27 April 2017 | 7.0 °C

Interview: Alfie

By london_ken Last edited 141 months ago
Interview: Alfie
Alfie at Crewe Hall

Alfie return with a cracking new single, Your New Religion (released next Monday), which precedes the even crackinger new album Crying At Teatime, released on 15th August. A full review of the album will be published on the release date but for those of who don't want to know the final score in advance look away now, because we'll give you a sneak preview of what we think: the album is absolutely, utterly brilliant and should finally see the band getting the success their talent deserves.

The band reintroduced themselves to London at the Barfly last Saturday but do yourself a favour and get to one (or more) of the four gigs they're playing next week, as part of a 'Four Shows In One Week' series (see the Alfie website for further details, or click on the picture of the flyer further on in the interview.) We've got a feeling you won't be seeing them in such intimate surroundings for too much longer.

We managed to grab some time with lead singer Lee Gorton, before the gig last Saturday.

There's a massive difference between the first album, If You Happy With You Need Do Nothing and the new one, Crying At Teatime. How would you describe your journey from there to here?

We've definitely grown up in public. The songs on that first record are the first ones any of us ever wrote and we were quite lucky to get a deal so quickly. It was charm over content sometimes! But there was obviously something going on and people were intrigued. Everyone really liked it. It was an honest little thing. I enjoy that record. Through the albums I think you can see the craft we're putting into it and the way everyone's learning. On that album is whatever songs we wrote that we did, that was how it was. For this one, we wrote 50 or 60 songs, and whittled them down quickly to 20-odd, and crafted them and worked on them, and looked at the arrangements, the lyrics, the melodies, everything. We're a lot harder working these days! It's good for it, we enjoy the process.

The last couple of times we saw you, at Cargo and at Metro, you expressed frustration at XFM in particular because they said you were too weird! Then there was frustration at the fans along the lines of "Why are you lot not buying the singles even though you're coming to the gigs?" How do you feel about XFM now and London in general?

I love London! There's no problem with it. I was only trying to get people to buy the singles just to get to that number 39 spot. The difference between 61 and 39 isn't a lot, it's 300 sales; to the label it's the difference between success and not, when you're operating at that level. The XFM stuff, I was only having a laugh! XFM wouldn't play us and I didn't really understand it but they make their own choices. But they're playing it [new single Your Own Religion] this time [and Big Brother fans will have heard snippets of the song on Channel 4]. We can sense it happening this time. The frustration with the last album [Do You Imagine Things?] was that we did a record for the major label and we thought no matter what record we made it was going to get a certain amount of exposure or [the label, Regal Records] were going to push it. But the label didn't really know what to do with the record because it was so schizophrenic! So it never really started and this time we've learnt now... We think the new album's still chock-a-full of ideas and we think it still sounds like Alfie should but it's a little bit more palatable.

Lee

The funny thing for us was that the last one, Do You Imagine Things?, just on first impressions was a lot poppier than the new one, and I would have expected that initially to get more radio play.

The last album? You're the only man in the world that thinks that!

But songs like Stuntman and Hey Mole, they were pop classics!

Stuntman to you sounds like pop, and to us it does, but to most people in the world it just sounds like fucking madness! That's how XFM looked at it: what's with the intro? what's with the riff? They just couldn't get their heads around it. There's a lot of different styles on that album and it was quite eclectic. And it was because we were writing a little more separately then. This album, as soon as anyone's had an idea for a song, we've taken it to the other four very, very early in the process of writing it, whereas the last one, a lot of the songs were done almost completed on an individual level. So you had very specific Matt songs, specific Ian songs, specific Lee songs, and Sam songs and so on and with this one they're more Alfie songs, it's sort of blurred and that's a good thing because everyone's got very strong and valid and different opinions, and I think that's what's helped it sound more cohesive.

We've just approached each other and been less shy with each other when we've got an idea. Nobody was proud, it was more a lack of confidence in ourselves. When you're writing a song you want it to sound finished and good. So you do as much as you can, you do all the harmony arrangements, all the string arrangements, everything. If you can, you put the bass, the drums and the guitar in yourself but then by the time you've gone so far down that route it's harder for anyone else to have any input in what we'd have done collectively with it, and that's been the big difference this time.

Sam

You've obviously got trained musical people in the band. To what extent do you think that's worked for or against you?

Sometimes it can be a bit hard when you're listening to it at home. You don't necessarily have to be impressed by crazy time signatures and loads of chord changes. What I love about Alfie about is the fact that I know nothing! I'm learning all the time but I'm never going to get to the standard of Matt or Sam. And Ian and Sean are clever as well through being in bands for years, that sort of training. Sam [pictured above] got a first in his [music] degree. Matt could have easily got a first but he dropped out because he's such a maverick! Ian and Sean are very, very clever as well and it's more instinct with me. I think that naivety kind of balances it out. There are things I can't get my head round and I can say to the band, "No one's going to get it!" We do get a certain amount of balance because we've got a variety of perspectives within the band.

You've slimmed down as a band, losing Ben, Dee and Amy. What effect do you think this has had on you?

I think we're a lot tighter as a band. It was just a 'life' thing, they all had to get jobs and life catches up with you. It wasn't a culling for any other reason. These things just happen. The way we were going, Dee was just playing harmonica on one song and Amy was playing flute on one song. You can't take everyone. You have to hire a massive bus and pay everyone properly. It just wasn't really working out any more. It's just a natural progression. Things change, don't they? Things change in bands all the time. It's made us more powerful live now, which I didn't realise. We thought we were going to feel naked. It's toughened us up, really: "This is it, this is us, let's make it work. There's no one else to blame." It's good, I enjoy it.

It does seem like your sound is a lot tougher.

We're up for a scrap now! That's how it is after a while. You've got to go out and impress people. We did well getting as far as we have with our 'everything will be all right' casual attitude to making records and being in a band. There's no egos in this band. No one's like, 'check us out' or rock stars. We realise there's a fight on here and we want it to happen and we want to keep on doing it.

You're talking about a fight. Where's that come from? The record company?

No one's going to keep giving you money if you don't sell loads of records, are they? What kind of mad business is that?! You've got to stay good, you've got to keep getting better, or you're going to get dropped.

Ian and Lee

You have as labelmates Athlete and ex-labelmates The Beta Band. Obviously Athlete have gone one route and they've gone quite commercial to our ears. The Beta Band are no longer with us. Has what's happened with those two bands had an effect on the way the record company's treated you?

Not specifically because of those bands, no. You soon realise what it's like on a major label but they've never tried to change our sound. They've said, "C'mon lads, we love Alfie, we think you're a brilliant band, we think you're really talented, you've got a right, there's a place, there's worth to us. But what do you want? What kind of albums do you want to make? Do you want to make lots of lost psychedelic albums that nobody understands or do you want to make records that people are going to love?" They've never said, "You've got to sound like someone else." They've just said to us to be as good as we can and not be scared of people liking us.

Does that mean you were scared of people liking you before and you were deliberately writing these things that only a few people could get?

I think there's a little bit of that, yeah. A bit of being afraid of signing to a major and doing really well, because we're all quite happy as we are! We don't want to be big, we don't want to be famous, we're quite happy. But you've got to find the right balance somehow, you've got keep going forwards and make sure you keep doing it without getting massive. Everyone keeps thinking we're getting better, getting good reviews with every album. Alright, we're not selling out the Hammersmith Apollo but everyone thinks we're good, don't they?

Matt

The new album sounds to me like you've become more cohesive and a lot of it's more radio friendly but you haven't lost that Alfie eccentricity.

That was the thing with this album. We had to impress the label, had to impress ourselves, and a lot of it's got a chance of impressing the public, but we've still stuffed this album full of ideas. You can still get stoned under your duvet and have a good time if you want to. Feel free! There's no cheese in it, there's no joke songs, they're all proper songs. And the goodness is all still in there yet we've made it so that people can understand it. It's a smarter album for it.

Your lyrics seem to have come on a lot, and are especially strong on Crying At Teatime. There's a lot less randomness about it. How have you changed the way you've approached writing lyrics?

I just used to write whatever came into my head. Now I just try harder and I'm less scared about being emotional about stuff. But the songs, the melodies are asking for better lyrics. It's all about upping your game all the time. Those songs on the first album, they were the first time I'd ever had to write any lyrics. I didn't know anyone was going to hear it, I was just writing it on my guitar, and the rest of the lads were as well. You just get more comfortable doing it. You don't feel so weird doing it, you're not as shy. And we're not kids now, we know more about life now and we've got more confidence to say it.

It seems like a sadder album, more melancholy.

That's life again, isn't it?

Are you sad?

No, I'm having a great time, but sad things have happened to us. Folks split up with each other, don't they? You have to learn to cope with not everything going exactly your way. It's not that you feel sorry for yourself, you just learn to cope with whatever shit gets thrown at you, and it's just a battle, you just keep going.

During the last tour for Do You Imagine Things?, the visuals were very strong, something you share with Elbow. Elbow said a couple of weeks ago at the premiere of their new DVD album that they used the visuals to take the attention away from themselves. What was it for you?

The nature of Alfie in the past has been not been particularly attention grabbing. When you're doing live gigs, there's only so much you can do to keep everyone onside. We're not particularly loud and we're not writing these power-pop songs. It was to keep everyone's attention during the gigs and we've got rid of them now. We're more confident we've got a good strong set from start to finish, so there's no begging people to keep quiet or stay listening or stay with you. We've got more faith in ourselves.

alfie four shows.jpg

What are your thoughts on playing in London and the way the crowd reacts to you?

I love playing in London. There seems to be this kind of idea that people from the North think London's full of tossers but I don't see that at all. The whole of the world's here. Amazing open-minded people who are much more open-minded than in other places. Most people down here have heard of Alfie and love us. It's just a buzz when you come down here. I absolutely love it.

The four-shows-in-one-week [click picture to see the full size flyer] was my idea. I just wanted everyone to come and have a listen. The single's out that week, the album's out in a few weeks, I just want people to have a chance to come and see us. It's a case of coming to them a bit more, because if you do one London gig - London's ten times bigger than other places and it makes sense to do four or five gigs to every one you do in those towns.

Ok, that's enough. Have a go at the standard cheesy Londonist questionnaire.

Have you ever been sick on the tube?

No!

Have any of the band ever been sick on the tube?

Almost certainly. I've been sick in London but not on the tube!

Recommend one album you think our readers won't have discovered.

It's not the absolute best album in the world but it's really lovely: The Point by Harry Nilsson.

Favourite venue to play

I love that Scala gig we did [Londonist's favourite gig by anyone ever, in 2002], so the Scala.

Favourite venue to watch a gig

Hammersmith Apollo was pretty good when I went to watch The Flaming Lips.

Favourite place to people watch

Camden Market, Greenwich Market, Portobello Market, I love them all.

What advice would you give to Ken Livingstone?

Keep at it. He's doing alright, isn't he?

What London place or thing would you declare a landmark?

It's just all one massive landmark, isn't it?

What advice would you give to someone who's getting on a nightbus for the first time?

Have a mate with you who knows where he's going, go with someone who lives here! I was down here to see Brian Wilson at the Royal Festival Hall six months ago, the Smile night, ended up going out with the Super Furries to the Groucho club, getting absolutely lashed, woke up in Leicester Square on some statue, on my own, kipping like a tramp. It was about 6.30am, I was walking down Oxford Street, I was thinking, "Oh my god, I don't know what to do. I'm supposed to be with my mate." I was thinking, "What a loser, I've absolutely fucked it, I don't know which bus to get on, where I'm going!" And then I just saw my mate Jim and he was wandering round! It was just unbelievable, and I got on the bus with him home and I felt like karmically involved. I went from loser to winner in two seconds because I saw someone who knew what they were doing!

If you could write a song about London, what would it be called and what kind of song would it be?

I definitely wouldn't write a slow one. I'd write a big one. It's exciting down here. I came down one day interviewing at MTV and I met Paul McCartney, sitting with him, four or five times! That just doesn't happen in Manchester. It's just so culturally relevant, the fact the whole world's here for you to see. Manchester's a good big city and I'm well proud of it but for people who come from places smaller than Manchester, London's like another world. So the song would be about the people.

Sum up London in one word.

Amazing.

Alfie release the single Your New Religion on 1st August, followed by the album Crying At Teatime on 15th August. Next week they play Putney Half Moon (Monday 1st August), 93 Feet East (2nd), Brixton Windmill (4th), and the Islington Hope and Anchor (5th). They also play Scala on 7th September as part of a larger scale tour. Check the very nicely designed official website for more details.

Photo at the top of the article is by Roger Sargent. Live photos from last Saturday's Barfly gig are copyright 2005 Kenneth Yau

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Last Updated 28 July 2005