Shortly before SikTh took the stage at Koko to play Death Of A Dead Day in full, I got talking to guitarist Dan Weller about billion-dollar live shows, and dealing with music-related mental health issues…
It’s almost the end of your tour – how’re you feeling?
Excited for tonight, playing Death Of A Dead Day in its entirety…
Yeah! How come you’re doing that tonight?
We just thought fuck it – why not? We know what people want to hear, they want the stuff you’re known for. We could’ve played more from the new album, and thought about it, but instead we decided to play more from Death Of A Dead Day.
What’s the most random thing you’ve had happen at one of your shows?
We’ve did a show in Newport where a lot of guys who’d just been released from prison came to our gig to celebrate their release. Really lairy dudes – they came up to the front row, real metalheads. They cracked open some bottles of champagne as we came on and covered us with drink!
Did it interfere with the equipment at all?
Kind of. It soaked our guitars, but our tour manager was a massive guy and he basically roughed them out of the building.
Have you ever had nerves or stage fright?
Not so much stage fright, but more pent-up apprehension. You know something’s happening, and you can’t do it right now.
It’s like going to school when you’re a kid, and you get a bit pent up before you go back on Monday morning. It’s exactly the same feeling, like you can’t relax because something’s about to happen. Also, there are so many notes to remember – if you start trying to think about it, it fucks your head. You just have to hope and engage your muscle memory, and your fingers will start doing the work.
They normally do – and the more gigs you do, the more you have confidence, because you know you’ve pulled it off before.
If money and good taste weren’t issues – if you had Donald Trump’s billions to play with – what would your stage show look like?
If I had Donald Trump’s billions, I’d pay for the SAS to pick him up and drop him in the ocean somewhere!
As part of your show? You could be playing on a boat and have that happen in the background…
As part of the show, I’d have the Liverpool football team, everyone dressed in Liverpool kits to start with. Everything would be on fire – amps, drum kit, everything. I’d have a chocolate fountain on the side of the stage, so between songs I could eat some chocolate.
Like a chocolate fondue?
If we’re going there, I’d have some gruyere, so I could have an actual fondue. Also, a massive cinema screen playing videos we’d made for every song in the set, so the whole thing would be audiovisual. A lot of bands get to do that these days if they’ve got the money.
I’d like to have dancers, like a Michael Jackson video. It’d be interesting to see how they’d dance to SikTh.
For that sort of money, you could have every pop star in the world be your backing dancers.
I’d have James Hetfield as my guitar tech, or maybe a down-pick consultant if I need any help!
So at any point, you can lift your picking hand up and he’ll just pick for you…
Yeah – plus he’d be in the corner, just rooting for me. That’d be it.
Is there a spiritual aspect to what you do?
Do I get a kind of spiritual fulfilment from it? To an extent, yeah. I take it very seriously.
When you’re playing a song, you’re not just playing a riff – you’re kind of inside the song, without sounding like a ponce. There’s definitely a spiritual element when you see a room full of people who’ve paid to see the show and they’re singing the words back. You get a deep sense of satisfaction and pride, and inner fulfilment from doing something that translates to other people.
That feeling never gets old or loses its appeal. It’s constant. You get a sense also of thankfulness, but you can’t pass that on, because you’re onstage. You want to go around the whole crowd and say thanks for coming, but you can’t.
I wouldn’t say it’s spiritual, but I get a sense of human satisfaction, as it were.
What would you say is the most difficult part of being a musician?
It’s the sacrifice it takes to do it.
Even in a band at this level, some would argue we’re successful, others would say we’re right at the bottom of the ladder. If you’re basing it on Coldplay, we’re nobodies, but if you’re basing it on the underground we’ve at least got a name for ourselves and we can pack out a venue in London. Either way, we still don’t really make any money.
I read an article saying we came back because of the offer of lots of cash [laughs]! It’s just like…really? Because that never happened. There’s enough to float along when you’re doing it, and it’s literally that simple.
You break even, and there’s a little bit left on top.
Yeah. We make a bit of money occasionally. When we first came back with that first UK tour, because we sold so many t-shirts we were able to split a few thousand each. But really, there’s nothing beyond that. For this tour, we’ll probably get less than a grand each. That’s just the way it is.
It’s the truth, because you’re not operating at a level where it’s that liquid. You’ve got to pay people to work for you. So the most difficult thing is doing it for the right reasons, from the heart so to speak.
The hardest part of being in a band these days is reminding yourself why you’re doing it. You’re putting in a lot of effort and time for very little in return when it comes to finances. So you have to make sure that the kick you’re getting from it is purely musical and emotional and life experience. You’re not doing it for money – and often you’re doing it in place of earning money, so it’s like losing money.
I can imagine that in the early days, when you were just getting going, it’s not even a part-time job. It’s something you do on top of what you’re doing for work.
Absolutely. But when you’re younger, you can take the piss a bit more. You can ask your parents to help you out, if you’re lucky enough to be able to do that. You can avoid the real world.
But when you’re in your mid-to-late thirties, you can’t do that. You’ve got commitments, some people have families, etc. It becomes a question of “…can we do this?” For example, we were offered an Animals As Leaders tour in America. We were offered so many different tours in the States, tours that when we were in our early twenties we’d have bitten their hands off. And now we have to go “…well, we’d like to, but we can’t.”
Because of the schedule, getting over there, all that stuff.
It may break even, or not. And often bands offer us good money to facilitate it, but it would be breaking even. And it’s effectively six weeks off work.
You have all your production work, a lot of other stuff going on.
Exactly – and you’ve got rent to pay, all the rest of it. It doesn’t matter that we’re a band – just anyone reading this, imagine someone just saying “take six weeks off work”. Life doesn’t work like that. So it’s very difficult to do a band these days.
Especially if you’re doing something which isn’t commercially accessible.
It has a ceiling. If you’re willing to tour all year round, we would probably be able to make a living doing it. But we’d never get home, or have a normal life. We’d just be on the road, and we don’t want to do that either.
We’re old enough now to have other things in our lives that are important to us. Whereas in our early twenties, we would’ve toured all year round and not thought twice. You evolve as a human. You change a little bit.
If you could give some advice to any up-and-coming musicians who might be reading this, what would you say to them?
Be realistic. Understand that it’s blindly going into something and saying I’m going to get rich, and be a huge success story. It doesn’t matter how much talent you have – that’s not necessarily a dead cert. It’s about being savvy with it.
I always say to people, if you want to succeed in music, have fingers in pies. If you can be in a band, but also bringing in money from somewhere else that you get enjoyment from, the band doesn’t feel like pressure. You can focus on doing it because you really care, and you want to make music.
If you’re relying on a band and a band only to bring money in, you’ll be stressed, you won’t write your best music. So it’s like, be savvy. Find a way to support the band, so the band becomes a musical entity. You can concentrate on it creatively, and not rely upon it.
Everyone in bands makes the same mistake, and says the same shit. “Oh, I can’t get a job, because we might have a gig in three weeks.” And it’s bullshit. You can, and we all can. We all just bullshit our parents and friends, because that’s what being in a band is like.
When you get in a band, you think you’re so elite that you don’t have to do anything else. But in reality, none of that helps. As a segue, when we were writing Death Of A Dead Day, I went through a huge depression. I had no money, and I was like “…why am I doing this?”
I went and got a labouring job. I was working from 5am every morning, picking up heavy things, digging holes and all the rest of it. And it was that experience that enabled me to write Death Of A Dead Day. I was mentally awake, serotonin was flooding because I was using my body, I was earning money so I didn’t have to stress every night, and I was able to write Death Of A Dead Day.
So balancing music with life is the biggest advice I could give someone. Don’t just throw every egg into that basket.
Also, the mental health thing you touched on there – a couple of years ago, there was a big report called Can Music Make You Sick? It was based on a survey of people in the music industry, and found that about 70% of the people they’d surveyed had issues with depression, and 70% had anxiety as well; I guess some of them had both.
The mental health thing is a big issue in music.
From my personal perspective, having had depression issues and having known a lot of people with mental health issues in music…you can’t generalise, but to an extent it’s because our whole existence, when you’re a songwriter or creative, you base everything upon success or whether you’re considered to be good, or what you’ve written that day based on your own measures of whether you’re talented or not.
Creative people are never satisfied, so you’re constantly chasing a carrot you’re never going to eat. You’re constantly waiting for validation – and I can prove it by saying if you’ve achieved something, and it doesn’t bring you that fulfilment, you’re just craving the next thing, you end up suffering with the same problem again. It’s a cyclical thing.
I’ve only managed to battle my depression, which is directly linked to my creativity, as I’ve got older. Because I’ve managed to not care if someone buys it or doesn’t, or comes to the gig or doesn’t. In my head, I know it’s good – and that’s good enough for me.
That’s an important step. Music’s a tough thing. Everyone’s scared, like “fuck, what if this doesn’t work? What if I have to go back to the real world and sell my guitar?” And that shadow creates depression in itself.
It’s anxiety as well – and that leads into depression, as well as being a problem on its own.
One hundred percent. Fear as well. Constant fear.
We’re all telling everyone we’re going to be successful, or “I’m really good at writing songs, but no one knows it yet. Trust me,” so you’re living like “fuck, what if this doesn’t work?” And that’s horrible.
There’s a sales element to it, and a perfectionistic bit too.
It’s all conviction-driven, when you’re in this kind of music. There was no one telling us that that song was ready to go. It was our vision, saying we know when it’s good enough.
If we were lazy fuckers, we could’ve just written some riffs, boshed them down, taken the money when we signed a big record deal when we were younger, and had an easier life. But no one would know or give a shit who SikTh are now, and we can come back many years later and still fill out a venue because we put the extra work in.
Because of that, we have a reputation based on our music. We’re not a cool band, we’re not a scene band, we don’t play the game really. So our music is everything. We have to live and die by it.
We still feel the pressure. Doing the new album was super hard. We want people to go “wow, they’re still really good,” you know?
Any band who says they don’t care what anyone thinks is lying, because you wouldn’t go out and seek a record deal or stand onstage and enjoy the spotlight. Everybody wants people to like their music – it’s bullshit to say otherwise. But granted, you have to go by your own standards, and go “…if I like it, other people will like it,” and that’s how you work it.
If we’d brought an album out and the reviews had been terrible across the board, I would’ve been personally really hurt. No lie. Because I look at it statistically – if this many people think it’s shit, it might be shit! Therefore, my convictions might be fucked.
When the reviews for this album were particularly good, it was like a pat on the back and going “…thank fuck”. When Death Of A Dead Day came out, which is ironic, the reviews were largely average to poor. No one really cared, and the first album [The Trees Are Dead And Dried Out, Wait For Something Wild] was equally the same.
So it’s funny now that Death Of A Dead Day is considered influential. Because at the time, no one gave a shit. It’s the same with Far Beyond Driven, And Justice For All…, some of my favourite albums. S.C.I.E.N.C.E. by Incubus, I remember when they all came out they all got poor reviews.
Reviewers don’t realise that it has a huge impact on your momentum and the general vibe around the band. One bad review in particular really caused a lot of issues. Our label didn’t know if our album was good or bad – they were a pop label, so they had no clue. They signed us to be the edgy label who signed this crazy, wacky band.
So when someone turns around and says it’s basically crap, the label probably believed it. And they lost a bit of confidence in it. It does make you realise the importance of all that stuff.
But now you’re playing at Koko more than a decade later, and people have forgotten what that guy said…
Or they weren’t even alive at the time! I met a guy recently who was born in 1999, so he was four when …Trees… came out. And you look at bands like Nickelback, Limp Bizkit – did they ever get anything nice said about them? And did they sell out arenas and stadiums anyway? Who got the last laugh?
Fair point! What do you have planned for next year?
We’re touring Australia and South Africa. There’re talks about going back to America. I’m not sure if we’re doing much in the UK – we might leave the UK on ice for a bit, because you can overexpose a band like this.
Enter Shikari, a band I’ve worked with, sustained their fan base by just putting out constant singles. So I was talking to the guys about that. Rather than doing an album next, we might try just coming out with some really insane singles.
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