As my ability to converse with other humans was significantly hampered by a splitting hangover and dodgy phone connection, the opening moments of my interview with Alexander Gow were painfully rigid. Alas, I eventually got to have a good chat with Gow about his band’s new album, recent tour of America and his own unconventionally oldschool taste in music. Building on the successes of their second album Great Barrier Grief (2011), Oh Mercy released their third album, Deep Heat, on 24th August. The Melbourne band’s new album was recorded in America with Burke Reid, a Canadian/Australian musician and producer who has previously worked with other Aussie bands The Drones and Jack Ladder.
“We recorded this particular record in Portland, Oregon,” explains Gow, “because we were touring in America prior to that and ended up on the West Coast and we had some friends there who had part-owned studios so we just went there and just flew Burke in.”
Whilst all of Deep Heat’s songs were written back home, the tour of America still had a significant impact upon the actual recording of the album. As Gow professes, “Touring around America before making the album was great because the expanse of the country and the enormity of it made me realise my own personal insignificance and music on a more philosophical level, seem fairly insignificant. So with that in mind I felt really liberated in the studio.”
He adds that it provided him with a “comforting understanding” and recalls a certain “carelessness of the recording”.
When asked how Deep Heat may differ from Great Barrier Grief, Gow highlights a more holistic approach to his songwriting. He explains, “The last two albums were recorded with the idea that you write songs for an acoustic guitar and then put a band behind it and that’s just how music sounds. But for this record I wanted it to be a different experience for me and for the listeners so I just decided I would subtract all the rhythm guitar playing and most of the guitar full stop and have a groove based album…chord changes…and just let the rhythm section drive the songs along, so that was a fundamental difference to the previous record.”
Beyond this, Gow says he changed tack slightly in his formulation of the lyrics themselves, “I wrote in third person which I’d never done before— all previous records had been autobiographical. Writing fictionally was really interesting for me as it made songwriting a lot easier as I had a wider palate of concepts and vocabulary to choose from and I kinda had more tricks up my sleeve.”
I questioned whether this this approach sacrificed authenticity in his lyrics, to which Gow responded, “I don’t believe that being earnest is important when you’re a writer. Shakespeare didn’t have to be a king to write Hamlet, you don’t have to have experienced things to write about them. So I think I completely abandoned that idea of sincerity and earnestness and kind of went for a slightly tongue-in-cheek and kind of evil writing approach.”
Proving to be not just a pretty sound, Oh Mercy’s frontman has in fact a long developed reputation for his songwriting ability. This was reflected in a declaration made by Paul Kelly in The Age EG some two years ago that his discovery of the band inspired him to continue writing songs after a significant hiatus.
Personally, I have a favourite line from Deep Heat’s most well-known song, Drums, which I think demonstrates Gow’s ability to pen impressively poetic lyrics. It goes like this: “Just as a blacksmith’s furnace squeals/And the rail men groan/I’m every woman’s man/I hear the drums of love”.
Enthused by the refreshing originality of Oh Mercy’s pop sound, I press Gow for his musical influences. Surprisingly for a twenty-three year old, he provides Burt Bacharach and Nancy Sinatra as his two favourites. He laments the current state of pop music, which he claims used to be a highly respectable genre but has now become cheap. Perhaps the fact that the modern personification of pop music is Justin Bieber rather than Burt Bacharach is sufficient evidence.
Gow explains that what is, given his young age, a staggering musical proficiency to be a result of an ambition held since childhood, “I first wanted to become a musician after watching Prince’s “Cream” video when I was like ten or something…I saw the video on the telly, and I saw him dancing with all these beautiful women and I thought that that was something that I wanted.” Finding this this hilariously visionary for a ten year old, I then ask Gow if there was a moment when this quixotic dream began to materialise. He responds that he realised he could make it in the music industry when he “started listening to Bob Dylan and realised that he was playing different combinations of the same four chords over and over and that I didn’t have to be very proficient at the guitar, which I wasn’t.”
Whilst Deep Heat wasn’t quite intense enough to compel me to dance on my bed with my hockey stick-cum-guitar, it is does have a distinct swagger to it and is immensely catchy from the first listen.