Interview Date: 04/19/2010
Run Date: 05/06/2010
His band’s name may come from a Bob Dylan record, but Alexander Gow, lead singer and principal songwriter for Oh Mercy, is no folkie troubadour. The Melbourne, Australia native is well versed the music of his homeland, and his band’s debut album, Privileged Woes, will have fans of the Finn Brothers and Go-Betweens jumping for joy. With the band set to record their second album, Bullz-Eye caught up with Gow as he was walking the streets of Manhattan, of all places, to talk about flattering comparisons and what he hopes to accomplish in America. But first thing’s first: where the hell is that Guitar Center?
Bullz-Eye: What are you guys doing in New York?
Alexander Gow: It’s just me. I’ve got a room in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where I’ve got my recording equipment set up and my acoustic guitars. For the last four weeks, I’ve been writing and demoing songs in preparation for recording our second album, which we’re going to do in a couple of weeks.
BE: I’ve been listening to your first album, and I thought you were here to set up a deal to have that one released in the States. But you’re going straight to the second record, then?
AG: Well, we’re an independent band, so we don’t have to go by those rules or restrictions. So yeah, we’re here showing people our record and saying hello, but fortunately, there’s nothing stopping us from doing another one. Which is really cool; I mean, not that many bands have that room to move. But because we’re completely independent, that’s an option for us.
BE: So you’re financing your records and recording them yourselves?
AG: Yeah, we are. Our first record, we recorded with a friend in a bedroom in Collingwood, Melbourne. It’s the size of a single bed, so we pushed the mattress up against the wall whenever we went in there to record. We could only fit two of us there at a time, and we thought we were making demos. By the end of it, it sounded all right, so we kind of called it album and put it out. And because that one did all right, we have the finances to do another one.
BE: It sounds damn good for a bedroom pop record.
AG: Yeah, and we had a lot of fun. Myles [Wootton], the guy who [produced] it, he really knows his own little setup. As small as it is, he really knows it. Myles is actually the drummer for one of my favorite Australian bands, the Panics. If you haven’t heard them, you should give them a quick listen on the Net. He produces all their stuff and drums for them. He’s a clever guy, and he knew what he was doing.
BE: I wanted to let you know that “Lay Everything on Me” is one of the most downloaded songs on our music blog.
AG: (Excited) Is that right? That’s fantastic! How long ago did that go up?
BE: It went up two weeks ago, and I posted it on my Facebook page, so my like-minded friends all went after it, too.
AG: Fantastic. Thanks, mate, I appreciate that. We had a lot of fun doing that particular song.
BE: For those who may not be familiar with you, why don’t you tell the people a bit about yourself and what kind of music you play.
AG: Oh Mercy is just a name for the music I’m making. My friend Thomas Savage, who I went to high school with, contributes to the writing and plays guitar and piano. Live, we play with a couple of friends and we switch it around a bit. Stylistically…I don’t know, I was going to say just a pop band, but pop band in the way that I call the Velvet Underground a pop band. We listen to a great deal of music, but I think mainly our inspiration comes from the Velvet Underground and Bob Dylan. We obviously took our band name from one of his albums, and we adore Lenny Cohen. (Note: Yes, he actually called him Lenny Cohen) That has a lot to do with how we write, but the pop angle comes from growing up listening to Dionne Warwick singing the Bacharach catalog, and Dusty Springfield and stuff like that. That’s the two sides of the coin, the pop thing mixed with the classic songwriting approach.
BE: Did you have any reservations about using the Dylan title for your band name, knowing that anyone searching for you on the Web will have to sift through a thousand links to Bob Dylan’s album?
AG: Sure. [There is an ear-piercing screech in the background] Fuck! Wow.
BE: What was that?
AG: A truck dying. When I took that name for the band, I was 18, and one of the easiest things to do when you’re starting out, and you’re young, and you’re not as confident as you should be, is to reference something. And you know, every artist references something, some more subtly than others. Referencing the people you admire, that’s an old trick. I suppose, being 18 and needing a band name, it was like a blanket of security referencing someone like Dylan. And it just stuck; we were like, ‘Well, we made a record. We’re not going to change it now.’ Like I said – fuck, there’s that truck again – band names, I don’t really care. The only downside is, as you mentioned, about the Google search, but if someone wanted to find out about us, they’d work it out.
BE: You bring up an interesting point. I always said that if I formed a band, it’d be called the Machine Gun Ibizas, which is a Prefab Sprout song.
AG: Yeah, it’s a comfort thing, and it’s easy. As much as people say, “I wish they wouldn’t compare us to this band, why do people do that?” And the reason people do that is they need a reference point, because they’ve never heard of us. And I don’t have a problem with that. If we’re putting ourselves out there from the word ‘go’ as admiring someone like Dylan, I mean, everyone admires Dylan. That’s just a known fact.
BE: If I had to describe your band, I’d probably use words like ‘classic pop,’ or ‘throwback.’ Now, tell me, do you think that description is fitting, or aggravating?
AG: Is throwback good? I suppose ‘throwback’ alludes to a conscious decision, so in that way, I don’t think it’s appropriate. Like I said, I’m not precious about labels; they don’t keep me up at night. We grew up listening to our parents’ records, and I’m still convinced that they’re the greatest records ever made. And I’m not really that interested in many contemporary bands. You listen to the music that you love, and it’s going to influence the way that you write. It’s not a conscious decision to sound like a throwback or retrospective kind of group. It’s just absorbing all of these influences, and what comes out naturally is whatever comes out. The thing about Oh Mercy is it’s very natural and fluid, organic and all those kinds of words, where it’s just like, ‘Hi, I’ve listened to these bands, and I’ve naively written these songs. So why don’t we casually and nonchalantly record them in a bedroom?’ And it just so happened that some people got into it.
BE: When you saw the quote from Rolling Stone comparing you to the Finn Brothers, did you think that was fantastic, or did you think, “Oh, dear God, no, don’t say that!”?
AG: I think I thought both of those things at different points. I like a handful of others like I idolize Neil Finn. It’s certainly a thumbs up, a bit of a boost to morale to have that kind of response. It certainly gave me more conviction and confidence in what I’m doing. My uncle, when he read that, said, “Oh, that’s a bit much!” And I suppose he’s right. But whether it’s absurd or ridiculous or not, it gets people talking, and I’m sure more people have found out about our band because of that reference. Like I’ve tried to explain, references or reviews or being put into boxes, it really doesn’t keep me awake at night. It’s not going to change anything I do, and ideally, it’s going to help people understand us and hear about us.
BE: I will admit that when I read that reference, it had me interested in reading your press release. But at the same time, with expectations like that, as Tim Finn himself once said, that’s a hard act to follow.
AG: Sure. The expectation part is where the problem lies. But if it drives a whole bunch of people to listen to our music, and 50% of them don’t like it, it doesn’t really matter, as long as the other 50% dig it.
BE: After writing a song as pretty as “Seemed Like a Good Idea,” weren’t you just a little bit hesitant about singing the word ‘motherfucker’ over it?
AG: I’m not really hesitant to do anything when it comes to writing music. I like to write with a naïve approach. I think naïve is an underrated word when it comes to creating art. It’s not like I don’t care or anything, and I didn’t put it in there just to make it gritty. It’s just a word that when I was writing the song, I liked the way it sounded, though I felt like a bit of an idiot when Australian radio had to put a language warning before it. [Laughs] It seemed absurd. There’s no malice involved
BE: What are your honest expectations about the band’s prospects in America? Because you have to admit, our music scene is messed, up.
AG: I don’t really know about your music scene. I’ve come over here and met some really nice people. All I know about your music scene are some cool bands like Beach House and Foreign Born. I’ve seen a lot of shit bands here, but there are shit bands everywhere, you know? I don’t know enough about your music scene to comment on whether it’s messed up, and on the same hand, I don’t know enough to be able to describe my expectations. I can tell you what I’d like: I’d like Americans to get into us so I can keep on writing music and making albums a little while longer. We’re about to make a new record, and even though I adore our first record, I feel apologetic about it in some ways. I thought we were making demos. I wrote the songs when I was 19, I could have sung them better, etc. Maybe that gives it some of its charm, and I’m sure it does, but in two weeks we’re going to make a record with a different kind of professional. It’s going to be nice. We’ve got great songs, and I understand my guitar a little bit better. I understand about keys and how I sing certain keys a little bit better. We’ve got all the factors in place that we should make a great record, and hopefully that’s the one that’s going to get the ball rolling here, and I’d love it if people backtracked to our first record. Christ, I don’t care what order they hear them. I just want them to hear ‘em.
BE: Time to give some love to your homeland. What are your five favorite albums by Australian artists?
AG: Of all time? All right, Sleeps Like a Curse by the Panics, Stranded by the Saints, Born Sandy Devotional by the Triffids, Tallulah by the Go-Betweens, and Havilah by the Drones.
BE: I’m not surprised to hear you say the Go-Betweens, because that was the band that “Lay Everything on Me” reminded me of when I first heard it.
AG: I love the Go-Betweens, so I’m not surprised people can hear that. They’re a fantastic band. Have you heard of the Drones?
BE: No. I like a lot of Australian bands I’ve heard lately, though. I love the Midnight Juggernauts.
AG: They’re a really cool band, yeah.
BE: And Sweeter Than the Radio from IceCream Hands is one of my all-time favorite records.
AG: Yeah, cool! I’d request you to listen to a track by the Panics, and check out the Drones while you’re at it. They’re a bit different from one another, but it’s still songwriter-based.
BE: I like your list. I’m glad that I didn’t know every one of those records, and you didn’t pick off bands like INXS and Midnight Oil. And I totally have a soft spot for Icehouse.
AG: There are so many great Australian bands. Icehouse, the Church, Midnight Oil, Paul Kelly…
AG: Why not? They’re pretty good. Shit, I don’t know how I missed this guitar store. I must have walked straight past it.
BE: You’re still looking for it?
AG: Well, last night, I thought I walked past a Guitar Center. I thought it was on 14th, but maybe it wasn’t, because I just walked all the way down 14th, and no Guitar Center.
BE: I’ll do a Google search for you. So what does the rest of your year look like? You’re recording the new record in two weeks, and then what?
AG: After that, we’ll put a couple of singles out, we’ll take the songs to radio in Australia. We haven’t been home in a while, so we want to do some touring throughout July and August. We’ve got a couple of festivals around there that we’ll do. Apart from that, I suppose I’ll let the really hard-working people like my manager and all of the people who are helping us out do the suit stuff. I only know a month ahead of me what’s going on. I hope to come back to America really soon. I like it here; I like American music, and I like America. So I’d like to come back and have our album be released here somehow.
BE: We’ll see what we can do about that. Hopefully this interview will help get the word out.
AG: Yeah, I hope so.
BE: Guitar Center is at 25 West 14th Street. It’s just west of 5th Avenue.
AG: Right, okay. I’ll turn around. I must have walked straight past it.
BE: When I was talking to you about the American music scene earlier, I was referring to what has been at the top of the Billboard charts, which is basically teenagers that look like strippers. All of the really cool rock bands don’t sell many records.
AG: That’s the same in Australia. I just assumed this how it worked, you know? Cool bands, it’s a niche market. The majority of the population aren’t interested in that kind of music. If everyone was interested in it, it wouldn’t be that cool anymore. That’s a silly thing to say, but the majority want to hear something that’s not very interesting or challenging, much like a clock ticking in the background, or their fridge working. That’s just how it works, but it doesn’t really bother me. I didn’t come into music expecting to make any money. Ideally, we’d do well enough to feed the machine, so we can keep on going, you know? I mean, you know that band Foreign Born?
BE: I know of them, yes.
AG: I got their album in Melbourne. I come over here, and no one really knows of them. What about Beach House? They must do all right over here.
BE: They’re a niche band, too. What you said actually disappointed me, because it sounds like you’ve resigned yourself to being a cult act, and it didn’t used to be like that. Bands like yours had a shot of at least getting a hit at one point. And it makes me angry that those odds really don’t exist anymore.
AG: I love pop music. I make pop music. If something happened, and one of the songs did really well, then fantastic. But it’s not that I have no expectations; it’s just that I have well-rounded and very healthy expectations. It’s not like I’m glum-faced when I’m saying that. I’m incredibly excited to be making music and getting involved in the world of making music and releasing music. I don’t know. I suppose Bruce Springsteen became really popular and wrote great music. Maybe we will have our moment in the limelight, but it’s not something that keeps me awake at night.
BE: I wasn’t trying to suggest you were pessimistic about your chances. But it bothers me that bands like yourselves, you used to have a shot at getting at least a hit, and those doors just don’t seem to be open anymore. But that’s me showing my age. I’m probably twice as old as you are.
AG: Well, that’s a good point. It’s all about context. I only know what I know, and the bands around me, and the way things are now. Like, what’s an example of a band having a big hit?
BE: Crowded House. They had two Top 10 hits in the States, and their records got even better from there, and couldn’t get another hit. But they still had that shot. They at least got that hit. But today, that’s not happening.
AG: Crowded House. What a fucking band. The guy that’s about to record our record did those first three records.
BE: Mitchell Froom?
AG: Yeah, yeah.
BE: Wow. That’s quite an endorsement.
AG: Yeah, he’s a bit of a legend. We’re really excited to work with him. Maybe there’s hope yet.
BE: That’s a great move getting a guy like Mitchell to produce the record. I look forward to hearing it.
AG: I look forward to giving it to you. Thank you very much for…[an incredibly loud truck horn goes off in the background] Fuck off! Jesus Christ, was that necessary?
BE: (Laughs) Welcome to New York, Alexander.
AG: Thanks for spreading the word. It’s just so funny. At the moment, I’m just some dude in Greenpoint in a dark basement room. But it’s nice to know that there are people outside of here trying to spread the word.
BE: I took a special interest in your album because it reminded me of the stuff I wish sold more records. Did you find the Guitar Center yet?
AG: Yeah, I’m standing out in front now.
BE: Well, I’ll let you get to it, but thank you for taking the time to talk with me, and best of luck with the new record. I look forward to hearing it.AG: Thanks, mate. I’ll get it to you when we’re done.