Dire Straits, Spaghetti Westerns & Hot Chicken: The Weird And Wonderful World Of Ocean Alley

Having first made a name for themselves performing at house parties and dive bars on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, Ocean Alley have risen to some dizzying heights in the past decade. With over 250 million streams, an array of sold-out world tours, marquee festival billings and of course a Hottest 100 victory to their name, the psych-rock sextet are on a seemingly endless ascent to the peak of their creative vision. That creative vision is on full display on their third full-length, Lonely Diamond, a record that sees Ocean Alley exploring the scope of their musical abilities, incorporating elements of 70’s and 80’s guitar rock, old school funk, country and western and Spaghetti Western soundtracks into their already broad psych-rock template.

The result is a warm, inviting and dare we say nostalgic trip that provides an idyllic escape from the mundanity of our current lives. Arriving in unprecedented times, for both band and fans alike, Lonely Diamond feels like a musical moment, a landmark release for a band on the cusp of Australian music immortality. In the lead up to Lonely Diamond’s release, guitarist Mitch Galbraith joined Music Feeds for an explorative conversation on the life and times of Ocean Alley and the mystical musical world of Lonely Diamond.

MF: Ocean Alley’s new record, Lonely Diamond is set to drop in a few weeks, how’s the vibe in the band at the moment?

Mitch: Well it’s pretty relaxed as you can imagine, we’re not up to anything too serious, but we’re super keen for everyone to hear the record and really excited for people to hear the rest of the songs. I’m not sure how we’ll celebrate in lockdown, there’ll be a few beers drunk I’m sure.

MF: Obviously the current circumstances make for a very different sort of roll out to what you’ve been accustomed to, with the lockdown meaning you can’t do a launch tour, how has the experience been so far?

Mitch: It’s sad for us and our fans because our live show is really the bread and butter of what we do as a band and what we love doing. We decided pretty early on that we were going to go ahead and release the record anyway because we wanted to give fans the songs as soon as they were ready, so we could give them something to look forward to and enjoy during this difficult time.

MF: Personally, I think it’s a great move to release the album anyway because at this stage people are looking for anything they can get their hands on that feels fresh and new and Lonely Diamond definitely offers that for your fans.

Mitch: Yeah, that’s what we’re hoping!

MF: The elements of escapism that are present in the album, both lyrically and sonically are a good match for the moment as well, so it seems almost like it was meant to be in some ways. How did those themes manifest?

Mitch: Baden writes all the lyrics and pretty much gets free rein on that, so a lot of the lyrical constructs are coming straight out of his head, so I can’t really speak to those much, but I can say that he always writes appropriately for the music and he did that again here. Musically that element of escapism is present because at the time we were writing the record, we were really busy and we had this collective sense of wanting to get away and have freedom from the touring schedule. The studio presented us that opportunity.

MF: That notion of escapism, really cuts through on Lonely Diamond in the sense that you’re taking the listener on a warm nostalgic trip, it’s really warm and inviting. Was that something that you were hoping to achieve?

Mitch: Yeah we’re always trying to make all of our music, approachable and fun to listen to. I suppose a lot of it is the product of our influences growing up, being exposed to the music that our parents listened to, a lot of that old late 70’s and 80’s rock, so there’s definitely a lot of those nostalgic vibes there. We also really love old music, everyone always loves the classic music that came before their time, and we’re no different. So that’s where that comes from. We also try to keep it pretty standard when it comes to the instrumental setup, we still more or less play in a traditional rock band format, and use natural-sounding instrumentation, so that also helps to give the music a timeless quality.

MF: It’s interesting how in some way we always become products of our parents or elders’ tastes. I’m sure when you were a kid, squeezed into the back of a station wagon, taking a drive up the NSW North Coast, you were probably cringing at your parents musical selection, but now you’re drawing on it for influence.

Mitch: Yeah definitely! I mean I was sitting there thinking Dire Straits, what is this? Well, it turns out the answer is really good music.

MF: Where did the Spaghetti Western influence come from?

Mitch: We just like that aesthetic, and we frequently mess around with it when we’re jamming. With the additional time in the studio to sit around and focus on what we wanted to include. So we decided to challenge ourselves to include some of that Spaghetti Western element into a few of the songs, which was a different experience for us, as we don’t usually make a conscious choice to incorporate a particular vibe or sound when we’re writing, but we think we pulled it off, and we had a lot of fun doing it, so that might be something we look at doing more of moving on.

MF: It sounds like you’re ready to move into film scoring. Is that an idea you’d like to pursue?

Mitch: Film scoring would be fun. We’re ready if you are, Tarantino! Ask him for me?

MF: Next time we’re catching up for coffee, I will. Now one thing that struck me about Lonely Diamond is that despite all the different genres you incorporate, every single song is still identifiably Ocean Alley. What do you think is the defining element of your sound that ties it all together?

Mitch: Honestly, I’ve got no idea. I have to assume that it is because it is being created by the same members, so the Ocean Alley sound is essentially what comes out when we work together naturally. Our process is all very democratic, we all write our own parts, so it comes out feeling and sounding quite genuine. So when we all come together and play the songs as a unit, you get unique and honest energy.

MF: That Ocean Alley sound is something that a lot of people have connected to. Things have really levelled up for the band since your previous album Chiaroscuro, was there a feeling of pressure to follow up that album?

Mitch: Totally, heaps of pressure, but we sort of relished in that fact, and found it inspiring. We decided to set ourselves a timeline, put our heads down and just do the work. Some bands might have handled it differently, but we seem to thrive when we have a deadline to work to. We sort of just decided to see what we came up with under that scenario, and it worked out really well.

MF: As a band coming off the back of a monster hit in the form of ‘Confidence’ was there a sense of pressure to deliver something as anthemic, or perhaps a temptation to try and recreate ‘Confidence’ over and over on Lonely Diamond?

Mitch: We were definitely conscious of it, but we decided to react to it in the opposite way. We tried to concentrate on not retreading anything we’d done before, including ‘Confidence’, that’s how we move forward and keep things as fresh as possible for the listener and for ourselves.

MF: It frees you up a little too, creatively, in the sense that you already delivered your hit, it’s hooked you a bunch of new fans and now you have the chance to expose them to the other elements of Ocean Alley, was that a fun position to be working from?

Mitch: Absolutely. For us it feels like we’ve shown that we can do that, we can produce that crossover hit, and now it’s time to focus on the other elements of our sound and really push the boundaries of what we can do with our songwriting.

MF: We got our first taste of that next stage of the Ocean Alley sound with ‘Hot Chicken’, which has been embraced by a lot of that audience. Was the response to that track one that filled you with confidence leading up to the release of Lonely Diamond?

Mitch: Yes. It’s a great feeling. It’s nice to know that people are coming along for the ride with us as we take a trip between genres. Very reassuring.

MF: It doesn’t feature in the lyrical subject, but I believe there’s quite the story behind the name ‘Hot Chicken’ are you willing to share that with us?

Mitch: There’s nothing in the song about chicken. It started as a muck around tune that was inspired by a segment on the Eric Andre show, featuring Jack Black and they perform this little song with a hook of: “hot chicken, tell me what you’re missin”, we used to use that little jam to interrupt our sessions and spontaneously groove and eventually those jams turned into the song ‘Hot Chicken’. We introduced some really ominous tones and some aggressive lyrics, and it became this weird, great, confluence of ideas, that we were really stoked on a finished piece.

MF: It ties together well with your want to move into film scoring too! Maybe you could work with Eric or Jack Black!

Mitch: Yeah! Jack Black does films doesn’t he? Maybe we can work with him.

MF: He doesn’t make good ones though.

Mitch: Harsh. Come on, School of Rock was alright?

MF: Yes, School of Rock is a classic, sorry I misspoke. I’d personally like to see ‘School of Psych Rock’ starring yourselves and King Gizz.

Mitch: Yeah we can do the score for it and King Gizz can act in it!

MF: As a band who does explore so much sonic territory, you’re well-positioned for cross-genre playlisting, does that ever enter your mind when you’re writing or did it when you were writing for Lonely Diamond?

Mitch: I think when we are writing and making music it is the furthest thing from our minds. It’s more about nailing what sounds good to us, but you’re definitely right that the result seems to be that we can appeal to a larger demographic of listeners. So it is more of a nice bonus for us than anything.

MF: Looking deeper into the record for a moment, is there a song on there that you wish was a single or you’re anticipating people will respond to strongly?

Mitch: There’s a slow burner on there called ‘All Worn Out’ that Lachie, our keyboardist wrote, that I really love. It’s a different vibe for us again and features a guest cellist and saxophonist and it has become a real favourite of mine.

MF: I agree with that take man, that tune stood out to me as well. It prompted me to wonder though how you plan on playing this stuff live. Have you given any thought to how you might present these tracks in a live environment?

Mitch: Unfortunately our production team hasn’t had the work that they’d have to have had, and that we’d like them to have had this year, so we’ve recently been working behind the scenes with them, to make sure that when we return everything will be running smoothly. We really want the whole kit and kaboodle, with lights and pyro and lasers, so we’re working on getting that together for when we finally get out to tour this thing. Hopefully, these will be some of our most spectacular shows to date.

MF: I find it interesting that as a guitarist, you don’t really follow many of the typical rock guitar tropes in your compositions, who are the influences on your playing?

Mitch: I’m not the most technical of players, personally. I know that Angus takes a lot of influence from the blues and blues-rock guitarists like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix. I personally appreciate the role of someone like Lindsay Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac. For me, as one of three guitarists, my playing is really about using space effectively and finding a way to add to the music that helps it sound complete.

MF: That sounds like an interesting role to play in a band and your understanding of that space and its value in the composition is not something that is often spoken about in interviews, but it is absolutely essential. Especially in a band with so many people playing at once.

Mitch: That was sort of the crux of the issue when we first started playing live shows in small pubs, it’s such a wall of sound that we’re presenting, that it’s really hard to make the individual elements stand out. So that’s when and where we became aware of the need to use space in our music and it is something that we are all aware of when we are writing. Sometimes the loudest notes that you play are the ones you do not play at all.

MF: That grasp has manifested itself on Lonely Diamond in the form of cohesion. This is the most complete sounding Ocean Alley offering so far. A record that sounds like it was designed to play from start to finish on vinyl, which in 2020 is an increasingly rare thing. Was that a deliberate decision that you made, to curate a rounded listening experience?

Mitch: We’re very proud of that fact. We’ve always had a big love for records that felt like a complete experience and invited you into a new world. It is us paying homage to those big rock records of our childhood that were odysseys and journeys into another world.

MF: Before I let you go, I want to pick up on this idea of a musical journey a little and get you to take us inside the VW Kombi tour van for a moment. If Ocean Alley is stuck in a van with a cassette player and a box of cassettes, what’s getting played?

Mitch: Knowing us, the cassette player in the van is probably a bit dodgy, but luckily Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ is jammed in there on endless repeat, while we’ve got a Dire Straits cassette waiting for its moment.

MF: Sounds ideal.

Mitch: I like that question, it really sets the scene beautifully. It’s also weirdly fitting for the band, because when I was a kid I had a friend and whenever I got picked up to go and hang with them, it was in an old van that actually had a Pink Floyd cassette jammed in the tape player, so for years every time we hung out that’s what I heard. So the question gave me a sense of nostalgia. So thanks for that.

‘Lonely Diamond’ is out this Friday.

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