Written by Dave Goodspeed
Nine Black Alps borrowed its name from a Sylvia Plath poem because it sounded bleak, but the music purveyed by this English foursome (Sam Forrest, James Galley, Martin Cohen and David Jones) is more pop than suicide rock. “Cosmopolitan,” the first single from the just-released album Everything Is may have lyrics like You’re not pretty enough/You’re not skinny enough but they’re wrapped in driving guitar and drums that bring crowds to life. At a recent San Francisco show, in fact, and entire club happily bobbed and bounced to the band’s entire set.
The boys will be on the road in the U.S. for the next couple of months – see the schedule below – but we chatted with Sam while he went a little stir-crazy in the lull before the storm.
The band is being compared a bit to Nirvana, the Pixies and Ride. Are those rightful comparisons and if so, how have these bands influenced your sound?
I think that the Nirvana and Pixies bit is probably fairly close to some kind of truth, but I’m not sure about Ride. Maybe it’s because our guitar player uses lots of effects pedals and things. [Those bands] pretty much just [play] distorted pop songs. That’s the last time people did that sort of thing very well – Nirvana, Pixies time. Yeah, that is probably the most accurate comparison.
Would you say more Nirvana than the Pixies, or more Pixies than Nirvana?
We’re not quite as weird as the Pixies. It’s that whole Nirvana, Teenage Fanclub, kind of Neil Young-y kind of thing.
You definitely have some harder songs, but also lighter songs that are a bit more melodic.
Yeah, I think it’s good to have a melody behind it, otherwise it’s not really a song. Really, they’re basically just pop songs. We’re four males in our mid-20s and so we gravitate toward playing distorted guitars because it’s cooler (laughs), but they’re still pop songs underneath.
You guys are known for your live shows, for them being so crazy and raucous. Is that how you got noticed by Island?
Island picked us up fairly quickly, after our tenth show. And that show was only A&R people. It seemed like they all came up from London to see us in Manchester.
Our live shows are fairly violent. I mean, we played in London a few days ago. And I saw grown men just beating the shit out of each other in front of me. It’s just such a weird thing. When I go to shows, I just usually stand at the bar, drink and clap. But when you see people – adults – just smashing each other in the face, it’s kind of like, what’s going on here? I don’t know, it seems very outside of the music we’re doing.
You actually lived in San Francisco for a year.
That’s right. I was 18.
How was that?
It was brilliant. It was totally depressing to come back to England afterwards.
Because of the weather?
Totally. Well, the sunshine and just the life. You know, people are a lot more positive over in America it seems. In England, it seems that all you have to be is negative and everyone likes you. But in America, you just have to be positive and everybody likes you. So, it’s kind of flip-side. It just seems easier in America. People don’t mind you having any ambition or anything. Where in England, if you have ideas above your station, people kick you down fairly fast.
You have come through the U.S. a couple times and hit some keys cities like Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. Have you encountered that shoe-gazer crowd, the people who are just standing there looking at you, or have you been welcomed by people who wanted to get down similar to the UK crowds?
In England, most people can go to clubs and bars under the age of 21. For America, it’s always a bit more mature; mature behavior.
Not always. In San Francisco, 330 Ritch’s Brit-pop night, Popscene, is usually 18 and up. I think you played Popscene in 2005.
That was pretty mental. But that was probably the most exciting gig we’ve done in America, is that Popscene. That’s the closest one where it felt like, you know, people came to see us. Even though they hadn’t! They just wanted to go to an indie nightclub.
This latest album, Everything Is, was produced by Rob Schnapf.
Yeah, he’s the guy who produced Elliot Smith, Beck and Guided by Voices.
How was that? You recorded in Los Angles, right?
Yeah, we did. It was great. I think it was the time of my life. It was this weird dream come true. Whenever that happens, you’re terrified of it, because you sort of want to grab onto it. Sustain it. But at the same time, you have to treat it normal. It was our job to go over there and make a record.
There were those occasional surreal moments where you’re playing through an amp the Stooges had used or the guitar Elliot Smith had played where you wonder what world you stepped into. Before this, we were all doing regular mundane jobs, so it was weird to pretend to be, you know, a rock star in LA for a couple of months. It was kind of funny.
I’ve read that you guys are big fans of Beck and Elliot Smith. And I’m curious, because those are very different artists. Have they really influenced your sound or is it that you respect the spirit of their music?
I think it’s both, really. I think their songs have always had fairly unique twists of melody that stop them from being cheesy or boring. I think it stands that they both can be on major labels, but somehow retain individuality. They didn’t seem to sell out in any big way, but managed to go deeper and become weirder and make the records they wanted. I think they’re our two idols in terms of how they’ve been able to handle the whole music biz sort of thing.
You’ve also listed KISS and Motley Crue as influences. How have these bands influenced your music, your style or your live shows?
Well, we don’t have any explosions or anything. But…
What, no pyrotechnics? Come on!
Aww. Sorry, I know. We’re trying our hardest. But, we’re meek English people, so we don’t do explosions. I think it’s because me and James have this dodgy, metal past. So, you know, we’re not ashamed.
You guys ever dress up as Gene Simmons or Paul Stanley, in full make-up regalia?
Um, no, not yet. It’s never far away. We did a Halloween show where we dressed up as ghouls and zombies, but we didn’t go into spandex. Maybe next year.
Have you started to write new songs, and do you think they will have the same flavor as the ones on Everything Is?
I’ve written dozens of songs for the next record already and I’m not quite sure where I want to take it. Just yesterday, I wrote this really really long acoustic song with millions of verses and millions of words. But I’ve never done that before. That’s probably the most interesting thing I’ve done – recently, anyways. At the same time, I would play a few new songs on our last tour and the ones that worked best were the ones that sounded like they could have been on our last album. It’s kind of… It usually depends on how much you want to alienate your fan base. People do come to you to expect a certain kind of thing, but you don’t want to get trapped into recycling old riffs and things. So, I don’t know.
You’re on Island in the UK and then Interscope in the U.S. Have you been able to meet other bands on those labels that you’ve wanted or is there someone that you’d like to meet?
The only person I like [on Island] is PJ Harvey. I’ve been kept away from her for ages, so I’ve never met her yet, and that’s probably a good thing! I don’t know, Interscope, has got 50 Cent and things, so I’d like to go chill with 50 Cent at some point. That’d be cool.
On your past tours, what has been your favorite place to playand why?
I’d say Philadelphia. There was a really nice falafel shop next to the venue that we liked. I liked the cityI got too many weird memories in San Francisco, but Philadelphia seems like my new favorite city in America.
You’ve also played Tokyo, right?
Yeah, that was pretty mental. They do package tours where they bundle off English indie bands. We went to Tokyo for three or four days and fans were waiting there at the airport and at the hotel. It’s kind of, I don’t know, you flushing the machine. Everyone treats you so nice, but I don’t know, it’s like another planet.
Bus you in, play and go kind of thing?
Well, yeah, we didn’t get to see any of the sites. But we were given presents. And I don’t know, everyone was just super mega mega friendly.
David, our guitar player, and James, our drummer, are both absolutely completely hooked on the Internet. So they seem to spend their time just luring fans deeper into our strange waters. I don’t even have a computer. I don’t know, MySpace just seems like the strangest thing on the planet. It just seems like, just turning humans into data.
I like your choice of words – ‘luring.’
No, it is. Just seems like it’s full of naive 16-year-old girls getting suckered into voting for us [in Internet polls]. I can’t really see where and what the point of it is, but there is one that I’m missing.
Do you think with something like MySpace that bands have a better chance of building up a fan base? Just seems like if everyone is connected through that, it’s a lot easier to get heard.
Yeah, totally. If there is a band you want to hear, you can pretty easily hear them without having to pay. Which is the perfect solution, I mean it’s the way it should be, but for some reason we still have big record companies and big record shops. But, I can’t see it lasting for long.
You’ve gone from smaller venues – I even read something about people’s basements – to performing festivals like T in the Park and Glastonbury. That must have been a pretty big change.
It was. I mean, we have always done exactly the same thing from the first gig. The first gig was in front of 50 people in a hotel kitchen and the last one was to about 1500 in Manchester. Our basic thing is about playing the songs as loud and as physically fast as we can. It doesn’t change anything. The audiences change, they get bigger and more violent and stranger. But, I mean, what we do ourselves doesn’t actually change at all, which is good. We don’t like pulling a stadium rock show. We don’t do cool response with the audiences or anything like that. We’re too busy trying to get the chords right.
Fair enough. Were you guys playing on a smaller stage at the festivals?
We had a big stage and big lights and everything. But, we were sorta…seems like when a band becomes a certain size, they play to certain venues and have to change and become some kind of weird entertainment rather than just playing music, which is fine, but I don’t have the charisma to do that. I just shout my head off instead.
Would your ideal be to stay at smaller venues and keep that connection with your audience?
Yeah, I think the size of venues we’re playing now – about a thousand capacity – I think if it got any bigger than this, it would be less enjoyable. Because at that point, you get a big distance between you and the crowd and become more of a spectacle. Rather than part of the whole joined experience, you become like you’re on a TV set. And then you have to throw stage moves, which I don’t really fancy doing.
Stage moves. No jumping off drum kits?
No, no. No climbing from lighting rigs or anything like that just yet. Usually I’m way too lazy.
You played alongside Hard-Fi, and Richard Archer of that band is dating Scarlett Johansson. Do you guys have your sights set on any Hollywood beauties?
Fuck it. I don’t know, I’ve just been dumped. Hollywood beauties. No, I hate actresses. I actually think they’re crap. I don’t know. I don’t think I’d ever fall in love with someone I’ve never met. I’m too based in reality. Fuck Hollywood.
How are the groupies at your shows?
Oh, amazingly underage.
I’m not implying that you’d be taking advantage of …
I wouldn’t dream of it. And there are still fourteen-year-old boys who want to steal our effects pedals.
I saw on your site that you guys do secret gigs around London. I’ve heard of that being done by a band called Embrace and I know some other bands have done it, but I was wondering whether this is becoming a more common practice?
Last November we basically got paid a shit load of money by a mobile phone company to play supposedly secret gigs that anybody who’s on that service provider would get a text message an hour before we’re meant to play. ‘The Nine Black Alps are playing this secret location and because you’re on our network, we value you so much, you can go down and watch them.’ Basically, we got a lump sum of money to play it. It’s a marketing tool.
Is there anything about that idea that appeals to you?
Yeah, totally. The last tour was so big and so many crew and everything was so regimented. It did become, you know… I just wanted to drive off and play acoustically in the middle of nowhere by myself. You just need freedom. Once it becomes a job, you don’t enjoy it as much. Especially after you’ve been doing it for a while. I think to be able to play anywhere anytime is great. To have it be a surprise.
The last couple years sound like they have been pretty crazy for you guys. Just a couple of years ago you were working at an asbestos removal office and James was at a supermarket. How is it going from that extreme to touring around the world?
It’s kind of beyond the dream. I had pretty much given up music about three years ago. I don’t know, I couldn’t imagine doing it properly on a stage, singing… It came together on accident, including not even sending out demo tapes. The thing is, you don’t get sucked into it too much because most bands only last a few years. We’re all just trying to focus on not becoming complete dickheads, really. Just trying to stay rooted in reality. Not becoming rock ‘n’ roll casualties or anything like that. We’re all fairly normal boring people, so you won’t see us in fur-lined boots or anything any time soon.
So, you’re staying pretty level headed.
I’m just trying not to become a cocksucking rock star. You know when you see bands changing overnight, where they start wearing white trousers. I don’t know, it’s hard. When they start wearing sunglasses indoors. As soon as they start doing that, then the time has come to stop.
That sounds a little like Bono.
Yeah, exactly. I don’t know. Something about superhero musicians who save the world. I’m just a miserable bastard.
What’s your perspective on bands having an influence on world events like hunger? Like what Bono is out there doing, trying to cure the debt and things like that?
It’s kind of hard, because as soon as I see somebody on the stage giving a speech about hunger, and then playing one of their songs, I hate it with a passion. It’s massive hypocrisy. It’s one of those things, you know, if someone asks you to do something good for someone who’s less well off than you, then of course you’ve got to do it. You’ve kind of got a duty to. I don’t think there are many ways to do that, though, without looking like a cock.
You guys have done a couple charity gigs. I at least saw one on your tour list.
If we get asked to do it, then we’ll do it. But there is something about musicians making political speeches that is sinister. I’m just cynical and bitter.
What do you want to get accomplished in 2006?
I want to get album number two recorded by the end of summer.
Wow, that’s fairly aggressive.
Otherwise I’m going to go insane. That would be the main goal. I can’t break it down any further than that. I’m not sure if we’re going to crack the States this year, but I’d like to record another album, that’d be nice.
Do you think you’re going to take any time off after touring prior to getting into the studio?
I have no life at all. I’ve got one week off, which is this week in Manchester. And I’ve just sat in my flat all day. I don’t have a television or computer, so I’ve been going insane. So I’m quite happy just working myself to death.
Do you think your band mates share than sentiment?
Probably not, because they think I’m insane.
Just buy a computer, you’ll be fine.
Yeah, exactly, buy a DVD player…
Well, that’s about it for me. Thanks for making the time for this interview.