In the baptism of Alpine’s debut as A Is For Alpine, titled like a rudimentary lesson, the sextet’s first full-length release acts as an introduction. Their whimsical melodies and almost childlike enunciation, in high falsettos, speaks of an innocence of formative years. But they’ve existed since 2009 and having now earned solid critique, record company approval and spots supporting some of the country’s biggest acts, this record can only represent their coming of age – asserting their musical matriculation and finding a niche.
Since jagged, haunting pop tune Villages was picked up by triple j and put on regular rotation they’ve emerged as a band to watch, starting with their Zurich EP and recruited, in the process, to Sydney-based label Ivy League Records, home of acts like Lanie Lane, Catcall and Cloud Control. Now they’re poised to unveil a polished collection. Talking about its release, co-front women Phoebe Baker and Lou James are perched beside one another at the end of the table as exact contraries – Lou’s black, mechanical bob and sleek eye makeup starkly contrasting Phoebe’s strawberry blonde tresses and outspoken floral collar. It’s the start of a long day of interviews that will soon turn into photo shoots, as thus is the life of a now-professional band. But they’re continuing to learn the ropes.
“I think when we got signed in ‘09 it felt like yesterday,” Lou considers. “It’s the middle of 2012 and I don’t understand where the time’s gone. Which is scaring me because we’ve done so much, when I do sit back and look back I’m like ‘holy bananas.’ We’ve written an album, and we went to Austin, and we’re sitting here doing an interview for the album – it’s crazy.”
One of their toughest tests as a band was surviving SXSW. The Texan city welcomed the band but after transitory hell and an unfortunate time-difference they were thrust onstage with much less preparation than they would’ve preferred. “The first day we played everything screwed up for us,” Lou continues. “We didn’t end up getting into Austin until about 3am their time. It took us 30 hours or more when it was supposed to take about 15 to get to Austin. We got in and the first morning it was 10am in this expensive jazz bar. I was really tired and we had to play so we got the glitter and face-makeup and I was like, this is ridiculous for 10am. I look like a trannie. But everyone was so pumped.”
Phoebe agrees that it was one of their biggest challenges as a band – but one that ultimately paid off. “It was really lovely to have such a friendly vibe and I think that came out in the shows – we were just ecstatic. We couldn’t stop smiling and being exhausted at the same time. And wanting Mexican food. By the end of it we were shattered.” And, as any rightful in-betweener does, they proved their experience with ink. “We got tattooed to show. Me and [Tim Royall] both got thumb ones.”
For a band on the cusp, there may always be a moment the rest of the world is forced to take notice. Alpine’s could’ve been last November with the release of their film clip for Hands. With visuals of writhing, half-naked teens involved in pseudo-sexual activities, it certainly demonstrated their willingness to hazard a guess. Whether or not they were pleased with the final result, the piece by Lucy Schroeder illustrated their precarious status as a band in loose metaphorical terms. “It’s that stage between innocence and sexuality where it’s sensual, it’s awkward, it’s sexual. And having all those girls in quite a confined space is quite confronting. It is a full on clip. But I like that it does make people talk, it does stick in your mind,” says Lou.
“And it’s not necessarily exactly about the content of the lyric, which is kind of an acceptance of your emotions,” Phoebe continues, “but it could be in a way an acceptance of your newfound sexuality. It’s funny – all our videos, Heartlove, Villages, we let the directors explore what they want to explore and just go along for the ride. You get the treatment on paper and it’s nothing like how it comes out on the other end. But it was where we were at the time.”
Nominated for the SoundKilda award for music videos and having reached an impressive number of YouTube hits though, it may be one of their defining moments – whether or not they agree. “Hands was a risk,” says Lou. “When I first saw it I thought it was full on, but you’ve gotta take risks and a band, and in life. Even my dad hasn’t seen it. But people do talk about it because it’s memorable, hopefully.”
They’ve come a long way, evidently, from the high school friendships that have blossomed into band revelry. Teen friends Lou and Phoebe met Christian as a guitar teacher at their school. “After school Phoebe and Christian started writing music together and then they ended up writing Tough Skin and Too Safe, which blew my mind when I first heard [them],” says Lou.
Phoebe continues to describe their formative experiences. “Then we thought, Lou can sing, let’s get Lou on board. And Phil can drum, let’s get Phil on board. And then Ryan we met backpacking at Cherry Bar. We were like oh, nice T-shirt. Let’s hang out.” After Tim and Lou met at university they all found themselves in the same group of friends, discovering that Tim played keys and Ryan played bass. “Although he lied and said he had a bass when he didn’t,” Phoebe interjects. “So cheeky!”
And in a feat of providence they went on to play their first ever gig at Hamer Hall for a design conference, assembled quickly as they’d never performed together as a band. The seeds of Alpine were thus sowed. “I think it’s this crazy premonition for us, the fact that we ended up playing, we’ve been shoved in at the deep end from the beginning. Playing at Hamer Hall, we got really spoiled for our first official gig,” says Lou.
Since then, the band’s sound and stage presence have been under construction; a kind of work in progress. With the creative input of six band members, including ex-punk performers Christian and Phil, their foothold has been asserted in part through compromise, and for the girls it’s been beside one another with the support of a best friend that’s helped ease out their stage personas. “We go way back so I think that’s really awesome, as two front co-lead chicks having your best friend on stage,” says Lou.
Dressed in glittering onesies the girls command attention at centre stage, though the full musical complement is what makes the performance compelling – and which has seen their star rise rapidly. Their onstage performance is inspired by a number of their musical icons. “I’ve grown up with Roxy Music as a really cool band for me,” says Lou. “My dad loved them and I absolutely adore them, and I love the sort of theatrics of it. Whether or not it suits the music we don’t know. But it’s something we love and we want to kind of use – put it into our own stage presence.”
For Phoebe performance is about exploring unexpected oddities, providing entertainment with the same experimental force as her idol, androgynous Jamaican diva Grace Jones. “We want to put on a good show and for the audience to have fun, like when I watch Grace Jones. Seeing her hula-hooping for a whole show with a glass of wine and a straw in a G-string. It’s letting out what you don’t let out normally. I just want the audience to feel like they can be inspired, or not feel nervous.”
This kind of expression, considers Lou, has its own admonishing honesty. “The reason we go crazy on stage is when you’re kind of a dag you can do what you want. You don’t really care. That’s the same theory behind the performance, we’re just expressing our personalities.” But according to Phoebe it’s something they’ve had to work on. “We’re finding our feet, so we’re exploring being onstage and matching it with the music, or exploring the music.”
All together they’re hard to pin down, ambiguous musically and visually. Whether intentionally or not they’ve rarely been considered an ‘Australian’ style band by critics, noted to have a European sound. Their Nordic fascination is obvious in a titular sense, but what about the music they produce? “A lot of people do say our music is European sounding which is funny because we didn’t set out like that, it just kind of happened,” says Phoebe. “But then when I think about the name Alpine I associate it with hiking and that fresh beautiful feeling when you’re up there and that’s what I want to put into the music.”
“I can hear very Swedish bands like The Knife or Niki And The Dove and even Grimes,” says Lou, “but I think it’s the interesting way things are phrased. It stands out and it doesn’t sound very Australian and maybe that’s a little refreshing.”
BY BELLA ARNOTT-HOARE
Photo credit: Ben Clement
A Is For Alpine is out on Friday August 10. ALPINE launch the album at a series of Victorian shows – The Loft in Warnambool on Wednesday September 5, Karova Lounge in Ballarat on Thursday September 6, The Corner Hotel on Saturday September 8 and The Bended Elbow in Geelong on Thursday September 13.