Out of this world: The Aliens
Refugees from Scotland's Beta Band, The Aliens have turned failure and despair into stirring psychedelic pop. Chris Mugan meets a trio reborn
Monday 06 October 2008
Despite his mild manners and bookish air, John Maclean quickly dents the cool aura of the Soho members' club chosen as our rendezvous. Staff wear jeans, yet are as stuffy as any maitre d'. "Sorry, you can't use your mobile here. There is a sign." "You can't eat that here," says one, pointing at the now disoriented keyboardist's shop-bought pastry. "We serve our own food." Maclean's band, The Aliens, are used to playing by their own rules. As, for example, with the video they made for their new single, "Magic Man".
It is a five minute-plus epic that the band created by making a film to play backwards – in synch with the song. It is a jaw-dropping achievement, especially as they can't disguise that it was made on a shoestring budget (and possibly with shoestrings). Their promo looks like nothing other than the films they played at gigs during the early days of their former group, The Beta Band – kung-fu tales set in the Scottish highlands.
There was a great deal of excitement when two survivors from that group, Maclean and drummer Robin Jones, got together with original member Gordon Anderson, who co-wrote the epic "Dry the Rain" among other gems, before he dropped out due to a mental breakdown. Such interest was justified by last year's debut album Astronomy For Dogs, with its flamboyant mix of psychedelic pop, piano house flourishes and dance-rock. Its follow-up, Luna, explores such tropes on even bigger canvases – three tracks weigh in at over eight minutes each – without ever growing wearisome.
Its lead single is the comparatively compact pop nugget "Magic Man", whose promo features a seamless procession (walking backwards, remember) through sets hand built by the band. Maclean and Jones reminisce how it took three weeks of "mental torture" to devise and four days to build the sets, recycling waste from skips and blagging false walls from shop fitters. Given its similarity to his own promo for The Beta Band's "Inner Meet Me", Maclean jokes (possibly) that they could end up making a trilogy of backwards videos, but denies they are seeking a return to past glories.
"We're not that professional," he deadpans. "If someone gives you a bigger budget, you try something a bit bigger and less taped together. You always want to be doing something new and different, but now and again you think, why don't I rehash an old idea?" "We should have been lip syncing all the way through," Jones modestly maintains, in a similarly soft rural Scottish accent, before admitting that the process is far more satisfying than working with pros. "It's always a problem when you get a professional production crew involved, it just gets too serious. You realise the waste involved." Maclean adds, "You have 15 people telling you why you can't do something."
While The Aliens' debut album came out on their own Pet Rock imprint via EMI, which funded its recording, the band have now cut all ties with that sponsor. So the change in production values is down to a return to straitened financial circumstances. "EMI were in slight turmoil when our first record came out – they were about to be bought. Now we're in control, we can make the video and put it up the next day – not have to wait three months."
"When we joined EMI, it was a thriving water hole in the middle of the savannah, now it's just a mud pool that gradually sucks animals in," Jones adds. "It's much more work, but we'll reap the rewards of having full control. It's going to be put out in a lot more countries than EMI released it in." This is something of a relief as Jones and Maclean, along with Beta Band vocalist Steve Mason, enjoyed a fractious relationship with the music industry: for example, they criticised The Beta Band's debut album.
They may as well rip into last year's effort, then. Off you go, Jones. "The last one was a bit formulaic. We were learning songs in the studio, deciding something was just good enough and moving on to the next thing, so there was less arguing about pointless things. We're all from artist backgrounds and this is less of a hi-fidelity recording and more of a painting, with more personality, feeling, colour, texture. This is more of a patchwork that only became reality when we mixed it."
Another parallel with early Beta Band is a return to more expansive song structures. Three tracks pass the eight minutes, including 10-minute album opener "Bobby's Song". That none of these epics get boring is down to strong melodic cores as well as quick-fire changes of pace and mood. It is still a brave move to kick off an album that way. "There was a lot of discussion. We originally wanted the whole thing linked up, so there was a lot of pain getting through a whole take so that we could get his pure entity – even though it was five different songs joined together that we could have recorded separately," says Jones. "One track could have been a whole album on its own."
Much of this is down to Anderson's fecund creativity. He is the guy so full of ideas he needs to constantly sing into a mobile phone lest his brain explode, as the drummer explains. "Gordon has a lot of snippets of songs, a really good chorus or something. He'll just continue to add to a song." "Bobby's Song" lasted half an hour before the band edited it down. Another 10-minute opus, "Billy Jack", was recorded live and only enhanced with occasional overdubs, yet fits seamlessly on to Luna. If there is one difference from the first exploits, The Aliens are a living band rather than a studio project.
Ironically, recording in London's best appointed studios, at EMI's expense, shackled their creativity. Living in Pittenweem, East Neuk of Fife, let them run amok once more as they recorded. "Someone said it's a bigger sound than the last record," Maclean marvels. "For the first album we were in huge spaces with expensive lights and big desks. This one we did in the sitting room, the kitchen and the bathroom." "Some bands can super-rehearse, then waltz into a studio and make a great album," Jones adds. "That was never going to happen with us."
Fife is where all the Aliens, bar Jones, grew up. The others met him at Edinburgh College of Art. Anderson is the brother of Kenny, founder of the Fence collective of artists, though Gordon remains infamous for his unpredictable behaviour. He suffered from mental illness for a decade and while off medication now, lacks enough stability to attend interviews, as his streams of consciousness from 2007 attest.
"Interviewers drew out all his time in the hospital and it's not nice to read that," his childhood mate Maclean explains. "He's very honest about whatever state he's in during those 20 minutes, so it's not actually the truth." While the contemporary art world is all about selling to the highest bidder, these former art students intend to carry on being brutally honest.
'Magic Man' and 'Luna' are out on Pet Rock Records
Where are they now?
The Beta Band
The creative forces behind the innovative, revered and hugely influential Scottish acoustic psychedelic folk outfit The Beta Band were never going to simply fade away after they split in 2004. All the band members who were there at the time of the split went on to start new bands and release material. Both co-founders Steve Mason and Gordon Anderson (the latter's time in the band had been plagued by bouts of mental illness or depression; drugs had played a part, too), found outlets for their creativity fronting new bands. Singer and guitarist Mason found instant cult success with his hip-hop project King Biscuit Time, continuing to release recordings he started making while in The Beta Band and then, in 2006, releasing his one album, 'Black Gold'. The theme of "black" transferred to his current electro-pop solo project, Black Affair, which lays bare his darker side. Anderson joined forces with John Maclean and Robin Jones to form The Aliens as singer and principal songwriter. He also drew on the original name he and Mason came up with for The Beta Band, The Pigeons, to record as Lone Pigeon. Richard Greentree, the bassist who joined after the band's first album, started a new band called The General and Duchess Collins, which has a MySpace following.
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