ICON VS. ICON (iconvsicon.com)
Aloke is an explosive band with who have taken an amazing journey as artists. The New York band, featuring Christian Zucconi of the indie rock collective Grouplove [widely known for the smash hit “Tongue Tied”, which reached the number-one position on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart in 2012, becoming their first number-one single], recorded the album live in the Chicago home of legendary producer and noise merchant Steve Albini, resulting in a sound that’s pure old, school rock ‘n’ roll. To sum it up in the words of Zucconi: “Two-inch tape… no Pro Tools, no overdubs… energetic, fun, important music.”
Aloke eventually camped out in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, playing shows. They didn’t fit in any scene or mold, which is usually a badge of honor. Aloke was playing mathy, discordant post-hardcore when hipster rock bands with somewhat new wave influence, like The Strokes and The Killers, were on the rise.
The next year, Aloke, who honed their chops touring the East Coast, released a few of the songs on an EP and sent them to press and booking agents. No one bit. A year later, Hooper invited Zucconi to Greece for six weeks and the seeds of their participation in Grouplove were planted. After returning from Greece the band parted ways being too broke to continue touring. Zucconi and Hooper worked on new music together and included some Aloke material which somewhat accidentally got a new lease on life as Grouplove tracks, songs like “Colours,” “Itchin on a Photograph” and “Gold Coast.”
Now, fast-forward to 2015, Alive is coming out as is, in an untouched and unchanged format. ‘Alive’ is what the kids today need. No laptops. No clicks. No software. Just real rock ‘n’ roll. The album is set for release in digital, CD and vinyl LP July 17 via The End Records/ADA.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Christian Zucconi to discuss his musical roots, the process of bringing Aloke’s “Alive” to life with legendary producer Steve Albini, the circumstances surrounding its long delayed release and what he has in store for us in the months to come from both Aloke and Grouplove.
Going back to your early years, what music had a big impact on you and what are some of your first musical memories?
My first musical memories go back to when I was very, very young. When I was a baby I had emotional responses to certain songs. I remember being a little kid and hearing Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” I would hear it come on the radio, freak out, grab my Mickey Mouse guitar, jump on the couch and headbang! [laughs] That is when I was 3 years old. I think I was destined to have music be an integral part of my life. When I was growing up, like a lot of other people, my brother gave me Nirvana’s “Nevermind” on cassette tape. I lost my shit because I had never heard such pain, emotion and dynamics in music before. Nirvana was a huge catalyst for me to pick up a guitar and learn their songs. They really put me on the road to playing electric guitar and singing in a band.
What made you pursue music as a career as opposed to going a different route? Were there doubts this was the path for you?
No. Even before Nirvana, I was on the piano and writing songs. I never wanted to learn what the teacher wanted to teach me, I just wanted to write my own stuff. I was always composing. I think it was something that was in my blood. Hearing bands like Nirvana, The Pixies and Fugazi made me want to move on to the electric guitar, start playing shows and releasing whatever I held inside. I am kind of a shy and quiet person in life but when I get onstage I become a totally different animal. I feel like the music was in me and I had no choice. It just happened.
Aloke has a brand new album and you are playing several shows in support of its release. How did the band get started?
We all grew up in a town called Ossining, New York. Sing Sing prison is located there in the Hudson River Valley. It is about half an hour north of New York City. There is something in the water there because a bunch of us met and had the knack for music, playing songs and musicianship. One of my friends could play any Slash solo in fifth grade and do all this crazy stuff. It was a great environment and great friends to come up with. We just started playing in bands as kids. We started in bands in high school and just kept moving forward. There were little changes and shifts along the way. We all had the same influences, like the ones I described, and they were our role models and made music in that vein. We started recording, playing shows and eventually went out to our hero, Steve Albini, and recorded this record with him. It is a classic story of kids who grew up in the same town and survived together by being in a band.
The musical seeds for “Alive” were sown back in 2007 with producer Steve Albini. What can you tell us about what was happening at the time and led to it being shelved until now?
The album was written in New York at a crazy time personally for all of us. Living in New York City is crazy in itself when you are an artist and rent is so expensive. It is a hard place to survive. There is a lot of struggle and it comes down to self-preservation and how to keep it together, learning to be yourself and persevering in a hard environment. A lot of the songs on this album reflect that sentiment. Personally, I had been in a crazy long-term relationship that had just ended, like “Gold Coast” and “Hard Day At Work” were influenced by that emotional turmoil, which is always a great breeding ground for songwriting. We made the record out at Steve Albini’s that summer. He tracked 18 songs in a few days and finished the entire record in 14 days. We stayed at his studio and lived there, which was really cool because we stayed as a band, as opposed to going home every night. We would wake up, have breakfast together in the kitchen and go right to work. It was a cool and creative environment. It was very satisfying at the end because we were so proud of creating this piece of art. It sounds like a Steve Albini recording, which was our whole goal because he is able to capture a band’s essence live, which is where we shine. We are kind of a cathartic live band and he was able to capture that. It felt really good and was at the pinnacle of our career to work with him. We came home and started sending out little EPs. Music at the time was a little different. Labels and people in that world just weren’t into or willing to risk their jobs, I guess, for a band that was hard to figure out or define. There was a big dance/new wave/disco scene in the rock world at that time in New York. We just didn’t fit in anywhere. It was kind of the end of an era. It was just silly to keep plugging along when we had recorded this album and felt really good about it. After a year or so, we thought it might be time to do something else and move on to the next chapter of our lives, so we kind of shelved the album, knowing one day we would release it. After a few years, suddenly, the time arrived and here we are. We are really excited to bring it back and it still feels really fresh and important. It doesn’t feel like it is dated at all. I think it fills a hole because there aren’t a lot of bands doing this kind of music. Bands like ours are hard to find. There are some on Sub Pop and a few others coming up that are heavy and are bringing a heavy, ‘90s grunge influence back but I think it is a great time to reveal this album.
Creating this album at a very pivotal time in your life alongside Steve Albini, what did you take for future projects?
I learned to just be honest with yourself and be honest in your songwriting. I learned not to be tempted by frills or tricks and to write music from an honest place. You have to have fun doing it. It was really cool to see him work and see how he mic’d stuff from a production standpoint. Most of all, I learned you have to stay true to yourself and stay true to that, whether you are successful or not. You have to do what you love.
What can you tell us about the songwriting process for “Alive” and has your approach to songwriting changed through the years?
With Aloke, we would do a lot of improv in the rehearsal room and let go for a few hours and jam. We had played together for so long, since we grew up together, that we were very comfortable with that. A lot of the songs on the album came from random jams. We would record the practices on cassette tapes. When we would go back and listen and discover a really cool riff or something from a particular day. Some songs would come that way with all of us collaborating at the same time in a room and the lyrics would come after. Other songs I had written at home on an acoustic guitar but it was all very collaborative and we would all arrange together. With Grouplove, meeting Hannah [Hooper] was a huge changing point in my life. Her and I write more together now. Back in the day, I didn’t really collaborate in the real songwriting process if we weren’t jamming as a band. Having Hannah to bounce ideas off in the early stages of the songs is a completely different experience for me. It has been a really nice change. Hearing a beautiful woman’s voice singing with mine was a really fun experience. Although we do write at home, we also do a lot of collaboration after the song is brought in. Everyone adds their own thing to it and the songs change quite a bit from where they begin. There are a lot of similarities between Grouplove and Aloke. It is hard to really define how songs happen because they come from an unknown place and I don’t really understand it. That has always been the case with me.
What was it like stepping back into an earlier chapter of your life with this release? Was it a difficult transition to make?
No. It is interesting. We got together this past weekend to start practicing again. It had been seven years but the strange thing was that it wasn’t strange at all. It felt completely normal and as if no time had passed. I think that was a cool and comforting sign. There weren’t any crazy nerves. We played our first show last night in Philly and it was awesome. I think we put in so much time as a band back in the day and growing up together that it feels completely natural. It feels like breathing or going to sleep, in that it feels so natural. That was really a cool thing to realize when we did it.
That is very cool to hear and you seem to be in a great place creatively. Do think Aloke might continue forward and even record new music in the future?
Yeah, definitely. It is so much fun and we are so good together. For artists to stick to one thing forever is crazy, so it is important to pursue passion projects on the side. It is important to grow and explore as an artist while working with other people. If our schedule allows it we definitely want to put out some new stuff. Aloke was writing material almost too fast in a way. At our shows, we would play six new songs and everyone wanted to hear the six old songs they had heard a few times, ya know? There are some songs we never really captured and we would love to go back and record. We have already jammed on some of the riffs by just messing around in the studio the other day. So, yeah. If time allows it and we can build up a cool audience with this record, we would love to do it and keep doing some tours over the next few years.
Having written this music at a different time in your life and revisiting it now, do any of the songs resonate with you in a different way at this point in time?
Ya know, not in a different way. I respect them as they are reflective of a different time in my life. It was a hard time in my life but I would never want to change it because it led me to become who I am today. I think it is important to revisit that. I am a very nostalgic and emotional guy, so sometimes I like to wallow in the sadness of my past. It is not always the best idea but sometimes it is nice to relive those kind of memories and honor them. It is not painful to sing the song live or anything. In a weird way it celebrates that sadness through song and allows it to live forever.
Where do you look for inspiration these days? Anything you find yourself gravitating toward?
Yeah! Hannah and I have been writing a lot for the next Grouplove record and Hannah is now seven months pregnant! We are having a baby in August, so that has been super inspirational. Knowing this magical process that is old as time itself is happening to us is really exciting to us. It is inspiring a lot of new songs as well as new approaches to songwriting. It has been a very creative year being off from Grouplove, getting Aloke going and writing songs. It has been really fun.
Looking back on your career, how have you most evolved as an artist along the way?
Meeting the guys in Grouplove, as randomly as we did in that art commune in Greece, has had an enormous impact on me. Meeting new people to collaborate with, approaching songs differently and meeting new personalities from around the world opened up my whole process. With Aloke, we took music much more seriously in a way. Grouplove was an accidental band in a way, as we didn’t plan on being a band when we were recording our first EP, it was more of a fun passion project. Approaching music that way and not taking yourself too seriously was a big growing experience for me. Writing with Hannah and the other guys in Grouplove really expanded my horizons. When you hear any Grouplove record, it is so different from Aloke. It was amazing to experiment and go down that road in music. The biggest lessons I learned were to be open and not to be afraid to collaborate with people of different musical tastes or influences. The results can be amazing. It has been really good for me.
What is in the works as far as touring for Aloke in support of “Alive” in the short term?
We are looking to do some West Coast shows in July. The album comes out in July, so we are looking to do Los Angeles and San Francisco. Those shows are just about to come together. That is going to be awesome to play out there. We will take it from there. If the record gets a good response or not, we are going to be hitting the road!
You mentioned you were writing for Grouplove. With a new baby on the way and Aloke touring, you have a busy schedule. Any idea on when you will return to the studio?
We’ve demo’d out at least 15 to 17 songs right now. We are hoping to get into the studio by next month to get started but we are definitely aiming to have it finished this year for release in 2016. We will be back on the circuit next spring or summer.
That is great news! We wish you continued success with all you have going on! We will be spreading the word!
Thank you, Jason! I really appreciate your support!
The pre-order for Aloke’s ‘Alive is now available! The album is set for a July 17th release.