- 14 Apr 04
Alphastates step out of their self-imposed isolation with a subtle, sexy and self-confident debut.
You’re always supposed to remember your first time, or so they say. That idea is definitely born out by three quarters of Alphastates – Catherine Dowling, Gerry Horan and Stevie Kavanagh (drummer Mick O’Dowd makes up the picture) – five days, as they are, away from the release of their debut album Made From Sand. How do they feel?
“Excited basically”, says Catherine. “Anxious at the same time. You don’t know which way it’s going to go, you may as well flip a coin. We’ve gone through the post-natal depression when you first get it back, so now it’s just bring it on. We’ve done our bit now and, I don’t mean to sound hippy or anything, but the album will go where it’s meant to go and that’s what we’d like”. She laughs. “And we’d like it to be massive”.
Gerry agrees. “After waiting so long, to have it out and get touring is a relief. It feels like its all official”.
It’s certainly the kind of album that people are talking about even before it’s been released – especially other musicians. Something, it transpires, that the band themselves have no concept of.
“You feel completely isolated, it’s like we’re the only people who are aware of our existence except from the three or four people who we hear from regularly,” says Catherine. “It’s just us and them, now we need a few more. It’s odd, although we’ve played around the country four or five times and had a great time, until you have an album out you still feel cut off. It’s like the acid test for any band. EPs are short bodies of work but people want to know if you can hold their attention for fifty minutes of music”.
The band possibly enhanced that feeling of isolation by recording the album not in either Dublin studios or at home but with producer Karl Odlum in France. According to Catherine, it was one of the key factors in the process.
“I know the first time we went to France was one of the highlights of my life. One, we were making an album but we were also in this amazing studio. It was a week away from reality, there was no pressure because we were doing it ourselves. We kept pinching ourselves. It was slightly more exotic than Temple Bar, shall we say. The second time we felt slightly more pressure because we were aware of our budget and deadlines. There’s something really magical about the studio. One of Tina Turner’s songs was mixed on the desk, there are amps that were played by various people. There’s lots of history and it’s in the middle of nowhere”.
“Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Move On Up’ was done on the tape machine”, Stevie interjects, before pausing for effect… “so was ‘Eye Of The Tiger’”.
The good news is that the band have come up with their own small masterpiece. It’s the kind of record that frequently takes your breath away. Best of all, it doesn’t sound anything like anybody else knocking around either the city or the country. Like The Tycho Brahe, 8Ball and The Jimmy Cake, Alphastates are operating within their own little universe. Has that been a gradual development?
“I think it’s a little bit over time”, says Catherine. “We all have big musical baskets that we’ll dip in to, we’re into making something that’s not just your kind of rasher and two eggs. We wouldn’t be too pretentious about it but we wouldn’t get up on stage if we didn’t believe in what we do. But we wouldn’t claim to have invented anything. Maybe we’ve just tried to make it interesting”.
Given that Made From Sand has such an overwhelming feel of technology about it, I decide to throw the term ‘electro pop’ into the conversation to see what happens. Gerry ponders it for a moment. “It’s strange because there are songs that you could definitely say are pop songs and have an electronic influence, but then things like ‘Good Stuff’ and ‘Kiss Me’ definitely aren’t. There are occasions though”.
Catherine picks up the thread.
“We’ve gone from the whole dance scene to bands with two guitars and bass. There’s nothing wrong with that but I suppose it’s nice to do something different. It’s refreshing for us to do different kinds of music”.
One of the things that many have picked up on about the band is Dowling’s extraordinary voice, a thing of often fragile beauty enhanced by the fact that it is surrounded by so many man-made noises. Not that she’d agree. Far from it, in fact.
“I can’t listen to the sound of my own voice, I just can’t stand it,” she insists. “Enough people tell me they like it so I suppose it must be OK. I had a weird time recording the vocals with a 30,000 euro microphone in front of me. You start putting yourself under pressure, this has to be amazing. It’s the ghosts in your head talking. Now I’ve come the full circle and I just do what I do onstage and try and capture the moment”.
It’s the juxtaposition between Dowling and the rest of the band that makes them such a fascinating prospect, the meeting of her voice and words with their music.
“A lot of the songs are about something really human”, she notes, “you’re singing about vulnerable things. You try and layer it though because I don’t think you should ever be too autobiographical in songs because that can make people uncomfortable. It’s nice to be a bit vague as well”.
I reckon it’s quite a sexual record.
Gerry laughs. “I’d never thought of that. I suppose Catherine has that sexy, broken voice. ‘Kiss Me’ is, it’s a very empowered woman kind of song”. Catherine chips in. “I think most people would identify with that song, someone fancies you but they can’t get it together to kiss you. It’s like come on, get it together. Some of the other songs I guess…”.
Oh come on, most of them have got some sexual reference, however subtle. She pauses, slightly uncomfortable.
“I write from the gut I suppose but I don’t…I don’t know, it’s very hard to say what it is…..”.
Do female writers have the opportunity to go further these days when it comes to issues like that?
“Men wouldn’t open up so much”, ventures Stevie, “it’s not so cool”. “I wouldn’t have been a fan of someone like Joni Mitchell”, says Catherine “it’s all too passive for me. If I listen to a female singer I want someone who’s got something to say with a bit of passion. Someone like Cat Power, not your typical flimsy sitting around waiting themes”.
Our conversation turns to Mike Skinner and the way he is able to balance beery audacity with an unexpected tenderness, especially on ‘It’s Too Late’. Catherine begins to enthuse.
“That’s a stunning song, one of my favourites. It shows a real tenderness beneath the bravado. I think with a lot of British pop there’s a lot of being sexy for the sake of it but if that’s a side effect of our album well that’s almost nicer. I’d never sit down to write a song that’s sexy but maybe there’s a side to one or two of them”.
In many ways with the release of the album, the hard work really begins here, with the band heading off on a national tour. Gerry is looking forward to it.
“We became more self-aware from doing a lot of gigs, about what we should be doing when we play live. It’s not just about reproducing the album’s sounds, its completely different – more of the moment. We started to enjoy it a bit more, we didn’t really used to enjoy it on stage”.
“As people too we’ve become more confident”, says Catherine, “as musicians as well. I was quite insecure about myself as a singer. We just used to stand there looking embarrassed. Now from having played and released records we’ve become better performers. We’re a lot harder live. They keep giving out to me for slapping on my distortion pedal….”.
“Yeah”, chips in Stevie, “but it is between songs”.
Made In Sand is out now on Magi Records. The band tour Ireland throughout April. See alphastates.com for details