Dublin experimental trio and criminally overlooked outfit Alias Empire cast a seductive and pensive electro-soaked spell over latest album Focus, harnessing their ability in impressive and subtle fashion. It wasn’t always like this. As Dry County, the edges were that little bit rougher, though they did garner a Choice Music Prize nomination before finding a brighter voice under their current moniker.
We caught up with Kevin Littlewood, Stu Flood and Phil Porter shortly after the release of Focus to get their thoughts on that record, the current state of Irish music and whether or not the government are doing enough to support artists like them, and more besides. Their answers below are presented as a whole, such is the spirit of their collective…
At the risk of pointing out the obvious, Focus feels extremely, well…. focused. I get the sense that this is the album you wanted to write when you were putting 2013’s Safety In Numbers together.
As a band we hear huge improvements on this record and believe it’s our best work to date. When we listen back to Safety In Numbers, for us, it’s an album which we love and are still very proud of. The only thing we would have changed was the process behind it, but that was something we were able to nail when making Focus.Personal circumstances will always dictate where, when and how you can work. Unfortunately, during the making of Safety In Numbers, there was a lot going on for the band members that was out of our control and completely unconnected to the music. It had a big impact on how the record was made and, unfortunately, how the record was received due to the time taken to release it. Some viewed it as laziness or that we didn’t care which couldn’t have been further from the truth. From a song and production point of view, however, it’s the only album that could have been made at that time.
How did you approach this album?
We started work on Focus just two months after the release of Safety In Numbers. We all agreed that the most important thing when starting the new album was that it should be as much of a relaxed process and experience as possible, although we did try put a deadline of a year on it. Previously, we took a lot of time building a new studio set up and a lot of the struggles were due to trying to figure out the equipment, and a way of working that best suited us. By the time we started putting Focus together we had developed the kind of efficient way of working that we were trying to implement during the “safety sessions”. We also decided to speed up the process by trying to make it entirely between our 3 home studios in Dublin, with only one trip away to finalise recordings, which was something we hadn’t done since Bury Your Head.
As a band we were in the habit of sitting and obsessing over tracks for far too long and the problem with that, besides a time issue, is you become unable to hear the song for what it is anymore. We felt with ‘Focus’ that being more spontaneous and less analytic with the tracks was a way to grow and try a different approach to album making. It made for a more organic record with tracks that still sounded fresh while we tweaked and mixed. By the following summer the guts of the album had been written and recorded. We took a break away from Dublin to finalise the recordings and prep the whole album for mixing. We found an amazing place overlooking the Blackwater river in Co. Waterford. The three of us living together really helped put the finishing touches to the album. It was very personal.
Talk us through the narrative.
The title ‘Focus’, as with the other albums, describes the overall tone of the record. Lyrics are always an important aspect for us when making music. The songs range from subjects of connection, ambition, loss, preservation, safety and perspective. We see this album as one of acceptance. With Unexpected Falls it was to look at what was happening optimistically, Safety In Numbers was to kick and lash out at it. With Focus there is a calmer outlook. When you accept what you are and where you’re at its easier to find positives in what you do. It’s not a case of lying down but more finding a seat to get a better view of the Coliseum.
It’s been said that Alias Empire seem “content not to court attention”…
It depends on your interpretation of this statement. Perhaps our apparent disconnection with the scene may attribute to a lack of attention but we never felt we really belonged to it. Networking and socialising may be a necessary tool to furthering your career but it never came easy to us. We would always rather focus our efforts into creating a strong honest output and, perhaps naively, believed that this would be sufficient means of securing a loyal fan base. In a digital age with constant shifts within the industry it appeared musicians would be on level playing fields, but without PR, a manager or booking agent, it still seems that a band can only do so much on their own. Just because we are not seen in the media or regularly gigging is not for a lack of trying, which we are sure the majority of bands can relate to.
Looking back on the Choice nomination in 2008, was that a case of too much, too soon?
By 2008 we had been making music under the Dry County moniker for six years and on the live circuit for four years so when the nomination came through we were ready to take that next step as a band. The following year was quite an active one and there was a lot more attention on us. Sometime after that there was the name change, a second album to write and potential interest for the UK. We were a band in desperate need of guidance and things seemed to grind to a halt. As individuals we were ready but couldn’t find proper management or anyone with the relevant experience to guide us in the right direction.
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At this point, Dry County and Alias Empire must feel like completely different musical landscapes.
We understand that from the outside, listening in, it must seem that way and the fact that people hear clear differences and progression is always a high compliment for us. One of the worst things for a band to hear must be ‘all your albums sound the same’. While pushing ourselves to explore and experiment with every release, we keep everything connected by sticking to the core structure of our fundamental songwriting. Arriving at this point has felt very natural and, for the band, all four (five if you’re hardcore) of our releases are part of the same thing. Despite band name or album tone, it’s all interleaved.
What’s your take on the current state of the Irish music scene and industry?
There are many positives in the Irish music scene. There is an abundance of great talent in Ireland and it’s as relevant as anywhere in the world . Quite a few bands and artists from Ireland are doing well at the moment in their specific genres which is brilliant but it is difficult to speak honestly and openly about the industry here, for fear of being ignored or considered ungrateful. While digital press is a vital outlet for bands in this online age, the danger of being overlooked means these bands have no other way of written exposure. Printed press has become quite limited so artists depend on online publications for articles and reviews.
Perhaps it’s a romantic idea but we still believe that it shouldn’t be about who you know but more about the quality of your output. There is great talent here and it doesn’t always come in a three-minute radio-friendly track. We should encourage bands that are trying to make something original in a time when everything seems to be a remake or a remix and attention spans are at an all time low. It’s sad too that there is no real platform for emerging artists at peak times on national radio and TV here. Apart from TXFM and some local radio stations, most good radio shows playing emerging Irish talent are on close to midnight. That’s not good enough. In France, at least 40% of all music played on their national radio stations must be in the French language. Although that may not exactly translate the same here, the concept of keeping a high percentage of national radio for local talent certainly is the right idea. We need to treat local acts as equals to international artists. If local talent is kept back and treated as a ‘warm up act’ for international music, then that will influence the publics perception of them as less important.
What changes should or could be made?
It would be great to have more TV shows that showcased emerging Irish talent. For a lot of acts, it is now uploading to a YouTube channel and hoping for the best. Other Voices is a musical benchmark at this stage but it is still just one show, and while they have a varied roster of acts it still can’t cover all of the musical ground here. As Other Voices is growing in popularity, more international acts are becoming involved, and while this is a testament to the shows creators it does mean a few less slots for homegrown appearances. In the last few years, the rise of the smaller boutique festival was great to see, especially as some of the bigger festivals became more and more mainstream. They initially seemed like a great platform for independent Irish music, but to maintain overheads many acts have been left out of pocket, playing under the pretence of ‘free exposure’. Asking Irish acts to ‘pay to play’ is, in no uncertain terms, an insult. Festivals need to allocate better slots for Irish bands so they can reach bigger audiences.
It’s increasingly being expressed that Irish artists and acts need more government support. What’s your take on the situation and the attitude from the government towards creatives in Ireland?
Ireland is a country that prides itself on having a rich artistic output. We are a nation of musicians, artists and writers yet the government seem unwilling to offer the significant support. We should be trying to grow and nurture the talent here as opposed to showing them where to buy a plane ticket. It’s common knowledge amongst musicians here that you’ll never be able to sustain a living as a band solely in Ireland.
It’s all well and good increasing the artist tax exemption by 25%, but if the majority of bands aren’t even earning €50 for a show what benefit is it to them? There is no security here in a profession in the arts. If you put 10 years in to it you could still be in the exact same position as you started. For the majority of people involved in making music it is not just a hobby it is their profession. It would be nice if the government realised this too and helped support what they publicly take so much pride in.
Aside, obviously, from Alias Empire, who’s the best Irish act around at the moment?
Some nice sounds coming from Lakker, Girl Band, Sunken Foal and Katie Kim.
Finally, you must listen to one song for 24 hours straight. Bathroom breaks permitted. What are you choosing and why?
Kevin – Talking Heads’ ‘Naive Melody’ because it’s the best song ever written. The line ‘I’m just an animal looking for a home’ says more to me than any other song ever has.
Stu – Edwyn Collins ‘A Girl Like You’. Possibly the greatest pop song ever written. I could listen to that guitar solo sound on repeat for days!
Phil – Jon Brion’s ‘Theme’ from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s one of the most humble and beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. Every time I listen to it, it puts me at ease.