Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Interview: Drew McAlister

Drew McAlister had a successful solo career before becoming one half of the even more successful McAlister Kemp, with Troy Kemp. The duo's latest album, Country Proud, has been nominated for an ARIA award and the lads are hitting the road for some gigs, including 16 November at Kedron Wavell Services Club in Queensland (with Tamara Stewart) and 24 November at the Heritage Hotel in Bulli, NSW (with Baylou). For full details, visit their website.

Recently I had the pleasure of talking to Drew about the upcoming tour, amongst other things.

I’m going to start off by saying congratulations on your ARIA nomination.
Thank you very much, we're stoked, man, we’re so happy.

Are you going to put bets on yourself?
[Laughs] No, look, I know it’s cliché but we’re just so happy to be in the race.  We’ve got pretty stiff competition in there and we’re the new kids on the block but it’s good to be in there, and we’re just going to go and enjoy the night and – yeah, it should be fun.

It’s great to have a country music category in the ARIAs but it makes me think, yeah, there are so many fantastic albums that have been out this year and – we really do need the Golden Guitars so that everyone gets a go in more than one category.
Yeah, exactly.  The country category in the ARIAs is like the fine arts  it’s not as popular, I suppose, as the pop rock stuff but, yeah, the Golden Guitars serve that purpose, they give everyone a chance to really be recognised and for all the hard work that people have done all year.  And it’s great, it’s our awards night, it’s been going for forty years, so it’s really cool.

You guys have at least one, don’t you?
We’ve got one – I actually won one a couple of years before that with Allan Caswell but together as an act, we’ve got one.  So we’re hoping that we get a few nominations and that we might get another one, we’ll see how we go.

I think you’re a very good shot to get nominations in the Golden Guitars, so you could bet on yourself for that one.  Have you just played the Deni Ute Muster?
Yeah, we just did Deni – yeah, last week, yep.

And how did that go?
Oh, it was fantastic. It’s one of those things that you fly in and fly out, but the weather was perfect, [we had] really good crowds.  They’ve just built this brand new stage, so the stage which was originally there, that’s now moved somewhere else and then they’ve built this massive stage. It's probably not as big as CMC in the Hunter but it’s close – it’s really big.  So that was really cool to play on and the numbers were really good and by all accounts it went fantastically well.

That would obviously have been a full band gig?
That was the whole circus, yep.  Well, we don’t take our keyboard player on every gig but those bigger ones he comes along as well, so that was all of us, yeah.

Because this year, you’ve been doing a couple – well, more than a couple, a few gigs as a duo and then a few on the road – so the ones you’re about to embark on, are they full band or duo?
Troy and I have got some acoustic things and then we’ve got this cruise thing, which is just Troy and I, using the in-house band with lots of other country acts. So it’s bits and pieces, but as much as we can we prefer to do the full band gigs.  But, I guess, the beauty of doing the acoustic thing is it’s completely different to the big band live show and it’s more personal and we get to play songs that we don’t normally play and mix it up a bit.

For the songs that you do normally play with your full band, when you’re playing them as a duo, is there quite a bit of adjustment required or do you find that the two of you have been playing together for so long, that you have it worked out already?
No, it’s fine because – I mean, all these songs were written on acoustic guitar, so we’re just playing it in the natural format that they were written on.  And we’re also figuring out the idea of getting maybe a drummer.  Just using some sort of percussion instrument with this as well, maybe a kick drum or something like that, just to get that back beat a bit of a push. Through the right sound system, it actually sounds pretty big – not as big as a band, but pretty big.

That doesn’t surprise me, because you’ve both got big strong voices, so I would think that, if anything, it’s probably that mix of getting the guitar with the voice right, because your voices are confident and experienced, so your poor little guitars might struggle to keep up.
Troy and I played in pubs solo for years, so we’ve done that grind where you’ve got to get up in front of a whole bunch of people and – and they’re pretty honest, if they don’t like you, you don’t come back. So the two of us having done that, when we get together, it’s a pretty formidable sound. Troy plays great lead guitar, I’m a bit more of a rhythm strummer, so between the two of us, it belts out a pretty good sound.

Now you’ve had an interesting career path, in that you were a solo artist and, no doubt, still do a lot of solo stuff.  But you chose to be in a duo and some solo artists would go into a band or they’d front a band, but it’s quite unusual to go into a duo.  So I was just wondering what being in the duo does for you as a songwriter and a performer that you didn’t have when you were on your own?
I think the major difference is from a live point of view, because when you’re doing solos, it’s a very different dynamic; there’s a lot more pressure to carry the show and trying to go out there on your own.  But with the duo, you’re both having fun and if one guy forgets the lyrics and the other guy – well, you hope remembers. So together, I think, it’s definitely stronger. As far as songwriting and all that goes, it’s not a huge transition because Troy and I write together and we write for other different people and it’s something – we meet in the middle.  You know, in any working relationship there’s compromise, but we’ve been doing it for four years now together and we’re still keeping it afloat. The transition I found to be, probably, an enjoyable one, from solo to a duo.  And I would certainly say that my live performances has got better since – since we’ve been doing this, a lot better, I was never that animated on stage, so I think it’s been really good.

Are you one of those performers who gets really nervous before a gig?
 I used to get really nervous – sickeningly nervous and I’d get a rash all up my neck and my face and then I’d have to go on stage looking like a beetroot. But not so much now. It’s funny, we went on at Deni and we were playing in front of 10 000-plus people. I guess because we’ve done so many gigs now, we know exactly what we’re doing, [so] most of the time, I think I don’t get as nervous.  There’s certainly a few butterflies but not sickeningly nervous, where it can actually destroy your performance [laughs].

And when you say 10 000 people, I mean, I can’t even imagine what it’s like to walk out on a stage with that many people. Is there a point where you just think, I’m just going to look at the first few rows and pretend it’s not 10 000 people?
No, actually, for me – and I think Troy’s a bit the same – when more people are in the room, the better it is and the easier it is to play. If there’s two people in a room, that’s nervewracking for me and I don’t know why that is, I guess because it’s so intimate, but with a lot of people in the one room, all that energy and people screaming and having a good time – it’s a lot easier to do, I think.

 I think that is – and you said it, energy – I think it’s the amount of energy you get back as performers.  Because it takes a lot out of a person to perform, whether it’s for five songs or fifteen, and the more people who are there giving it back to you in a positive way, the less to depleting to yourself.
Exactly, I mean, there’s nothing better on the planet, besides the birth of my children, than all these people singing the words back to a song that you wrote – it doesn’t get any better than that, it’s incredible.

Well – and it must be, as songwriters. And my next question was going to be about song writing, so I’ll go with it. Because you write most of your most songs, either with Troy or on your own, with other people but when you have someone else’s song altogether, like the John Walker song that’s on your album, I was just wondering, do they still feel like yours when you perform them or is there a different process to make them feel like yours?
No, I think they still feel like ours. Even with the first album we released, 'Blue Collar Nigh't is the very first single while we were writing the rest of the album.  That was recorded by a guy named Brad Cotter and in Nashville, Jeffrey Steele and another guy, so it's a quality song – same with the John Walker song, and because you do your vocal on it, you kind of make it your own anyway, so it doesn’t feel to me like we didn’t write it, even though we didn’t.  It just feels natural and it’s our song now.

You had Matt Fell producing this album and he’s produced a lot of albums.  So you would obviously trust his taste. But I’m just wondering whether you bring a whole lot of songs into the room and if you and Troy are arguing over something, does Matt decide? What’s that song selection process like for an album?
Well, the song selection – we decided on the second album that when we were over in Nashville and here, that we would only send songs we were prepared to record and we felt would represent our career in the best way. So then you basically hand it over to A&R and management and the producer, and all four or five of us sit down and go, okay, let’s try and strike out a list. And I think by Troy and I saying, well, we love all the songs that we’ve given you, it makes it a lot easier for us to go and record the end result.

In recording the end result, do you have a little thumb wrestle over who sings what?
We work that out as we go. Some of it is established in the writing process. I predominantly sing a little bit more on the first album than Troy did, I think, even on the second album.  But it just depends on – when you’re writing the song, who’s got to write in the melody, I guess.  But we both agreed that on this third album, we both want to be singing more constantly, I suppose, on all the songs.  I generally tend to take the chorus, Troy will generally tend to take the verse because he’s got a lower voice and I’ve got a bit higher voice.  But we just mix it up, try and sing more – I mean, if you’ve ever listened to Big & Rich, if you hear how they sing a song, most of the time they’re pretty well singing in harmony to each other and they’re mixed very evenly.  So this is what we’re going to be shooting for on the third album, I think.

And that’s also how you perform, right –f rom what I’ve seen, just of the odd clip, it sounds like your mic levels are identical, regardless of who’s singing harmonies and who’s singing lead.
Yeah, yeah.  I mean, in a live situation, if it’s blatantly obvious on the album track, when I’m singing lead, I try and sit back a little bit, but Troy’s got the lead and he does the same – but in the choruses we’re both belting it out as much as possible and as I said, if we could take a leaf out of Big & Rich’s book, we’d like to be mixed more evenly the next time around.

So you’re talking about this third album, when are you planning to record that?
We had a meeting yesterday, actually and we’re expecting we’ll be going to Nashville two or three months into next year and that will coincide with another tour, so until that tour is confirmed then we don’t really know when we’re going, but we’d like to get it in the can by halfway through next year. That’s the plan, anyway.

I’m sure some people are curious as to why Australian country music artists – they know why they want to go to Nashville, but why they would record in Nashville as opposed to here. Is that  because of who your producer is, that the situation’s better there?
We had the choice on the second album about whether we wanted to go to Nashville and record and we both chose to stay here and do it with Matt.  But the third time around, we are going to go to the States, just because, one, we’ve never done it – recorded an album there – and two, our sound is developing in a way that we want it to be much bigger – much bigger than either album  so that will enable us to be able to go up there and record it relatively quickly with state-of-the-art stuff and with the best players on the planet.  It will be interesting because we’ve never done it before, I think Troy’s recorded a few songs over there but I’ve never been over to record songs.  

By 'bigger' do you mean going for that big – well, you said Big & Rich, but the Brad Paisley, Keith Urban sound – that robustly commercial sound? And I say 'commercial' without that being a bad thing.
Yeah, yeah – definitely that – sounding a bit more like, let’s say, Rascal Flatts and Jason Aldean and Keith Urban, I guess.  So that’s kind of where we’re headed, in that genre, and that’s the stuff that we listen to, so it seems like a normal progression to try and get that kind of sound with the producer over there.  You know, bottom line is we’ve still got to like the songs that we write and they’re not so much like Rascal Flatts and they’re not so much like Keith Urban, so that will have to be the point of difference. We’re still going to write the songs that we write for this country and for our fan base and it will just sound a bit bigger.

 Do you write when you have a deadline, when you know there’s an album coming up, or do you tend to just keep writing along the way?
Well, I’m always writing, mostly with other people, but when we’ve got some time, then we knuckle down together and we [say] okay, we’ve got this amount of time to actually do it and get a list of cracker songs, but then I tend not to write with other people so much and try and focus my energy on McAlister Kemp stuff.

The two of you together, this has been a really successful ride, at least from my point of view – the first album came out and you’ve been working steadily, touring, releasing a second album, you’ve got a great amount of attention for it, Saturday Night Country and things like that.  So, obviously, you’re working musicians - would you recommend that life to people?
Not the twenty years before this [laughs].

[Laughs] Yeah, right, well, that’s the story, isn’t it?
Yeah, yeah. No, look, it’s not an issue – looking at plenty of jobs out there – but we are shift workers essentially and it’s a hard life too so would I recommend my girls do it, no. I’d push them to do something else [laughs].  No, the rewards are – and the feeling of writing songs and recording them and hearing people sing them back, there’s nothing like it. If I could’ve done that from the very, very first time I started out in music and had that reward then, maybe I’d think differently.  But that’s life and we’re having a blast now and we’re excited about the future, lots to come.

Well, as you should be. But just back on the twenty years before that you mentioned – you know, this is a big part of the story for any creative person or any artist working, whether it’s music or painting or whatever. What drives you in that time – is it the songwriting, is it the performing, is it just that feeling that you need to be doing this, that you’re prepared to make those sacrifices?
Songwriting, for me anyway, has been something that I’ve always been passionate about and I will continue to write no matter what happens.  I’ve written for many years and not made a lot of money out of it, but it’s very satisfying to somehow create something that didn’t exist yesterday, you know, and have someone record it, it’s pretty cool.  But – yeah, it’s twenty years of doing cover gigs stuff, I mean – I guess, one, we don’t do anything else and we’ve done odd jobs over the years, mostly with music – that was one thing we were good at.  But it’s the love of the song, I suppose, there’s no way to describe it.  We could have gone and done something else and probably been more miserable, you know? So music was the obvious fit, I guess.

It's fantastic, it’s always really inspiring to hear these sorts of stories, because a lot of people will have a dream and not realise how much work actually goes into making it come true, and I think when we hear you and people like you talking about it – no one ever says 'overnight success' but it can look like, oh, it’s just been the last couple of years. But, really, it’s many years of work.
Yeah, yeah, it is.  And we’re not unique, by any means; there’s lots of people out there who are working in all different sorts of businesses, who’ve worked hard to get to a place where they feel they’re successful – imagine being some of those people who go into the Olympics – they train for years and years and – you know, four years between your next gig and imagine the pressure, you know.  So we really can’t complain, we’re pretty lucky, we’ve got healthy families and at this point in our career, for whatever reason, things seem to be starting to happen so we’ll just run with it.

So you’re ending off the year with a few dates and then presumably you’re having a little rest before Tamworth?
Yes, we have a little rest and then we’ve got two shows booked in at the moment for Tamworth.  We’ve got our normal Blazes gig on the Thursday of the second week, it’s five o’clock. And there's another one lined up.

Blazes is a great gig for people to go to. So it seems like everything is – not falling into place, I won’t say, because you’ve worked to get it in place, but it seems like you guys are at a really great spot in your careers.
We are, it’s pretty cool.  I mean, right now is when you want to keep the train on the track and actually see the fruits of it, and right now is a pretty important time, and the third album, I think, is as important as the first two because you’ve got to go one better.  And you’ve got to keep the fans that have supported you and try and make new ones.  But we’re in a pretty good spot and we’re both feeling pretty good about things and we’ve got a great record company that seems to be really, really behind us, so we’ll just keep trying to kick some goals.

I suppose on the other side of that is you do have to keep on going, you can’t really have a rest or a break, but it does sound like you’re enjoying it.
Yeah, definitely.  And we wouldn’t want to stop; we prefer to be out there on our own, doing our thing, writing songs, and too much time on our hands is not good, I don’t think, certainly not for me [laughs].

Then you’re in a very good job.
[Laughs] Thank you.

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