Sound City Emerging Talent – Ali Horn interview.
The solo projects of members of well-established bands often create a palpable sense of expectation borne from the springboard of proven success. It’s rare to find that same buzz of excitement around an artist with a solo project who’s own band, although in itself loaded with potential and promise, is still in its infancy. However Ali Horn, guitarist and backing vocalist with Liverpool based surf psych garage loons ‘Strange Collective’, may prove to be an exception to that rule. Despite only performing a couple of live solo shows so far, the release of his debut single ‘Days Like Today’, (released on Liverpool’s own champions of new talent ‘The Label’) has certainly generated a buzz well beyond Merseyside.
Ahead of his appearance at Liverpool Sound City in May, Phil Greenhalgh catches up with Ali, to pick his brains on guitars/the Liverpool scene /labels and his upcoming performance at Liverpool Sound City.
With things moving apace and working so well with Strange Collective, normally the solo projects bubble away in the background, material that doesn’t suit the band which surfaces later, maybe years down the line. But now you have two projects that are on their springing foot so to speak. How do the two projects sit together?
AH: I just want to be productive. Strange Collective I absolutely love playing with, the shows are the most fun thing you can do in music, and we are coming back bigger and stronger every step. With Strange Collective, we write the songs together, but performing wise my role is more backing vocal and playing a LOT of guitar, I know that sounds dumb, but there is a lot more complicated shit I’ve been playing to help create that sound. With this, I’m front and centre, nowhere to hide.
But with the AH stuff, yeah man, its all me, I’m a god like the genius!!! No, its not like that, no one is scared to have an opinion and I’m not scared to listen. Yes, it’s a different process I’ll likely throw a more defined demo up and have the band listen and say we’ll try this at the next practice, as opposed to coming in with half-formed ideas and free forming and having fun till something happens.
It’s not a problem though, it’s just managing diaries right now. In April I’ve got a show in Manchester as Ali Horn, then it’s back to Liverpool to play as Strange Collective same day, the solo band has Alex from Strange Collective in there so that works, but the other members are also in other bands, (for instance Jimmy Kendall from OHMNS on guitar) so they have their own band commitments working on similar events, I had to change drummers because of it already, its logistics, its hard work, its seat of the pants right now, but it’s working.
In terms of control over your own music and where it goes from here… the set up of the label means that you will be releasing the single, but that you don’t have a long-term commitment or deal or obligation beyond that. Are you looking to pick up support elsewhere just create and enjoy the autonomy at the moment on a DIY basis
AH: I’m not betting on getting signed anytime soon, and I don’t mind if it happens or it doesn’t. I’d like to make a record by the end of the year however it happens. I’d be petrified if someone threw big numbers at me and probably think they were completely stupid. Music is about spending accordingly, big cocaine budgets are a thing of the past and completely fucking ridiculous. Music and being a musician, because there was so much money in it back in the day, people were praised as ‘godlike genius’ to use the NME phrase. You are not a fucking god, you are a human who learnt to play the guitar because your mum and dad bought you music lessons when you were 15. You were a kid who probably got bullied at school, I’m going off topic, but throwing 6 figures at someone who is releasing a debut album is bonkers.
You seem to have a lot of material already to put a credible album out fairly rapidly. Is the confidence afforded to you by Carl at the Label to not only record the single but book you straight on at Sound City before you’ve even played your first gig inspiring?
AH: I think confidence in my own songwriting is a massive thing, and I don’t think I even had any until about December last year. The first time I thought ‘maybe I’m alright at this’ I put ‘Bloom’ on Soundcloud, next thing there were messages and offers of musicians wanting to get involved, then Carl asking what else I had and we should do a single. It’s a no-brainer working with the Label as everything is done for the right reasons. The non-commerciality of the Label just gives massive respect to the artist.
Listening to early posted material on Soundcloud, It ranges from classic singer-songwriter quirky folkish fayre to more ambient sonic landscapes, and even a Springsteen cover! I Have to admit I had formed a pre-conceived notion before seeing you play live, that you blew that away with the fully formed band; big bass driven riffs and massive guitar sound and sunshine surf…
AH: I didn’t intentionally throw a curveball with posting that stuff, Writing in you bedroom, in the bleak winter nights, you come up with things like ‘Jesus Take The Wheel’; when you’re in a practice room with 4 other musicians, you immediately want to play faster, happier, more upbeat because it’s just fun, especially if you’ve got a real drummer. Real drummers don’t want to play tap… tishh…they want to fly around as fast as possible.
I had a massive sit-down chat with myself about why I’m playing music and why I’m doing this. Motivationally writing songs have to be for the right reasons, and it’s all about complete honesty, being honest with yourself, otherwise, it’s just bullshit. I’m trying to be as open and bare and honest as possible, the first tunes are just scratching the surface.
I’d like to keep people on their toes definitely though, it’s an absolute cliché but I don’t want to get pigeonholed, being able to write freely, as soon as you release anything, people have an expectation and make comparisons, and you get labelled.
So you are going to make it really tricky for people like me to label you?
AH: I’m not consciously going to try and be different, I’m going to sit down with the guitar and whatever comes out, comes out. sometimes I feel happy, sad, and I’d like for those range of emotions to come through in the music. I’m not going to let a style dictate. With strange collective we have the M/O to have fun, get drunk, play harder, make weird shit, enjoy, the chemistry dictates, With my own work I have time to sit down and experiment, and it’s only myself I’m answerable to. With ‘bloom’ for instance, people seem to assume that the ambient sound on the original recording is electronic, keys etc… but it’s actually just me with a lot of guitar effects, and then a lot more guitar effects, it’s a lot more introspective and less urgent compared to smashing something out in the practice room with the band and bouncing off each other, which is great fun and the results no less credible… just different.
This makes it tricky to fully find for inevitable points of reference in your music, there are bits of TOY and Spiritualized in some, then bits of Ashcroft and Beck in others, you’ve been described as ‘cosmic surf psych’ but could just as easily be described as ‘ambient nu-folk’. If you were to do an album right now, would it be all down one stylistic route, or would it be an eclectic ‘what’s next’ rollercoaster?
AH: Though it will happen, I think I’ll find it quite hard to make an album that I liked RIGHT NOW because at the moment I’m writing so many different styles, ok not massively differently it’s not like I’m doing salsa and jazz. I think an album is a piece of work that works together and fits, and I’d spend a LONG time getting the order to fit. I’d like to do soundscapes between tracks, 8-minute intermissions where it floats off, changes key and comes back in. It’s too early to say and I don’t even know myself yet. Tbd.
You could be considered a Sound City veteran by now, having played there for the last 3 years, first with Sugarmen, then with Strange Collective, this year you return under your own name. Is being booked for the festival before you’ve even played a gig phasing at all?
AH: Yeah, I played once with Sugarmen, then the next year with both bands, then last year with Strange Collective, and now as myself. And it got incrementally more challenging, with Sugarmen I didn’t write the songs, I, of course, had input and it was really being part of a proper band and was a fantastic time, I look back very fondly on the music we made as Sugarmen at the time, and… I’ve heard the mixes of their new album and it is amazing… fucking wicked…
To be honest I had no idea I was playing sound city this year till I got announced and my name was on the poster, and I was like ‘who booked me by the way’?, but finding it was through Carl (the Label) then it was ‘ that’s cool’, but I had no idea I was playing. Yes it was really daunting in the way that all gigs are, though I’ve played there with bands, playing and singing under my own name is a lot harder, not physically but on a kind of personal level, letting people into your thoughts and fears and madness of what you are writing songs about, I sort of use it as a therapy, a catharsis. Not that I need therapy, but just to get things out… I’m not sure if I want it to be out, but there we go, it’s in the open, the problem shared. I was made up though, I’d have jumped at the chance anyway, Sound city is a great festival and great chance to play a big stage.
I love festivals, they are the weirdest microcosm of madness that just appear and disappear within 5 days and I just love the freedom that affords people. You can’t go to a festival and not enjoy it. Everyone who is there is in the right mood for it. I’d love to play more. I’d like to think that anyone can get something out of the music I play, be it mindlessly jumping around or getting more out of it; sonically you get people stroking their chins and picking apart the guitar sound, lyrically some other may think ‘that relates to me’ but an overall feel of ‘fuck it lets jump around’.
Sound City are quite true to their word in supporting local bands and have given a great first platform to local bands who are now going much further. Is it important to break out of the bubble of that a local scene?
AH: Every festival in Liverpool is different and great for different reasons, I love the Liverpool scene, it’s fucking boss. Playing shows with your mates in your hometown is what it’s all about. And because I’m not originally from Liverpool. it’s a moot point that I actually refer to this as now my home because that’s what this place does to you. You’ve initially got to work with what you know, and I know this scene; we can put on an amazing all-dayer like we did for Strange Collective single launch last year, or just be supporting a mates band. But yeah, the local scene is everything but everyone has to break out of their hometown eventually if you want to maintain the dream of being a professional musician.
The new single ‘Days Like Today’ Is already getting airplay, even Lamacq has tipped it as a summer festival tune, has the switch now been thrown?
AH: Yeah, it’s a bit weird hearing your stuff on the mainstream radio, even seeing the video popping up, like it’s suddenly out there and happening, and you can’t stop it now … so I’m made up. It would be great if people have something to recognise in the set too.
Ali Horn plays Sound City at the Label showcase on the Baltic Stage on Saturday. Mark this down as a ‘not-to-miss’ on your festival itinerary (especially if the sun is shining), in years to come, it’s a gig you’ll definitely be claiming to have seen when he was first performing…