On a chilly Sunday afternoon in August, in a festival tent at Splendour In The Grass, young Aussie band The Middle East played their last ever show. Nobody knew except the band themselves, who announced in the middle of their set that they were officially no more. A murmur of shock and surprise ran through the crowd, and for the members of Oh Mercy, who had played on the same spot just moments before, and were standing to the side of the stage watching, it was a poignant moment.
“It was pretty intense,” singer Alexander Gow tells me of the experience. “It was funny, because just before they went on, they needed to borrow one of our guitars. We’d had the in-between-sets pleasantries and all that stuff, and given them a guitar. They seemed a bit funny – I figured they just had their minds on the job, which I guess they did. I can’t imagine how it must have felt to be up there, for the last time you play in a band with your friends – or however they consider themselves. I felt lucky, as did a lot of the people watching I imagine, to see their last show.”
The Middle East’s break-up was all the more surprising given that they had released a lauded debut album just months before, and seemed like a young band with a good deal of potential and promise. Given that Oh Mercy are a similarly-lauded Australian outfit, and about to start work on their second album, I ask Gow just what it is that keeps his band together. “Well, we have been through a few line-up changes over the years,” he admits, “and all of the past members have been talented, awesome people, but it’s gotten to the point now where I’m surrounded by some of my best friends. I respect them as musicians, and I enjoy their company.
“That’s just how I’ve set this thing up,” he continues. “I’ve surrounded myself with friends who, luckily, happen to be very talented. That’s not to say The Middle East didn’t have the same set-up. I mean, there were a lot more of them, so there was greater potential for conflict, I guess! I really don’t have any idea what was going on there, so I can’t really comment. On the other side of things, we’re all just really excited to be making music – we don’t take anything for granted. Playing on that stage at Splendour was a real honour, and we’re going to be playing with The Triffids soon, who are one of our favourite groups. We’re really just pinching ourselves.”
Oh Mercy’s second album, a sublime, pared-back collection of love songs called Great Barrier Grief, was released earlier this year to great acclaim – even veteran song writer Paul Kelly chimed in to say that the young band are one of his biggest current inspirations. The group have played numerous live shows around the country over the last few years, and Gow credits this experience for turning them into a better and more confident band. “Touring has definitely helped me as a singer,” he says. “It’s all very well for me to have written and recorded in my bedroom and used my bedroom voice, but to go out to Bunbury in Western Australia and play to twelve assholes that hate you whips you into shape vocally and as a band!”
So playing a number of support slots turned out to be beneficial for Oh Mercy? “Yeah, that’s part of the deal,” Gow says, “and to be honest, I quite enjoy it. There might be some more sensitive people who have a different outlook on their songs or their place as performers who might not enjoy it as much, but I just kind of deal with it. In the band, we have a pretty good sense of humour about things like that.” So what else has the experience of playing to hostile crowds taught the band? “Well, I’ve learned to project a bit better, and not mince my words as a lyricist,” Gow says. “Also in terms of arranging songs, I’ve learned to trim the fat a bit. I’ve really enjoyed that. The audience dictates your approach sometimes. You would hope that, if you have enough self-respect, your integrity as a writer shows through no matter what. I’ve also had a lot of fun with my friends on the road, I’ve met a lot of new people, and seen a lot of the country – we play outside of Melbourne more than we play in Melbourne.”
Oh Mercy are set to play their final Melbourne show of the year at The Hi-Fi later this month, with hand-picked support bands Owl Eyes and Buckley Ward – and then after that, it’s off to work on album number two. “There’s a handful of new songs that I’ve been working on with the band – we’re going to be working a few more of them into our Melbourne and Sydney shows. It would be great if we could start recording them at some point soon; I’d really like to have a new album out by mid-to-late next year, because it will have been a bit more than a year since the last. That would be the aim – we’ll see what gets in the way!”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN