A month after the release of their first album ‘Henry St’, the founding fathers of Auckland indie pop act Alae, Alex Farrell-Davey and Allister Meffen talked with Katherine Parsons about growing the band and growing within the band.
“The album title?” smiles Alae instrumentalist Allister Meffen. “We live on Henry Street! Classic! Classic!”
Hey, living off an address has proven a great lark for Six60, so no call for criticism of any lack of imagination. These days an Auckland act, the original Alae members Meffen and Alex Farrell-Davey met growing up in Nelson, where they attended college together.
“Yeah, we both just liked similar music, and both didn’t really fit in with the norms of college, so we’d kind of just be the guys doing their own music,” explains Meffen. “Both did Rockquest together, that’s kind of where it all started. I went to uni for a bit, Alex went and taught guitar overseas, and then we both ended up back in Auckland. I was sick of studying, Alex was sick of travelling, so we kind of just decided to start the band.”
The first tangible outcome was 2016’s debut single All Gived Up, a song about overcoming emotional setbacks, appropriate because Alae seem to specialise in the emotive – Farrell-Davey’s richly textured voice swinging between aching and exultant, sometimes within a single word.
“Allister’s like the instrument guy,” laughs Farrell-Davey, “and always has been. Even back in college, we had Allister playing drums or Cajon, which is not [he says looking at Meffen] your trained instrument. You are more piano.”
“Mostly piano and trumpet,” Meffen nods. “Those are like the ones I can actually play.”
“Then I’m just like, guitar, harmonica and singing,” states Farrell-Davey.
Where once there was two now there are four, well-known bassist Marika Hodgson and drummer Jayden Lee completing the new look Alae.
“Marika, we met when we were touring with Hollie Smith,” explains Farrell-Davey. “We just saw her playing and were like, ‘Man! She is awesome!’”
“She’s a monster, that’s the main thing,” chimes in Meffen. “She just is a very, very talented player.”
And what about Jayden Lee?
“We got told by a mate about him when we were looking around for drummers, and he was the first one,” smiles Farrell-Davey. “We were really lucky.”
“He just got the vibe,” Meffen takes over, illustrating the natural partnership the two share. “He was real chill, real relaxed. He just sat down, played some drums and we all looked at each other like, ‘Yeah, I think this is alright’, and then it was all alright!”
Early PR talked of the duo as being ‘not sugar-coated’. Influenced by American folk/country musicians such as Josh Rouse and Carole King, and bands like Feist, Alae’s music remains very raw and intensely driven.
“Their choruses are an emotional clincher,” Farrell-Davey declares. “They’re not an expected algorithm. When the chorus itself is like the tip of the iceberg, then you get back to the base of the emotion; everything you can’t see underwater. That’s what the cool stuff is.”
Released in late 2017, Too Strung Up really got their ball bouncing, reaching the milestone of a million Spotify streams within a few short months. USA’s college radio network took notice of the fast swelling online fanbase by adding the track to 25 USA college stations, extending Alae’s reach into the US market.
In April, Billboard premiered the video of follow up single, Stone Cold, leading it to Spotify’s New Music Friday playlisting in the U.S. Apple Music also blessed Stone Cold as one of their best tracks of the week. Talking about the writing process, both musicians get very animated.
“The songs start as a little blueprint or a skeleton and then the skeleton gets its skin. I’ll present this idea to Allister and then instead of just playing an E major you’ll [he looks again at Allister] be like, ‘Well! We have these many chords to choose from,” explains Farrell-Davey, grinning.
“It ends up with Alex being the sole writer because I’m awful at it,” Meffen laughs in reply. “Alex actually has a really good knack for it.”
“It’s been developing a lot over the years,” says Farrell-Davey. “Because of the nature of my lyrics – they’re quite personal, a really interesting insight into what’s happening in my head. But over the years they’ve developed in the sense that I’ll be able to find some personal inspiration or meaning in a lot of different tunes.
“It’s kind of like mind reading I think. You have to be able to sit there and try and read each other’s emotional brains for a wee while, and when you get there that’s when it starts to really become cohesive and everything thing sort of naturally falls.”
“Yeah, he was cool, he was awesome,” Farrell Davey nods. “I think it maybe took us a bit of time to get used to working with somebody so closely on our songs, but it was definitely an experience that was beneficial in the end.”
“It took his judgement of just being a really good engineer and producer,” agrees Meffen. “Because there were certain aspects where we weren’t too sure about things, but then we’d come back later and be like. ‘Damn!’”
The leisurely-paced 12-song album shows plenty of character with a range of feelings and styles.
“The first half of that album has a real flow just in theme. It’s kind of growing up if that makes any sense,” Meffen tries to explain.
“I think not over-analysing it was also a big part of it,” he continues in explaining the writing and recording process. “Being able to sit down and look at it from a really fresh place and go, ‘Oh this is actually what’s going on here, and that’s what that sounds like. It’s really hard to listen to it just as a piece of music because you’ve got all these ideas in your head about what everything is about.”
The creativity and love of their craft is clear when you listen to their songs. For Sunrise/Sunfall they used pillows sellotaped to tambourines to create drum effects.
“And putting like different thickness tea towels on top of hi-hats,” adds Meffen. “So that was quite cool just mucking around.”
Farrell-Davey’s lyrics are, as ever, honest, emotional and entertaining.
“I think Hell Toupé is a cool one,” says Farrell-Davey. “Cos it’s obviously written down like ‘Hell Wig’. It’s about anxiety and dealing with your own perception of people’s behaviour. ‘Hell-to-pay’ is like when somebody is wearing a fake personality – it’s just as obvious as if someone was wearing a bad wig!”
Regular touring around NZ and Australia, festival appearances and support slots for the likes of John Butler Trio and Nomad have put Alae firmly on the map as ones to watch.
“It’s been three years now with Mikee [Carpinter] our manager, just sort of working towards getting this out,” says Meffen. “It’s been a nice three years.”
By now though they know well just how tough it is to make it in this industry, and have some advice for young artists wanting to follow in suit.
“I think it’s become increasingly more obvious to Allister and I over the years, that it is really important to have somebody involved in keeping you going on the managing front. Writing music in itself it can be really complicated and keep you up at night, even when it’s a thing that you love doing. It’s important to have someone who can focus on all of that [business] stuff whilst you get to focus on the other.”
After a full-on year of performing, recording and releases, the boys agree on what the best part has been.
“The highlight for me has just been recording in The Lab,” grins Farrell-Davey. “Going through three weeks-worth of solid music and feeling like you’re doing it as a job, that was a treat.