"We don't really fit in anywhere": DiS meets Nine Black Alps
Nine Black Alps were one of the most hotly tipped bands in the country not so long back. Courted by numerous labels just months after forming, the band signed to Island Records in 2004, the world seemingly theirs for the taking. Unfortunately, despite debut long player Everything Is living up to the band's promise in many ways, their story seemed to be a continual one of "right place, wrong time" and after second album Love/Hate stalled at number 69 in the UK album charts Nine Black Alps found themselves without a label.
Since then, they've gone back to basics, putting out 2009's third long player Locked Out From The Inside all by themselves. Then followed a three-year hiatus, during which time original bass player Martin Cohen left the band to be replaced by Karl Astbury, formerly of The Witches. Dusting themselves down, the remaining original members - vocalist and guitar player Sam Forrest, fellow guitarist David Jones and drummer James Galley along with Astbury set about recording their fourth record, Sirens, which came out in 2012 on now defunct Leeds independent Brew.
The bit between their teeth, last month (April) saw them release their fifth and arguably finest record since their debut, Candy For The Clowns. Currently on a twelve-date UK tour to coincide, DiS caught up with Sam Forrest post-soundcheck prior to their recent show at Nottingham's Rock City.
DiS: Nine Black Alps have been around for over a decade now, which is quite an achievement in the current climate. When you first started back in 2003, did you expect to still be here ten years later talking about your fifth album?
Sam Forrest: No, I don't think we ever thought ten years ahead. The most we ever thought about was six months ahead. We still don't really know what we're going to be doing six months from now. We've never had a plan or expectations. Well, we have expectations of what we'd like to happen but definitely no ten year plan or life plan. We all want to carry on doing this until it gets boring.
DiS: What is the secret to your longevity? What's kept the band going all this time?
Sam Forrest: I think we've got a good chemistry between us and we all get on with each other really well. We've never really had a proper argument. There's lots of people I couldn't be in a band with because they can be pretty hard whereas the other three in Nine Black Alps are easy going and the music's fun. Other than that, I don't know!
DiS: Was there ever a point where you considered calling it a day? I'm thinking more about the three years between 2009's Locked Out From The Inside and 29012's Sirens when you were without a label for a long period and mostly busy with other projects.
Sam Forrest: We used to have management and they kind of disassociated themselves from us. I don't know how else to put it without making it sound really bad, because it wasn't. It's just they'd stopped getting in contact with us and vice versa so that sort of disintegrated and there was nobody really pushing the band on. Also, we were fairly burned out after the third album (Locked Out From The Inside) and there were a bunch of financial reasons as well why we couldn't continue in the same way. So we had to think of how we could do this differently. Which meant we took a year out and pretty much started from scratch after the third album. We did all the recording for the fourth album (Sirens) ourselves which took ages. Even the touring we did everything ourselves. We didn't have any crew along, would hire the van and drive it ourselves. Basically, all of the stuff that you're meant to do when you start a band yet we never really did because we got signed pretty fast. So for us it really was a case of going back to zero. There was never a conscious decision to take some time off. It's always pretty self evident when we want to take time off.
DiS: Was it a steep learning curve going from a position where everything was provided for the band to having to do it all yourselves? Production for instance?
Sam Forrest: I think it was a case of having to if the band were to continue. It was a learning experience. We wanted to do it with no pressure or expectation. I remember saying to the band before we recorded Sirens, "Shall we just do it and not release it?" I just saw it as something to do, an excuse to hang out really. We all live in different places so it's quite difficult to see each other regularly.
DiS: Whereabouts are you all based?
Sam Forrest: North Yorkshire, Huddersfield and Manchester, so it was an excuse to hang out as well as record music. But with this album we've just finished now it was more concentrated. We knew what we wanted to do and how we were going to do it whereas Sirens just happened.
DiS: If you could change anything about any of your previous releases would you and why?
Sam Forrest: No. It's quite hard to think about what to change. There's nothing that makes me squirm too much apart from my singing on the first album and a couple of lyrics on the second. That's about it. Just a few minimal things.
DiS: Your new album Candy For The Clowns is out this week. Are their any expectations either from yourselves or your new label, Hatch?
Sam Forrest: No expectations at all. I've learned now not to expect press or radio to feature us very much. I don't want to say too much about that other than it makes me feel vaguely leprous. Nobody will touch us because then we'll contaminate their website or magazine. It does feel a bit like that. We don't really fit in anywhere. We're not trendy and gobshitey enough for the NME, not intelligent enough for the Pitchfork types and also not tattooed enough for the Kerrang! and Rock Sound crowd.
DiS: Do you find it ironic that Radio One and the NME have recently jumped on bands of a similar ilk and musical direction to yourselves? I'm thinking of people like Wolf Alice, Paws and Twin Atlantic for example.
Sam Forrest: I dunno. I haven't heard those bands. I know the name Twin Atlantic but not their music. I want to say it's purely down to luck. But y'know, it's fine. I don't think our lyrics sound very nice coming out of the radio. I don't want to pinpoint it as a massive thing, but it definitely makes a difference. A lot of rock bands at the moment are very triumphant, especially in the post-emo era. "We can do this, we can be together." That whole struggle in the face of adversity kind of thing. We've never had that sort of heroic element. I don't really like heroic songs apart from 'Hero' by Chad Kroeger!
DiS: Musically, Candy For The Clowns is probably the heaviest and most uncompromising record you've made since your first two albums. Was that intentional or just how the record developed over time?
Sam Forrest: I dunno. It's still more melodic than I thought it was going to be. Listening back it seems more melodic than I planned but I can't get out of writing songs. I really want to write more Sonic Youth type stuff but it never comes out like that.
DiS: Songs like 'Supermarket Clothes' and 'Something Else' seem to share similar lyrical themes in that both address the fake aspects of celebrity culture and the media which surrounds it. Did that heavily influence your writing on this record?
Sam Forrest: Yeah I guess they are very similar. 'Supermarket Clothes' was inspired by ASOS, the online clothes shop. One of their catalogues was in our house, and it had a section about the "slacker pop fashions." That was a couple of years ago when lo-fi indie bands were in vogue. It's like when things get recycled into fashion, the whole C86 thing being another example. That whole look came from second-hand clothes shops yet now you've got Urban Outfitters running whole sections on it. I guess it's the same thing grunge musicians must have thought in the nineties. "Hang on, you're trying to make cheap clothes expensive!" It's also about the phases you go through as a young adult. Wanting to be part of a scene so you dress in black or grow your hair, that kind of thing.
DiS: Is there a common theme running through the record? 'Blackout' and 'Clown' being two others that spring to mind.
Sam Forrest: I was listening to lots of Hole and certain elements of Courtney Love's lyrics. I wasn't deliberately trying to rip them off but I wanted to make mine as good as her lyrics so I guess that's where themes of decay and rotting things emanate from. Exploitation as well, that kind of thing. I just find those kind of subjects work well with the music. I've never been one for too much conversational stuff like "you did this to me" or "I did this to you." I want it to be a bit more abstract.
DiS: In terms of your current live show, will the set be predominantly be based around the new album?
Sam Forrest: We will try and do as much from the new record as possible just because it's still fresh in our heads, and if we don't do it we'll probably never go back to play it.
DiS: You've amassed a pretty extensive back catalogue now. Are there any songs which you don't particularly like playing any more?
Sam Forrest: I'm starting to get bored of a few songs. We've dropped some just because they've been over played now. We played in Hull last night and the first two songs were new ones. It was great and I was really having fun, but then we went straight into a really old song that we've played dozens of times and it almost felt like I was questioning myself for being here again doing this. I think we've finally reached a point with some songs where we just can't play them any more. We're ten years old now. You start feeling like a dick when you're singing it because it's impossible to take it seriously. I find the new songs more interesting to play.
DiS: Candy For The Clowns is the first release on Hatch Records, the label recently set up by Simon Glacken from your old label Brew. What made you go with them for this record? Has your time with Island tainted your thoughts somewhat in terms of never wanting to sign for a major label again?
Sam Forrest: They do everything I'd do in terms of getting our music out there, and I know Simon (Glacken) would never do anything to influence our creative control. I'd like it if Hatch were a billion pound company with millions to throw on advertising but that just brings its own headaches. It's good for us because we just want to keep putting out music without having to tour endlessly for two years non-stop. We've done that and wouldn't want to do it again if we didn't have to. It just makes you burn out.
DiS: If you had your time again, would you start out on a small independent rather than major label?
Sam Forrest: I guess it makes for an interesting story starting big then going small rather than the other way round. But in all honesty? I don't know.
DiS: You've worked with esteemed producers like Dave Sardy on Love'Hate and Dave Eringa on Locked Out From The Inside. Given the opportunity and an unlimited budget, would you work with them again?
Sam Forrest: Absolutely. And also I'd definitely like to work with Rob Schnapf again who did our first album. Again it's one of those things where I haven't seen him in ten years. He's a really nice guy and was great to work with. There's certain things I wouldn't do again, but it is so nice for somebody else to record you rather than have to do it all yourself.
DiS: What different elements did they bring to the records?
Sam Forrest: They're just really clever with sounds. They recognise sonics that are good. It's kind of boring technical stuff that I can't really explain. I still haven't got my head around how they produced some of the sounds on those records. They've got good ears. That's what I would trust a producer for. To be able to hear things I can't. Not actually changing the songwriting. I don't want to work with a producer telling me I need a better middle eight or whatever. That would just confuse me.
DiS: Would you consider working with someone else in the future? Do you have a wishlist of producers you'd like to collaborate with?
Sam Forrest: Dave Fridmann would be good fun. I'd love to be able to have that freedom again and suggest a producer for the next record and it more than likely happen. Sadly that freedom is now denied to us.
DiS: What about producing other artists? Is it something you'd like to become involved with in the future?
Sam Forrest: I would but I'm very selfish with my time. I really prefer doing my own music rather than other people's. I never get bored of writing songs. Plus, when I record other people I often end up resenting the fact that it's not own song!
DiS: Have you got a lot of songs that are unreleased at present which might see the light of day in future?
Sam Forrest: Yeah, although none which have been recorded very well. We've got discs full of stuff but most of it is unlistenable to me. We do actually have a lot of quality control in this band contrary to the myth. It has to reach a certain standard before it goes out there.
DiS: You also play in The Sorry Kisses. Their last album Keep Smiling came out three years ago. Are there any plans to make a new record?
Sam Forrest: We're definitely going to release another record. It's added to the list of things to do. I couldn't tell you when that's likely to be. We don't have management same as Nine Black Alps so there's no pressure there regarding timescales for new releases or touring. Timescales don't exist. It's just me and my friends making music together and when we become enthusiastic we'll knock out some recordings.
DiS: What are Nine Black Alps plans for the rest of 2014?
Sam Forrest: I'm not sure if we've got any festivals? After this tour's finished I fancy doing something different. I'm not sure what, but this does feel like the end of something. I want to start something new. Rather than just doing one long tour of the UK and release another pop/grunge record I wouldn't mind mixing it up a little bit. I like to confuse myself a little bit, especially musically, because I am getting bored of the whole verse-chorus-verse-middle eight songwriting process.
DiS: Where do you see yourselves going next?
Sam Forrest: I just want our music to be more like Sonic Youth really. I've always tried to write like Sonic Youth.
DiS: Which era of Sonic Youth?
Sam Forrest: Ideally something like Bad Moon Rising. I want to make music that surprises me. I do feel like I'm in a bit of a rut. It's almost predictable now that every chorus will be followed by a mouthy, negative lyric. Although I do say this after the release of every Nine Black Alps album so... It's always, "Right, I'm never going to write another pop/grunge record again!" I'd like to mix up the way that we do the band. It still feels like we're on the treadmill of indie rock bands. It's just so predictable. The touring, release schedules, promo, etc. If there was a way of getting around that it's something I'd like to explore.
DiS: It is a difficult time for bands at present, to the point where the only real opportunity to recoup any kind of finance comes through touring and selling merchandise at shows.
Sam Forrest: I just get really bored with that. I'd like to record a couple of songs then put them out, play a one-off gig in Manchester then do three more songs and put them out. Maybe do a couple of gigs in London and Bristol rather than just the same old album tour cycle thing. It just feels so repetitive. Here comes another two years then another two years building up to the next two years. I'd like to make things a little less predictable.
DiS: Do you listen to much new music? Are there any new bands you'd recommend Drowned In Sound and its readers check out?
Sam Forrest: I dunno, I'm always two or three years behind. I really like Ty Segall. I saw him play last summer and it was one of the best gigs I've ever seen. I like Beach House as well even though I'll never be able to make music like that. It's way out of my realm. Cate Le Bon, she's quite good. I don't really listen to music like we make. It's like what I was saying earlier about wanting to take things in a different direction because I don't listen to any pop/grunge.
DiS: Do you feel that Nine Black Alps have been pigeonholed and pushed into a corner that's become increasingly difficult to escape from?
Sam Forrest: It is difficult to escape because it's what people expect from us. And also we expect it from ourselves to an extent as well. When we play a new song in rehearsals we tend to know when it's good for us, because we do have a sound and I really like that sound. It's just that the end product doesn't.... I don't know, I wouldn't say I'm bored by it but I'm always hoping for more weirdness. I'd like to send it somewhere else rather than just down the same structured song pathway as before. I'd like to improvise more, almost in a jazz style but we're shit at jamming. I'd like to be a bit more open ended with the writing and not have everything rhyme. It feels like there are so many rules about how a Nine Black Alps song should sound and I'd like to break them.
DiS: The third time I saw Nine Black Alps was in 2006 with The Longcut where both bands were being touted as "the future sound of Manchester." How do you think the music scene in that city has progressed since then? Do you still feel a kinship with what's happening in Manchester?
Sam Forrest: I don't know. I've never really been a massive Manchester music fan. I always loved the Buzzcocks. They're the one band from Manchester I really identify with the most. I guess when I was at school I grew up with Oasis being everywhere so they were a massive subconscious influence as well. But at the same time, it doesn't really influence our music. Manchester's our base, we always practice there, and there is something that does get in your blood about the city. I know we haven't got a Manchester sound. People have always said we're more American sounding. But there is an attitude there that I do like, and also it's got a great punk underground. That was one of the reasons I moved to Manchester in the first place. There's so much diversity there that you just don't find in other cities. There's a lot more experimental music going on in Manchester as well, which is cool.
DiS: Finally, what advice would you give to new bands just starting out now?
Sam Forrest: Use MySpace! It's horrible, I wouldn't know where to begin now. Be as nasty as possible to everybody and have fun. And don't suck. Just write as much as you can when you get chance. I would not want to give advice to anybody because it's all based on luck. I don't think I've learned anything from the past ten years in music. I would make all the same mistakes again. I'm sure of it.
The album Candy For The Clowns is out now on Hatch Records.
For more information on Nine Black Alps visit their official website.
Photo by Paul Gregory.