Five years after the Beta Band bit the dust, their successors The Aliens are winning rave reviews for their brand of spirited psychedelic pop. Siobhan Rooney speaks to a flippant John Maclean about their latest album, Luna, and skinny jeans.
It’s difficult to imagine a more incongruous setting for rock and roll than a cottage in rural Scotland. Pittenweem, a remote fishing village in Fife, has a population of around 1,500 and a mere two pubs. However it was Pittenweem rather than a hi-tech London studio that became the birthplace of Luna, The Aliens’ panoramic second album.
Today, keyboardist John Maclean credits the setting as far more suited to the personalities of band members Gordon Anderson and Robin Jones, “simple folk with simple tastes and pleasures.” “The city,” he recalls, “almost destroyed them.”
The Aliens, whose debut was recorded at a former Rolling Stones stopover in west London, have endured an interesting odyssey since launching their musical careers as the legendary Beta Band thirteen years ago. Anderson was first to quit following a much-publicised battle with mental illness, and would spend the next decade in and out of hospital in his native Scotland. However, the demise of the Beta Band in 2004 signalled a new beginning for the trio: a revitalised Anderson rejoined his former bandmates and two years later, The Aliens released their Alienoid Starmonica concept EP. The critically acclaimed Astronomy For Dogs followed in 2007.
That’s not to say things are perfect: like the Rolling Stones and Radiohead, the band have cut ties with their original label EMI. “We were sick of making so much money and having to give some of it to the monkey farm,” Maclean gripes. “So we left and now we are skint.” Did working with a smaller budget encourage the band to be more creative during the recording process for Luna? “Well no, we could have done with more money to at least make sure all our computers were compatible. It’s a struggle at times when you are arguing over whose turn it is to buy batteries for the bass guitar.” Yet despite all the obstacles, Maclean admits he wouldn’t change a thing about the album. “I’m a firm believer in letting things be flawed or not. Why the fuck did Lucas fiddle with the original Star Wars, what a plonker!” He concedes that this approach is not shared by the entire band, least of all The Aliens’ songwriter/guitarist Anderson. “He could work on one song all his life and watch it morph over the years, seeking the ultimate LP.”
Anderson still wields some serious clout regarding the band’s sound. When asked which track would most define The Aliens, Maclean cites “Robot Man” from their debut, a multi-textured collision of funk and cheerful psychedelia or as the keyboardist affirms, a “bit of everything. Funky and melodic, with a touch of class.” Luna errs less on the side of danceability, revealing epic guitar-licked passages in “Billy Jack” that sit comfortably in the mid-seventies, abstract lyrics and traces of the band’s homeland in “Bobby’s Song”. Inevitably, the long shadow of Pink Floyd hangs over the album thanks to Anderson’s vocals, which are a dead ringer for Syd Barrett in tracks like “Smoggy Bog”.
Maclean claims the prog-rockers have never been an influence. “I can see the comparisons, but I think it’s because we’re ploughing a similar furrow: experimenting with sound within pop songs. I do think we’re less serious, studious and into musicality as them.”
While experimental and at times melancholy (see “Daffodils”), Luna breaks from Floydian comparisons with mantra-like “Everyone” and synth-pop oddball “Magic Man”, an album highlight. The latter is complemented by a surreal video filmed backwards like a more colourful, less whiny version of Coldplay’s “The Scientist”. Maclean, who directed the video himself with the rest of the band making the props, jokes that his inspiration was “just to make it magic, man. We came up with a lot of influences aesthetically: Flux, Dada, Wickerman, Sun Ra, Funkadelic, Banana Bunch…”
Watching the video, one can’t help speculating whether these esoteric sources were the only thing to inspire the brilliantly weird visuals. Maclean, however, denies that it is necessary to take drugs to create great rock music, even with a psychedelic flavour. “Knowing what it’s like to take psychedelic drugs, knowing there is an alternate way to view the world is a help. But sustained intake of drugs destroys creativity and relationships.” In a 2007 interview, his band mate Anderson credited some of his mental health issues to a mid-nineties magic mushroom habit, which caused terrifying hallucinations quite different to The Aliens’ b-movie narratives. Whatever the reality, it certainly hasn’t hurt the music, with Anderson’s natural eccentricity contributing to an engaging live presence. Attendees of their University of London gig last June, however, may have been mystified by Anderson’s onstage conversation between two surgical gloves.
With so many generic indie bands dominating iTunes playlists, it is refreshing to find a group that defies all the usual rock clichés, playing music that recalls a less commercial but more inspired era. But do The Aliens have a place in the music scene of today? Maclean is adamant they do. “In the UK, fashion and trends have too much importance,” he argues. “But longevity is a very underestimated power, even more so than pointy shoes and trousers so tight and low that it makes the wearer walk like an injured goose.”
October saw the band touring the UK, winning acclaim for their energetic and unpredictable performances. Budding musicians will be comforted to know that like their choice of recording venue, the band’s live success is down to the simple things in life. Their secret? “Oil of Ulay and plenty of sleep.”
Originally published in Liberation Frequency’s spring 2009 print edition and online