Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Q&A with The Alarms

Left to right: Robert Gay, Anthony Jorissen, Zach Robinson, Brady Surface
Photo: Penny Felts

For every 20 kids you meet with a guitar and some hazy hope of being a musician, there's a guy like Robert Gay– super talented, and super focused, the kind professional who leaves little doubt in your mind that he's going to do some great things. Since I first interviewed Gay when we were undergrads at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., I've been interested in whatever project he might get up to next. Lately, he's fronting a band called The Alarms. This week we chatted about the band's upcoming record (Real Tough Love), balancing musical influences, and playing music in Music City.

Tell me about how the band came together.

The Alarms is a four-piece band that developed out of my own solo project. Probably about three years ago, I had a bunch of songs that really didn’t fit anywhere else. All along in my career as a songwriter, I’ve dabbled in doing some solo stuff, so it grew very naturally out of that. The nature of songs is always that you never know what’s coming. I got a new batch of songs that felt a little bit more aggressive, and when I started showing them to the band – the same guys who helped me record my solo record – it took on this very particular flavor and we found an interesting niche. It was more ‘60s influenced, more garage kind of stuff, whereas the other one was sort of jukebox pop. For a while we tried out “Robert Gay and the Alarms,” but it felt more like a band than anything else, especially with the contributions the guys were putting in.

Something I’ve enjoyed about the album is that it feels very well-informed by its influences, versus being derivative. Could you talk about some of the things you’re pulling from?

I think there’s a really important balance between finding the bands that inspire you and maybe carrying on elements of their tradition mixed with some other things – it’s definitely mashup culture these days, everything is a mixtape – and so for those reasons I think that’s a really strong argument to borrow the best bits and make sense of what you want to hear, and what it sounds like in your head. Translate that rather than go for what’s popular, or pulling only from a certain artist.

I’ve always enjoyed going after specific influences in my own way. I love The Beatles, but I don’t try to sound just like The Beatles. I try to think, “What were they doing? How were they doing it? What was their thought process behind the way they did things?” And carry it on from that perspective, instead of copying one specific thing.

On The Alarms’ Facebook page you list The Zombies as an influence. I happen to love The Zombies. Let’s talk about that for a second. 

I love their songwriting, first of all. It's brilliant because there’s not necessarily that much instrumentation going on, they’re very much a band, and sometimes really stripped down, but then you’ve got these lush harmonies. They were really specific about all the sounds. They took an old piano and made it a tack piano. The sound of that on “Care of Cell 44” is just incredible. They also made everything as hard hitting as they could in all the right ways. Every element was interesting, and thought out, and particular. If you’ve got a song about a guy who’s coming back from the war and re-experiencing these terrible dreams, you’re going to use a pump organ and that's it. If you’ve got a song about “this will be our year,” and it’s very triumphant, you’ve got these great lifting key changes pulling you up. It all says the same thing with a lot of intentionality and it’s never contrived, even though it’s very different and grand. I really like that balance.

Photo: Penny Felts

You've done solo work, you've played with Vitek, you were with The Nova Ray; I think of you as being pretty well dug into the Nashville music scene. For the folks playing at home, give me a snapshot of being a young musician in band in Nashville right now.

It’s different for everyone, definitely, and I’m in a really unique position because not only as a band member, not only as a songwriter, not only as a musician, I get to combine a lot of different things that don’t usually wind up going together. Also as a trumpet player and multi-instrumentalist, I get to see and work with more bands than I would otherwise.

Yesterday, I had Easter with my family, and then I went over to the Sol Cat guy’s house and worked on some trumpet stuff. They’ve got some new songs that they’re wanting some horns on, so that was a fun thing for me to do yesterday. Today, I’m doing my own life, and talking with you about this band, but in the coming weeks, and even through the end of this week, I’ll have sessions that are with a bunch of different bands and be going to see a lot of different shows, and guesting. Sometimes I’ll have a couple in one night. What it looks like for me is, thankfully, some shade of all music all the time. It means that I am, at this point, my own manager, my own bandleader, my own writer. You have to wear a lot of hats. I think the more you’re able to study in-depth everything that goes into making the stuff that you produce, the better off you’ll be. I’m finally getting to the point where I’m doing the things I want to do and then having to say “no” to some things. I’m just starting to get to the point where it’s like, I finally have some bandmates and some labelmates that can help me do my job because I’m running out of time, but until that point, if you’ve got any free minutes, you’ve got to do as much of it yourself as you possibly can, and anything you can’t do yourself, just ask people and then try.

That dovetails well into the next thing I wanted to talk about. Tell me about Science Camp Records.

It’s a collective, and it’s really the brainchild of Jess Harrelson, who is an amazing writer and artist in her own with Sly Boots, and under her own name. She interned with Thirty Tigers based out of Nashville. They are the indie smörgåsbord kind of label. That’s the branch of Sony RED. She did really well there and got to go up and work directly with Sony in New York. She’s used all that experience and connections to help have the vision for what a label could be. We have a dream for building a label from it. It’s mainly three bands (Sly Boots, The Alarms, Layla the Wolf).

Let's talk about the record.

Real Tough Love is in some ways an answer to the coming of age record that I did solo, When I Was Young. If that record was a look back, this record is a look at what’s really going on right now. It’s a little bit of a look ahead: “Where do I want to be, and how do I get there?” in this time when everything is so unpredictable. It seems like the rule book was thrown out for nearly everything in life compared to what’s expected. There’s a song called “Make it Better” that I think is about the closest thing that The Alarms have in the way of a mission statement. It’s about taking that dreaming, youthful spirit and using it as a mirror instead of just a lens. A lot of the time, it can be one of the most difficult and frightening way to turn your creative outlet. For me, it was a process of figuring out who I was and where I wanted to be.

One of my favorite songs is “The Only One.” Tell me how the song came together. 

That was actually one of the earlier songs that we recorded. We were doing a bunch of songs in December of 2012, and we probably had about nine or so that we recorded, and at that time it was expected to be a Robert Gay release. Like a lot of songs that I’ve done over the past couple of years, it started as a voice memo, sung to myself while driving in the car. It was a late night drive and I was, for whatever reason, feeling simultaneously tired and a little bit alone. It was probably around the time of a lot of life changes. It was a way for me to take a look at loneliness and what it means and what it does. When I get into that kind of place, I can get fatalistic in a way that I’m not really inherently. You start looking for failure. You start looking for good things to come to an end, and I think that’s a lot of what that song really deals with.

Photo: Penny Felts

What's next for you guys?

What's next for the Alarms is a fun question, and it centers on the question of what will happen this new album. We've raised the record the way we wanted to, and now it's time to make some introductions and see where it goes in life. As a career musician, I feel my work is to make true and distinct art, and my joy is to share that art.

We'll follow the music wherever it leads. While we build a name and some business connections, we'll be playing out a lot and spreading our focus outside of just Nashville, although we are scheduled to play the International Pop Overthrow here in town on the first week of May. This week will mark the release of a digital single, "Real Tough Love" backed with a cover of The Toys' "May My Heart Be Cast Into Stone," soon to be followed by some content from Science Camp's 8 off 8th extravaganza [at Nashville’s Mercy Lounge]. The release of Real Tough Love is yet to be announced.

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