Trippin' on Trip Hop duo ALTA
ALTA are a trip-hop duo fresh out of Melbourne and are just about to release their second EP. I stumbled across them late last year with the release of their first EP Stay Awhile and since then I've been hooked. I'll finally get a chance to see them in action when they make it up to Sydney to play a show at Goodgod Small Club on October 2nd along with Ginger and the Ghost and a DJ set from Ben Fester of Astral People. With sparse production, Julius Dowson makes an excellent use of space and layering but always knows when to pull back and really let you drink it in, providing a strong framework for the dulcet blues tones of vocalist Hannah Lesser. If you're a fan of down-tempo beats and lush, thick vocal melodies, ALTA are for you. Seriously, the only way I can describe it is Erykah Badu gripping the edges of a horse sized K-hole. I managed to catch up with the duo to have a chat about their second EP and what we can expect from their live show.
How did you guys meet up in the first place?
H: Well Jules was DJing and started producing a few of his own tunes, I was singing and playing harmonica in a blues band, and he showed me a few of them and I just started kind of humming and singing along and we thought "Well that's kind of cool" and it was just so different to what we'd previously done. So we recorded one tune, 'Bees', and people received that really well, so we thought we'd start a group and it just grew from there.
How long ago was that?
J: Maybe about two years.
So it wouldn't have been long after that when you got the Stay Awhile EP together?
J: Yeah well we did 'Bees', but we didn't have a release in mind or anything like that so we just kept up with staggered releases, one by one via Triple J Unearthed. But we wanted to have something a bit more formal. So we took those three tunes we released beforehand and kind of tidied them up a bit then recorded another three tunes and put it out late last year.
Was it much of a decision to go the free download route and a donation for the physical copy?
J: I've seen a few bands do that and I really liked it. Also because we have our own studio we record everything for free, so I feel like we should put a bit of free stuff out there.
H: Yeah, well we really just want people to listen to it and if you put a price restriction on it, it'll turn a few people away. So if people can pay what they want, it's a much nicer way of doing it. Like, if you make something twenty bucks most people just won't listen to it.
J: Or they'll just steal it anyway.
H: Exactly, so if people listen to it and they can only afford to pay five dollars for it, we obviously really appreciate that five dollars but if they can't pay anything we'd rather people just listen to it.
Have both of you guys had a big musical background growing up?
H: Yeah, we have both been in bands for years and both came from very musical families.
J: I actually used to play in a death metal band when I was in high school.
What did you play?
J: I played bass and I did vocals
H: I've been trying to get him to sing on an ATLA tune but he won't do it.
J: Yeah, I've given it up. We did ok and got picked up by a small label and things but ever since then I've been DJing and producing.
So is your songwriting process often collaborative or do work on your own parts and bring it together at the end?
J: It’s really collaborative now because we're doing more electronic-based stuff. Compared to before when we were doing really sample based stuff, I'd come up with a loop and show it to Hannah and she'd write around that and we'd add bits. Now though, it's collaborative from the get go.
So you guys have your second EP coming out at the end of October, yes?
J: Yeah, it was originally going to be the end of September but we've decided to do a small vinyl release. So it'll still be a free download but we'll also have a short run vinyl release as well. So that pushed it back a bit because we have to have it all mastered and we're also getting it pressed overseas.
Were there any particular influences that you guy gravitated towards with this latest EP?
J: Well we've been listening to a lot of hip-hop so I don’t know if it's rubbed off on it at all. I also listen to a lot of footwork, just this really fast paced stuff out of Chicago, and I think elements of that come in with some really fast percussion or the 808 or any really electronic sounding drums probably come from that.
H: Since I met Jules I've been listening to a lot more hip-hop and production based songs now.
So was there anything you learnt from recording the first EP that’s carried over into the second?
J: Well when we recorded the first EP, it was the first time we'd written any songs together or anything so half the EP was filled with our first attempts. But this time around we've probably completed seventeen or so songs together so we really know how each other works; its just been a lot more free flowing with this one.
H: We've also been working a lot with my brother, who's a guitarist so he's played on a few of the songs with us and its really great to have another instrument and another input. He also plays live with us so it adds a whole new element.
J: Yeah, there're a few more live elements with this one.
H: Unfortunately he won’t be making up to Sydney with us though.
You guys just finished a month-long residency at the Workers Club in Melbourne. Was that a great platform to experiment with a lot of your new tracks?
H: Yeah totally. See the thing is, we have so many songs but we're just so bad at finishing them. So we have all these songs we've started and loved but then just kind of move onto something else. So when we play live, Jules is really good at chopping up samples and throwing them in and we have a lot of live looping. So it was a good chance to test out a lot of our new stuff.
J: Yeah, so with the residency shows we had all the material we'd recorded on the previous EP and as Hannah was saying we had some unfinished tunes and ideas floating about and some of them turned into songs and some didn't. But with the live show it’s kind of seamless, we mix tracks into other tracks and experiment with a few ideas. So a lot of those half finished tunes make it into the set.
So you guys just recently released a cover of Unknown Mortal Orchestra's 'So Good at Being in Trouble'. Tell me a little bit about that.
H: It's pretty funny. We've been discussing doing covers for ages and we heard that song and thought it would be pretty good to cover. So Jules had the day off work because he was sick and sorted out the production today and I just got back from uni and literally got the vocals down in one take. Then it was all just put together.
J: I was just sitting around in my dressing gown with my lemsip working on this and Hannah got back and it all fell together.
Do you find your tunes come together that quickly and organically?
H: Sometimes, but then other times we've been working on it for ages and just don't like it. Like that song 'Stepping Out', that one almost killed us. We started doing it and we thought it was pretty good, but then we came back to it and just hated it.
J: Well like we said we're usually working on a few things at once. So we were working on that and kind of hit a road block, so we worked on a few other things and came back every now and then. We were so stuck for ages and then one night we just got it out all at once.
H: I said to Jules, 'This is the last time I'm singing this song, if we don't get it this time we're going to scrap it' and we just got it out in the one take. After that it was fine, I'd just spent months hating it and now we love it.
You can go along to see ALTA at Goodgod Small Club on Wednesday October the 2nd along with locals Ginger and the Ghost and Ben Fester of Astral People on the decks. You should also head over to their band camp and throw a few dollars their way for their first EP Stay Awhile - if there are any left. While you're at it, why not head over to their Facebook page and give them a like? They probably like you!
- Layth Saeed