London duo Alpines burst onto the blogosphere back in 2011 with their Polydor-backed debut EP Night Drive, an impressive collection of fine-tuned icy pop. Elevated by Catherine Pockson and Bob Matthews’ dark songwriting and brooding production, they fast became the most sophisticated young hopefuls on the block.
Over the 18 months that followed they supported Florence + the Machine and worked with renowned producer Craig Silvey (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Horrors, Arctic Monkeys, Arcade Fire).
However, a major label album was not to follow and Alpines parted ways with Polydor after two EPs. Since then they’ve collaborated with producer Maya Jane Coles, Sub Focus and new Kitsuné signing Citizens!
We caught up with them to find out how the recording of their self-financed debut album is coming along and get the lowdown on what life has been like since leaving Polydor…
What got you into making music?
Bob: I’d played bass in a few indie bands but it was only when I started getting into production and I met Catherine that I figured out what I really wanted to do. I love playing in indie bands, that’s where I came from. But I’ve discovered that I’m more of a studio nerd than I first thought! It’s made me really happy.
Catherine: I started writing songs on piano when I was 12 and gigging from when I was about 14 or 15. During my teens I wrote with a few people but when I met Bob it just clicked. We had a similar approach and aesthetic, and a similar drive for what we wanted to achieve.
Your sound is extremely crisp even though you make a lot of music in your bedroom. At what stage do you transfer your tracks to a professional studio?
B: For some of the older stuff, back when we were with Polydor, we went into a traditional studio. We worked with a producer called Craig Silvey who’s so great. He’s done Arcade Fire, The Horrors – loads of amazing stuff. That was more of an old school way of doing it. But to be honest, these days you can get that nice clean sound at home. A lot of producers are doing it all in their bedrooms. As long as you don’t need to record live drums you’ll be ok. I really think things are changing – those big scary recording studios, which maybe were a barrier for some people to get music out, are no longer there.
Do you keep it all digital or do you like to ‘pass some air’ through your music with found sounds or analogue kit?
B: I think I forgot about all of that for a while and recently we’ve been doing it a lot more. It makes things sound so much more cool and tangible.
C: We’re really inspired by the latest Sampha EP; you can really hear his presence in the room on that recording.
B: I think he’s probably just done that in a room in his parents’ house or whatever, but he’s made it sound real. It doesn’t sound like computers made it, and that’s what we’re trying to do with our new stuff.
So how do you put a piece of yourself into a recording?
B: It’s really hard. Catherine came up with a couple of songs on the keyboard and she used a really nice organ sound. Sometimes when we put everything through the computer it sounds a bit lifeless so we’ve been going back to that keyboard and I used an iPhone to record Catherine playing in the room. We added that into the songs as another layer. Even though it sounds crap on its own, phone recordings add a really cool ambience to our stuff.
You’ve had a rollercoaster ride so far. How have your experiences with Polydor changed you?
C: It’s hard to know where to begin really. When we got signed we’d known each other for less than a year. It was a very fast process – we were still learning our craft. I think we’ve had a very exposed development, which I quite like.
B: We kind of made a conscious decision upon leaving the label to take a step back and think about what we were doing. We were thrown into that major label conveyor belt so early and we really felt we needed to get a record out quick. It’s just the way the business works. But I think we were quite fortunate that we didn’t get to album release because we might have put out something we weren’t happy with. Now we’ve really taken step back and our sound has evolved quite a lot. I think we’ve got a really good platform to go and do something really great with our debut album, even though it’s taken us a lot longer than other artists in the same place as us. So yeah, it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster.
How do you look back on those times?
C: Positively, to be honest.
B: We learnt so much. We were really green going in to the whole system, and we’ve seen how it all works now. We’ve come out relatively unscathed compared to what could have happened. A lot of bands that went through what we did are completely destroyed. It’s made us really strong.
C: We’ve learnt about the industry. You can be really cynical about it or you can take it as a lesson. We’re self-managed; we’re basically doing everything, keeping a cool team with us. On the side I’m also doing a lot of songwriting for other artists, just because I love it. A lot of people ask, ‘Surely the experience has dented your creativity?’ but I think we know we should be here because it hasn’t dented it at all. We’re still churning it out. I’m just really excited to get the album out, and I miss performing.
Do you go through green patches and quiet times?
B: We’re quite regular but we can get the odd period where we don’t feel like we’re doing anything good. We try to keep working all the time. This week it feels like we’ve got three new songs that are really good but equally we can have a month where we feel like we haven’t achieved much. So it can feel quite up and down psychologically.
C: You can always come back to stuff. I read an interesting article about Rick Rubin the other day and he always tells the artists he works with to write constantly, no matter what it is. I think that’s a good ethos. Even if it’s a chord progression that you don’t think is any good at the time – the amount of times you come back to stuff and it feels right now even though it didn’t then.
When can we expect to start hearing your new stuff?
C: I think… soon. We are only just now to feel like we’ve got a body of songs that represent a nucleus of solid tracks that capture the sound of the album. You always feel like there’s more space and I don’t think we’re ever going to finish!
B: It’s so tough because I think when we decided to take this step back we were really conscious not to set ourselves a deadline. We work how we feel comfortable and come up with some good stuff. We’ve been stung before in interviews by saying ‘It’s going to be out here’ and obviously it hasn’t. We hate letting down the fans like that, but at the same time its really frustrating having fans that are like ‘Where the fuck is your album?’ We’re so desperate to get it out but at the same time, we really have to take our time. I hope it’s not much longer, but if we come back with something really great, everyone will forget that it took us longer than average to make it. It’s just so important. It’s just got to be good.
What are you setting out to do with the album?
B: There isn’t a particular manifesto, but I think we know what we want it to sound like now. We’ve spent the last few years learning that.
C: You can’t underestimate trying to create a vision and a world. I think where we’re at now is, because of the process we’ve been through, we’ve stripped all the fat away of worrying about what everyone else thinks, where we should fit and the whole major label stuff. We’ve just gone, ‘What do we want to sound like?’ And I think we’ve realised that we just want to be upfront, we want to be clear.
This is an extended version of the 60 Seconds interview in M49, the latest issue of M magazine.