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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