Alex Shield’s music may be nameless, but shallow it ain’t

It’s after a hard day’s slog that we catch up with Alex Shields, chief purveyor of A Grave With No Name – AGWNN from here on in – and find him in jovial mood. It’s unsurprising really, having recently released a warmly received EP, and following a successful support slot with the much championed The Big Pink, his optimism is as much tempered by the rumblings of small success as it is his own expectations.

“We did a tour with The Big Pink and that was amazing but I didn’t have any expectations at the start and continue to not really have any. The EP has been received within the world it’s in, pretty well,” he unassumingly admits.

Touting a new EP for the Autumn, and with work on a debut LP beginning in earnest, Alex is increasingly buoyed by the prospect of AGWNN’s progression, even if it’s only modestly noted by a few.

“In October I’m going to clear my hard drive of stuff and put out everything on a new No Pain In Pop release in November. I’m also really looking to work towards writing a great album you can live inside and that a few people can discover and mean something to.”
Perhaps it’s not the grandest statement of intent but Alex isn’t your typical operator. A musical dictator (in the nicest sense) he conducts AGWNN’s spatial majesty with individual verve; painting downbeat panorama and evoking vivid images of rolling plains from the confines of four bedroom walls. Thus far, it’s a creative dynamic that’s served him well, even if it is a little unconventional.

“I do all the recordings on my own, it’s the kind of music I make on my own. I record it and play all the instruments and kind of tell the other guys what to do. Sometimes it doesn’t work out live but we take it from there,” he explains.

Pitched as everything from distorted grunge to irreverent shoegaze, the band’s bedroom origins immediately point to nights spent tinkering away, Alex concertedly perfecting his lo-fi finery. At times driven and all encompassing, there remains a fragility to AGWNN, and for a man and a band so intent on evoking expanse and imagery, and investing so much in a sense of musical freedom, they are tags he finds to be far from accurate. Limiting, even.

“To be honest I think lo-fi’s the wrong tag because I think there’s bedroom recording and there’s lo-fi and in the original kind of wave of lo-fi bands, they’d be recording with four tracks or eight tracks which limits what you can record to an extent, but with computers you can do as much as you want and layer and layer. I do use an eight track but it’s not a conscious thing, it was kind of born out of necessity. I’m not the kind of person who can rock up to a recording studio and knock out a song,” he explains.

And it’s also this exploratory outlook that drives Alex down new, more inventive avenues as he discovers and develops AGWNN’s admittedly raw sound.

“I like to push myself and the way I write is, if I’m in a rut, if I find something isn’t giving me the results, I’ll try a different approach. Equally, at some point, it’s going to give me an extra creative route to go down. If you put yourself out of your comfort zone, it’s always going to push you to be creative.

“I think I’ve always seen sounds because music to me is a really 3D thing and I always try and bring that forward. I think bands should use sounds to their maximum potential, to create worlds. It’s definitely something I have in mind when I’m making the tracks in my bedroom, you know, music you can enter.”

A brief visit to the band’s myspace page will tell you all you need to hear – Alex’s ethereal falsetto imbuing the music with a permeating sadness – tracks like ‘Sofia’ and ‘And We Parted Ways At Mt. Jade’, for all their sonic grinding, underpinned by an emotive glaze. And it’s here, arguably, where AGWNN’s strength lies; capturing the ability to move (in the emotional sense) and transport (you somewhere else in your head) without being overtly dramatic or obvious.

“I’m obsessed with melody,” Alex starts. “I’m not the world’s greatest musician and I don’t have that ability. I’m a big fan of using reverb and distortion but I listen to a lot of different music and people seem to miss that. My main interest is just bringing texture to really strong songs.

“To me when lyrics combine with amazing production and amazing music, that’s great, but music itself is way more powerful. I’ve never been into music that’s just been about the lyrics. Like, I’m not a Bob Dylan fan; I’m not a Morrissey fan, where the natural gravitation is towards the lyrics. You can have great rock records, great instrumental records. I think when you listen to chart records, you’re not really buying into the lyrics, you’re just letting the track wash over you.”

You could suggest it’s a similar experience listening to AGWNN, but where conventional pop records are typically designed to shift and uplift, Alex believes he’s spinning on the darker side of the coin, allowing elements of his own experiences to add some sorry introspection.

“Generally pop records tend towards being happy and upbeat. I’m trying to almost bring the other side. I really don’t like the word ‘pop’ which suggests a great melody but pop music is a genre. I think when people say they’re experimenting with a pop record they’re just making a more melodic record.

“Inevitably your music relates to your state of mind. I think perhaps there was one song on the EP that relates to my life. I had one day when my nan went to the eye hospital and there was ceremony for a friend who’d committed suicide so I decided to just sit down and convey the feeling of loss I was experiencing then. I try and avoid the whole sense of ‘oh, my girlfriend’s left me’ and give it more of a universal appeal.”

Throughout our conversation, Alex comes across as considered and extremely eloquent, both in discussing the band and music in general, as the conversation meanders down that well trodden path. Spending his days working for a major label, you’d think he might suffer from an overload, stumbling from the professional interest to the personal passion, but it’s a merger he seems to enjoy with an almost unwavering positivity.

“I literally spend my entire day listening to albums or the radio and watching all the different music channels. Even if it’s something I don’t like, I’ll always try and look for a good part. I think it’s weird that people don’t say, ‘this song sounds sad, it uses these sounds’, it’s always, ‘It sounds like My Bloody Valentine covering Animal Collective’ but I suppose it’s a journalistic tag. I think as a music fan it’s definitely attractive but for artists, it’s equally frustrating because we always like to think we’re doing something more original than anyone else,” he chuckles.

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Originally published in issue 10 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. August 2009.

Photography by PHIL SHARP