Published September 14, 2009
Photo by Carla Brookoff
Sian Alice Group is hard to to pin down. They’re a rock band with jazz-inspired name and approach to improvisation and collaboration, who live in London but record for a Brooklyn-based label. Core members Sian Ahern, Rupert Clervaux, and Ben Crook add musicians to their lineup so often-collaborating with the likes of Gang Gang Dance’s Brian DeGraw and Spring Hell Jack’s John Coxon-that the lines between permanent Sian Alice Group member and contributing musician are blurry. Nor does their music fit neatly into one, or even several genres. Their spacey, minimalist tracks use colorful repetition in the tradition of Steve Reich and Terry Riley, but also allude to artists as far-flung as Sun Ra and Portishead. The songs on their latest album, Troubled, Shaken Etc., range from the quiet and lushly unfolding “Through Air Over Water,” to the funk-inspired grooves in “Longstrakt.” The group kicked off their second lengthy US tour with a show at Union Hall in Brooklyn last Sunday night.
Margaret Eby: Do you think your music received differently in the US than in Europe?
Rupert Clervaux: For the last record, that was definitely true. This time around, the UK at least has been a little more attentive, sort of the same level as it is here. For a long time people thought we were from the US because we were signed to Social Registry and we had a couple of New Yorkers playing in the band. There seemed to be this general misconception that we’re from here, which is totally fine by us. There’s nothing geographical about our music.
Sian Ahern: We’re not part of a “scene” in London, as such. A lot of bands we know in England really live for the scene that we’re in. We don’t aim to be in one or desire to be in one. We’re happy to be mobile.
Ben Crook: You have to really find out what’s going on. In Central London, most of the music venues have been moved out in coordination with the metro police, they’ve moved them out to these big, soulless corporate places. You’ve got a few independent places, and that’s it. It’s hard. You travel about in England and there are some great scenes and some great venues, but it’s just not big enough.
M.E. It seems like you’re very interested in collaborating with other people. I was wondering how that process works.
R.C.: There’s certainly no blind collaboration. There’s never an intent to work with someone we don’t know. It’s an instinctive thing.
B.C.: Everyone we’ve collaborated with us or played with us have very similar ways of thinking about music. Not people who are into one sort of sound, but people who are into tone and sound, and history and culture.
R.C.: They don’t make similar sounding music but they approach it in a similar way.
M.E.: How was making Troubled, Shaken etc. different from making your first album, 59:59?
B.C. The amazing thing about 59:59 is that we never set out to make a record. We just started recording music as something to do, we were approached my Social Registry, they liked it, and it became an album. They were keen for us to do something else, so we said “All right, we’re going to give ourselves a deadline and make a record.” It was kind of a mirror image of 59:59 in that respect because in this case it was a decision, destination, and conclusion. We set ourselves a target and sprinted for it.
R.C. We were being a bit more direct about it. When we were making 59:59 there was a period when we were still working out the most open way to make music, what pitfalls to avoid that would make the music feel static. And this time around, we’d already achieved getting past these stylistic hurdles.
B.C.: We knew what sounds we liked; we knew what we were capable of. It was a different sort of confidence of knowing what’s going to work and what’s going to sound weird.
R.C.: We didn’t want to be a band, as well. There were quite a few reasons that we called the band what it’s called, choosing the word group. It’s not about being in a band, being in a gang that’s cool. It’s not about haircuts. It’s about making music and expressing ideas. That’s definitely an important thing to us; none of us want to be thought of as some iconic band member.
B.C.: It’s a very naturalistic thing. A group can expand or decrease. We joked when we first came up with it that it’s kind of a jazz term, but there’s something about it that’s very true. The Arkestra is the Arkestra, it goes on even though Sun Ra has been dead for a very long time. It’s an amorphous kind of thing. Group’s a good word.
M.E.: Many reviews refer to your music as “cinematic.” Do you think that’s accurate? Is there an element of cinema to your music?
B.C.: The word cinema, in terms of cinemascope and wide, badlands kind of style–[I think] you should hear music in those sort of scales. I personally hear music as quite a big thing, talking about sounds as distances. In that respect I do. If you have strings and a narrative in the music, it kind of makes sense.
S.A.: If it is cinematic, then hopefully someone will ask us to do a soundtrack.
R.C.: We’d love to do that.
B.C.: This one friend of ours is a film director and he’s making this documentary about the assassination of the president of Mozambique, and he wants us to do the film score. And he wants Blackjacks, that African band, to write the narrative music. We’ll see.
R.C.: Concept project on the horizon. [Laughs]
M.E.: So you just played at Death by Audio in Brooklyn inside a maze constructed of salvaged doors. What that like?
R.C.: It runs counter to everything you’d expect a music venue to be and do in that no one can see you except those in this tiny pocket of the maze…but we managed to get out.
M.E.: That’s the important part. Was that the weirdest venue you’ve ever played?
R.C.: No, the boat in Denmark was by far the weirdest.
S.A.A.: It was a bit like Mad Max
R.C.: Like a Mad Max boat that wasn’t entirely level, so instruments would slide slowly. It’s a German boat and it moors somewhere for the summer season, and they get local promoters to book shows on it. We know some really good guys who run a label in Denmark, so when it came to Copenhagen [he booked us] on it.
B.C.: It was part of a jazz festival, so there were all these Japanese shred jazz circles…just to make it more peculiar. There were Japanese bands playing drums and xylophones and a little Japanese girl running around. And then just crazy Danish dudes. The Danish Nick Cave was playing.
R.C.: Strangely that night, we left the boat at around 7 am and all went swimming in the river in Copenhagen. And we ended up back at our friends house, where he had some flyers he made for the show. And they had this text in Danish, so we asked “What does this mean?” And it read, “Sian Alice makes longstrakt music that after you hear it, will make you want to jump in a river.”
R.C.: Someone the other day said that we used the “k” because the “k” stands for “Krautrock.”
B.C. It’s not true; [it’s] Danerock. We write Danerock.