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An interview with Lee Gorton and Ian Smith from Alfie
by Alexander Laurence

I spent most of an afternoon recently with the Manchester band Alfie. I had an agreeable conversation with Lee Gorton and Ian Smith (of Alfie) by the pool at some hotel at Highland and Franklin. It was hot day in Hollywood. Ian and I walked down Highland to look for a used clothing shop. We ran into the drummer, Sean, at a bar on the way.

We soon found a thrift shop on Highland between Sunset and Santa Monica. Everything was a dollar. Ian bought some stuff for his girlfriend and an ELO disc. Sean bought a wool hat, a Beach Boys record, and a few others by the Beatles. They were cheap. He said that it was hard to find any vinyl in England. He had bought a few Stevie Wonder records in San Francisco. We came back down Hollywood Boulevard in search of bargains and Ozzy Osbourne's star.

This Manchester, England-based outfit established themselves as one of the UK's most intriguing new bands with three vinyl-only releases in 2000 on Damon Gough (aka Badly Drawn Boy) and Andy Votel's Twisted Nerve Records. After signing to the label in late 1999, Lee Gorton (vocals), Ian Smith (guitar/keyboards), Matt McGeever (cello), Sam Morris (bass), and Sean Kelly (drums) were recruited by Gough to tour as his support act and backing band. The Alfie EP was released in February 2000, and was followed by two further vinyl-only releases, the "Bookends" EP in August and the "Montevideo" EP in November. These two EPs were released as the CD "If you happy with you need do nothing" in Early 2001.

By this time, Alfie were being described as leading lights of the New Acoustic Movement, a genre dreamed up by the New Musical Express to describe the resurgence of a semi-acoustic sensibility on the UK independent music scene. This year saw the release of their first proper album, "A word in your ear." They had never been to the United States. They played four cities on their recent tour in July. They have recent sign to Parlophone and seem ready to make a big splash worldwide in the next year.


AL: Are you friends with Elbow?

Ian: Yeah. They practice a few rooms up from us in this complex in Manchester. Doves we see a lot of as well. There is this other band called I Am Kloot. They came out in Manchester about the same time as us and Elbow.

AL: You were on Twisted Nerve. Are there many bands on that label?

Ian: We did two records with them. There are many bands on it now. When we first started there were only four or five of us. There are about ten bands now. Twisted Nerve started off as its own thing. When Badly Drawn Boy released his first two EPs there was so much interest in him. Twisted Nerve went through the roof. XL Recordings bought into Twisted Nerve a little bit. And then XL is own by Beggars Banquet. There's a hierarchy. When you try to get something done, there are all the labels to deal with. Argh!

AL: How did you get involved with Badly Drawn Boy?

Ian: We were in Manchester and we all got pretty friendly. We just all kept in touch and gave him tapes. He and Andy Votel came down to a gig at the Star and Gas that we played one night. We had only played a few shows before that. Andy Votel does a lot of graphic design. He did the artwork on our records. Andy does all sorts of stuff. He's doing a film now. He wants to make films and videos.

AL: What is Chorlton like?

Ian: It's nice. It's the more bohemian part of Manchester. It's more relaxed and expensive. It's much nicer than Burnage. I grew up there. I did the whole "Mad-chester" thing. I went to Spike Island. I was a big fan of The Stone Roses. That background was all in me when I was starting me own stuff. That was coming through again I think. I loved the first Stone Roses album.

AL: Some bands aren't really coming from a place because they have so many records and too many influences. Did you build from the ground up?

Ian: At first it was just me and Lee. I had a load of stuff that I wanted to do on guitar songwise. We started with me and Lee and a few tunes then we got other people involved, and it shaped itself really. Now that we know what we can do we can go okay we can go this into direction with this song. We can pick and choose the destiny of where each song goes and that's good.

AL: Does someone in the band have classical training. You have all these intricate Nick Drake-like guitar pickings.

Ian: Yeah. I don't think anyone in the band has had guitar lessons. Matt and Sam have classical backgrounds. Matt plays cello and has been classically trained. Sam plays French Horn. They play keyboards as well because you have to go through that first. Ben plays trumpet. They are all classically trained in a university.

AL: Do you like Prog Rock?

Ian: Well, me and Matt do. We are big fans.

AL: People are really aware of sounds today. A song like "Cloudy Lemonade" has this ringing sound at the beginning that is unique. Do you practice in the studio a lot and come up with sounds and then fit them into songs?

Ian: Yeah. We just like to fuck things up a bit. We like to try ideas. "Cloudy Lemonade" is one of the oldest songs we have. It's been around for years and years. On this tour we played songs off all our albums and then a few new ones. When we are in the practice room and the songs are going well and they are easy to do and they sound good each time, we can perpetuate that. We haven't been here so maybe people who come to the shows want to hear something off the first album.

AL: Apparently there are people here that know every song. At the show last night people seemed as if they had following the band for years.

Ian: Wow. That's amazing. That's a big surprise for me. It's been like that everywhere we've been. There have been more than a handful of people who are really into everything we did. They have canceled everything else they are doing that night and they come to the show.

(Lee Gorton joins the conversation)

AL: Many people who like Alfie or Doves who are in their twenties are probably the ones most likely to download songs on the internet. So these bands are popular and well known, but they don't sell records like Eminem.

Lee: Music is always forced into people's faces. It's not easy to find out about quality underground bands. It took me years to find out who Jim O'Rourke or Sam Prekop were. The Flaming Lips even. People have to dig a little deeper and mine that shaft. We have a lot of activity on our website compared to record sales. We have a massive fanbase on the internet. It's valid for us. There was one girl in New Jersey. She had all these bootlegs of gigs that were acoustic sets that we had done in universities in Manchester years ago. She said "Yeah, I have that version of Check The Weight." I said that I don't even remember doing that. The internet is relevant and good because people could get into you at a level that you wouldn't think was possible. We expected that a couple people would know something about us. Last night was like doing a gig back home because people were cheering for the songs that they like. I couldn't believe it.

AL: Who writes the songs?

Lee: Everyone does now. It used to be me and Ian. We got a flat together. We had some guitars and we wrote some stuff. Once the five of us were in place we knew everyone was important as unit. We said to them "If we ever get a publishing deal, even though we're doing the writing, it's going five ways. We're a band." We don't want to have a rupture in the middle that can divide bands. Once we said that, Matt who came in as a cello player, turned out to be a finger picking folky kid. He said that he had all these songs. And we said brilliant. He writes loads and so does Sam. We all write at home and get as far as you can with it. Then we take it to everyone else. If you get stuck bring it to the rest and try to figure out where it goes. It's flattering to be a songwriter in this band because a song once everyone has had their input it sounds like fuck all what you wrote. Everyone is trying to make things sounds like nothing else. It's great.

AL: Do you write all the lyrics?

Lee: I write about half.

Ian: Sometimes I'll write songs that have no words. So Lee will finish it off.

AL: In your songs you are aware of a voice but it's like a musical instrument. Are your songs personal, narratives, or just abstract thoughts?

Lee: Yeah. Some of them have a point but generally it's just about a vibe coming through. None of are doing this because we are great singers. None of us are great poets really. That wasn't the point of the band. We wanted to be in a band and it was a job that had to be done. Some of them are like a story. You can get on a train of thought and go that way. Some of them are just whatever is going through your head at the time. We are just trying to catch the vibe of the music. The music always comes first. You start singing along and a few words come out and you're like "Yeah, yeah yeah, that makes sense." Then you can start seeing what the song is about.

AL: How is the recording process different from the live performance? I was talking with the drummer Sean and he said that he was listening to the mini disc while playing live.

Lee: It's like a click track really. Only for a couple of songs. Then there's a backing track. When you are in the studio now everyone is so involved in production side of things. When you try to play those things live you don't have enough hands to hit the drums. We don't have five horn players, so you just put that stuff on the backing track. It's a cheap way of doing things.

AL: You have recently signed to Parlophone. Is there an expectation to be more commercial?

Lee: Not at all. You expect that and worry about that when you sign to a label. For a big label, Parlophone has a good reputation for not dropping bands even they don't do well. They tend to stick by them. They have Coldplay, Blur, Radiohead, and Supergrass. Some of those Blur records didn't do much. Most labels would drop a band if one record didn't do as well as the previous one.

Ian: They'll put more money into it. They'll give us posters and put us on radio more. They'll push us more. We have a pretty organic sound. The more chances you have at doing a record the chances are you are going to get better. If that's what you really want to do, you should be given the chance to do it.

AL: Do you have enough songs written for the new album?

Lee: Yeah. There are all still sketches. We have a Macintosh computer in the practice room now. Instead of going into the studio trying to put ideas down, we can build on those initial sketches. It's all new stuff. We have come out with all the songs we have played for the past three years. It's a clean slate now. We are proud of our first two albums but they were done on a budget that was tiny. We had a month in the studio and we could only do ten songs in that time. This time we are going to write thirty songs and pick twelve that go on the album. Do you know what I mean? We want to have freedom to experiment and do load of tunes. We can decide out of the batch what is going to be the album. We have more freedom on a big label than we did on a little indie label where you are supposed to get freedom from.

AL: Why did you do the EPs first then?

Lee; It was just out of necessity really. There was no money to make an album. We would play shows and have something to hand out or sell or whatever. That was always how I found out about bands.

Ian: EPs are nice little collectable things. You feel like you have something special and you were there first. We only produced a thousand copies of these. That is relevant. Kids find that out they will stick right by you.

AL: Are you going to do a big tour of America next year with Elbow or Doves?

Lee: That would be great. We know Elbow really well. We haven't seen Doves because they are traveling a lot. Elbow has done about five or six tours. We have grown up together as bands. We have supported each other at birthday parties. I have loads of respect for those bands.

Ian: It's a nice close scene. To get to know people like that who are talented like that in your hometown is great.

AL: If there is any conception over here of Alfie it's as if they are a band that just puts on the clothes that they wear everyday and they play music. There's nothing about fashion or pretension. It's like an English equivalent of The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, or Sparklehorse, or Grandaddy, or even Elliot Smith. It's about the music. It's not about what model their dating that month.

Lee: Good company. That was the point. It's very flattering to hear you talk about us in the same company as those other bands. We are just a fresh sounding band that is at ease with itself. We are just trying to do something a little bit different on our own path. All those bands you mention are exactly that. If we are in their gangs, it's all right with me.

AL: Where did the name Alfie come from?

Lee: It was just plucked out of the air. It's help us because we are always one of the first bands alphabetically.

Ian: When we played All Tomorrow's Parties, the one curated by Mogwai, there was a list of all these bands, and since we were first, it looked like we were headlining.

AL: Any advice for young people who want to do music?

Lee: Just try. Don't doubt yourself. Get over yourself.

Ian: Sort your brain out.

AL: Do some E?

Lee: No. Just make sure that you are doing something while you're at it. You have to have faith in yourself and create chances or get a few breaks.


-- Alexander Laurence


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