This six piece's chilly exterior conceals a warm and wild heart
The sound of Melbourne’s Alpine couldn’t be more polished and precise but the indie pop six piece’s co-frontwomen Lou James and Phoebe Baker insist their songwriting process is as spontaneous and personal as journal entry. And though their band is named after the Swiss mountains and draws comparisons to The Knife, the two school friends turned bandmates say they are more inspired by Led Zeppelin than anything continental.
Their debut album A is for Alpine nevertheless swells with emotion even if its conveyed with icy vocals and wrapped in sleek production. With a date set for a US release in May, we got Lou and Phoebe on the phone to chat about how they met and formed the band and what the songs are about. It turns out the lyrics are surprisingly human, focused on all kinds of messy emotions and experiences. This intensity is somewhat surprising considering the mature and collected demeanor the frontwomen present as they explain how they met at boarding school in the Outback. (Oh, yeah, and their lives are basically what you would get if Wes Anderson made a movie about a band.) Read on. It gets better.
You guys made friends in high school, right? What did you first bond over?
Phoebe: What we bonded over really was our humor. We have a very similar sense of humor, which I think comes from our British parents, and, probably our love of all things ’60s rock ‘n’ roll: The Kinks, Led Zeppelin. We really bonded over our music tastes and I think a lot of people at our high school weren’t really into that type of music. I remember watching old Led Zeppelin videos with Lou and giggling, getting crushes on Robert Plant and Jimmy Page and just loving the music so much and wishing we could go back in time.
Lou: When we met it was in year nine so we would have been 13 or 14 years old and it was in a really random situation at this boarding school that was out in the country. It was like an Outward Bound kind of year so you’d go hiking and lived in these huts with like 15 other people and you’re living halfway up a mountain. Phoebe had been living in Vanuatu for like three years and I’d just come from Melbourne. That year we were kind of close but it wasn’t until we went back to a normal school together. We were in class and got to talking and realized we had a lot of things in common. At that stage, we hadn’t even talked about how to be in a band together. The way that happened was so random. To this day, we’ll be about to go on stage and we’ll look at each other like “What? How did this happen?”
What was Vanuatu like?
Phoebe: I was there for three years with my parents who went over to teach with this program called Australian Volunteers International. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, definitely life changing, as cheesy as it sounds. I was young. I remember I really didn’t want to leave Australia, it felt very safe. When I went, it was quite hard adjusting but when I did adjust it was just the most lovely, incredible place to live. It’s just a peaceful culture. Living like an island girl, not wearing shoes, swimming, speaking a different language. It’s very different from Melbourne life.
You formed the band with one of your teachers? Were you good students?
Phoebe: As for good students, I’m not sure about that. I was pretty good. I think Lou was a little bit more naughty than I was. But in terms of befriending a teacher, it was very innocent. I had a band at school with a few friends of mine and it was really, really casual. It wasn’t anything serious, but we decided we wanted someone to kind of look after us and kind of teach us the ropes on being a band. And there wasn’t anyone at our school that could really do that but they sort of just passed the job on to [guitarist] Christian [O’Brien] who was teaching guitar at the time. He would have been 23, I guess.
I was really shy then but we got along quite well and I think musically we had a really good bond. I remember him saying ‘Maybe after school we could do some music” and I remember thinking ‘Oh, yeah, whatever. I’ll never hear from this guy again,” but then after school he did contact me and then we started to get together and share ideas. Everything sort of went on from there.
Does he still look after the band?
Phoebe: He definitely gets things moving. He’s so practiced. Not that we’re lazy but shit gets done when Christian is around. The boys call him chief.
How do you write the songs?
Lou: The first few songs was Christian and Phoebe and they have a great way of writing and then I slowly got into it. I found it quite hard to find the confidence or find my inner creative ability with writing, so I was a bit intimidated. But I started to get involved and then it sort of developed into Phoebe, Christian and myself. And now it’s sort of developed into a six-piece collaboration. I think that’s good because the songs are starting to take on their own shape and they’re still developing.
The album sounds bright and poppy and very pretty but there are things about it, especially the vocals, that are just a little eerie. What kind of a mood were you going for with the songs?
Lou: I don’t know that we were going for any particular mood. I think it’s just that were both quite sensitive girls and we get quite emotional in the songs I guess it comes out in the way the vocals come through. As well as it having very soft female vocals, and I guess the way they’ve been messed with. We’re trying to tell our inner feelings. There’s perhaps that eeriness of it being really quite honest.
Phoebe: It’s funny how we’ve got these kind of sweet sounding instrumentals that are quite poppy and I suppose are bright, maybe uplifting, some of them, but the lyrical content is definitely a lot darker than the sound. It’s a bit deceptive, which is fun. I like that. Why not?
Lou: When we’re writing, it’s very spontaneous. We’re just expressing whatever we need to get out of our systems in that moment. Like, I’ll go in and I’ll be singing out and I’ll end up singing out about something quite sad. It just happens. I guess it’s like a diary. It’s not as though we’re really sad people, or depressed of anything at all. We’re quite silly, actually. We’re not sitting in dark corners.
Is there a theme to the album or is it all just the inspiration of the moment?
Phoebe: It’s that exactly. And it’s all mixed together. It’s twenty-something emotions mixed with musical explorations and challenging yourself and having fun. There’s anxiety and love and lust and pain and confusion, all of the things I suppose all of us really have. This is our way of expressing it, I suppose.
Lou: There’s another thing, in our performance we’re quite energetic. We move around quite a lot. People don’t really expect that. They think that we’re just going to stand there and sing the songs and just walk away.