Rock 'n' roll archetypes have been reproduced in popular culture to the point of tedium. There's the cocky, flamboyant lead singer; the cool, detached guitar player; the stoic, mysterious bassist; the sturdy-yet-dispensable drummer.
Sian Alice Group want none of that.
Even if the core trio of London-based friends Ben Crook, Rupert Clervaux and Sian Alice Ahern have adopted their singer's namesake, it's certainly not at her insistence. Speaking from a Manhattan practice space while someone plays errant flute melodies in the background, Ahern professes reservations about her earliest performances.
“It was all quite terrifying. Early on, I wouldn't be able to sing in front of Ben and Rupert,” she says.
It's surprising, given the weightless beauty of her voice. But Ahern acts as a vessel for the lyrics, which are mostly written by Clervaux. This, like nearly everything else the group does, is by design.
“It was my intention not to be a singer-songwriter,” Ahern says. “When I've previously tried to write lyrics and songs like that, I have kind of cringe-y moments. I like to be a kind of instrument within the group.”
This democracy among the three—reflected in the request that Crook, Clervaux and Ahern give separate interviews—allows SAG to operate within the rock idiom without succumbing to its clichés. Incorporating elements of free jazz, electronic, modern classical and rock, the trio places these styles into a panoramic screen, carefully blurring them until they become indistinguishable. It could be described as cinematic, a description informed by Crook's other job as a music-video editor.
“There's a lot of scope, and there's a lot of palette in there,” he says. “I think there's a definite correlation between that and our music. We don't start writing music with an image in mind; it's a very naturalistic sort of thing.”
Improvisation has always been a large part of the equation, too. Introduced to free jazz by a mutual friend, SAG were inspired to form by time spent together at free jazz club nights in North London.
“It's funny, because people always want to find out, ‘What do you play in the band?'” Clervaux says. “Obviously, there's a focus, which is that Ben is the main guitarist and I play the drums—but then there's keyboard parts that I play, there's keyboard parts that Ben plays, there's guitar parts that I play. There are really no rules, and that's sort of how we like to keep it, so that the studio life is fresh and feels very natural.”
The original idea was simple enough—three friends recording music in an organic, collaborative environment devoid of egotism and expectation—but after friends at Brooklyn's Social Registry heard some demos, the label offered to release material by the group.
The result was last year's 59.59, an adventurous, intoxicating album that made few concessions to the mainstream and earned a great deal of admiration for the band from the press, not to mention their peers.
“I suppose it was pretty much a studio project until Jason [Pierce] from Spiritualized asked us to support him, and we decided touring was pretty fun, too,” Ahern says.
It doesn't hurt to be in good company. Having toured with and befriended bands as diverse as A Place to Bury Strangers, Deerhunter and Vetiver, Clervaux is occasionally stunned at how receptive audiences are to SAG's sound.
“The people that liked the style of music the headline bands were playing seemed to like what we were doing, and that was quite refreshing to find out, because we had a few nerves about that in the earlier days—not feeling like we belonged on any bills,” he notes.
Nevertheless, the consistent touring cemented their confidence. The three returned to Clervaux's London studio, Grays Inn Road, to record the recent Troubled, Shaken, Etc., a more song-oriented album than its predecessor.
“There's no paranoia attached to the recording session. There's no red-light fever or ‘You have to get this finished by Thursday,'” Clervaux points out. “We like to feel really free to do whatever we like and take as long as we need to, which makes things actually get done quicker, in a weird way. It's really important for us as a band to be self-sufficient, to take part in every single process up until the mastering. We take care of it ourselves. That's definitely part of what the group is.”
By finding an escape route from treacherous music-industry inroads while still managing to receive exposure on a larger scale, Sian Alice Group has found a rare middle ground between popularity and obscurity—all the more impressive because of the determination to record and tour on their own terms.
“I don't like the idea of losing who we are,” Ahern says. “But I don't have any delusions of grandeur, that we're some ‘special' band.”
“It's good to be ambitious in music, and it's good to try to reach for something bigger than the constraints of the guitar-bass-drums-vocals setup,” Crook says. “I've never been interested in playing someone else's licks, like learning to play ‘Runnin' with the Devil' or ‘Under the Bridge.' I've always been more interested in how you can get sounds out of instruments, more in the wrong way of doing it than the correct way of doing it.”
Sian Alice Group play with Nico Stai on Saturday, Sept. 26, at Bar Pink. www.myspace.com/sianalicegroup.
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