Five years can be a lifetime in music, and yet Dublin’s Alphastates have emerged from a hiatus of just that length with their strongest set of songs to date in the shape of new album, Human Nature, and a music community who, far from forgetting who they were, are ready to embrace their shining electro-pop with open arms.
‘We finished the album a couple of times,’ laughs Catherine Dowling, vocalist. And yet every time they thought Human Nature was at an end, they ended up recording more tracks, and adding all manner of bells, whistles and production savvy to the ones they already had.
And yet, for a while it looked as though the record would never see the light of day and Alphastates could have been another great Irish band consigned to a mere footnote in our musical history. The reason: Catherine lost her voice. Not the kind of -having a bit of a sniffle’ losing your voice, either: this was full-on, permanent croak territory.
‘I thought it was game over,’ she admits. ‘It was horrible. It really knocked my confidence, because this was the one thing that I felt I could do somewhat well that was going on me.’ Catherine is disarmingly honest on how she came to this sorry impasse. ‘I was playing with the lads and, boys being boys, there’s no fun being a guitar player if your amp isn’t ripping your face off, and we were probably playing too loud for my voice. I was also boozing heavily at the time – I got tips that brandy was really good for your vocals and I was knocking back far too much,’ she smiles, shame-facedly. ‘The fact that I talk a lot in my personal life didn’t help either.’
Salvation came in the form of Frames frontman Glen Hansard, who recommended his own voice coach, who managed to rescue Catherine’s husky tones from the musical landfill: ‘My voice came back, with a bit of work, and then my confidence came back and we felt we just had to make this album.’
Catherine’s vocal troubles weren’t the only reason why Human Nature had such a long genesis. The biggest reason for its delay was the age-old problem of the independent artist: things take longer when you’re not just the musicians, but also the record company, management company, promoter and everything else that goes into making sure a CD gets onto record store shelves.
It struck State that the album’s longer-than-normal birthing process may work out to the band’s advantage. When they released their debut, Made From Sand, their quirky mixture of guitars, beats, synths and pop melodies was, in many ways, out of kilter with the charts and the airwaves. Now, however, electro is the new, eh, new wave and the listening public may finally have caught up to Alphastates, who may have been ahead of their time. Catherine is wary of such talk, however.
‘The trend does seem to be more towards electronic music now, but trends go up and down very quickly,’ she cautions. ‘You should just make the kind of music you want to, and we always wanted to push ourselves to make something that’s a little more challenging. Meat and two veg never interested any of us, not from what we were listening to or in terms of the music we wanted to make.’
Alphastates have gone through number of line-up changes over the years, with the core of Catherine and Gerry Horan (guitarist and arranger) remaining intact. When Karl Odlum’s production work meant he couldn’t commit as much time to musician duties, his place was taken by Stevie Kavanagh (‘who’s also a savage dancer’) and longtime friend Graham Gilligan is the latest in a series of drummers (‘drummers tend to be quite mad: I think it’s all that snare-hitting’).
‘We just have a good laugh when we play, now,’ Catherine notes. ‘There’s a nice comfort on stage.’
The band are pretty much a democracy (‘nobody’s a boss in this band’), and this time around, the song-writing was a collaborative process. ‘I loved it,’ Catherine enthuses. ‘I had a lot of mad stuff going on in my life at the time, so it was actually very comforting to take some music, go into a room and channel all the stuff that was going on. It was a different way of writing for me, and I loved it.’
Having ‘lost a couple of people’ during the making of the album, Human Nature’s lyrics are imbued with a genuine sense of loss, but it proved a cathartic process for Catherine: ‘I was able to channel all that tragedy, so it was a great exorcism for me’.
The result is far from melancholy, however. This is an album, choc-full of shimmering, gorgeous pop songs: not the kind of saccharine, manufactured nonsense masquerading as real emotion, but toe-tappingly, head-bobbingly wonderful tunes, like lead single -Champagne Glass’, serrated guitar-led -The Record Machine’ or the sweepingly epic -Anywhere’.
‘I think it’s easy to write a dark song, but to write a good pop song and make it interesting, that’s the hardest job you have, to make major chords sound interesting and not predictable. Lyrically, it’s not a particularly happy album, but because it’s quite pop, that disguises it. But we didn’t aim to make a pop record: it’s just the way it went.’
They’re currently in negotiations with a number of record companies and are hopeful that Human Nature will be released in other territories, including the US and UK. ‘Way back, when we had loads of labels chasing after us, we had this big independent spirit. You’re innocent, passionate and have an idealistic dream of the world – we wanted to do it all independently. But sometimes you need the big machine,’ she admits. ‘This is an album that we’re really proud of and we’d love to give it the chance to get out there, to let it go where it should go.’
Alphastates, And So I Watch You From Afar and Villagers (solo). Seeing as it’s our gig we’re giving away five pairs of tickets. Just email us your perfect North / South combo to [email protected] by midday on Friday and you could be joining us at the Purty Loft in Dun Laoghaire.