Contours: An Interview with Sian Alice Group

In 2007, Sian Alice Group released their first single as a part of The Social Registry’s vinyl series, a song which spanned both sides of the record. The A-side unveiled the talents of singer Sian Ahern, while the B-side showcased the soundscapes of multi-instrumentalists Rupert Clervaux and Ben Crook. The British band’s debut album, 59.59 (the length of the album), similarly moves its spotlight from one band member to the next, with several instrumental pieces and four "interludes." They tackle a handful of different genres and in so doing seem to create a new genre of their own, as moody as Jefferson Airplane, as cinematic as Mogwai, as lovely as the Cocteau Twins. Sian Alice Group is touring the US for the first time this month, including numerous appearances at the SXSW festival in Austin, TX.

"Sometimes it all stretches out in front of you in an instant, and other times you really have to put the hours in. Each song has its own rules." – Rupert Clervaux

Can you describe how the members of the band came into each other’s lives and came to make music?

Rupert: Sian, Ben, Sasha and I have all known each other as friends for a long time. I’ve actually known Ben for over ten years. In that time we’d occasionally dabble in making music, but only made the concerted effort to create and concentrate on this group a couple of years ago. It’s hard to say why it took us so long, other than that the time felt right and the process felt effortless and uncontrived. When we play live, we like to have six musicians on stage and we’ve been lucky enough to have been joined by a variety of different people, all of whom have brought something unique to whatever their role was. At the moment we’ve got Mike Bones playing guitar and Eben Bull playing bass and a variety of other things. Mike is also signed to The Social Registry and is pretty much all of our favorite guitarist.

In creating a full hour’s worth of music made up of several different moods separated by a series of interludes was there a conscious understanding of how you were going to order the album when you were recording it? Is the concept of "the album" important, or are you more invested in the songs as individual experiences?

Rupert: We didn’t start sequencing the record until it was close to completion. I have my own studio in London which, save for a couple of other projects, quickly became the Sian Alice Group studio. It never felt like we were doing a specific session to make an album, as we record music there all the time. As the deadline for the album approached, it was very much a case of editing down from a pool of material that was too large. The "conceptual" element then presented itself very naturally, which I think is almost inevitable with the type of music we make. I think it’s important that all the pieces–including the interludes, which were all recorded individually and in isolation of the tracks they divide–stand up musically on their own. There are some diverse styles on the album, but I think the distinctive way that everyone plays keeps it grounded. Sian’s voice is the obvious example, but there’s also Ben’s creative and improvisational guitar playing, the non-traditional drums, and Sasha’s violin which is powerful in its simplicity. One of the most enjoyable parts of making 59.59 was then arranging the order to give the album an overall sense of mood and rhythm. We really think of it as four sections, as we were very conscious to make it work over four sides of vinyl.

Ben: I think that since we decided to start recording an album in earnest, there was definitely a feeling that certain songs would be situated in the running order where they are now. The decision to record a double vinyl LP that spans across four sides was integral to us even signing with Social Registry–that was our primary concept for format, including the artwork. We always knew we wanted the listener to be involved in the experience as much as possible. So, yes, we had a feeling about the album order from the offset and we knew what the physical album had to be, too. Ideally, songs can exist as individual elements, but we were keen that 59.59 was an "album" in completion. The way people listen to music has changed radically, thanks to DJ Steve Jobs, hence the stubbornness about releasing a beautiful piece of vinyl.

What is your creation process like? Do most of the songs exist before you get into your recording studio, or do you improvise and record as you go?

Rupert: The creation process is changing all the time. From one song to the next, from one day to the next. That’s what makes it creative, I guess! We always seek to avoid being too pre-meditative about anything. It’s hard to tell what lends one song to improvisation, another to a strict arrangement, another to a mixture. Sometimes it all stretches out in front of you in an instant and other times you really have to put the hours in. Each song has its own rules.

Ben: It’s a pretty even mix. We made a creative decision early in the recording not to use any "rock" drums. We try to keep it as loose as possible, and the luxury of your own studio allows that. Songs definitely come out of improvisation, "Complete Affection" and the interludes being examples, but they often come out of a "remix" sensibility, equally. We’ll record a track and maybe it will feel a bit pedestrian or there’s simply something missing. "Larsen B" and "Contours" both came out of that, where we already had the songs recorded and almost finished, but pushed them that bit further with the remixing ethic. We have the computer on at rehearsals so it’s easy to press record. One of the interludes was born from that, then sampled, processed, and added to.

The songs on your upcoming EP consist of just vocals and piano… Were those songs written while you were recording 59.59, and what set them apart in such a way that they were not incorporated into the album or given the full band treatment?

Rupert: When we realised that we had too much material on the go for an album, it was quite an easy decision to make a separate release out of the songs which were just vocal and piano as they obviously sat well together. The title track, "The Dusk Line," has always been one of my favorites and existed for a while as a full band track, but we were never happy with how it sounded. One night I wrote the piano part for it and then gradually removed all the other instruments, and it sparked off a new fascination. Two of the other songs on the EP are directly related to tracks on 59.59 so there’s a definite thread there that joins it to the LP.

The band has cited the films of David Lynch as a shared source of inspiration. Are there other artists of pieces of art that are a common influence to the members of your band?

Rupert: I’m sometimes inspired lyrically by fictional characters. "Kirilov," for example, is about a particularly interesting and extreme character from [Dostoevsky’s] The Devils.

Some of your instrumental compositions–and "Complete Affection" in particular–seem to tell a story in the same way that a song with vocals can. Can you tell the story behind one of your instrumental pieces or the idea that inspired it?

Ben: The piano and synth cycle underneath had existed, doing nothing, for a year or so. I kind of felt it could become part of "Murder," or that it should be next to "Murder" on the running order. We were keen to have some sort of collaboration on the album from the beginning and are big fans of free jazz and free/improv music, so we asked John to contribute to this. The title "Complete Affection" comes from a Sunny Murray record, and John had just recorded with Sunny. So Rupert and John played together to the backing track. They did two takes and this was the second of those recorded. A week later, Brian DeGraw [of Gang Gang Dance] was in town, and he came over one night and laid down the high piano part towards the end of the song–again, it being the second of two takes.

Rupert: Instrumental music is very important to all of us, and I’m sure it will be a feature of every record we release. The interludes are particularly enjoyable to make as they’re essentially just inspired by the will to make music. There are always little sparks of ideas from elsewhere (like for the piano part on "Interlude 7’35" I had that lovely wandering run of notes from Scott Walker’s "When Joanna Left Me" in mind) but it’s more about going to the studio and simply playing. Ben and I listen to and play a lot of improvised music and the instrumentals naturally give us the chance to explore that area more.

sian alice group

"I’ve always believed that 1% of everything is good, you just need to look harder." – Ben Crook

(For Sian): I’m curious about your previous experience with singing and writing melodies. 59.59 combines different genres, and the songs vary greatly in their complexity, and your voice seems to be able to shift with the different environments…

Sian: I am flattered and pleased to have achieved this; it was certainly my goal. I enjoyed the whole recording process immensely and feel proud of what we created. I am a fan of music of many genres, so I aimed, or rather we aimed, for a varied feel to the record, and I did as well as I could to suit and blend with the songs. I am relatively new to singing, and this is my first creative project. Until Sian Alice Group, I was too shy to sing in front of people! Now you can’t keep me quiet, and I am the happiest I’ve ever been. Luckily I found it easy to find vocal melodies, it all feels very natural. It’s the best part of the band experience for me.

(For Rupert): Are any of the lyrics you wrote for 59.59 autobiographical, and if so, I wonder what the experience is like hearing those stories or feelings come from someone else’s voice?

Rupert: It’s an amazing experience hearing your words sung by a voice as beautiful as Sian’s. When we record the vocals, Sian, Ben, and I work very closely on the melodies and the pacing so we get a feel that’s right for all of us. We made a conscious decision that we wouldn’t amend or edit them so they’d make more sense being sung by a girl as opposed to a guy. The lyrics are very rarely literal, so it’s not often an issue. "When…" for instance, is essentially autobiographical, but I’m more interested in trying to create imagery that anyone’s imagination can tap into… On "Nightsong," our first 7", I humored the idea that Sian singing a love song that I’d written was actually more romantic than me singing it myself… I’m not sure, but I love how it sounds.

What music did you grow up listening to? Do you feel that your sound now incorporates the music of your upbringing or denounces it?

Rupert: For the first time now, I think we’ve all reached a point where we’re able to incorporate all of the good music we’ve listened to over the years. When you’re younger, you tend to strongly subscribe to specific scenes and trends, one after the other. As we’ve gotten older, we’ve kind of edited the best bits of all those passions we’ve had. I spent a while DJing and making techno and I think there are some strong elements of that in Sian Alice Group now. Going back further, I recall listening to Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker, and Bob Dylan (particularly Blood On The Tracks) in my mum’s car, all of whom I still listen to frequently. But there was also Elton John and Genesis…

Ben: I always liked a varied assortment of music from a very early age, the benefit of having a music fan for an elder brother. So by the time I was ten (1985) I was already listening to the likes of The Pale Fountains, The Smiths, Orange Juice, Felt, and REM; Cherry Red and Creation compilations, the C86 compilation a little later than that. Proper UK indie stuff when other kids where interested in kicking balls. The first band I really noticed for myself was The Velvet Underground. They totally blew my mind–what they looked and sounded like, and Andy Warhol did the cover. "Venus In Furs" really tore my brain out, musically and lyrically–I was a twelve-year-old Catholic kid from just outside of London. From then on, I kind of decided to listen to everything. The bands I loved ’til I left school were Big Star, MC5, The Fall, Teenage Fanclub, Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine, and Spacemen 3. I liked things dry and heavy. Never really got the shoegaze thing, despite Slowdive living in the house next to my school. Then I got into punk and hardcore, and at the same time I really got into jazz and Blue Note Records. When I moved to London (’94), I was in Covent Garden at college, so I started going to Rough Trade and Fat Cat record shops and really listening and buying everything and anything. I’ve always believed that 1% of everything is good, you just need to look harder.

Is there anything about music as a business and industry that is off-putting to you?

Rupert: That’s a hard question to answer. We are very lucky to work with our friends at Social Registry… and first and foremost, we’re all friends. Whatever might go wrong, they’ll never stab us in the back and they’ll never tell us to change the music we make. So that’s a positive. Beyond that, I find a great deal of things off-putting. The music industry at large seems gutless and afraid because power is being slowly wrestled back from the suits. Instead of embracing the change, it seems to be clinging onto what it can and throwing its weight around. And half the time the artists signed to major labels are no better. Radiohead and EMI are like two spoilt kids in the playground. We don’t want to have anything to do with people like that.

Ben: "Industry" and "business" as defined are awful, awful things. It’s not what creative musicians are supposed to be interested in. I try, as in everything in life, to keep things as simple and uncomplicated as possible. Hence signing with a small independent record label we’re happy to call our friends.

What do you listen to in the tour van/bus/car?

Ben: So far this trip we’ve been listening to each other’s iPods. Driving back to New York from Amherst the other day it was Mike Bones’. The Usher song "Love in this Club" was pretty popular. Mike also played the first Exuma record which blew my mind. Back home in London, we mostly drive about in Sian’s 1981 red Mercedes, and Scott Walker’s "The Old Man’s Back Again" is a pretty popular one.

Rupert: I seem to always sit toward the back of the van, and the speakers are underneath piles of equipment, so I tend to listen to my iPod headphones… I recently visited La Monte Young’s Dreamhouse in New York so I’ve been listening to his music quite a bit. It’s a calming way to watch the world go by.

Visit Sian Alice Group on MySpace.

Identity Theory’s recommended listening: "Heartless" and "Contours" by Sian Alice Group

Images courtesy of Carla Brookoff

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