Touring in support of their second full length LP, Troubled, Shaken, Etc. Sian Alice Group came through Columbus on the end of a three-month tour. Singer Sian Ahern was sick with the flu and missed the Chicago date two nights before, but got it together to deliver an intense, feverish performance for the Columbus fans. The Group culls from the Spiritualized school of Brit-rock and takes cues from the Velvet Underground for their live show, welding together an atmospheric space-crunch with polyrhythmic chamber music that satisfyingly transcends the excellent recorded material. We hung out for brunch the next morning and spoke about almost everything but music, including, but not limited to, the American perspective of the pastoral European countryside and how it contrasts with the ultra urban concrete jungle of city life, post-modern architecture, how to deal with Sunday roasts as a vegetarian, bow-hunting inside outdoors shops, cycling and London courier culture, Scott Walker and Faust, and a dog named Whiskey. I followed up via email with Rupert and Ben to clarify points apropos to an actual music article.
How did the band start? Was it a conscious decision like, “Lets start a band and tour and put out records” or was it just, “We’re all friends so why not jam a bit and see what happens?”
Ben Crook: Definitely the second. I'm pretty cynical, but not so far as to approach the world via the first route. It was kinda accidental. If anything, I had no interest in playing music at all to begin with. I'd been writing some stuff to encourage Sian to sing. I'd been making quite experimental music that was kind of like keeping a sketchbook. It wasn't necessarily for anyone else, you know, just a good old-fashioned hobby. I'd done some stuff with Rupert before, and he was sick of playing in the band he was in and wanted to record some songs with a female voice. Then I accidentally bought a Guild guitar, and I gave Rupert a copy of Logic (the Apple music program) and it sort of happened. We started to record and soon after had most of our first record made. It was totally unplanned.
Rupert Clervaux: At conception it was really the opposite of “Lets start a band and tour and put out records.” But then it mutated alarmingly quickly into a prolific, ocean-hopping, non-profit organization. It seems implausible to people who see her now, but back then, in late ’06, Sian had never sung on stage and was seemingly petrified of it. The three of us were basically good friends having a great and productive time recording our music together, perhaps aware of the creative freedom afforded by our aspirational indifference. Then, when Jason Spaceman offered us a couple of support slots on his Acoustic Mainline tour in early ’07, it was an offer too good to refuse. Turns out that Ben was just as stage wary as Sian and had to stuff himself full of beta-blockers before he could play a note. So our second and third shows ever were to a total of nearly 2,000 people, and when the dust settled, we were in a different gear. Around the same time, I spoke to our friend Jim at Social Registry and said, as a joke, that we’d agreed to let them release our first single, and he basically agreed to do so on the spot. It’s been touring and putting out records ever since.
Is the songwriting collaborative from the start, like someone plays a hook and the rest join in, or do each of you bring worked out ideas? Is there a principal that leads everything?
BC: It’s collaborative, but we each bring half- to fully formed songs to the studio. And there’s a great deal of improv and a remixing sensibility incorporated. At least three songs on Troubled, Shaken, Etc. existed in radically different forms before. Collaboration allows you to question your ties to an idea and sometimes realise something is actually a bit crap. It allows you to get to the core of a good idea or vibe. I like to think songs are never really finished anyway. I hate people who tinker over a song forever like it’s the biggest thing ever to happen. Sure, you should care, but stop staring in the fucking mirror. And you should be able to perform a song in a thousand different ways. Listen to the Velvets bootlegs of their shows; everything is completely different, but it’s still clearly the Velvet Underground.
RC: It’s collaborative, but remains anything but prescriptive in terms of writing the music. I’m purposefully trying to avoid thinking about this too clearly. I’d say we probably have five or six different approaches that recur, so there’s certainly no single formula for a Sian Alice Group track. Every song has it’s own rules, runs its own course to completion, and we seek to nurture that.
Where did the band start initially and how has that evolved into the way it is now? How is it sharing continents and the rest?
RC: It started in London and the first line-up reflected that. Then, after we made our bed in the Social Registry’s stable, our inclination to head west became viable. America, for the first album at least, was really where we concentrated our efforts. During that time, we had New Yorkers Mike Bones and Eben Bull in the band, and for the last year, they played with us everywhere we went. It wasn't the best business model, or great for the environment, but it was the longest running line-up we’ve had so far. Recently we parted company with Mike and Sasha, but Eben is still a deeply valued member and friend. Doing big tours can go some way to justifying the expense of flying people around all the time, but in an effort to do more one-off shows we're playing with different line-ups in the U.S. and UK for the first time now. It’s working very well as both line-ups have different strengths and lean toward different types of set.
BC: Our last North American tour was a whole different experience to before, in both good and exciting ways. It means we get to go to new places and also see old friends. Each tour you meet up with more and more people you’ve met before. That’s pretty fun. London is wet and cold right now—that’s nothing new. Weather like this makes me think of faraway places where I feel happy, like New Orleans and the South, and California and New York, and, of course, Columbus. It makes me feel happy and a bit sad, but that’s the point, I suppose.
Sian, you’re stuck with these guys on tour, how do you cope?
SA: I do burp a lot.
RC: She does burp a lot. She guy-ifies enough. She bros-down.
SA: The guys are all quite in touch with their feminine sides, I’d say. All of them are.
RC: We’re quite sensitive; we all moisturize.
SA: Drummers need to moisturize.
Seems like you’ve been on tour since we met before South By Southwest in 2008. What’s been the best experience so far?
RC: We were just in Japan not too long ago. It was amazing. I mean, everything was taken care of. If we needed to go anywhere, there was this huge Range Rover waiting for us. The chaperoning ended only when you closed the bathroom door. The rudest they ever were was a confused look. If we actually tried to help move gear, they’d just shut us down.
Eben Bull: It’s like almost rude to even suggest that they’re not taking care of you by even trying to help.
BC: It’s good to just let someone else make the decisions. On tour, I just sort of give up all responsibility. As soon as you’re outside of that bubble, not staying with the band, you’re like five different people, vibrating. The worst thing anyone can say to me is “chill out.” It’s just so condescending. I’m already crotchety, I think. As I grow older, I’ll just get mellower.
RC: Scandinavia is incredible in every way.
SA: The best people, the best climate...
RC: The scenery, the music—all-in-all it’s the best place to tour. Copenhagen is an amazing town, and it’s really easy to put tours together in Scandinavia—if not to make money, at least to break even and have a really easy trip. We could barely get shows worked out in France or Germany, and it was frustrating. But we met up with some more DIY—even though they’re very professional DIY folks—and they helped us get stuff together in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. It was four days, and it was the only tour we’ve done that when we arrived back in London we had enough money to buy a huge Sunday roast for the whole band in a really nice pub with wine and everything. It was funny, since we booked the tour ourselves, we spent the percentage we’d saved from not using an agent on meat and alcohol. It’s a great way to end a tour, sort of a tradition for us.