As the vocalist for defunct doom legends Cathedral and founder of Rise Above Records, Lee Dorrian has heavy cred to spare. But many fans might not know about his long history of anti-fascist activism as a teenager growing up in the depressed industrial center of Coventry, England, in the Seventies and Eighties. After a stint as a (non-racist) skinhead listening to reggae and ska, Dorrian discovered anarcho-punk bands like Crass and Flux of Pink Indians, went vegetarian at 13 and eventually became the vocalist for grind O.G.s Napalm Death — all before starting both Cathedral and Rise Above in the late Eighties.
These days, Dorrian runs Rise Above from London and fronts the doom outfit With the Dead, which also features former Electric Wizard member Tim Bagshaw, ex-Cathedral bassist Leo Smee and former Bolt Thrower drummer Alex Thomas. The band's second and latest album, Love From With the Dead, is an oppressively heavy slab of doom that includes 10-plus-minute epics about Dorrian's hometown ("CV1") and a harrowing recent hospital stay ("Watching the Ward Go By"). We spoke with Dorrian three days after the ignominious neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left an innocent woman dead and several others injured — an event he had plenty of perspective on.
FIRST OFF, HOW ARE YOU FEELING?
LEE DORRIAN Much better than I was — thanks. I spent a bit of time in hospital for pancreatitis and about six other things. I had real bad kidney pains for about five days, and they just got worse and worse to the point where I had to call an ambulance. Then the ambulance took, like, four hours to get here while I was dying in pain. Then they just threw me into the [emergency room] for about six hours and left me to die. They treated me like a dog because they thought I was a junkie after free drugs or something. When I eventually saw a nurse, he couldn't believe I was alive, let alone functioning. I'd lost about half my blood from internal bleeding. Then they fucking sent me home and told me to come back on Wednesday! In the end, they kept me in there for about two weeks. I had four blood transfusions. The ward I was in was full of 90-plus-year-old dementia patients, so it was quite an experience. The way I was treated was really bad.
THE NEW WITH THE DEAD SONG "WATCHING THE WARD GO BY" IS ABOUT YOUR HOSPITAL STAY ...
[Laughs] That was one of those songs that was written as a jam early last year. I didn't have any words for it, really, but once I was in hospital, I just came up with those words one night. In the background, you can hear stuff I actually recorded while I was in there. You can hear one of the patients calling for the nurse every five seconds. He was doing that 24 hours a day. There was another guy sitting opposite me saying, "It's unbelievable, isn't it? Fucking incredible, isn't it?" He was saying that constantly, 24 hours a day. I was in a couple of different wards, but on the third night I was there, this Jamaican guy was talking to himself a lot. I fell asleep, and when I woke up he was standing at the foot of my bed shouting at me. I had headphones on, but he nearly gave me a heart attack. He'd ripped all of his tubes out, his gown was hanging off him, and he was shouting at me, "You are the devil's child!" Like, screaming and shaking. [Laughs] Too much doom is not good for your health, I suppose!
WHAT DO YOU MAKE OF WHAT HAPPENED OVER THE WEEKEND IN CHARLOTTESVILLE?
Fucking disgraceful. They've been given a justification by that president of yours, haven't they? All these fucking slimers are gonna come crawling out now. I hate to say it, but maybe that needs to happen. I don't know. And now they're saying that anti-fascist people are the new fascists, that people who are against fascism are brainwashed. I'm not a political person at all in terms of party politics, but I know who my fucking enemy is — and it's not people who are against fascism. It's fucking fascists! [Laughs]
THE MEDIA IS PART OF THE PROBLEM, TOO. OUTLETS THAT USE THE TERM "ALT-RIGHT" ARE SUGAR-COATING IT. CALL THEM WHAT THEY ARE: NEO-NAZIS.
Exactly. They've got the Grand Wizard of the fucking Klan out there. He's "alt-right" now? I don't fucking think so. They're gonna deny that lynchings happened next, the same way they deny the Holocaust. This shit didn't happen? I'm afraid to tell you, it fucking did, and it's gonna happen again soon if people don't wise up to this shit. It's really scary. I think you have to fucking acknowledge it because a lot of people who are in opposition to the fascists are just taking it for granted that we can take them on and win. But it's getting fucking serious.
These are people who have a very simplistic outlook on life. I'm not trying to be a patronizing prick — I didn't go to university. I just grew up and saw things with my own fucking eyes. But people seem to think they have some kind of intelligent viewpoint by saying that people who oppose fascism are brainwashed. I mean, come on. Wake up. They say, "Call me a racist if you like, but I support President Trump." Well, why would you say, "Call me a racist" in the first place? I'm not gonna call someone a racist unless I think they are a racist. But if you have nothing negative to say about the alt-right but plenty to say about the opposition to the alt-right, then it would suggest to me that you are a sympathizer. It's quite sad because things are going to get tough between people who you thought were friends. I mean, I can't have friends with that mentality. No way.
YOU'VE HAD A LOT OF EXPERIENCE IN DEALING WITH NEO-NAZIS, HAVEN'T YOU?
When I was growing up I was getting death threats off these cunts. My mum was getting death threats. I don't forget things like that. I was a skinhead when I was 12, 13, 14 — an extremely anti-racist skinhead. I was a vegan skinhead into Crass! [Laughs] I dressed in the Sixties style with the button-down shirts, but I listened to anarcho-punk. It was a strange combination, obviously. After getting into two-tone and reggae and ska, I got into the skinhead image, but I was into hardcore punk, at the same time. But I grew out of that image because I just didn't want to be associated with the dicks that were giving skinheads a bad name. Because not all skinheads are bad, you know? There's boneheads and there's skinheads — and there's a big difference. The boneheads are the racist fucking idiots, and those fuckers turned on me — bad — when I became more crusty and stuff.
WHAT SPECIFICALLY PROVOKED THEM?
I used to do a fanzine, and I published an article about the [far right] British Nationalist Party, which was a newly formed political party at that time. A friend of mine wrote the piece, and I was gonna print it in my fanzine. They heard it was going to be printed so they started phoning up my mum and giving her death threats. They told her they were waiting around her flat and the next time I was around I was gonna get fucking stabbed and stuff like this. So I went 'round to her flat one afternoon when the phone rang. I picked it up and someone goes, "Is that Lee Dorrian?" I knew exactly who it was — I recognized his voice right way, but he denied that it was him. [Laughs] It was a guy I stood up for in court for when I was, like, 15 because he assaulted a policeman and I stood in his defense.
About a year after the death threats, I went to this party and a load of these boneheads were in the fucking lounge. I walked in, and they all did a Nazi salute. By this time, I had written on the back of my jacket: "Fuck your nationality: Make home brew, not war." [Laughs] So they hated me even more for that. Meanwhile, one guy put on "White Power" by Skrewdriver just to wind me up. So I went up to these boneheads one by one and squared up to each and every one of them. They didn't have the balls to stand up and hit me, but a year before they were giving me and my mother death threats. So fuck this shit.
ANOTHER TIME YOU WERE BEATEN UP BECAUSE YOUR ATTACKERS THOUGHT YOU WERE A RACIST SKINHEAD ...
When I was 13, I got attacked for looking the way I looked. I was walking home from a punk disco for under 16 year olds on a Monday night and it had kicked off at this disco — there was a lot of racial tension in the air then. I was with a Thalidomide girl — she only had one arm — and I had gotten the last bus home with her just to make sure she was OK. Her stop was not my usual stop, but I got off there and started walking home. As I got closer to the bus stop where I would normally get off, a load of black guys got off the bus and started giving me shit, shouting at me from across the road. I said, "Look, I'm not racist. Everything's cool." But they chased me down a hill called Skinner's Hill, kicked the fuck out of me and basically left me for dead. I was unconscious for about four hours in the middle of winter—I was only 13 years old — before I staggered home and told my mum I fell down the stairs. Yeah, right. And the whole time I was getting kicked in, one of the guys was telling them, "Leave him alone — he's all right. I know who he is." But that didn't stop them. So that happened to me, but it didn't make me a racist. It just made me hate racism more. I got beaten up and attacked many times by white idiots, too. So I've got reasons to hate Nazis.
YOU MENTIONED EARLIER THAT YOU WENT VEGAN AT 13. THAT MUST'VE BEEN AN INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT DIET TO MAINTAIN IN ENGLAND IN THE EARLY EIGHTIES.
Well, I started off vegetarian and then I was vegan on and off for years. But yeah, it was very difficult. I didn't know anyone else who was a vegetarian, let alone vegan, at the time. But I'd always wanted to be a vegetarian ever since I was a little kid. I used to stand outside the butcher's when my parents went in — I wouldn't even go inside. I remember kicking my mum under the table to get the meat off my plate if we were at a relative's house. I'd always had those tendencies, but it was hearing records like the Flux of Pink Indians EP, Neu Smell, that made me realize it wasn't just me that felt this way. There's a track on there called "Sick Butchers," and it just made me fucking realize that meat wasn't for me. [Laughs] I've been vegetarian ever since. I've been vegan on and off, and have been again for the last 10 years. But no meat for 36 years. It's a lot easier over here now, but it used to be very tough, especially when you're 13 and have no cooking skills. You literally just live on bloody vegetables. But with a bit of time, I sorted out what to do.
THERE'S A SONG ON THE NEW ALBUM, "CV1," ABOUT YOUR HOMETOWN OF COVENTRY. IS IT BASED AROUND THESE KINDS OF MEMORIES — GETTING BEATEN UP AND TRYING TO SURVIVE AS A VEGETARIAN?
The song is an ode to Coventry — and a lament in many ways, too. Coventry is not a nice place to grow up, and those things are part of that whole experience, but it's more about the way the city's been treated by the [city] council. In the Second World War, Coventry was completely destroyed by Nazi Germany. Them fucking cunts destroyed my town, and I'm supposed to support free speech for everybody? I don't fucking think so. They flattened Coventry. The frustrating thing is that the few things that did survive the war have slowly been demolished. It's extremely sad.
When the city was rebuilt in the late Forties, it was probably the most futuristic city in the world. It was cool when I was growing up — I liked the way it was. Before the war, it was a really scenic medieval town — which obviously I didn't see, but I saw pictures — with cobbled streets and medieval buildings. But through the Fifties and Sixties there was a massive boom because it was the Motor City of the U.K., like the Detroit of England, really. All the main car manufacturers were based in Coventry — Rolls Royce, Jaguar. Triumph was a Coventry company. So it was very prosperous until the mid-Seventies, when Thatcher came along and the whole country started falling to shit. The city's been treated poorly since then. It was a place of wonder transformed into a concrete fucking eyesore. They started taking out fountains and putting in glass lifts and paving over all the green parts. They turned it into a dump, really.
I used to roam the streets with gangs of punks and skins and you'd know the city inside out. You knew every little spot where you could sleep rough or just hide away — all the little backstreets and pubs and places where bands played. So it's a very special place for me. It's where I grew up and where I learned everything, really. But as time's gone on, it's just become more and more frustrating. When I was last living there, I couldn't handle the way the place was being treated. It made me depressed. Hence the reason I don't live there anymore. I moved out in 2002. If anybody says anything negative about it, I'll be sure to stand up for it — my family and a lot of my friends still live there — but the song is a lament to the Coventry I once knew.