(An interview i did with Australian Band Alpine for TSQUAT)
At first glance, with an E.P entitled Zurich, a self referential debut album (A is for Alpine) and a similarly Central European alluding former band moniker (Swiss), one could be forgiven for thinking that young Australian band Alpine may be going through somewhat of an identity crisis.
Yet there is method in the groups madness. One listen of the bands standout debut proves that while songs may sound light and vivacious, thanks primarily to the vocal talents of front-women Lou James and Phoebe Baker and the vital, often exceptional musicianship of the groups solid remaining core (Christian O’Brien on guitar, Ryan Lamb on bass, Tim Royal on keys and Phil Tucker on drums), there is a distinct darkness that lies beneath the bright green cover. If the bands effervescent and popular pop hits like Gasoline and Villages is this Melbourne six-piece’s glowing silver lining, then there is distinct cloud that hangs beneath that is easily identifiable to perceptive observers. Like great sleight of hand artists, the bands tactic seems to be to make the listener think one thing, and go in another direction either subconsciously or entirely.
Alpine’s onion like configuration, coupled with their their tendency to transcend expectations has made the band both a critic and a fan favourite. Perhaps the complete encapsulation of this came with the release of their hugely successful (almost reaching one million hits on YouTube) and incredibly avant-garde video clip for their song Hands. And now, with recognition in Triple J’s annual year end countdown (Gasoline charted 31st) and the release of their first full length (A is for Alpine), 2012 marked a hugely successful year for Alpine and the band shows no signs of slowing down in 2013.
Front-woman Phoebe Baker described Alpine’s music as ‘dark lyrics, sugar coated’. Ignoring the homonymic irony, this angelic voiced songstress concisely outlined the intriguing dichotomy that make listening to Alpine such an interesting experience.
And to confuse things even further, Phoebe is one of the most lovely musicians in the Australian industry. But knowing Alpine and their music, one can only ponder what dark side she may reveal.
For me, your band present a lot of very defined and evocative aesthetics and audio/visual imagery, from song lyrics and song titles, even your album cover. Is that intentional?
It is and it isn’t at the same time, it just sort of happened. Obviously we are creating something that we want to have well finished, and well rounded, and that’s ‘us’…and something that is clearly well defined.
I think it definitely brought to mind a lot of clear, distinct images, greens, reds, the image that is brought up by your name Alpine… I found listening to Alpine is a very visual experience.
Well that’s good, I am a very visual learner (laughs), so maybe that is why.
Let’s get on to A is for Alpine. I think what the album does incredibly well is appeal to a vast spectrum of listener by touching on many different genres. Was there an emphasis on this during recording the album?
I personally, well I suppose we all feel, that it is important to be totally open in that creative process. It wasn’t like; ‘we are going to write a song, and it is going to sound just like this’. There wasn’t a clear direction, but there definitely was a clear understanding, I guess, of how we wanted the album to come out. And we all have so many different influences, and I feel like it is important to be able to express those influences and inspirations into our music and not feel like we are stuck in one genre or one place. But at the same time we have a sound that feels like its ‘us’…so it is a weird blending of the two.
I really like the ‘Lovers’ sequence that opened the album. What was the initial rational behind expanding the songs over two tracks?
They actually were two things that were written and just seemed to suit each other so well. So we thought it would be fun to have a ‘Part One’ and a ‘Part Two’, and it just seemed to develop that way. It really does feel like it is part two of that song.
Would you and the band consider expanding other concepts further on follow up records?
Yeh sure, I love those kind of things, where you are sort of playful, its not just ‘this track-this track-this track’. I think its fun to have fun with the way you lay out your music. Like do you remember those books where you choose your own ending and that picked your next chapter?
Choose your own adventure?
Yes! Our next album could definitely be like that. (laughs)
What’s the band dynamic like within Alpine? With six members does it ever feel like you have to force someone’s involvement?
No it is really, so far touch wood, it has really been very organic with our writing process. And we are friends and have sort of developed into sort of developed into a sibling relationship, so we are just sort of open and comfortable and gross with each other, so in the band it is pretty equal.
Obviously the harmonies on A is for Alpine are a great strength of the album, how important is your vocal chemistry with Lou?
I think it is vital, really. It’s the combination with the instrumental and the vocal, and we were sort of lucky that our voices meshed well together. But in the future we have to focus on keeping it interesting and challenging for ourselves and thinking of new harmonies and new ways to write vocally, it is just really important. But I think with the fact that we have such great chemistry as friends and that our voices mesh so well together means that we won’t have too much trouble.
I might be wrong, but you and Lou’s voices are so angelic, and the music is upbeat on a few of the songs, but there is a semblance of darkness to a few of your lyrics, specifically on Soft-Sides, Multiplication, even Gasoline. Is this to catch the discerning listener off guard?
Yeh, I suppose. It is kind of dark lyrics, sugar coated. We always had kind of sweet instrumental, just like every time we wrote the lyrics and we completed the songs, we were like ‘this is funny…i don’t know how we managed to do this!’
Your album does finish with the line ‘you fade away like love fades away’ repeatedly, which is beautiful….but it’s somewhat of a gut punch.
(laughs) Well, you will have to wait for the next installment! Did the love fade away?
The video for Hands, was quite an important moment for your band. Did you have any perception of the effect it would have in an era where music video clips are kind of in this transition period, moving from television screens to computer screens?
Not at all, we had no idea. It just kind of evolved. We get these treatments from directors, and it is so hard to translate from paper to film, but Hands kind of took its own course, its like its own little thing. Because with the visual element, it’s a little bit naughty, a little bit controversial, and then there is the song as well, so it has kind of taken a course of its own. And with each of our video clips directors have pitched their own ideas and we haven’t really had much involvement, and it’s great to see someone’s interpretation of your music.
The clip was really popular online, which is kind of the medium in which many people are ingesting music these days. Do you have a preference in the way your music is heard?
Well yeh, I mean it’s great I think. The whole industry has changed so much within the last decade, it is just moving so fast, it is just insane. And there is just some kind of new software or program all the time. But I do think it is really awesome to go on to YouTube and see how many people have watched it and see the insane comments that they have left, you know, crazy and lovely, it’s like this whole other community. It is cool, I like it, the internet definitely brings you closer together with your fans.
And i’m guessing it would definitely have expanded your fan base?
It’s been 3 years since your E.P Zurich was released. What is the biggest lesson you have learnt since then and maybe applied to your recent album?
Oh my gosh! The biggest lesson…I think really to take everything one step at a time. Sometimes when you look at the future and you see all of the things you have to do or all the things that are coming up it can be really overwhelming. But you have to take it in your stride, take it with a pinch of salt and not take anything too seriously and just have fun and make the most of it. We are only young once, we are only in a band once, and it could all end tomorrow, we may as well just enjoy it and go crazy.
A lot of commentators are quick to align Alpine with other bands and singers. Let’s hear it straight from you, have any artists been especially prolific in shaping the way you write or perform?
Oh definitely, so many. The first people that come to mind, especially when we started was like Devendra Banhart in the way that he writes. There is sort of a freedom, he sort of does what he wants, and you can really hear that. And Grace Jones, Led Zeppelin. So I guess that kind of glam era…there are so many…Bruce Springsteen.
So it’s quite a broad range?
Yeh its just all over the shop.
So I suppose you take more inspiration from an artists complete oeuvre than their technical proficiency or the way they write?
Well for Devendra it is the way he writes…but for Grace Jones its the way she performs. I saw her and I mean, she is sixty and she is wearing a deep g-string and bodysuit, hula-hooping with a glass of wine. And it’s like, this is what you can do on stage so why not do it? And with Led Zeppelin, I remember when I was young, watching videos of them playing and I would just grip my chair, electrified.
Obviously you are a great music fan yourself. How are you dealing with the transition, now that you have put out an incredibly well received album yourself, and are playing some great festival spots, to maybe look at the other bands on these festival bills as your contemporaries? Or do you still catch yourself being a fan.
Or look, still a fan, but you get more empathetic to what the bands are going through. I mean we have played at some festivals now, and it becomes this kind of community, and they are more like everyday people than these big stars.
How has the process gone applying the complex songs of A is for Alpine to a live setting?
I think our live show is totally different from our album in some ways, but in a really good way. I don’t think it sounds completely different, I don’t think people will be disappointed. There is just a different element to it, it’s just a different element to it, it’s a bit noisier, a bit more loose. A bit less polished.
You guys are about to play Laneway Festival and embark on a tour of America if I am not mistaken. Now that you have an album, an E.P and presumably a few new tracks to choose from, do you find it harder to write set-lists?
It is still hard. It’s like this weird thing, you just want to get it right, the combination, the way the songs run into each other, we have been trying to perfect it for ages. But it also depends on the night, if it is a sit down show then you will have a different set, but if it is a wild climactic event, then you just want to go crazy and have a big epic end or something.