Interview with Sam Forrest of Nine Black Alps by Rachael Clegg
Sat on a palette in a quiet corridor backstage at the Manchester, Academy Nine Black Alps’ Sam Forrest opens up about Nine Black Alps, musical ratios, his despising of indie and the new Manchester scene. His pleasant demeanour is enhanced by a warm and soft Yorkshire accent, somewhat incongruous with his punky battered army jacket, old canvas trainers and unkempt hair.
MM: When you first met the band [Nine Black Alps] members, did you have any kind of idea that this career would ensue?
SF: No, not at all, I’d pretty much given up on music by the time we got this band started. We’ve all been in bands before; I used to play bass for a couple of bands in York: a local kind-of-thing. Both bands I’ve been in have been for egotistical, good-looking singers - I just wanted to get away from all that so I thought I’d move to Manchester and try and get a career somewhere; that went wrong because I met Dave - our guitar player - in a bar, we ended up just talking about music and sorted out a band with me singing. [It was intended that we would] get a front person in first but [that failed] so I’ve had to keep on singing. It’s all fairly weird but I had no idea that [it would come to this].
MM: So when did you meet them?
SF: It was summer, 2003.
MM: Why the name Nine Black Alps?
SF: It’s a line from a Sylvia Plath poem, called The Criminals.
MM: You hadn’t been going very long at all before you got signed first to Akoustik Anarchy in 2003, then to Island the following spring. Has your style evolved much since you started?
SF: It’s pretty much the same because when we started we were all playing the wrong instruments; [both] Dave [and I] switched to guitar from bass, and James, the drummer, used to play guitar. We’d end up just shouting in rehearsals with the amps [turned up] as loud as possible; they’d distort that much it would sound like the loudest, most shouty thing ever. That was never exactly our intention because I had always written acoustic songs, but that’s kind of how it ended up; that’s why [we’ve been referred to] as neo grunge or something, [which is quite] scary.
MM: How would you define your music?
SF: I think just pop songs; pop songs that you are allowed to rant in.
MM: What was the thinking behind the choice of tracks for the album?
SF: We just included our favourite twelve tracks; there wasn’t any concept behind it….
MM: You did an acoustic session for the John Peel tribute evening at Night and Day Café last week, how did you find it?
SF? That was really good because I am kind of bored [of being likened] to bands like Nickleback or something.
MM: Do you think that’s going to be the direction in which you take the next project?
SF: I’d like to think that whatever we do is still fairly instinctive. We don’t want to try and define ourselves, we just want to go straight ahead and not be this whole ‘thought out’ band. It’s when you have to justify yourself everyday [it gets to you].
MM: It must get incredibly tiresome then; with all this press attention and interviews you have at the moment.
SF: You just get Tourette’s (laughs) after a while and start talking absolute nonsense.
MM: Has being signed to a major label affected the writing process at all? Do you have greater or lesser freedom than you had with a minor?
SF: [We] probably [have greater freedom] because we have more time to write. That’s pretty much all I do.
SF: [There’s no pressure] to produce a single [as such] because all our songs are fairly poppy anyway, it’s not like we’re trying to do free jazz explorations, there isn’t that much we can really do with it. We are pop band more than anything else.
MM: You say ‘pop’, but what pop are you into in particular?
SF: Probably old pop, you know, The Beatles, Motown, stuff like that, rather than what’s ‘cool’ and tasteful [I like what I like].
MM: Would you say that Nine Black Alps are more rock ‘n’ roll or more indie?
SF: Hopefully rock n roll, because I despise indie music. [It’s] is always trying to be clever.
MM: Is it advantageous being from Manchester because of Manchester’s musical legacy? Do you think you have benefited from being dubbed a ‘Manchester band’?
SF: Probably, yes. I mean, it gives a journalistic angle to write about. I don’t think we could have formed anywhere else because when I lived in York [bands were a case of] (mocks) a guy rhyming ‘my pie, sky, eye’ but when we moved to Manchester [I witnessed] real, aggressive sort of punky bands, bands that would not happen in York.
MM: Does Manchester as a phenomenon feed into the music at all, are there any Manchester bands with whom you identify?
SF: I don’t know, maybe bands like the Buzzcocks [because] they have [these] really short, angry pop songs. I don’t think we have that much in common with bands like Oasis or the Stone Roses. I’m not saying they’re bad.
MM: With up-and-coming Manchester bands such as Performance and The Longcut, do you think there is a new Manchester scene emerging?
SF: Maybe there is, I don’t know. I’d hate to say there is because I’d probably be made to look like a bit of an arsehole (laughs), but it does seem like there is a lot of activity there and it’s not ‘too cool’. Everybody seems to be helping each other out and everybody seems to be playing gigs in each other’s kitchens and you know, just like random locations. It’s like; we did all our first gigs with [the label] Akoustic Anarkhy with them in kitchens and completely obscure pubs, that was a lot more fun than going to [venue] Night and Day and feeling like you have to be professional. I think it all just came out of that.
MM: Would you say then, that Manchester is nurturing of the ‘uncool’ but obscure?
SF: I think so, yes.
MM: Returning to the issue of major labels, and being signed to one; do you feel like you are ‘packaged’ at all?
SF: I think so, yes. It’s like one of those sorts of things where you just find yourself [in the press]… I can’t listen to the radio now; I read [certain music] magazines in case you happen to see yourself. It’s just the way you are presented, I know it’s the whole process, but you see yourself and it’s just like Being John Malchovich.
MM: Are there things that have been said about SF that have particularly irritated you?
SF: [Yes, the likening of SF] to bands like Nirvana and the Pixies they expect you to be like a suicidal person. (Laughs) … comments like saying you are going to get hooked on crack. I just think that’s really gross. There is something really off about all that but at the same time I like to take the piss back just as much. There are certain journalists who ask stupid questions and therefore they’ll get a stupid answer.
MM: What kind of stupid questions?
SF: Just like: ‘Are you the new Nirvana?’ and so then we’re like ‘Yes, we are, pleased to meet you’.
MM: Going back to the music itself; your singing style, in some songs it seems like you sing in quite a northern British accent, with exaggerated vowels, yet in other songs you sing in an American accent. Is this intentional?
SF: I’d never sung [before Nine Black Alps] so I have no idea. It’s kind of like the Beatles where they’d [do covers] in an American accent. I don’t think about [that] so much; as soon as I do I just panic (laughs).
MM: Your comment about not being able to read music magazines anymore made me curious as to whether listening to music has changed for you since you became a signed popular, full-time rock n roll band. Is this the case?
SF: I can’t listen to modern bands anymore really. I didn’t realise [before being signed to a major] that there were so many press officers, agents, managers, lawyers and God knows what else; you just realise how completely puppet-like it is. I always had this idealistic view [about rock n roll] that [has been] shattered so I just listen to stuff I listened to when I was five years old now.
MM: So what are you listening to now?
SF: Fifties love songs; I think I must be going through some kind of crisis.
MM: What was the last thing you bought then?
SF: Another Everly Brothers Best Of with alternative versions of hits like ‘Cathy’s Clown’.
MM: In terms of Nine Black Alps’ reception, how are you received in America?
SF: I don’t think we are ‘big’ in America as such [but we went down] really well in San Francisco. San Francisco’s got that Radio Station called Live 105; I think we were played on that a lot, but not so much anywhere else. I did actually live in San Francisco for a year. I really enjoyed playing there with Nine Black Alps.
MM: What about the crowds in America, how do they compare to that of Britain, for example?
SF: With the [exception of San Francisco], they are less lively, probably because of the over 21 thing, whereas here the kids are [enthusiastic] (laughs).
SF: Usually it’s kind of [being] hung-over with an acoustic guitar sat on the sofa just listening to other music and stumbling across [something] by accident that sounds cool and just following that wherever it goes, and then the words kind of come at the same time and then a page later it’s there and you kind of find the balance. I then take it to the band and we strip it apart, throw it back together and make it loud. Then it’s kind of a balanced song then.
SF: Just like kind of the classic song writing like the Beatles, with a build-up to a chorus, that just kills you every time. That’s the magical [balance] thing that I am trying to understand. I am sure there is some kind of art-science to [it all].
MM: There probably is, like a magic ratio.
SF: I think there is; I’ll try and find out.
MM: I’m convinced there’s something about climaxes in songs and that it must trigger, or correspond with certain neurotransmitters in the brain or something like that.
SF: Totally yes. But even harmonies and dissonance between notes, I mean, it’s the [related to the] Universe isn’t it?
MM: Well, there’s got to be something, it seems a bit reductive, but then there must be a reason as to why so many people respond to certain songs, take any average Beatles song, for example.
SF: Yes, at the same time, you think why is that [hypothetical] awful band the biggest band in the world at the moment but at the same time Beethoven and the Beatles are everlasting.
MM: I suppose longevity is the tester, whether these ‘awful’ bands can outlive the efforts of excellent PR. You hear about so many bands and then six months down the line, they’re completely non-existent. An obvious example, but bands like Led Zeppelin seem to have that lasting power, which might point to this magic musical ratio, or balance, or whatever it may be.
SF: Oh Zep: of course, yes.
SF: All kinds of different things; it’s kind of weird talking about lyrics because a lot of it is just kind of stream-of-consciousness stuff, but they do actually mean something later. I prefer to be abstract about lyrics rather than to pin it down to a certain thing. There are some things that sort of bleed into the songs, the Iraq War. I’m not going to say ‘the Iraq war is bad’, because people have to think for themselves, but you [can] say it in a certain way that makes people think. It’s the same thing with relationships; I hate it when bands talk about their girlfriends, but I did it a couple of times on the album and that’s really embarrassing because it’s really honest, and then we’d go and release it as a single, and [then] my ex-girlfriend would fucking hear it.
SF: ‘Just Friends’. I feel like I have to be completely honest and that usually means it’s both honest and bare, or I try and make it so vague that I am honest without mentioning the exact words. It’s hard; I can’t work it out at all. It’s absolute hell (chuckles). I think a lot of time [the lyrics] are just trying to mirror the atmosphere of the music.
MM: Are there any writers that you are particularly fond of?
SF: I’m a complete writing nerd; a few trendy names, like Bukowski, things like that. I like straight writers [who aren’t] too [flowery]. I hate poetic lyrics; I don’t like lyrics that are too ornate.
MM: Are there any particular songwriters, or a style of song writing, that you aspire to?
SF: Half of me sort of likes complete unadulterated pop guitar bands; there’s a band called The Muffs from LA – they’re completely three-cord, Buddy Holly-type power thing with shouting. Half of me wants to be like that but the other half really wants to be more like Pedro the Lion [type thing]: [I love] overly serious singer songwriters where every single word fits perfectly and they sum up the entire [mood] in such a bleak way. Any way of getting those two together is what I am trying to do.
MM: That’s quite a challenge on your hands.
SF: (Laughs) I know yes, because I don’t understand how you make pop really dismal [but that’s what I want].
MM: Dismal pop eh? What about the artwork? That’s pretty dismal.
SF: The artwork is trying to be grotesque rather than dismal, there’s a fine line. It’s by our mate, Matt, who lives with Dave, the guitar player, he does tons of art around Manchester and things and we wanted a look that wasn’t too ‘designed’. When we went to Island about record covers they brought out all these portfolios of [work] by [various] graphic designers and everything looked like a Hard Fi record cover, or a Coldplay record cover. We wanted to keep [our artwork] as something raw and childish.
MM: Is ‘raw and childish’ the direction in which you want to take the music?
SF: I think [musically we will] just try and go weirder, not self-consciously weirder but to make it less frat-boy rock. I wouldn’t mind increasing the pop, decreasing the layers, and magnifying the fun. I want it to sound frazzled and frayed but in a really alive, but dismal kind of way….
words: Rachael Clegg
pictures: (c) NBA Website
(c)(p) December 2005 - mbm licenced to musicdash