Five Things: Oh Mercy’s Alexander Gow
From crime dramas to modified delay pedals, Greek mythology to dub, Oh Mercy’s Alexander Gow talks us through the inspiration behind the band’s third album, Deep Heat.
Law & Order SVU
Recording music is such an abstract idea, being in a band is such an abstract idea. Being in a recording studio in Portland, Oregon, is totally weird, and in that kind of strange limbo I had a consistent friend in Law & Order SVU. I fell in and out of love with a couple of the actresses. It was my rock. A lot of the stories were really creepy and I decided to creep Eliza [Lam, bassist] out. The last song on the album [‘Labour Of Love’] was inspired by this creep on the show. The idea of Eliza having to play a song that genuinely scared her for months and months in a row sounded like fun.
I wrote the album on piano because I had some strange problem with my elbow from playing guitar so much. I couldn’t play the guitar anymore, it was uncomfortable, so I wrote the record on piano. I’m not very good at it – having said that, I’m not very good on the guitar either – but I got to a certain level of proficiency that allowed me to write music. In the end, I subtracted most of the piano playing off the record, because I didn’t want it diluted by rhythm playing. Listening to the record I can tell that the piano had a big role, because the music is very linear. Especially on a track like ‘Fever’, which kinda goes up and then it goes back down. That was the limit of my proficiency on the piano.
Tapper Zukie – Man Ah Warrior (1973)
I’ve always loved reggae and dub music. I first heard of Tapper Zukie through Burke Reid, who produced our album. The record is just so cool in the same way as Jorge Ben or Lou Reed. His approach to making it is just lacking in pretence and has so much zeal and personality. It’s a really romantic story: This 19-year-old kid who was getting into trouble in Kingston and was sent to the UK to make good. He came to London when the whole reggae thing was getting popular in the white community. He came over at the perfect time and basically walked into a record label contract.
It was all about the “riddims”, as they called them. It’s just basically the backing track, like beat-makers these days in hip-hop. They’d play these rhythms in the studio and he’d just sing over the top mostly in an improv style. It’s kind of like a predecessor to the whole rap thing. The other thing that I love about it was that they used my favourite effects: Tape delays and phasers. It’s just so human. When you listen to it you feel like you’re there in the studio while he’s doing it.
It had an influence on ‘Still Making Me Pay’ [from Deep Heat if nothing else, sonically, in the way they were using tape delays and phasing. Along with Jorge Ben, his vocal style is really elastic and zealous, and that’s something that I’ve tried to carry on throughout the whole album. Just that idea of someone sounding so alive when they’re singing. And that’s what those guys sound like. I tried to embody that.
Previously I’d written on acoustic guitar, and the concept when it came to recording was to put a band behind what I’d written, and that was the extent of it. Pedals rarely came into it except when we were playing live. But when I turned up to do this record, and knowing there wasn’t going to be too much guitar on it in a rhythm-playing sense, I knew that effects were going to be really important. I had been listening to lots of dub, where they use flange and phase and chorus, and lots of things that I love. Lucky for us, Steve Berlin [from Los Lobos, who played on the record] has the wildest collection of pedals. He had hundreds of the rarest pedals – the things that go for $600 on eBay, he’s got them all.
Burke’s a really interesting producer, because he uses guitar pedals to replace plug-ins when he’s mixing. Not exclusively – he will use some plug-ins – but 90 per cent of the time he’s running sounds through strange combinations of guitar pedals to create something different and unique. The entire control desk was littered with guitar pedals left to right. That’s why the record sounds so unique. We’d get a perfect upright piano recording, and being dissatisfied with that, we’d run it through a shitty transistor amp. It’s a really hands-on approach to making music, and there’s a tangibility there that’s really exciting.
There was this particular modified Ibanez delay pedal where the feedback had its own button. As you held the button down the feedback maxed out. It’s how you get those big swells of feedback and we used it across the entire album. I was like a kid in a lolly store with that pedal. I tried to fit it on every song.
Greek and Roman mythology cover a lot of subjects that are taboo today – and it’s way more far out than modern soap operas and dramas. Some of it is truly evil, and it’s always funny. The sense of humour overriding those things is just ridiculous and very absurd. It ties in directly with the kind of lyrics I wanted to write. It was a great source of inspiration for me. There are three songs inspired by it directly – ‘Europa’, ‘Rebel Beats’ and ‘Drums’ – but it seeps through into all the songs. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is present in almost every song on the album. ‘Rebel Beats’ is about Dionysus, who was the party guy. I thought it’d be an interesting challenge to recreate him as a 1950s rock star, who came into the party late and caused a stir.
Deep Heat is out now through EMI
Oh Mercy tour dates
Wednesday, September 26 September – Heritage Hotel, Wollongong
Thursday, September 27 September – Cambridge, Newcastle
Friday, September 28 September – ANU Bar, Canberra
Saturday, September 29 September – The Standard, Sydney
Sunday, September 30 September – Clarendon Hotel, Katoomba
Thursday, October 4 – Settlers Tavern, Margaret River
Friday, October 5 – Norfolk Hotel, Fremantle
Saturday, October 6 – Bakery Artage, Perth
Thursday, October 13 – The Gov, Adelaide (Licensed all ages)
Saturday, October 13 – Karova Lounge, Ballarat
Thursday, October 18 – Republic Hotel, Hobart
Friday, October 19 – Bended Elbow, Geelong
Saturday, October 27 – The Railway Club, Darwin