The Empire strike back
Alias Empire – the band formerly known as Dry County – are back after a five-year break. They talk about moving away from bedroom intimacy and making a bigger noise
What’s in a name? Well, if you’re Alias Empire, quite a lot, actually. Much of the Dublin trio’s history is tied up in their previous moniker, Dry County, whose 2007 debut Unexpected Falls generated critical acclamation and a nomination for the Choice Music Prize.
But, as Kevin Littlewood and Phil Porter of the indie-electronica band tell it, names can be tricky. “I think the music was going in a different direction, anyway,” says Littlewood, when we meet in Dublin.
Sipping his cup of tea, he adds, “If we’d released [new album] Safety in Numbers under the Dry County name, I just don’t think it would have worked. We had to do something.”
“There was another band in Canada with the same name, and they went to the trouble of sending us some pretty horrible emails,” smiles Belfast native Porter.
“And after meeting the hundredth person to say ‘Oh, I thought you were a country band’, it was like, ‘Right, fuck this!’ We used to get people calling us ‘Dry Country’, too. You’d arrive somewhere to play a gig and see a poster with ‘Dry Country’ on it. It just got a bit annoying, so we just thought ‘Let’s change it’. Saying that, people have called us Alien Empire, too,” he says, with a roll of the eyes, “so you can’t win!”
The band’s genesis lay in Littlewood’s mellow acoustic solo project, but when he crossed paths with the electronically minded Porter more than a decade ago, the band that would eventually become known as Alias Empire began to take shape.
“I was still in the headspace of guitar-bass-drums-vocals; Phil was getting into synths and stuff like that,” he explains. “So we got together and he put some synth stuff onto my recordings, and that really opened my eyes to the recording process – that you can make something innovative without being forced into a studio on someone else’s time.”
“For me, it was just about making it a little bit bigger,” nods Porter. “That’s kind of been a constant thing up until now, making things a bit bigger, a bit more electronic. Unexpected Falls was a step up from the first few EPs, and this new album is another step up again.”
Their progression may be audible in their recordings, but the band’s absence from the scene over the past few years means that re-establishing themselves after a long period of inactivity may be an uphill struggle.
“I think people reckon we’ve been waiting for the right time to release something, but that’s not the case,” says Porter. “It’s just taken us this long to make it, for one reason or another. Around the time that we would have started recording again after the first album, we got a bit of interest from the UK to do some shows and to put the record out there. So we thought, ‘OK, let’s postpone writing and pursue this avenue for a while’.”
“And that was concurrent with the name change as well . . . The name change was a big setback for us,” admits Littlewood. “There were a few other factors, too. Without getting too into it, band morale had reached a low point after the name change – and then another member left, because he wasn’t happy. On a completely personal level, I was going through a lot of stuff and I wasn’t in a healthy place to finish a record; neither was Phil. So there were all of these factors, pushing us further and further from what we wanted to do.”
Although the band went through a rough transitional period, Littlewood insists that they never came close to splitting. “No, even though I think it would have been easier to do that, because there was a time that we weren’t doing anything,” he nods. “We hadn’t been talking that much; we didn’t know what to do, and we just felt a bit flat. The original plan after we changed the name in 2009 was that we’d stop playing live, and write. And I think that’s where it started to get a bit difficult; people weren’t happy with how stuff was working, and it got a bit messy.”
When they eventually regrouped to write and record Safety in Numbers , their spark was re-ignited in the unlikeliest of places. Leaving Dublin for the countryside, their distinctly urban-sounding music came to life when they decamped to a house in rural Oldcastle, Co Meath.
“It’s lovely, because you go outside and you can barely get a signal on your phone: there’s no internet, there’s no TV. There’s a field and there’s cows, and it’s great,” laughs Littlewood. “I love living in the city and I wouldn’t change it because I’m a city kid, but I think when you go away, it just changes how you think about things. You have to take turns making dinner for each other and that sort of thing; I know that sounds really basic, but it creates a real bond. You’re not just meeting up to rehearse and go for a beer – you’re living together. That’s what creates the true dynamic.”
The band’s recording and writing routine often involved working through the night, and it’s audible in some of the more atmospheric songs on Safety in Numbers , such as Dead Zoo and December . The songs took shape in several ways: some began on the piano, some with a bassline; others still – such as Lay Down – crystallised when Littlewood was messing around with drum samples on the computer. Striking a balance between the intimacy of the songs on Unexpected Falls and the desire to progress wasn’t always easy.
“We probably played the first album live a bit too much, but because we were gigging heavily, we wanted to get a bit of the live feeling on this record,” says Porter. “I think even some of the bigger songs on the first album were still almost kind of ‘bedroom’ songs. And that was the charm of that album; on the whole, it was all written and recorded in a bedroom. But this time, we wanted to get past that lo-fi aspect.”
The charm of their debut was certainly a factor in its success, but there is also the reality that when it was released, the Irish music scene was predisposed to bands who were successful at blending indie and electronica; acts such as Channel One and Super Extra Bonus Party ruled the roost. These days, the Irish acts making international waves are mostly guitar-based, such as Villagers, Little Green Cars and Kodaline. Do they worry that their long absence and failure to capitalise on the success of Unexpected Falls means they’ve missed the boat?
“Not to sound standoffish or anything, but we always just make records that we wanna hear,” admits the earnest Littlewood. “If you try to pander to what you think people want, you’re gonna end up with a messy record – a mish-mash of things you think people want to hear, but that doesn’t work all together. It’s probably not the business-minded way of looking at it, but we still look at albums as a whole. We’ve never made records that we thought would sell – it’s always been about making one that we want to listen to. If people like it, that’s brilliant. But if we tried to make an album any other way, we’d be miserable.”
“Saying that, we still want to sell millions, like,” deadpans Porter.
The plan to build a million-selling empire starts here, but nonetheless they’re determined not to fall into the trap of playing the same venues over and over again.
“I love Ireland and the Irish music scene, but I think if you really want to do this and make a living, you have to go further afield,” says Littlewood. “And I hate the mentality of ‘good for an Irish band’, or ‘good for an Irish film’. But we’re not trying to be U2; we just want to be able to make a living from playing music. I want to tour, I want to see the world, I want to play music. Maybe that’s a romantic way of looking at things, but that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.
“We just hope that people give this record time before making up their minds, because it's not an instant album. It’s one that takes time. It’s one that’s rewarding. It’s the only one we could have made.”