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Sounds x Interview: Ocean Alley

The moral is supposed to sound something like this:

You don’t get to just do what you like with friends you love in any way that feels right and expect to somehow emerge as rockstars.

One of the many perks of being ascending rock stars is that morals can go fuck themselves.

Not that “fuck-off rocker type” comes within the width of the sea to describing the slice of Ocean Alley I met on a wet and muggy Thursday afternoon in June of 2019 in Williamsburg.

Ocean Alley are a six-piece from Sydney, Australia.  By their own account, they would (and apparently once did) welcome being described as “a three-way cross between ZZ Top, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Tame Impala.”  I leave how that all shakes out to your imagination. I acknowledge it makes just a strange amount of sense if you’ve heard them, and if you haven’t, you may well want to.

The three of us sat around a table backstage at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in a room reserved for Ocean Alley’s opening act, Toronto native and up-and-comer Ruby Waters.  She hadn’t arrived yet. Guitarist Mitch Galbraith and Keyboardist Lach Galbraith each sipped beer from a bottle.

If I had to pick a word to describe these guys… I’m struggling for something more compelling to settle on than, um, “really nice dudes.” Jovial?  Down to earth? Engaging?  All sounds about right.

It’s their story that screams fuck you, not the members of Ocean Alley themselves, and it’s directed not at “morals” as such, so much as its directed implicitly at some number of good and creative people I’ve known along the years.  Toiling rocker wannabes in expensive leather jackets frantically digging the dirt where they finally laid Morrissey at last to rest will likely not appreciate Ocean Alley’s seemingly breezy ascent to 1.4 million listeners a month on Spotify.

Wait, is Moressey dead yet?
Whatever, I’m on a roll.

“We’re a bunch of six mates who started getting together in the bass player’s back shed just sneaking a couple beers while dad wasn’t watching then going surfing and skateboarding and mucking around…then the bass player went and bought a bass…”

Why not?

“(We) were just working as builders because that’s what we’re good at.  That suited our lifestyle back home. Got to knock off in the afternoon and go surfing after work, up early and we’re outside building houses, so that suited…but once we started falling in love with writing our own music then of course we wanted to do that forever.”

“We thought it was the sickest thing in the world when the pub down the road, ‘round the corner goes, ‘give you 200 bucks if you play for half an hour.'”

“We thought we were rich!”

Ocean Alley were, on average, roughly 18 years old when they played that first gig for two hundred bucks.

In less than ten years, they’d be touring the world.

***

If Brooklyn is known for hipster, Brooklyn’s local music scene is surely known for a disproportionate concentration of 1980s new-wave nostalgia and decidedly “you owe me for this” attitudes.  It’s not that all artists have this disposition, just that those that do tend to be insufferably conspicuous.

To such a crowd, Ocean Alley in Brooklyn headlining a sold-out Music Hall of Williamsburg is an attractive campus nerd in the middle 60s whose very presence on their quad is all but politely suggesting to the SDS that they can kindly go fuck themselves.

“We’re so comfortable with each other it’s quite effortless for us to just wear what we’re wearing.  It’s just us being ourselves. There’s no cheat-sheet that everyone needs to have a copy of, of how to do this and what to wear and all that.”

These surfer-builders from Sydney aren’t rebelling, they’re jamming.  They’re not primal screaming, they’re amicably shooting the shit. They don’t feel slighted by the system, quite the contrary — they feel sincerely appreciative for a life they’d only dreamed about once it seemed reasonable to do so.

“That’s one thing that we’ve always said to each other from the early days…when we were taking days off work to go touring and spending our own money to go touring, and spending our own money to record music…if we ever plateaued or stagnated or didn’t progress forward with our music then we’d call it, we’re all happy to not do it.”

I may well be mistaken, but there’s a voice in the back of my head whispering to me that there are dark and dingy basements all throughout Brooklyn that play host every week to any number of self-styled artists who, I think, wouldn’t be caught dead admitting to being “happy to not do it.”  Maybe that’s a testament to passion; a solemn oath of dedication. Maybe it’s something else. What it’s not is Ocean Alley.

“Sometimes people try their hardest and just do what they love and it doesn’t work out, and we were ready for that. We were ready for that to happen, and it hasn’t happened yet so we’re just kicking on and we’re loving it.”

Even their creative process fits their ethos:

“We never try and consciously be inspired by anything…it’s definitely going to come through without thinking about it. It all just boils down to us just sitting in a room there and it’s loud, with amps, just looking at each other…and being honest with each other and how it sounds.”

To be a little fair, some of (…okay, okay…probably most of…) the music I treasure the most was born by the hands of what I would warmly refer to as indignant assholes.  I really don’t know that rock and roll could ever have earned its depth of character without a host of founding fathers that felt honor-bound to make a sound that could kick your teeth in, and it’s a lot less likely that anyone’s going to harbor much of an urge to kick much ass (or teeth) when things are swell, and you feel fine about the world and your piece of it.  Perhaps that’s really what I’m reacting too — not just some handful of pretentious bands in Brooklyn without the chops to justify their assumptions about what this world really owes them, but the very idea that the other way might work too. For all my lifelong adoration of artists that were ostensibly haunted by wicked scars and deep shadow, and for all the art that came of their persistence in a world they never quite saw as a fair fit (or at least fair compensation) for who they are and what they offer, it seems there may well be a few artists out there that are visited by another sort of muse entirely, one that provides just as bright a spark for creativity, albeit from a different colored flame.  And unlike the muses that tether some artistic types mercilessly to their craft, the amiable and appreciative rocker appears to find themselves not only in the presence of a muse of their own, but in its wake they seem to be left with all the preconditions for a life lived in the peace that can come of well-adjusted expectations.

Ocean Alley aren’t dynamos, but they’re pros, or they’ve learned to become pros anyway.  It shows in their live performance, which felt like hanging out in Ocean Alley’s back yard, if their yard were overrun by a well-organized mass of high-energy fans and well-wishers.  There’s something impressive, albeit not explosive, about “being a pro.”  Sometimes simple self-awareness runs laps around the rage that fancies itself the proper volume for honesty, and I suppose I hadn’t really thought about what that might mean for music.

So that earlier alluded-to thrashing of a moral — the seemingly disregarded truism that you aren’t guaranteed to get what you want by doing what you like a lot — well, perhaps what we’re seeing here is just a bit more complicated than earlier acknowledged.  Because Ocean Alley have something perhaps not shared by everyone in the local scene here in Brooklyn that I might not have recognized as a possible precondition to artistic creation, and I think it’s perspective.

“There should be a sense of commitment, and a sense of ‘I’m not going to walk away until I get it right,’ but then again if you’re forcing something and you’re trying too hard and it’s just not going to happen, I don’t think you get quality art from somebody in a headspace like that.”

“You can’t sit there and force stuff…that’s a killer on creativity.”

Indeed — Ocean Alley are free in a way that many aspiring young artists are not.

So perhaps Ocean Ally’s story is one of karma for their attitude — a reward to the reasonable. They treated God’s receptionist politely, as one should of course, and they were buzzed right through to the Big Man’s nice list in no time.

Or maybe Karma comes from the luck you breath into the world.  Maybe there’s something to be said here about the difference between experiencing joy in the act of artistic creation, as opposed to enjoying walking around telling people that you’re an artist.  Maybe Ocean Alley notched a point for the legitimate efficacy of asking nothing from the house and expecting back less than what they were ever willing to push into the center, and if they had that rare mix of the calm and guts it takes a great poker player to anti up and play a good hand at the right time, well, fuck it; why not ride that wave to shore and see what happens.  That must be an easier attitude to adopt when you really enjoy gambling, of course, to complete the metaphor.

It fits.  Everything around the band was handled the same way they handle each other.  Even their manager is where he is, arguably, because his ethos so fits theirs:

“Dan…he was managing us when we were doing the pub circuit locally for free, because he wanted to manage artists and that’s what career he wanted to do.”

I asked how they found each other:

“Friends of friends. We weren’t getting paid ourselves, we were working day jobs…and he was like, ‘no, don’t pay me’ and shit, and we started getting paid just a little bit then he started getting paid, and he’s still with us.”

Nothing to lose and the wisdom to see the value of a win.  It’s not quite the Brooklyn way, at least not for all of us, but maybe there’s something to be learned from it anyway, even here in a town where most of us know better.

G’day, Ocean Alley and team, from the cynical and the damned of Brooklyn.  Now please, before you cheer us all up and ruin everything, kindly go the fuck home (and come back any time — something tells me your fans will be waiting.  And if by then they’re not, well hell, easy come easy go, right? You certainly won’t be wanting for fans of your company…)

PS: At the risk of further inflating the “gosh, gee” agenda of this band of good hangs and their tyranny of reasonable-ness, what follows is a quick note the band humbly requested be included in this communique:

“BRAD NOEL…FROM NEWPORT: G’DAY, MATE!!!”
-Ocean Alley, June 2019

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