By ANDREW DIXON
Andrew Dixon interviewed Lou James from the Aussie six-piece group Alpine as they prepared for their new album Yuck to hit the shelves, and readied themselves for the global Foolish tour.
Alpine pay more than just lip service to their cross-continental success. Their sound’s changed noticeably since their first full-length studio album, A is for Alpine, as have the group’s creative dynamics.
“After touring with each other, we got really close… there was this new-found confidence. (Yuck) came really organically,” states Lou, one of the band’s two lead singers.
Fans are clearly lapping it up though, with the Foolish tour starting on home soil in Adelaide before moving east, selling out shows along the way.
“The Governor in Adelaide and the Forum in Melbourne are very different venues … there’s so many factors that make each show unique.”
Now Lou, Phoebe, Christian, Ryan, Tim and Phil are embarking on a huge US tour many young Aussie bands would envy. But is the prospect of a massive new tour, exciting extending from Australia around the world, a little nerve-wracking?
“It’s a bit of both… I’m actually a little nervous,” says Lou. “With the older material… we’ve been touring with that for so long… whereas this time it’s daunting because we’ll be playing these tracks for the first time”.
Playing massive gigs in New York doesn’t make the show in Ballarat any less special. The likelihood of familiar faces in the local crowds adds to the pressure of the smaller local gigs. “Ballarat is smaller… you can actually see everyone, down to the freckles of their faces!”
Though they hung out and played informally as friends, their true talent lay dormant until 2009, when they became well-known names after Triple J’s Unearthed network gave them a national platform. Lou claims that “Tim uploaded our really crappy demo and then Dom Allessio played Heartlove. From there we had labels contacting us, managers contacting us… it was like BOOM! It just happened.” Having Ivy League as their label didn’t hurt, either. “They saw so much in us, they still do and it keeps our independence.”
As the band grew, Christian took an interest in production, taking on a co-producer role with Dan Hume, their existing producer. According to Lou though, “it felt like we were all producing it… You never felt like a puppet for anyone at the label. There’s something beautiful about working with people who really want you to express yourself through your art.”
When all the band members got involved in the production of a very different second product, it’s not surprising that the creative dynamic changed. “With A is for Alpine, we held back with how we wrote music because we were worried we couldn’t do it live! There was a lack of confidence and certain technologies we weren’t familiar with at the time. We’ve read and learned a lot more from other bands and how they use their equipment; we were fearless. I think you can hear that,” she exclaims of Yuck, which Christian claims was born of “a textured or harmonic idea” and then turned into music.
“This album steps up a little more… there’s a heap of instruments we didn’t use on the first record… there’s way more textures and layers.” And the most musically complicated and difficult track on the album to create? “Shot Fox. We were playing around with glitch key sounds, then we added guitar, then we added trumpets, then we added… things that sound a bit strange. But the different layers of instrumentation really gave us a unique sound, almost counteractive melodies.” It was definitely the hardest song on the album to record – “soooo complicated!” Lou proclaims. “There’s so much going on.”
At the end of the show, though, they all have to come back to work eventually. “We’ve always had day jobs. Phoebe and I have continued studying, I just finished a postgraduate in Communications and Phoebe’s doing her masters in international development. Christian has a master’s in Music Composition, Tim is a freelance graphic designer and Ryan has his own company that makes and fixes guitars, and he’s also a bit of a road tech for other bands. On top of all that, Phil works in an Apple store, so we’re a pretty busy band!”
But isn’t holding down a job a little difficult when you can be on the road for months at a time? Lou admits it’s “full on, but it makes it even more rewarding when we’re playing, when we’re touring. It’s hard, no doubt – I mean, Phoebe and I also work in a pub, but you can’t have the most glamorous job when you need the flexibility to go away on tour and pay the bills.”
If their musical inspirations seem hard to pin down, it’s probably because each of Alpine’s members has a completely different musical palate. For Lou: “St Vincent, Roxy Music, Kate Bush, little known artists that write these beautiful songs but they write with courage, and with sensitivity… they like to challenge sounds, they’re a little bit left of centre, you know, there’s theatricals involved!” But that’s one of six people. “There’s so much at the table, from Christian’s classical background – he’s a huge Radiohead fan, by the way – Pheobe’s jazz and 60s and 70s pop… It’s very eclectic and I think that’s what’s great.” So do the fans, it seems.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to sound like anyone… just a beautiful mess!”
Andrew Dixon: Yuck’s your second studio album, and you have a pretty strong following from A is for Alpine, which was number 1 on the Australian iTunes chart and also a triple J feature album – how did you deal with the pressure to match the success of your debut? Did it change the dynamics of the group when creating and recording songs?
Lou James: Not at all. I always find that question really funny. That whole sense of pressure didn’t faze us at all when writing this album. I think to feel that pressure is where a lot of bands go wrong… the expectation of writing something that’s gotta be better, it’s gotta match it, but if you write music that you love, and you just have fun, you’re gonna create something that you’re happy with. At the end of the day if you’re really stoked with it, if other people like it, great. If they don’t, you’re still really stoked. We didn’t really listen to a lot of “charting” music as well, we just went into a little bubble and just did what we did. We got to spend roughly a year working on this record, which was something we didn’t get to do with A is for Alpine. We had material there, but were given less than three weeks to get it all done. So it was really, really intense. I didn’t enjoy that process as much, because we’d never recorded an album, and it was terrifying. I think with this one, we knew what to expect, we had more time, and we knew the industry a bit more – we were more familiar with it. Writing this album was not as terrifying… we had more time. After touring with each other we were really close, so we had more of an understanding of our identity and our influences. We’d just been touring, in each other’s faces for what felt like two years. So there was just this new-found confidence, and you know, it just came really organically. I think that’s kind of rare, I don’t think that happens easily, so we were really lucky.
AD: Foolish [the single] has been out for just over a week and your tour begins tomorrow. Is the prospect of touring a little intimidating, or genuinely exciting?
Lou: It’s a bit of both, although everyone’s going to say different things. I’m actually a little nervous. I feel like with the older material since the EP, we’ve been touring with that for so long, and when it finally got to us doing a big tour, we were really familiar with our songs. You had a mood, and we had that confidence whereas this time, for me it’s a little daunting because it’s the first time we’ll be performing all these songs. There’s been two or three shows where we’ve performed a couple of tracks from this album but this is so new for us and the people coming to the show. It’s really fresh, raw, but at the same time it’s really exciting because it’s gonna be pretty special.
AD: How does it compare playing live in a big city like New York or LA when you’re starting out in Adelaide and Ballarat?
Lou: To be honest, there’s something really comforting about being on home soil, and also when you play smaller, more intimate shows, every show is never the same, regardless of where you are. The venue, the people, the mood that they’re in and the mood that you’re in, there’s so many factors that make each show unique. So I love the smaller shows – doing regional shows like Ballarat or The Governor in Adelaide, the Forum in Melbourne are all very different venues. There’s something great about each of them, for example Ballarat is smaller and you can actually see everyone, down to the freckles on their faces. Then you go to the forum and although you can still see them, they’re just a little bit smaller, and you have a bigger stage to play on. It’s just funny because it gives you a different context every time you play, which makes it a lot of fun. But playing at home is so great, because it’s home, and they’ve been with us from the get-go, they’ve seen us from the EP til now. That’s something the US doesn’t see as much because we’ve toured more extensively here than we have there.
AD: You guys have been active since about 2009, but it only took you about a year to get out an EP and you had a studio album by 2012, which is a timeline I’m sure a lot of Aussie bands would be a little jealous of. Has your success come as a bit of a shock, or were you laying the groundwork before you got together and started recording?
Lou: We’d been together about three years before then. We weren’t really trying to be a successful band, we just started writing music together. It wasn’t until triple j made us Unearthed Feature Artist for a week with our really crappy demo, Tim uploaded it and then Dom Allessio played Heartlove from the EP and form there was like – because triple J is such an amazing tool for unsigned artists, we had labels contacting us, managers contacting us, and then it was like BOOM! It just happened. To be honest we didn’t have a huge amount of people after us. We had Ivy League, who are incredible, pick us up, and our manager, and they’ve stuck with us and have been the best possible team to work with. They just saw so much in us, they still do and it keeps that independence, not being with a major label. Behind the art there’s less focus on money, and although it might sound controversial, there’s something beautiful about working with people who really want you to express yourself through your art. We’ve been really lucky with that.
AD: How important has your relationship with Ivy League records been to your success internationally?
Lou: They’ve just listened to us, helped us to communicate what we want to express as a band. At the end of the day, you are a product, but you know, they allowed us to have some amazing music videos, they allowed us to create some great music, and they allowed us to put it out there into the world, which meant people were able to hear it, and then you know we were able to do South by Southwest in Austin TX, where we got picked up by a US label. It’s been a domino effect, really, in the best possible way.
AD: Yuck is the first album that members of your band have co-produced. Were you all involved with that, or was it just Christian?
Lou: Christian was co-producing with Dan Hum, and Dan Hume produced our first record. Obviously those two pretty much steered the ship together, but because were all good friends and everyone really listens to each other and is open to trying out new ideas. It almost felt like we were all producing it, even if those two were the main peeps. You never feel like you’re just a puppet for everyone else to control.
AD: Have you gone into this album with that “studio refined” end product in mind, or do you primarily see yourself as writing songs for the stage?
Lou: We’re a little less fearless, writing music and not feeling like it has to sound live exactly like it sounds on the record. In terms of the stage, we figured out how to use the right technology to project what we want live. In A is for Alpine, we held back with how we wrote music because we were worried that we couldn’t do it live, and I think that was because of a lack of confidence and we didn’t know how to use certain technologies whereas this time we do. We’ve read a lot more and we’ve seen other bands and how they use their equipment, so we were just way more fearless. I think you can hear that – there’s way more textures and layers in Yuck. There’s brass, there’s instruments we didn’t use on the first record which I think has made this album step up a little bit more. But we’ve been rehearsing and it sounds unreal!
AD: Speaking of textures, a quote from Christian says most of your music came from a textured or harmonic idea that you guys were curious about. Can you elaborate on how a texture or harmonic idea becomes a song?
Lou: Say Shop Fox, we were playing around with glitch key sounds, then we added guitar, then we added trumpets, then we added… things that sound a bit strange, but were able to add them into different layers of instrumentation which then really gave us a sound, almost through counteractive melodies. Shop Fox was probably the hardest song to record on the album. It is sooo complicated. If you ever get the chance to really listen to the music, there’s so much going on.
AD: It’s not easy to make a living in music, and you guys have obviously had some good luck with early success, but do you have to hold down other jobs or do you just work super-hard in the music scene to maintain an income?
Lou: We all have day jobs, and we’ve always had day jobs. Phoebe and I have both continued studying. I just finished a postgrad in communications and Phoebe’s doing her masters in international development. Tim is freelance graphic designer, and Ryan has his own company where they make and fix guitars, and he’s also a bit of a road tech, helping test equipment for bands when they’re on tour and Phil works in the Apple store, so we’re a pretty busy band. It’s full on, but it makes it even more rewarding when we’re playing, when we’re touring… It’s hard. I also work in a pub, and so does Phoebe, but you can’t have the most glamorous job, but you need a job that gives you the flexibility to go away on tour as well as helping to pay the bills.
AD: I’ll finish with a question I’m sure you’ve been asked… your musical inspirations. What sort of bands have you looked up to, what musicians have you taken creative inspiration from in the creation of Yuck?
Lou: That’s a hard one, and again, everyone’s going to have their own answers. For me, I’m very inspired by talking heads, St Vincent, Roxy Music, Kate Bush, little known artists that write these beautiful songs but they write courageous but they’re very sensitive, they like to challenge sounds, they’re a little bit left of centre, you know, there’s theatrics involved, those are my influences. But with six people there’s so much at the table. Christian’s got a classical background, and he’s a huge Radiohead fan. Phoebe listens to a lot of jazz and 60s and 70s pop Carlia. It’s very eclectic and I think that’s what’s great. I don’t think we’re ever going to sound like anyone… just a beautiful mess.