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You can learn a lot about someone by asking them what they think the greatest record ever made is. Take Alex Clare. Tell him you’re going round to his flat tonight with the express intention of smashing every piece of recorded music he owns – leaving him only one – and the ideas just come tumbling out.
“Wow!” he laughs. “If it was production wise I’d probably go for Radiohead’s OK Computer. It’s an incredible record – kind of mind-blowing really. But it’s not the greatest record ever made…”
Alex stirs his coffee and thinks.
“The first record I ever fell in love with was The Score by The Fugees, but that’s not the greatest record ever made either. I used to think it was The White Album – but it’s not that… I suppose it might be Donny Hathaway’s second album, the one with Magnificent Sanctuary Band on? But I think, really, it’s Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life. That track Have A Talk With God has the most incredible synth parts you’ve ever heard. That’s the greatest record ever made for me.”
He sits back – pleasurably exhausted.
“You can’t touch Stevie,” he says. “Even his bad ones are amazing!”
Alex Clare is just the sort of musician you’re glad is still being made in the country’s basements, backrooms and bedrooms. Born and bred in South East London and raised on his dad’s bebop records, as a child Alex toyed with the trumpet before taking up the drums to help him get rid of all his nervous energy.
“There was nothing much to do other than skate, smoke weed and play in bands,” he says. His sister loved Alanis Morisette and his brother loved Oasis, but Alex thought they were both awful. He was into jungle and UK Garage and had begun listening to voodoo blues of Dr John and the street corner harmonies of Snooks Eaglin. Alex wanted more from music. “Jazz and blues and soul were a comfort to me,” he says.
So he played in bands at school and those bands began to get little gigs in the “blur of music” that was happening in London around the early Noughties. Alex loved it but needed some security, so he trained to be a chef while still playing and teaching himself piano and guitar.
“I started to play open mic nights as I hated my job,” he laughs. “Or rather, I preferred to play guitar. I would play every gig I was offered, but I never had the patience to learn someone else’s music. Maybe I’ve got ADD, but I get bored trying to learn other people’s songs. I tend to just take the chords, make a mess of them, then write a new song!”
A small songwriting deal started a bout of travel, with Alex living on a boat moored in Harlow in Essex, which he then sailed down the Thames to Stamford Hill. Soon after he moved to Brighton.
“I procrastinated there,” he admits. “But I managed to write some more songs despite all the friendly people…”
These new songs were more personal and pointed than any he’d written before, “I love one guy on a guitar telling stories,” he says. “I started putting whatever had happened to me – the women and the mistakes – into the songs. It’s supposed to be cathartic – but it’s not really. It just reminds you of it all.”
These new demos found their way to Island Records and two weeks later a deal was on the table. Shortly afterwards Alex was on his way to New Orleans where he got together with producers Diplo & Switch (responsible for the Jamaican dancehall project Major Lazer and M.I.A.’s Paper Plane – among many others). The single Up All Night and album track Tight Rope were born in those sessions.
“They understand what I want from the arrangements,” Alex says. “I love those heavy, sine-wave bass lines and they knew how to push them way beyond even my expectations.”
Alex says the duo made him think about his songs in a totally new way, in came polyrhythms and synth sounds that just wouldn't have happened otherwise. “I tend to be a bit more reserved when I write,” he laughs. “They put it all out there – and it works.”
After New Orleans there were trips to Jamaica and LA to write more and record the songs properly. What Alex came back with is an album that’s in touch with his beloved soul and jazz as well as opening itself up to funk and jungle and punk rock and dubstep.
So Relax My Beloved (“that one’s about realising that someone needs words of comfort. Only you can’t be passive with them because, you always end up exploding…”) grows from a minimalistic shudder into a great, growling monster of a tune. Whispering (“that’s got a Lewis Carroll vibe…”) is a reverb-heavy acoustic lament with a huge melancholic drive behind it.
Won’t Let You Down (“It feels negative – but it isn’t. It’s about meeting a girl and having this amazing bond. You want to chill out and not make bad things happen. But then they do happen…”) is a gorgeous, piano-led gem that could have slipped off the first Tom Waits album.
You may have heard the explosive west-coast punk-rock thrasher Up All Night (“It’s about going on a bender!”) which pitches Clare’s songwriting skills up against very 21st century grimy drums and thick waves of bass, while Too Close (“It’s about a friend I had of the opposite sex. It’s no longer a friendship…”) has a speaker-wrecking, wump-wump, dubstep bassline and hair-raising rave-anthem chords. It feels like a monstrous hit in the making…
“Oh definitely,” says Alex. “I love the feel of the bass. I've always preferred writing on my own in the past, but when you work with someone like Diplo and Switch, people who bring ideas to the table and vibe off what you do, while you’re vibing off what they do, means you create work that’s more balanced and moving. I can't wait to start record number two with them.”
Alex has not played live for a year while he’s been perfecting this album – he admits to a fairly obsessive nature – but now he’s building a band, with a drummer, a bass-player, a guitarist and a keyboard player, “traditional looking”, he says. If not traditional sounding.
“I love playing live too,” he adds. “Touring and playing every night would be the dream for me.”
Alex says that, ultimately, music is about space and time.
“All you need in a song is the bass, the kick and the snare. The rest is just commentary….”|
“There are so many sounds you can put on a song,” he says. But you just end up filling up space and music needs space. Listen to John Coltrane! It’s all about quality, not quantity.”
Alex laughs, thinking back when he was training to be a chef. An old master baker turned to him one day and said, “You can bake a beautiful cake, but the more you put on it the uglier it’ll get….”
“It’s odd the things you remember, isn’t it?”