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Alex Lahey is having the time of her life and it shows. Playing music alongside her good mates on stage, the energy produced is contagious. It’s no wonder she’s smiling. Since Alex released her first single Air Mail last year, then an acclaimed debut EP B-Grade University this year, the procession of accolades and fortuitous events have been never-ending. Beginning with a glowing review from influential media outlet Pitchfork, to securing the opening spot at Splendour in The Grass, winning a Josh Pyke grant and then signing to the respected Native Tongue record label, the good times keep rolling. A short time after our interview came yet another announcement that Lahey had signed to uber-cool American tour agency APA. Merely a day or so later, a spot at SXSW 2017 in Texas was secured. The moons just seem to be in a constant state of alignment for the Melbourne-based singer-songwriter. Sure there’s an element of luck involved in any artist’s rise but Alex Lahey has a good head on her shoulders, has the right people behind her and most importantly knows a thing or two about constructing a solid piece of pop rock without resorting to cliches. Much like Courtney Barnett, Lahey taps into everyday Australian life and has found an immediate connection with an audience hungry for more than just the vapid fast-food era pop trash which is marketed to them incessantly. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips was intrigued to find out how Alex was dealing with the ever-increasing attention, so he gave her a call to ask.

Some pretty amazing things have happened to you this year, from the Pitchfork rave to opening Splendour. I guess these are the kind of things you dream will occur but how prepared were you for it actually happening?
I think having been a music fan for most of my life, I had a pretty good understanding of what it all meant. So even if you’re not prepared for it, your understanding of the magnitude of those sort of things makes you get prepared. For example with the Pitchfork thing, the possibility of that happening never crossed my mind until it happened. I have been a Pitchfork reader for ten years or whatever and it’s almost like the unattainable. So for that to happen, it kind of wasn’t a dream come true because I never thought it would happen. It was the ultimate pat on the back. Then with Splendour, having played gigs in various bands for seven or so years, knowing how different that stage was going to be, I kind of knew how to direct my thinking to prepare for it. Triple J gave me and my band an opportunity to turn into a professional band in 3 weeks. So that preparation comes on the spot.

Alex and band opening Splendour In The Grass 2016
Alex and band opening Splendour In The Grass 2016

When I first played  Ivy league, the opening song of your EP, I just thought what great guitar tone. Tell me what you play and what pedals were involved in that great noise?

My producer Oscar Dawson is one of the best guitar players in Australia. He is not only a technically proficient guitar player but very musical too, so he has a great understanding of tone. He guided me in my foray into guitar tones … just the language and where they sit in the mix. That’s been so valuable to me, particularly for someone who isn’t really a guitar player by trade. Getting into tones has been something that I have really enjoyed this year. I really, really enjoy it. For my live set up at the moment, which is pretty reflective of what was used on the record, there’s my tuner pedal and buffer and my go-to overdrive is a Boss Blues Driver. The fuzz that we get in that song Ivy league is a Soul Bender, which is a creamier fuzz tone but still cuts through. In Let’s Go Out and also You Don’t Think You Like People Like Me, we use a Fat Fuzz Factory, a ballsy fuzz and a bit unstable at times, which suits those songs. Then for my clean sound, I always use Hall of Fame reverb with the vibrato setting on the Memory Boy, just for that little bit of shimmer.

Do you get into downloading the Tone Prints for the TC Hall of Fame, whereby you can instantly acquire other guitartists’ tones?
I have had a go of it with a mate. I haven’t really spent the time on it to be honest but just the fact that it exists is unbelievable, it blows my mind.

What was your first pedal?
Apart from the tuning pedal, as a means to teaching myself about tone, I got a big Boss ME80 multi effects unit. I actually proved to be right on this one …. which was great because I didn’t waste my money … it was such a great foray into the tone world and just learning the difference between tremolo and vibrato. Not only did it make me a better guitar player but it also made me better in the studio as well because I was able to articulate exactly what sounds I was after. From looking at what I was using frequently off that unit, I was able to shape and identify more specifically the pedals I wanted on the board that I currently have. A friend of mine was over the other day and she is trying to get her head around tones and I said, man just borrow this thing, have it for 2 or 3 months and it will help you to understand what you are looking for, even if the sounds themselves aren’t the ones you settle on.

How much experimentation is there with each track? Did you try different tones, guitars amps and pedals or did you pretty much know what noise belonged to each song?
I play a Tele live, a little Mexican Telecaster, nothing special. I call it the Toyota of guitars because it is nothing fancy but it is reliable and you can find parts for it easily. That’s in a lot of the record. Funnily enough, Oscar actually uses the same guitar. Also, at the end of last year I bought this 1966 Silvertone Jupiter from Found Sound in Melbourne. Although I don’t play it live… it’s extremely temperamental, the intonation is the biggest pain in the arse … it’s got this floating bridge. It would be the worst guitar to tour with ever but I do a lot of writing on it and having it in the studio is great. It has those gold coil pickups in it, so you really get that crunch and running it through some heavy distortion pedals is really interesting and it gets really fat. As for bass, my bass player plays a Hofner, a single cut out Hofner which gets that dull thwacky pick space tone which I really love. In terms of gear and guitars we don’t use anything special. As far as amps, I think we were running through a Twin Reverb and maybe a Princeton every now and then. Actually Oscar also had this humongous 100 watt Savage thing that we used a couple of times, which was pretty fun. I’m not sure how effective it was compared to the other stuff that was there but it was fun to power up. It was like a fridge.

You were saying that you wrote songs on electric guitar? It actually sounds like these songs were written on electric guitar…
Yeah, I really only play electric guitar to be honest.

Can an Alex Lahey song begin with a pedal effect as much as a lyric or melody idea?
Absolutely. I think Leave Me Alone on the record, although it is not in the recording … I actually discovered a Flanger. I was playing around with that and referring to a lot of Mac DeMarco tones at the time. This 4 chord simple thing and I thought, I’m going to write a Mac DeMarco song. Even though the song Leave Me Alone doesn’t sound anything like a Mac DeMarco song, that tone was what the first stepping stone to the song.

I saw you play at Penny Black in Brunswick a couple of months ago. I think it was the first gig for your bass player but you sounded like you’d been playing forever. Do you rehearse a lot?
We rehearse when we need to, when we have shows or recording or even when we just want to hang out. We are all really good mates and it is a pleasure spending time with the guys in my band. You say it looked comfortable on stage … we know each other musically as well as personally and it makes touring easy.

You studied jazz at uni for a while. Has that knowledge come in handy at all with your songwriting?
I think the theory behind me has helped out a bit. I arrange the songs and write all the parts for my band. Having the understanding of rhythm and harmony has helped with that process. That said, the best practice I have ever had is just playing shows and playing with other people and even just talking about music. I don’t think the theory was overly important in terms of my playing but in terms of understanding my practice, it is valuable and why certain things appeal to me or why I write a certain way or use certain chords. It gives me that understanding.

What kind of things are you into jazz-wise?
I grew up playing in big bands. I love Duke Ellington and Buddy Rich big bands. There are some newer guys like Bert Yoris and Thad Jones who are cool. I am an alto saxophone player, so Cannonball Adderley was a big one. I kind of prefer Cannonball Adderley to Charlie Parker. Charlie Parker is like the Hendrix of alto sax. Coltrane is great. I haven’t thought about jazz for ages. There are some amazing Australians too. Tony Gould is my favourite pianist of all time. He was teaching at Monash when I was there, which was great. There is such a great scene in Melbourne of jazz players.

It is interesting that you say you were into big bands because you kind of take that approach with the layering of guitars in your music, it’s a very fat sound.
Yeah, that’s an interesting comparison. The thing that has always drawn me to big bands is the energy and you know, there is not a ballad on my record. There’s nothing subdued about it so yeah, maybe there is a parallel to be drawn there.

Alex at Big Sound
Alex and her Mexi Tele in action at Big Sound

What kind of things did you learn from making this EP that you might take into the next recording?

Obviously I learned more about the studio process and working with a producer one on one. Luckily Oscar and I have a really great rapport, both creatively and personally. He teaches me so much, not only about the industry but just playing and recording. I am a substantially better guitar player for knowing Oscar. Actually you know what the biggest thing is? When Oscar and I started working together we did two singles, over a year ago now. We released one of them, Air Mail, which is like my first release. In that period we did pre-production for those two songs. After we did that, I was like, hey I can do this pre-production shit myself. I taught myself to use Logic and interfaces and do that demoing at home. Through doing that, it shaped my songwriting in a different way and made it more holistic than just a chord, melody, lyrics thing.

You have some film references in your music. I know that Oscar (Alex’s producer) and Tim in Holy Holy have been known to do a version of the Terminator theme at their gigs. Have you considered doing any movie themes?
I don’t know. There’s this running inside joke … but not joke … about doing the School of Rock song. It’s like a defining movie for my band and I. It’s a bit of a thing so I don’t know. Yeah I’ll have a think about that, it’s pretty interesting. I am really not much of a film buff but that’s an interesting idea which I will write down!

What is happening with the next recording? Are you looking at doing another EP or working towards an album?
I would love to do an album but at the end of the day, if we do an album’s worth of stuff and I’m not happy with it but there’s an EP’s worth of good stuff, I’d rather release an EP. At the moment I am just writing as many good songs as I can and whatever happens with that, happens. I don’t feel like there’s heaps of pressure to put out an album for the sake of it. I feel the pressure is more on me just becoming a better songwriter. There will be a release next year but I am not sure what shape that will take.

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