Alpine are one of Melbourne's most hotly-tipped up-and-coming acts. Their excllent debut EP Zurich is currently slaying it in the iTunes charts, accompanied by an excllent taste in visuals and a whip-tight live show. AMR was lucky enough to catch up with co-vocalist Lousia James and Christian O'Brien recently for an in-depth interview.
Sister Bella’s hole-in-the-wall chic may be the perfect kind of city bound waterhole for the more discerning, but as it turns out, it’s hardly ideal environs for an interview. Tonight in particular, it seems impossible to escape the bartender’s iPod selection of fast, heavy, loud. With a noisy soundtrack of screamo it’s sometimes hard to hear the pair.
In person, their conduct is far flung from the sleek, cool demeanour of their music, in fact they’re more like ‘the band next door’. The tall and shaggy Christian lends a relaxed vibe to proceedings while Lou is as winsome as her dance-happy stage persona might suggest. You do get the impression that they’re still a vibrant young band on the rise, not least because of the amount of name-dropping on hand; but for the record - the most charming kind of name-dropping there is, and never for pretentious bragging rights. It just seems to be that in their short, busy lives the members of Alpine have formed a tight little six degrees of separation with many a band along Australia’s East Coast.
After clearing the air of any potential most-hated questions (namely the old band name change and dreaded ‘what are your influences?’), there’s time to discuss anecdotes from the road, the writing process and even Bocce.
Christian: Well we finished the Sparkadia tour and now we’re demo-ing, pretty much writing as much as we can. But the tour was great.
Lou: …and with Operator Please, I never imagined playing with those bands but it was really great fun. Operator Please in particular were awesome, larrikins.
AMR: So let’s talk about your writing. There seems to be a discipline of interlocking elements to your sound, Phil’s drumming is very organised while Christian your guitars are quite insistent and then the girls interplay in the vocals; and yet you don’t crowd each other, there’s six members but each has a very definite purpose in the arrangement. What’s it like trying to write within such a large group? Has the writing process changed from how it started?
C: It’s different to the way it was, because in the beginning it was me, Phoebe [Baker, vocalist] and Lou or I’d come with a finished track of music and then we would put everything together over it. But now, it’s like the original ideas are much thinner – there’s not much too them – and it comes to the whole band really quickly. Everyone’s sort of doing it a little bit more understudied, everyone in their parts.
L: We’re more in tune with what’s going on.
AMR: So it doesn’t feel like there’s six of you?
C: No, it doesn’t at all. Six sounds like so many people, but I think when we’re writing and rehearsing it’s almost an ego-less setup. We know where an idea’s heading. Phoebe and Phil might try a lot of different things and without any animosity or conflict it all comes together really smoothly.
L: I think we’re able to do that now, since the EP [featured previously here] we know what the Alpine sound, as a base is, like.
C: But we also know what we can get away with, how far we can push.
L: A lot of the newer ideas sound like, when you first hear it, quite weird and unexpected; but the more time you spend listening to it, you start to really dig it. A lot of the times when we’re rehearsing something might sound odd but we’re right with just letting it go.
C: Yeah, especially with things that Phoebe writes, she’ll do things that Lou and I are really uncomfortable with at first, but then you listen to it over and over and it becomes really cool.
L: Which is good because obviously it becomes something that sounds different, it’s not too predictable.
AMR: So you’ve introduced the Alpine sound, but by the same token you don’t want to be bound by it, so you push it out and grow further?
C: Well on the Sparkadia tour we tried a newer song (Seeing Red), which I thought was really pushing it harmonically, it jumps around keys a lot and has a really syncopated groove and the crowd response was very receptive to it. So ‘that song works,’ which was pleasantly surprising.
L: Amanda [of Operator Please] loved it, cause she didn’t know what it was – this weird key part (sings a little bit of it) after a while she said it was her favourite track. Which is an example of initially being ‘what?’ then after a while, it’s just groovy, it sinks in.
AMR: Well that track in particular, Seeing Red, when you played it at The Corner you seemed to really find the economy in your rhythmic power. Like you say, finding the groove. Has that been a galvanising track for where you can go?
L: Definitely, yes.
C: Well it’s funny, the original chord progression was like a retaliation to a friend of mine who pigeonholed our sound, said it was just one progression and then a dynamic lift for the chorus, no harmonic changes. That ticked me off so I tried to write a strange chord progression.
AMR: Going back a little, triple j – and specifically things like Unearthed and people like Zan Rowe – really helped in getting you exposure, did this legitimise what you were doing or was it a surprise? Cause there’s the story that you put a track up and it was played on air half an hour later.
L: Well, it was a demo, so I don’t think we even wanted it to go up.
C: I think specifically we asked not to add it (laughs)
L: But you know it did, and we suddenly get a phone call saying ‘you just got played’ so it we were like a little ‘what the?”
C: I mean it was cool, but we were so new at that point that we didn’t need to be legitimised at that point. We were just messing around really.
L: We weren’t ready
C: We weren’t insecure yet (laughs) but after everything, it was ultimately a great thing; and they’ve been so supportive.
L: I think even, as much as we weren’t really ready for having that song up and getting feature artist, all the interest and getting signed wouldn’t have happened. So in a way it was kind of a blessing.
C: One thing led to another.
L: It was great too that even that it was demo, people could hear the potential.
AMR: Has that sudden rise in exposure brought any pressure on the band?
L: Not really, I think when you’re in a band and on a label, as much as they give to you, you’ve got to give back. In a way there’s pressure, but more pressure from ourselves just to try and deliver what we want to deliver.
C: It’s a nice pressure, to write more songs and play more shows, they’re both fun things to do. You can feel backed up by any sort of pressure to you, but this is a good motivator, they’re telling you your songs are cool and to write more of them.
L: They’re not telling us what to do, dictating to us. If we were a really obvious genre of music there might be more of that, but they’re not saying to write more of a particular style – which gives us a lot of freedom to explore.
AMR: There’s been a few remixes of your tracks too – which have gotten you international exposure. How do you feel about those? How did they come about?
C: They all came about through people we knew, the first one was Starslinger (with the Dreamix of Icypoles) which was amazing, he’s actually a friend of our bass player (Ryan Lamb) and he just asked to give it a go.
L: It totally worked in our favour cause in England they love him, I think that’s my favourite [remix].
C: The others are all cause we’re friends with them, we’ve toured with Fishing,we love those guys, another really great band to tour with.
AMR: Your videos have been great too, particularly Villages, has this been something you’ve been keen to promote, a strong visual for your music?
L: Yeah, I’m a huge fan of that. It’s as if it’s a sort of dreamy… for me, a dreamlike quality. I really love visuals, Phoebe and I love to wear glam - I just think visuals always enhance the music. With our sound it always able to complement it.
C: We played around with that for our record launch at The Corner and we definitely want to do way more
AMR: It worked really well, I thought personally, because you had the projections going and you’d dressed up, but the visual of the band was so strong that the projections became secondary. Some bands worry that they don’t have a visual aspect so they rely on that as a primary, a crutch, but I thought you exceeded that.
L: That’s really nice to know, cause we can’t see ourselves.
AMR: It’s obviously working in your favour.
L: I think with female vocals especially, it’s got this sweetness and something ethereal to them. Our visuals and projections all contribute and make sense from that perspective.
AMR: As you said at the start, you’ve been touring pretty hard, how has the live show developed? Do you feel your growing more onstage?
L: I think sometimes if we have a little break we have to warm up again sometimes.
C: Totally, and with the back-to-back thing of consecutive dates, it’s gotten more fun onstage, it escalates when you play four shows in a row. It’s really surprising, it gets easier and better and feels more like a great rehearsal, but with a crowd.
L: What’s been new is afterwards we mingle, we really want to get to know the crowd. It’s really great going to different cities, and each of the four gigs is completely different. You don’t know what to expect, every show is different no matter what and that’s what makes it exciting, there’s no time to be bored. It’s funny, cause I said to Christian ‘I can’t wait to be home’ and just chill out, but after two weeks I’m over it. I just want to get back, he even said ‘you’ll be itching to go’ and I did, just got bored.
C: You get antsy, you just get an urge to go out to the airport.
AMR: Well you’re performing at Splendour later in the year, so you’ll be excited to head out for that. Have you got anything planned for those shows?
C: We might do a super secret cover
AMR: Is it hard deciding on a cover with six people?
C: Yeah! So Lou and I just picked this one and no-one else has a say. It depends, if the sun’s out, we’ll play this song.
L: I think we’re in tents though. So we’ll make the sun come out through our music. It’ll be interesting, nothing’s really lined up for us at the moment so it might be a really big break, and then Splendour. We’ll just have to wait and see, but we’re all incredibly pumped ‘cause this is our first festival.
AMR: An amazing one to start on.
L: I don’t really care what time we play, I’m just stoked. And it’s for free!
C: I’m going to steal Kanye’s sneakers.
AMR: So obviously with the festival you’ll be seeing and meeting lots of other bands, is that another element you enjoy about touring?
L: Yeah, we’ve made heaps of friends. Like Jinja Safari, they’re great to play with. Even Sparkadia and Cloud Control, from our label, they’ll be there. Lanie Lane as well we know, she’s great, that rockabilly sound. We saw her play at the Empress last spring or so. It’s just great having all the bands there. We’re going to have a game of, what’s it called?
AMR: Ivy League Bocce?
And we’re gonna kick ass!
C: We’ve got the numbers.
L: The thing is, I’m short, so I’m closer to the ground with a better view.
AMR: You’ve probably already answered this question, but are there some other local bands that you’re really excited about?
C: I’m a big fan of Kid Sam.
L: Though they’ve gone a bit quiet.
C: Yeah, oh, Boy In A Box are a Melbourne artist now.
AMR: Well it seems there’s lots to be excited about with Melbourne’s music scene and those bands you’ve mentioned…
L: I don’t know from a perspective of when I wasn’t in a band to knowing these bands and being aware of what’s going on with them. Particularly groups we’ve toured with, I’m more aware of what’s happening with them. Because we’re all over the place and then come back home and it’s hard sometimes to keep up to date with the whole scene, so I’m just more supportive of the bands I know or friendly with.
C: What about Tantrums? Real cool.
L: We share our rehearsal space with them.
C: We used to play shows with them back in the day – back in ’09.
AMR: It feels like a characteristic with Melbourne at the moment, at least in the last couple of years, a lot of these bands are connected in some way or coming up so there’s a camaraderie or a community there. Do you feel that way? Things like indie and community radio especially keeping it all linked together?
C: For sure, especially with bands throwing makeshift parties, for instance a whole lot came together last year for The Workers Club party. Everybody played and everybody had a huge crowd. We’d come back from Newcastle and got off the plane and played the Workers, so cool to play to that crowd with these people at such a great venue.
L: Oh! World’s End Press… sorry, it just popped in, my brain’s like mush these days.
C: They’re the only guys we’ve met who can keep up with Phoebe on the dancefloor.
L: We played with them when we supported Catcall.
C: They’ll be at the bocce too
L: It’ll be a sea of bocce, maybe like different levels of bocce. We should make it a world cup.
C: We’ll make a trophy, a paper-maché cup.
AMR: You mentioned dancing, and it was great at the Corner show seeing you and Phoebe up front getting into it, just enjoying the music. There is a subtle dance element to the music, with the rhythmic sway…
C: It’s different every night. We played a show with Sia in Adelaide, it was like one of the biggest shows we’ve played and Phoebe just ran off stage. The last 16 bars of Villages and she was gone.
L: (laughs) we didn’t know where she was going. I think it was because there was so much stage space, when we first started playing local shows in Melbourne, we were just on top of each other [on these small stages] so naturally Phoebe and I just wanted to dance. Not dancing like ‘we’re the shit’ but just lost in the music.
C: They’re like that at rehearsal, it’s definitely not a performance thing.
L: I don’t know what it is, I just can’t stand still on stage, I used to be very embarrassed by it but now I just go with it, we just dance. I’d like to watch Phoebe but I’m just in my own zone but I’ll sneak a gaze with her and we look at each other and there’s a ‘ha’ of recognition.
AMR: Is there anything about Melbourne’s music scene that frustrates you at all? Do you think there are limitations?
L: (bit of protracted thinking before) ummm, maybe some PA systems can be poor, but that just comes down to money.
L: There’s just so many venues, which is great, and they all accommodate. Each venue you can have any kind of music really, there are specific ones, more so for punk or whatever. But when we were playing ‘back in the day’ we could always just call up a venue and say can we put a show together and it was always ‘yeah, sure.’ As long as you’re organise it and do it, they’re so happy to have you. It was quite easy, it was never a difficult process.
C: I'm trying to get catty and bitchy but I just can’t think of anything…
L: Nah, and Melbourne’s so small as well…
C: Can I tell you what shits me about Fortitude Valley? Off the record? Nah, we kind of know everyone and everyone’s cool. We’ve got friends in bands in New York and it’s really hard to get a gig, you can’t do that thing like you can here where you organise the whole night, a show. So I’ve got nothing bad to say about Melbourne, I’m sorry.
AMR: You said earlier you’ve been demoing and working on new songs outside of touring, what’s happening with them, is there another EP? Or are you working towards a larger project?
C: Yeah, definitely working towards really getting a huge body of stuff to pull from for the next record. We want that to be a hard choice, not scrambling for material, we’re in a purple patch of writing at the moment. It’s coming easy and it’s fun, so we’re just going to keep doing that and see how much material we can get out of this period.
L: We definitely don’t want to feel rushed, the songs don’t really come together. Some people can just churn out songs but I think with us because we’re kind of particular about how we want it to sound.
C: Yeah, there’s the problem with six people.
AMR: But it’s deceptive as well, because as I said earlier, it sounds very organised. The result might sound stripped-back or minimal; but putting that together is very difficult I imagine, working it all out.
C: It’s also about achieving that kind of textural blend, that’s the hardest thing for us, is figuring out where everything is going to sit in a harmonic mix. A lot of the times, in a song like Villages, we have the keys sitting where the guitar should be and it works on that track but that’s an interesting exception. Just subtle little things I agonise over and no-one else notices (laughs). You always try to go for how it sounds together, the seams. For instance Phil, as we said, it’s all about ‘the notes he’s not playing’ that’s my favourite thing about Phil’s drumming, he just grooves away and adds little touches here and there. Where Ryan and Timmy are incredibly tasteful, Ryan’s bass playing is just… he’s a guitar player really, day by day he’s becoming a bass player.
L: It’s really reassuring too that we can all still be friends and be really professional. Some people use session players or whatever, but we’ve been really lucky in that we’re friends who’ve taken it on board.
C: Groups that we’ve played with, we’ve seen the problems. So how many people have session players on stage now and backing tracks, we don’t have either, we have friends – which we love. It’s something we’re kind of proud of actually.
L: Yeah, for sure.
AMR: So just wrapping up, coming up to Splendour, working on songs for the future. Can we put a date on that?
C: We don’t know where, we absolutely don’t know. Because there’s a lot we want to do, and there’s a lot of options. It’s just about how much material and how good it is. We just want to make the best record we can
L: And not be still, just keep playing as much as we can, trying to reach people with our music, to spread the love.
C: We wanna sell t-shirts!
L: You need to work hard, you need to play and get in with the music.
C: …we need to vacuum the floor of the rehearsal space.
L: Oh yeah, we do. Really filthy.
AMR: That’s a good note to leave it on. Thanks a lot for your time guys, and looking forward to all and anything from you in future.
Download Alpine's Zurich EP through iTunes here.
and check out their MySpace for all the latest dates
Including Splendour In The Grass