Tuesday, February 17, 2009



Sian Alice Group is a bit of a buzz band from London. When I did my "research" on them, I discovered many raving reviews that often used words like "ethereal" and "sublime". Because there are so many raving reviews already, I will not attempt to do one of my own. I have already been outdone by many. Instead, I have a few stories about them. I first noticed them in an old copy of Vice Magazine that was lying around my apartment. The description of them made them seem very mysterious, and when I looked at their photograph, I could feel their gloomy British accents in my ears.

As I was reading, my boyfriend at the time, Jeremiah looked over my shoulder and said they had been at South by South West when he had gone, and that somebody from his band had fallen in crush with the one with the long hair. The one with the long hair was the violinist and pianist, Sasha Vine. In the photo spread, she had a side ponytail and looked kind of hip hop. I said, "Oh, I thought he would like the girl with the bangs." This was the singer, Sian Alice Ahern, but I didn't know that yet. Jeremiah also told me they were supposed to sound like of like Spiritualized, so I made a mental note and bought their record, 59:59 in L.A. much later.

BUT, I didn't actually get to listen to their record until almost a year later. I got bed bugs last year, and so had to put all my things in storage, including my record player. So, all that time, my record was just sitting in my home, so pristine. Eventually, they came to town and played at The Biltmore with A Place to Bury Strangers. They didn't sound like Spiritualized really, but I still loved it! All night, I tried to work up the courage to talk to someone from the band. Finally, after they played, I met Sasha Vine in the bathroom and was too nervous to have a proper conversation with her. Sadly, she wanted to shake my hand before I had a chance to wash it after coming out of the bathroom stall. Sorry! I still feel bad about it to this day.

When I finally did listen to their record, I had it on the wrong speed, and asked Jer, "Where's the girl?" He said, "She'll come in." I waited and she didn't. The male voice and music that you hear when you slow down the record is actually just as nice as the band sounding how they are supposed to...oddly. I think it's because usually when you slow down someone's voice, it sounds warped and deep, but Sian Alice's voice is so high that when slowed down, in turns into the most beautiful man voice.

Besides the lovely Sian Alice and Sasha, the band is made up of Rupert Clervaux (multi-instrumentalist), the sole person I did this interview with, Ben Crook (multi-instrumentalist), Andy Ingle (guitar), and Douglas Hart (bass). They have had no trouble finding great bands to tour with; in fact, a couple of their first shows were with Spiritualized! They have a new album set to come out around August 2009 called, "Troubled, Shaken." Allow me to introduce my interview subject, Rupert Clervaux- he's very polite, humble, and kind and I'd recommend chatting with him anytime. He gives just enough of the gossip to make an honest interview a little bit saucy.

Nikki Never: Did you have any specific ideas of what you wanted to sound like when you created the Sian Alice Group?

Rupert Clervaux: We wanted it to sound like our musical imagination running wild and being recorded. No one I know, or want to talk about music with only listens to psych-rock or only listens to soul music or only listens to folk music (well, folk maybe!) and personally I'd reached an age at which I was bored of seeing or being in bands that were driven by a crude mix of stolen history and fashion.

We wanted to allow ourselves to be inspired by the wealth and breadth of all the music we love, from techno to classical to rock n' roll to free-jazz to ethnic and whatever else. We wanted to be honest about the people who influence us, to try harder, and trust ourselves to be making everything sound fresh and unique, if only to us.

The one thing i love most about recording music with Sian and Ben is that none of us care about the context of how our music is received: whether it's cool or not, whether it's 'now', whether we have the right haircut or not, etc.

NN: I heard that you and Ben are sort of jacks of all (musical) trades. How has this affected the band?

RC: Wanting to make good music will always make you search for new sounds and new skills. I've been playing instruments since I was tiny but it was never with any guidance or structure so it was always more about loving sounds and patterns than being virtuoso at one thing. I think that approach gives you a certain confidence to pick up anything and see what you get out of it, see if it works for the track you're trying to make.

So, I guess the words missing from your question were 'master of none!' In terms of affecting the group, it's hard to put my finger on it, but I hope that by playing the bulk of the parts on the record, Ben and i can thread together the sometimes disparate styles of music we make. Sian's distinctive voice helps with this too...but it's very important to know when we need something beyond what we're capable of. For some reason, our next record ("Troubled, Shaken Etc.") features five different bassists! Which is just because the songs were crying out for very specific styles of playing that we weren't always capable of providing.

NN: I read a rumour that you all live in a mansion together. If that's more than just a rumour, how did that come about? Do you ever drive each other crazy?

RC: Ha ha! This rumour has a surprisingly humble beginning! I actually don't live anywhere and haven't done for nearly three years. I have a studio in central London where we record Sian Alice Group and I work with a select few other people and projects there. There's a fold out mattress if I need it but it's underground with no washing facilities and it gets freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer. After paying the rent on that it seems crazy (read: impossible) to pay for an apartment as well, especially seeing as we spent over half of last year on tour. So I've gradually become a regular house and pet sitter (preferably cats) for friends or friend's parents... and the mansion you speak of is my friend's parent's place. It's a beautiful Jacobean house right on the river Thames by Kew Bridge. I get to stay there a lot as they travel frequently and it's absolutely my favorite place to be if i'm in London- spacious, quiet and empty. It's become known as 'Riverside' and the other members of the group are always happy to hear that I'll be there for a while

Strangely, we all manage to get on very well most, if not all of the time. We're all grown-ups I suppose and we know when to give each other space. Being workaholics naturally forces you to spend large amounts of time together but luckily, unlike some groups, we don't thrive on friction and conflict. It doesn't reap benefits for us. When we're touring it'll be six or seven of us in a van all day and then everyone bundling into the same hotel room each night but morale remains generally high. Without wanting to name names, snoring can be a issue at times but it's no big deal! There's a presiding sense that we're all in this together.

NN: Where do you get your motivation to focus on music so intensely?

RC: This is a very hard question to answer in an interesting way. Personally, I get my motivation from the process and practice of playing instruments and writing songs. It's a playful, but not always happy expression that seeks out the themes that become the mood of an instrumental, or the lyrics of a song. But it's too instinctive to be able to, or even want to explain.

NN: Do you care what critics say?

RC: I wish that I could tell you, 'no' and it were totally true! In reality, we're aware of most of the things that get written about us because we have to be. Primarily because our label sends us links to all the press they find and, as we don't have a manager, we have to help them compile it all for them to promote us.

But to be completely honest, I only care about the good ones. Sometimes they're very memorable, like the one Jo-Ann Green wrote of [59:59] for All Music Guide. When you make an album like that you can't expect strangers to understand it that well. And for the bad ones, I have a simple philosophy: if the writer had come to the studio while you were making the record and made suggestions that would make the music appeal to them more, you'd laugh in their face. So what difference does it make now that they've got a soap box and the record is in shrink wrap?

NN: What's the silliest thing a critic has ever said about you?

RC: It's more stupid than silly, but there was one guy who presented himself as particularly inept whilst trying to make a detailed and lengthy attack on 59. Sadly for him, his musical knowledge wasn't quite up to the job he was tackling. If you want to really get down to bare bones of instrumentation you should automatically recognize the difference between a xylophone and a marimba, for instance, and if you describe a song as a 'two chord dirge' you'd better make sure there's not actually six chords in it. I'm a stickler for detail so that kind of carelessness makes me cringe.

NN: What were some of the worst jobs you've ever had?

RC: When I was 19, I was saving up to travel across the States by and I took a job doing tele-sales. I had to call up all these old people and try and get them to get them to use their credit cards to re-subscribe to a magazine about post-retirement activities. It was totally depressing! One time a lady answered the phone and I asked to speak to her husband and she told me that he'd died that morning!

NN: What did you do before joining the Sian Alice Group?

RC: Alongside a good stint as a cycle courier and years of work on construction sites, I was in a string of in-consequential bands. All the while, I was trying to hone my recording knowledge and amass as much equipment as I needed to be musically self-sufficient. n fact, right before starting Sian Alice Group, I was almost ready to start focusing on engineering and production work more. I'd just set up my own studio and was getting involved with some really interesting projects, like Treader Records and Spring Heel Jack's 'Songs And Themes' LP.

I was ready to give up on the idea of focusing on one project and touring the whole time... I think this attitude was important when I first started working with Ben and Sian because we were free of the constraints of having to 'succeed.' We were making music for fun and experimenting, finally free to pile in all the ideas that sparked from all the music we'd listened to and experiences we'd had before. In that sense, what has happened to the group since then has been pleasantly unexpected.

NN: What's the strangest thing you've experienced on tour?

RC:We all had a pretty intense experience on our last US tour. We'd been on the road a couple of days and our van, which we own, started giving up on us. All the power would just disappear on the accelerator and you'd have to let it sit for a while before it'd run again. So, it was behaving very erratically, but we braved through a few more dates, missed a show in Toronto and it finally died in Minneapolis.

The next show was in Vancouver- the one I believe you saw, at Biltmore Cabaret and we had three days alloted to drive there. But by the time the van was fixed we had 27 hours to get there. A few people said it couldn't be done but we got in and drove in shifts for a solid 27 and a half hours, only stopping to fill up with gas. Everyone had these crazy 1,000 yard stares when we arrived and for hours after we got out of the van it felt like floor was moving... it was on that drive that [I] discovered that Sian, who I'd already known for years, was an extra-terrestrial conspiracy theorist. She and i were doing a midnight shift, speeding across Montana in pitch black, when she suddenly broke the silence by asking me if I thought that aliens already existed among us on Earth. I guess our brains were being fried by the journey but I remember being mildly nervous because she seemed so serious. I kept checking my peripheral vision to make sure she wasn't peeling her skin off!

NN: Who is the heartbreaker of the group?

RC: Well, there's only two options here- myself or Eben. I'm sure you can join the dots when i say that the other four band members are an equal amount of boys and girls.

NN: If David Bowie wanted to put some of the vocals into your mix, but without actually meeting you (just like he did with Scarlett Johannson), would you let him?

RC: Not even close. I'm not a big Bowie fan. I like Low, Lodger, and at risk of sounding willfully contrary, i enjoyed the Labyrinth soundtrack but I'm not into a whole lot else. But i mean, I'm not even into that idea with someone I really respect as a musician. We've been lucky enough to collaborate with some really amazing musicians and generally speaking the relationship fuels the collaboration.

Alexis Taylor's version of 'As The Morning Light' on Remix was one that was done in separation. I made a new backing track and he then recorded the vocal and synth parts at home (on Christmas Day apparently!), but we'd been working together on other projects for months before that so the musical relationship was already very solid. The only other person who is allowed to do anything like that is Eben, one of the two group members who lives in NY. For the new record, I'd e-mail him backing tracks with notes to lean him in the direction that the song required. He'd then record a bunch of possible parts and e-mail the sound files back to me so we could edit them and mix them as necessary. He knows what he's doing with recording and playing so it worked great and was crucial as we're talking about instruments like trombone and flute, which are not in mine or Ben's capabilities...but David Bowie vocals? Not for me.

NN: What do you think of 70's glitter rock?

RC: A friend of mine went through a phase of collecting obscure and forgotten glam rock 7 inches. He'd make mixtapes that we'd play in the place I lived in at the time, which I enjoyed but I must confess it was more amusement for me than really liking the music. The lyrics were hilarious but foul at the same time. I began to suspect that my friend was on a determined mission to find the most absurd innuendos to under-age sex ever recorded. I also began to see why some of the tracks were obscure and/or forgotten! As for the mainstream bands...I don't ever listen to them, but I suppose I do like some of the drumming- straight, repetitive dance-floor kick drums, I'm a huge supporter of.

NN: What's the grossest thing you've ever eaten, either on tour or due to the general poverty that often comes with being a musician?

Touring anywhere is bad for your diet- but America is the worst. Once you get between cities, you're screwed. You try and stay alert to it but it's like giving up cigarettes- before you know it you're half way through a Baconator and you're like, 'Fuck! I promised myself i wouldn't do this anymore!' I don't hate fast food at all but the grossness comes from having it day in, day out when it's cheap and there's no choice. It really makes you feel horrendous. Way worse than smokes and alcohol do.

Poor Ben and Sian are vegetarians too so they eat a lot of different types of fried potato products on tour. We're getting better though. We got into eating at Cracker Barrel where we get a table nestled between all the good church-going folk, keep our sunglasses on and eat fish and vegetables.

NN: Does it bug you when your fans ask questions about the Jesus and Mary Chain?

RC: Not at all. Douglas was the first bassist we had in the group. First and foremost, he's a good friend and it was just a natural occurence that he started playing with us at the beginning. We were just hanging out a lot at that time. We needed a bassist to play live shows and he knew how to play bass. In some way, I was surprised people didn't cotton on earlier and make more of a fuss really. It would be crazy to have a member of one of the more influential bands of an era in your group fifteen years down the line, and expect people not to focus on it or ask questions about it.

Douglas is primarily a film-maker and that's why we stopped playing together. We had to become a touring group far quicker than we expected and I think he wanted to do it, but had commitments in the UK as film-maker, bridges that would likely have been burned by spending months away. I miss him being around though; he's amazing company and he has a simple but very authoritative way of playing bass guitar which is hard to replicate. There's no credits on the sleeve, but Douglas actually played bass on the Alexis Taylor version of 'As The Morning Light' and his playing suits it perfectly.

True story; the first time we toured with Eben playing bass instead of Douglas, we were at SXSW and after one show this guy sidled up to Eben with a complete stack of Jesus and Mary Chain records and asked him to sign them!

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