Alarmist are an Irish instrumental power trio offering up an adventurous sound that’s equal parts chaotic calamity and cool calm. Combining free and adventurous jazz runs with post-rock influenced soundscapes as soon as I heard the twinkle of synth lines from their album opener ‘District of Baddies’ I was immediately hooked. Their sound is complex and intricate without being overwhelming, the spiralling synths and aggressive guitars match the frenzied percussion but still retains an inherent musicality for all the mind-boggling rhythmic structures and time signatures.
They’ve got riffs aplenty as well, utilising guitars and effect pedals alongside their Ableton Live looping and synthesizers all in the pursuit of an intense and original sound. Abstract yet understandable, the Alarmist sound spreads wide across genre and style, making for a delightful listening experience. With a new music video out and a slot at the hallowed VinterJazz festival, we spoke to the trio to get the low down on how they go about creating such an intricate sound…
Life In Half Time
Dawsons: Hey guys, thanks for taking the time to chat to us, how are you doing today?
Alarmist: Not too bad! Very happy to be featured here so thanks for having us.
Dawsons: The video for ‘Life in Half Time’ has released, showcasing a much calmer side of the band’s typically chaotic musical repertoire. How did the concept for the video come about?
Alarmist: Life in Half Time definitely indulges our slow-paced and spacious side and is a bit of a departure in reaction to our often busy textures. In the past, we’ve been very focused on a constantly shifting and vividly colourful sound. At this point, we’ve got enough of that out of our systems that we are comfortable trying out more restrained ideas.
The video was directed by Rian Trench, who’s also producer/engineer on our last three records, and we’re lucky that the concept itself crystallised in-studio literally on the morning we recorded it in the studio. The sedate feel, airy, brushy sounds and sluggish tempo, together with the morning sunlight pouring in the window, evoked a strange ad for breakfast cereal. Added to this were mental images of milk, slow-motion eating and grotesque face-morphing, culminating in Rian offering to direct the video. The end product is Rian’s warped vision of heartbroken man’s descent into a life of hallucinogenic cereal. We’re very fortunate to have had the rubber face of Rob Walsh of Panik Attaks at the forefront.
Dawsons: The LP ‘Sequesterer’ dropped last year to quite some acclaim, how has the reaction to it been from your side?
Alarmist: We’re proud of the record we’ve made and feel it’s even more exploratory and balanced than the last one, so we’ve been really happy to get lots of good reviews and feedback from fans. It’s definitely given us the most reach we’ve ever had and it’s been very nice to get coverage from international outlets such as BBC Radio, Kerrang and Bandcamp Weekly, along with the more genre-oriented sites.
Dawsons: The sound of the LP is utterly wild, I was blown away when I first heard it! How big of a part does theory play in creating the songs? Is the music creation more the result of jamming or do you prefer the meticulous planning approach?
Alarmist: We tend to individually compose full or partial demos of our music and then bring them into the band room. Often this will be a full arrangement that we’ll all learn while putting individual spins on things in terms of synth and guitar sounds and drum beats. Most tunes then go through a process of jamming, recording and listening, and after some collective editing and variation of material it comes out the other side a bit richer for it. This can take weeks, months or years… and later the studio recording will change how we play the song live.
Sometimes a tune will have distinct sections written by different members, glued together by material from jamming in the room. We did a lot more in-the-room composition in our younger days when he had more time but occasionally we’ll still strike gold together. In terms of theory, we’ve all studied music intensively and of course, that knowledge informs our work and the way we communicate. But it’s just a means of understanding and developing ideas that are usually more spontaneous. We do cringe whenever the word ‘technical’ is used to describe us as it’s very far from how we set out to make music, even if there’s a lot going on in it.
Dawsons: It seems like there’s a great scene in Dublin for math-y/jazzy instrumental rock with yourselves and many other Irish bands propagating the scene. What is it about Dublin (and Ireland in general) that keeps producing so many innovative bands?
Alarmist: There have been a lot of good Irish acts in that vein, around 20 years ago instrumental bands like the Redneck Manifesto carved those kinds of genres a place in the broader Irish music scene and set a precedent for a lot of acts they influenced, including ourselves.
Maybe 7-10 years ago there was more of a tangible gig ‘scene’ around that kind of music that we occasionally moved in, though a lot of the bands who got big (like Adebisi Shank and Enemies) have called it a day since. There’s certainly a lot of good music getting made in Ireland but less in that particular vein.
In reality, despite the musical image of Ireland and amount of talent, consistent paid gig and touring opportunities are limited, and the past 5 years have gotten really bad for venues shutting down because of rising rents.
Dawsons: Next up is VinterJazz, a staple festival in the Copenhagen music scene, how much are you looking forward to hitting the stage there?
Alarmist: It’s always nice to get to a new place, so we’re looking forward to reaching a fresh audience, hanging out in a nice city and eating some very good food on our day off.
Dawsons: How much rehearsal goes into creating the live show? It seems as though you guys never stop switching between instruments!
Alarmist: A lot of that is years of muscle-memory, new songs need a lot of intensive drilling that you can’t really do outside the band room, but then it becomes a case of maintenance. All of the instrumental swapping stems from trying to achieve a big and varied sound, but the visual aspect of that is certainly part of the live experience and we try to minimise backing tracks in order to keep that live energy.
District of Baddies
Dawsons: You guys have so much gear! I won’t ask you to list it all, but what guitars are top of your list for a live show? What quality is it about the guitar that makes it suit your overall style?
Barry: The Gibson ES339 is my main guitar, it’s a very compact semi-hollow body and suits my personal tone which is warm and resonant in contrast to Elis’ more twangy guitar timbres.
Elis: I like a 50s surf twang, so I use both Dan Electro and Eastwood Airline guitars for my live sound.
Dawsons: Not only are your hands on the move constantly but you also have pedals at your feet to contend with, what pedals are you stomping on at the moment and how are they utilised to add to the overall tone?
Barry: My Boss DD6 delay is pretty ravaged from years of using the Warp function (like a swelling delay), and I’ve recently added a Mad Professor Kosmos which does something similar with freeze reverb. Digitech Whammy is handy for lower octave and my Danelectro vibrato pedal is great for adding nice warm gain as a side effect.
Elis: I usually rely heavily on different types of slapback and tape delay. I have a Boss DD3 and Mooer re-echo to cover that, as well as a Boss PS3 for pitched echo. For gain, the Marshall Bluesbreaker 2 is a very underrated pedal which I use that for all that tapping malarkey.
Dawsons: Synths and keys play a big part in your sound, what are you using primarily to create such a luscious, sprawling sonic texture? What do you look for in a keyboard/synth?
Alarmist: In the studio we take the opportunity to play around with hardware and analogue synths, like old Korg monosynths, Roland DX7, Yamaha VSS-30, Dave Smith Tempest, as well as Rhodes electric piano and toy piano.
For writing and live we tend to go through phases with synths and share VSTs. We often use the TAL’s Juno clone, Bass Station, CS80. We also use a lot of audio samples that we trigger live via sample pads, so the Ableton Sampler and Kontakt come in handy for that.
Dawsons: I saw you have a Mac Book on stage with you, what software and controllers are you using live? Are you triggering samples to add to the live sound? How do you get around latency when playing VSTs live?
Barry: Ableton Live 9 with an Oxygen-61 Keystation and a Korg Nanopad for triggering samples. Latency doesn’t tend to be an issue thankfully.
Elis: Ableton Live, with a really old midi keyboard and a microcontroller with keys and pads for triggering samples.
Dawsons: For Neil, you do a fantastic job holding everything together rhythmically, are you using a click to keep track of everything that’s going on?
Neil: Especially since we downsized to a trio, we use some more backing tracks with a click for certain songs, though it’s primarily for syncing extra bass or percussion elements in the background rather than a means of keeping things tight.
Dawsons: What cymbals and kit are you rocking at the moment? Do you use any triggers when playing live?
Neil: I use Bosphorus cymbals which I really like and my own kit is a custom made Modern Drum Shop kit, a New York-based company which sadly doesn’t exist anymore as the owner retired. The kit is very nice though and is very handy for gigs as it folds into itself like a Russian doll. The only downside is the size of it (18″ bass drum, 14″ floor tom & 10″ rack tom) can be a little small for a more “rock-y” sound but it is surprisingly loud and the shells produce beautiful tones.
Dawsons: Thank you for taking the time out to answer these questions, much appreciated! Last question, what can we expect from Alarmist in future? Can you reveal any plans for 2020?
Alarmist: We’re keeping an eye out and lining up festival and gig opportunities in new places, revamping some older songs for live purposes while also starting to think about our next recording project. With four records out of the way, we feel more free to try some very different approaches which we can hopefully bring out over the next year or two.
Sequesterer is out now via Small Pond Records and you can find it on all major streaming platforms. Check out the video for ‘Life In Half Time’ below and make sure you have a look at Alarmist’s YouTube channel for some of the craziest live performances you’ll see!