Watts-Russell at 4AD. He put us into a couple of gigs in London to see us play live, and then signed us. By June ’83 we were in the studio recording our first album, and before the end of the year we had done our first overseas tour – around the Netherlands supporting the Cocteau Twins – and recorded our first session for BBC Radio’s legendary John Peel Show. It was an incredibly exciting time, and I was finding it hard to believe it was really happening!

What do you think of their recent reunion tour? Would you not have liked to be a part of it?

Brilliant. I went to both the shows in London. It was lucky that the first show sold out very quickly and, because it was the end of the tour, a second show was able to be added – but the original venue was not available. So, the first night was at The Barbican – a formal, all-seated concert hall – while the second night was at The Forum – a rock venue with no seats in the downstairs area. Both shows were wonderful, but it was an interesting contrast over the two nights. The more fragile, ethereal pieces tended to work better at The Barbican, while the more up-tempo songs sounded extra-special at The Forum. In fact, at The Forum show, ‘American Dreaming’ and particularly ‘Black Sun’ were the best I’ve ever heard them – mind-blowing!
In some ways I would have liked to have been part of the tour, but it was never going to be possible because of other commitments, so I didn’t give it much thought. I just really enjoyed being there as a fan – I even bought a DCD T-Shirt – I never had one before!! It was also great to see Brendan and Lisa again. They’re in great form, and there’s still some magical extra dimension created when the two of them work together. I really hope they continue.

Are there contemporary artists you admire?

Sure – loads. There’s a mass of great music coming out all the time.
The most recent concerts I’ve been to rank amongst my favourite ever – Rachid Taha (a fabulous blend of rock with north African sounds), Tinariwen (the Touareg blues ensemble from the Sahara) and, in a completely different vein, English band Elbow whose music I love.
I think Arcade Fire are doing some interesting stuff, and just at the moment I’m really into the new Robert Plant album.
Another fine recent discovery is the album Ruke by Darko Rundek & Cargo Orkestar from Croatia.
I’ve heard one track off the new Debashish Bhattacharya album (the Indian slide guitarist), and I look forward to hearing that, as well as the new Ry Cooder album.
My daughters tend to listen to a lot of the current rock scene – bands like Green Day and Kaiser Chiefs – so I hear that around the house and occasionally hear something I like there too.

And what are your all-time favourite albums?

This can change a little from time-to-time, but here’s today’s top 10…

– Pilgrimage to Santiago by Phillip Pickett & The New London Consort
Drums of Passion– Drums of Passion by Babatunde Olatunji
– OK Computer by Radiohead
– Anthology – Tribute to Duane Allman
– Third Album by Peter Gabriel
– The Egyptian Music by Soliman Gamil
– Rumba Argelina by Radio Tarifa
– Talking Timbuktu by Ali Farke Toure and Ry Cooder
– Take Me to God by Jah Wobble/Invaders of the Heart
– Cast of Thousands by Elbow

(On another day, when the sun wasn’t shining as it is at the moment, there would almost certainly be a Joy Division album in that list.)

Do we have to wait six years again for your next album?

I hope not!