Therapy? Call For a Nurse
Francis Jones talks to Michael McKeegan about an important milestone for the band
Released in 1992, Nurse was Therapy?’s major label debut. Previous releases Babyteeth and Pleasure Death, on indie Wiiija, had established the band’s reputation as a fine power punk trio.
Nurse however, saw Therapy? move beyond the confines of their previous hardcore sound by drawing on rap, techno, ambient and reggae influences, to add substance to the basic punk template. Invested with a sonic inventiveness, poise and subtlety that had previously been lacking, Nurse would see Therapy? hailed as 'one of the most important bands in Britain'.
The album confirmed that Therapy? were a band unafraid to engage with the bigger issues, be it The Troubles or the lie of the American dream. Meanwhile, their guitar contemporaries at home and abroad were elevating moody introspection and emotional flagellation to an art form. Michael McKeegan, bass player and band stalwart recalls the making of that seminal album and considers the legacy of Nurse.
Even prior to releasing Nurse, Therapy? had been an extremely productive band. In those early years you were signed to the indie Wiiija, how would you describe the band’s relationship with them?
'The band formed in 1990, Babyteeth came out in ’91, Pleasure Death in '92, both on Wiiija, and then Nurse. We had a few run-ins with them (Wiiija), they worked on a shoestring budget. I think the final straw came with Pleasure Death.
'It was meant to be a 4-track EP, but we’d recorded 8 songs. They (Wiiija) basically said it’s gonna be a 6 track mini album so we can charge more and it’ll be more cost effective. We were naïve, we were like “it’s a 4-track EP, it’s a piece of art”. We were really quite disillusioned with the whole thing, we just wanted things to be simple, money to do stuff, money to live on, replace the crappy van that’s petrol fumes are poisoning us. And it would be nice to tour and not have to eat coleslaw sandwiches all the time.'
You had been courted by a number of the major labels before eventually signing to A&M. Why did you choose them over the others?
'A lot of major labels started coming at us. Out of all those labels (A&M) were the only ones who didn’t turn up wearing a puffa jacket and asking us if we wanted to do cocaine with them at a strip club. It went on for a long time and then we signed to A&M. Not because it was the most money, but because there weren’t any artistic control clauses.
'Ironically on a major label it was so much easier. There were no politics, no making you feel guilty, that you weren’t right-on enough. Nurse was produced by the guy who was our live sound engineer at the time and for a major label debut. They wouldn’t let you do that now.'
Nurse was to be your major label debut, as such, did you try and do anything differently in preparing to write and record the album?
'We’d this vision that we would live and breathe the album. We got our manager to hire this house in the middle of nowhere, 12 miles from Carlow. It was a very odd house, really weird noises, just very creepy. No phones and none of us had a car either. We were there for 2 weeks and that classic cabin fever started to kick in. To some degree that approach worked and to some degree it didn’t.'
There were two main guitar band types operating in 1992. At home there were the indie shoegazers, bands like Slowdive and Ride, whilst in America there was the Seattle/Grunge explosion. Did any of that inform what you were trying to do with Nurse or were you trying set your own parameters?
'Yeah, ’92 was Nevermind and the whole grunge thing. But I think we were aware that we would probably have more shelf life if we avoided doing what was hip this year. At that stage we’d already done the chaotic thing with Babyteeth. Pleasure Death, there were the couple of extra songs that we weren’t very happy with.
'We thought (with Nurse) let’s really go for the rhythm thing. Andy worked really hard to not play the generic grunge power chords. We tried to make it that all the songs would be in cycles, hypnotic. We went to Logo studios in Wales for two weeks. We worked really hard, we did about 12 songs, which was the album and then 2 instrumentals and 1 song we weren’t 100% sure of.'
The album opens with that wonderful sample, half-scream, half-shout. It’s threatening and let’s us know that this album is in many respects a statement of intent. Like the previous Therapy? material, there is something abrasive about ‘Nausea’, but there is also something very melodic as well.
'There’s that whole trance, tribal thing. It’s one riff, I play four notes, but in six or seven different ways and it’s all about the dynamic. The chorus is full-on, then there’s another bit and then the bridge where it gets a bit flowery. The coolest thing about Nurse is that there’s this sample “Here I am Motherf***ers” and its Nick Cave from the movie Ghosts of the Civil Dead. It was an intro, we just thought this is great.'
And ‘Teethgrinder’, first single from the album and probably the first time a lot of people became aware of the band.
'It’s one where we had the sample and that took over the chorus. We got it from this documentary called American Tales. There was this woman who’d done so much speed or these f***ed up American amphetamines that she ground her teeth away and had to get them all capped.
'We thought ‘Teethgrinder’ was a great title. Andy wrote the music and the lyric and I wrote the middle eight bit. What’s ironic is that Fyfe, our original drummer decided he wanted to sing it. So Andy had to teach him to sing. It and it took ages cause it’s quite tricky to drum and sing at the same time.'
You mentioned how Teethgrinder is based around that sample from an American television documentary. America does seem to have had an impact on the album, thematically if not musically. In many ways you appear to be the observer, commenting on the bizarre, unhealthy aspects of the American psyche, especially on a song like Disgracelands.
'This is the global monster and commercialism that is the US. I always thought it was quite telling that Moscow had a McDonalds before Belfast. That’s something for Northern Ireland to be proud of. The American Dream blah, blah, blah. Everyone knows there is that side of American culture that’s absurd. There was this thing of if it’s American it must be culturally good. Thankfully that did burn out in the early 90s.'
And more generally with regards to themes/lyrics what were the chief concerns and sources of inspiration for Nurse?
'We used to go out everyday and buy the papers, still do, and it would be that thing of “f***ing hell there’s a bloke in Frankfurt, who...” whatever. Just bizarre stories and the dark side of people. We did have an interest in serial killers, you know the guy next door mentality, “he was a quiet man...” and then you would find out he’s got like thirty dismembered bodies in his cellar. By Nurse we’d realised that the local people were almost as insane as anything you’d read about American serial killers. Some things we just wrote about because they sounded cool.'
You’ve spoken previously of your admiration for the seminal American hardcore acts of the 80s, but were there any homegrown acts that influenced you?
'When we started the band it was the tail-end of the 80s and everyone sounded like U2 or Simple Minds, two bands I never got. They didn’t touch me in any special way in my life like Husker Dü did or Black Flag or even Thin Lizzy did. Coming from Northern Ireland there was that punk thing, SLF, Undertones, Rudy and Protex. All great bands.'
Fyfe (original drummer) did eventually leave the band. Whilst you were making Nurse were band relations cordial, or was some of that later strain and division starting to show?
'There was a bit of a clash starting to show there. We’d been living in each other’s pockets for almost two years by this stage. I feel that one of the most important things about being in a band is knowing that at the end of the day everything will be a compromise. If you’re not prepared to make that compromise then be a solo artist. I don’t want to be mean to Fyfe. But, for me you should be thinking about things in terms of the band. If the record’s great then it’s reflected glory and everyone’s a winner.'
It has been over 13 years since the release of Nurse and yet listening to the album recently I was struck by just how contemporary and indeed vital it still sounds.
'We just trusted our base instinct and asked does this work. It’s timeless in a way. It’s got that groove to it although it is more song/melody based than say techno. We play a lot of the songs live now still and they go down great. Nurse doesn’t sound particularly cynical. It was a good time for the band. Out of our more well known albums Nurse, Troublegum and Infernal Love, Nurse is the one that’s actually sold least. But, a lot of people still bang on about it as being "the great one".'
Check back soon for when Francis Jones talks to Jake Burns from seminal Belfast band, Still Little Fingers.