[Cover photo credit to Travis Latham]
Canadian Rock band The Brandy Alexanders recently released their debut album via Gypsy Soul Records, building on music that they’d been creating, and playing live, for a number of years. Their sound has been dubbed Psych-Rock, perhaps due to the prominence of layered guitars and keyboards, and they definitely have a retro vibe, but the core of the songs on their self-titled album show a focus on musical construction that may be more rooted in the past than the more obvious sonic layers.
A string of interesting videos has accompanied the singles from the album, including “Live by the Light”, “Ceiling Fan, Man” and “Shiram”. All have a focus on live play that give you a sense of what the band’s performances must be like and that’s a pretty appealing suggestion. In vibe, mood, and intensity, the live music, even via video, makes for an inclusive experience. I spoke with co-songwriter and vocalist Alex Dick, who writes the core of the songs with his brother and keyboardist Daniel Dick, about how this first album came together, how it all relates to live performances for them, and about the making of the videos that have been released for their debut album.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I know this album is a very big deal for you all because the songs have a long life and go back for several years for you. How did you come to work with Gypsy Soul?
Alex Dick: We had an EP with five or six songs, and we played a couple of Toronto gigs at some nicer venues. They were places where a lot of A&R guys hang out and we met Gypsy Soul there. When they decided to sign us, they wanted us to go over a couple of recordings from the EP and also add some more songs for the album. We were excited for the bigger opportunities.
HMS: I can imagine that would also help blend the sound of the newer songs with the older ones to reflect where you were at musically.
AD: For sure. There are some keyboard sounds that connect some of the songs better that were newer or older, depending.
HMS: It seems like live performance has always been a focus for the band. Did you all start out as mainly a live band before recording?
AD: Most definitely. We’ve had a lot of member changes, but me, my brother, and our guitarist Sean [Shepherd] have been together for a good six years now. But when I first started in music, I always gravitated towards writing stuff, even though I was bad at it. We would play cover gigs at bars and stuff like that.
HMS: What sort of songs were you most interested in when you started out writing?
AD: Stuff that we had no business trying to do, like Pink Floyd! [Laughs] I still love Classic Rock but was really into it around age 17 and 18. At that age, you’re trying to do guitar solos, not the meat and potatoes.
HMS: I’ve heard your music described as Psych Rock. Is that something you gravitated towards early on?
AD: Always. I always loved The Beatles, and really any band with a late 60s vibe to it. Then newer bands like Tame Impala, though mainly Tame Impala. Really, it’s a lot of the melody choices that I love. When it’s just acoustic, without any trippy guitar or keyboards, if the melody has a certain style to it, I’m in.
HMS: That’s impressive for you to say, because I think when people think of Psych Rock, the first thing they think of is the layers and frills. But I know what you mean, as a fan of the 60s and 70s myself, because it does seem like they really knew how to build songs. The core of these songs can be very strong and can be played acoustically and hold up. When you write songs, do you create them around a simple acoustic model?
AD: Yes, a lot of the times it’s guitar, or it could be piano. It could be a verse, a melody, or a chorus, and over time, me and my brother throw out ideas to each other until we get it right.
HMS: Do you ever get asked to do purely acoustic shows?
AD: Oh, yes, I used to do a ton of those before the pandemic. It was super-fun, learning old Tom Petty songs, and that kind of stuff. I love it.
HMS: If you were playing acoustic shows, would you play some of this new music of yours, but in acoustic form, or would you stick mainly with covers?
AD: I would usually throw a few of our own in there, sneaking them in, but it would mostly be covers since they are crowd-pleasers. But I’d love to do a full-band setting with our music acoustically. I know The Foo Fighters did that about ten years ago, an all-acoustic version of some of their Hard Rock songs, and it was really cool.
HMS: It’s always reassuring when people believe in their own music enough to take it into different territories like that. I heard that you worked with Derk Wilson on this record. Was he also a former band member?
AD: He left the band about a year ago, but with no hard feelings. But we work with him, and he did the drums and Produced it. He also thought of a lot of new, fresh ideas. He did a lot of work on our first EP, and when we got a chance to work on new stuff, we brought him in. He knows the songs better than we do!
HMS: I imagine that helped a lot with creating continuity on the full album, too.
AD: I think that’s one of the most helpful things you could ever ask for, having someone who knows your music and understands where you want to go, even if you haven’t gone there yet. We’ve worked with other people, and it’s been alright, but I always find that when you know the person well, it’s honestly more fun, which creates a better finished product, in the end.
HMS: For the new songs, how did that recording process go? Where did you record?
AD: We did a lot of very DIY kind of stuff, sound proofing the basement and working on things until they sounded right and sounded professional. I did a lot of the vocals for the album again. My sister has a walk-in-closet, so we used that as a vocal booth. We had about nine months to get it all done, but there were a lot of people involved, and we were doing it in a town about an hour away, so it took some time.
HMS: How did you approach recording? Was it more as separate layers or were some tracked at the same time?
AD: We did bass and drums together to get that live feel as a backbone to the songs, but otherwise it was tracked afterwards.
HMS: How much live playing have these songs gotten?
AD: We’ve played all of them live, and even the new ones got played live before recording them. We already had plenty of songs and just chose some for the record. It’s funny going into the studio, though, because you think you have it all down live. Then you realize in the studio and realize, “Oh, that part’s boring.” Then you realize that you need to do a little bit extra when there’s not that live energy guiding people through it.
HMS: Now, when you go back out live, will you be bringing in the additions to the songs that were created in the studio?
AD: Yes, absolutely. We’ve already been working on that. When we do bigger shows, the song “Live by the Light” requires a lot of keyboards in it. My brother is the keyboard player and he now has a lot of gear to make sure that will work. We have always used minimal backing tracks, too, to build things up. Now we have enough people that we don’t really need to do that, though that’s not the worst thing in the world.
HMS: I did wonder how you’d be playing, “Live by the Light”, since that is a lot of layers!
AD: We have it about as close as it could possibly be. It’s all very measured out on guitar pedals, and we tried to make the singing exactly the same. We did a local show in our town, Windsor, which is the southern-most town in Canada, and we had a lot of local people in to help. There were some of our buddies to do bongos, extra vocals, extra acoustic guitar, tambourines, stuff like that. That was really fun.
HMS: How did the filming for the video go for “Live by the Light”? Was it recorded at a live event?
AD: It happened back in May and was at an actual commercial studio. We were lucky that we got to work with top-tier people. There were crews of people and expensive cameras. It was really neat.
HMS: How did the colors and aesthetics come about, with the vines and flowers?
AD: I’m usually really hands-on with stuff, and we’ve done a couple of videos before, but for this one, it was all storyboarded out with professional input from experienced people. We just had to be there. When I watched the director’s monitor, I really got it. They had a stylist come in and bring in a bunch of racks of clothes. We took a couple of hours on clothes.
HMS: How were the sequined jackets?
AD: I get to keep that! I don’t know when I’m going to wear that, but it’s fun to have around for a goof.
HMS: The videos for “Ceiling Fan, Man” and “Shiram” look like they might come from a live performance. Were those made at events, or in a more contained way?
AD: We rented a theater and had a full crew of camera people, lighting people, and sound engineers. There was no one in the audience, because Covid restrictions were very strict, and we got three takes for each song. We played about six songs and picked the best performances that we got for videos. The editing came in later and some Production stuff.
HMS: They give a very good impression of what a live show would be like for The Brandy Alexanders and live play is something people are missing right now.
AD: I thought it might be weird because we wouldn’t have the energy of the audience, and it had also been a while since we played live at that point, but it went okay. You get used to that.
HMS: I feel like the songs on this album are fairly upbeat. Do you generally prefer to be more mellow or upbeat in the music that you create? Or does it just depend on the song.
AD: Usually, it depends on the songs. Sometimes we might start out criticizing other people, but then we think, “Yeah, but how are they going to criticize you?” Some of the songs are about that and in the end, we’re all just about whatever gets you through the day and whatever gets you through the night.
HMS: Taking things down to the more human level?
AD: Yes. Most of the songs don’t really have one theme to them. They are an amalgamation of different feelings.
HMS: The songs do seem to focus more on what people have in common than focusing on what they don’t.
AD: Yes, exactly. Especially the song “Live by the Light” questions what people believe, but then realizes, “What’s wrong with that?” Not all of the songs are like that, but there’s a good chunk that do.
HMS: It seems like vibe and mood are very important to the songs. Do lyrics usually come in later or do they come first?
AD: Sometimes it’s having a sudden idea and trying to get it down, then matching it to a chord. We just see what we can do with things. We have four or five different methods that aren’t very intentional. Me and my brother will usually write the main lyrics, then we take it to the other guys, and we go from there. Usually everybody has something to say, and what’s best wins.
HMS: One song that feels a little edgier is “Conventional Lie”. It does sound like it criticizes a tendency in life or warns against thinking a certain way.
AD: One hundred percent. That’s a total break-up song. It’s sort of saying, “Wow, I can’t believe we’re so different.” The first part is, “I’m criticizing you for believing this.” But then, later in the song, it’s more like, “Maybe the way I’m thinking isn’t right either.” There are so many different opinions out there, who’s to say who’s actually right? Though that does come from a bad breakup, for sure.
HMS: It does make you question things.
AD: I wrote those lyrics over the course of maybe two weeks, partly the day after a breakup, then again after a couple of weeks, when you start to realize, “Oh, maybe I’m the jerk here.”
HMS: Has the feeling of that song changed for you over time, like when you go to play it?
AD: I wrote that when I was about 20 and I’m 29 now, so I’ve been playing that forever. It’s changed over time. When we play that one live, that feeling comes back a little bit, but now it’s mostly just fun to play. I’ve always thought of writing music as a way to make myself feel better about things I’m uncomfortable with. I might write something that I don’t even use if I’m mad, then later feel better about it.
HMS: Do you keep writing until the point that you feel better?
AD: I think that’s true to a degree. That definitely has happened.