Interview: Sian Alice Group

Keeping up with a running mix
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Photo by Berkeley White Photography

Rupert Clervaux, Ben Crook and Sian Ahern of UK-based avant-rock outfit Sian Alice Group aren't used to waiting around. The threesome wrapped recording of their sophomore LP, Troubled, Shaken Etc. (The Social Registry, 2009), this winter and toured a bit in the spring. But since then, Sian Alice Group has had to learn new patience while biding time ahead of Troubled, Shaken Etc.'s early-August release.

This waiting game is not usual for a band of self-described workaholics, who came together almost accidentally after deciding to record some music in Clervaux's newly built studio. Out of those sessions came Sian Alice Group's inaugural release, 59.59 (The Social Registry, 2008), whose challenging compendium of rock, jazz, electronic and unexpected influences drew plenty of attention.

A round of touring followed before Sian Alice Group headed back into the studio, and in a matter of months, Clervaux, Crook and Ahern worked up Troubled, Shaken Etc., a wider-ranging yet more musically focused follow-up to 59.59.

Crook notes that the recent hiatus was a bit strange, the longest they have gone without any formal recording. Nevertheless, thanks to the luxury of their own studio, the band has about 30 new songs in various stages of development. "If we want to go improvise and make a noise, we can do it," he says, summing up the starting point for the band's creative process.

Each member of Sian Alice Group brings his or her own parts to the mix, and when something sounds like a song, Crook, Clervaux and Ahern do their best to track it live. "The one thing we don't do is, we don't start doing anything with an idea of what it's going to sound like," Crook says. "We're more keen on saying what we don't want to do than what we do want to do."

Their initial recordings are rarely close to the end results. Both Crook and Clervaux describe their recording style as a remix process. The members play back the live tracks, mute some parts, incorporate instrumental replacements and discuss overdubs. "That will set us off in a new direction," Clervaux says.

To make sure they don't get caught up in a previously discarded idea, Clervaux says that he works with "a running mix," in which he records new parts over the tracks they replace. "What you did that day is how that song is," he says.

"We'll always keep searching around an idea until we get something we all think is good," Clervaux adds. "We have an unwritten rule of acknowledgement where everyone is okay with being able to say something isn't good enough."

Only a few key pieces of equipment changed between the recording of Troubled, Shaken Etc. and 59.59. But those changes—including the addition of an AKG C 28 mic that "really brought out the drum sounds" for Clervaux—made a big difference in the less-processed and more open quality to this round of recordings.

"[It's] far better to have a few pieces of good equipment with real warmth; clarity; and, more importantly, character, than a room full of crap," Crook says. His ideal comes in capturing the sound of the room and the true tone of the instruments. Having a small but familiar room in which to record is a big advantage. "If you've got a nice vintage guitar or a nice vintage amp, and it sounds good in a good room, that's really it," he says. "Logic and Pro Tools are just that; they're tools. I think it's good to try to get that in the room."

Eventually, Crook, Clervaux and Ahern must take these tracks, built from a stream of revisions in a small room, out of the box and onto the stage. To do this, Sian Alice Group expands its membership to include touring musicians. Clervaux notes that the added stage presence often leads to heavier live arrangements, sometimes to the surprise of their fans.

However, as Crook says, the recordings are just timestamps on the development of any given track. And trying to play a song exactly the same over and over will cause its features to fade much like a photocopy of a photocopy. "You might as well put the stereo on and stand in front of the mirror with a tennis racket for a guitar," Crook says, if you aren't willing to let things continue to develop over time.

Sian Alice Group is in no danger of doing that. With a U.S. tour coming up this fall, Crook, Clervaux and Ahern will have plenty of time to see what new twists occur with their compositions. And when they do make it home, the studio will be waiting so they can, as Crook puts it, "just press record and get started."