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Citing such experimental and intricate influences as Frank Zappa, Henry Cow, The Residents, Gentle Giant, and Mr. Bungle, avant-garde rock/jazz outfit Alex’s Hand is nothing if not colorful, striving, and unrestrained. While their music is surely not for everyone, there’s no denying the amount of skill, creativity, and focus required to pull it off. Fortunately, they’ve only become more popular and prolific since forming in 2011, and I was lucky enough to speak with masterminds Kellen Mills and Nic Barnes about their newest record, Künstler Scheiße, their influences, and how they approach creating such off-the-wall yet meticulously arranged material.
Where did the name Alex’s Hand come from?
KELLEN: We used to make up answers for that, or we’ve found that everyone just assumes that someone named Alex is in the band [laughs].
NIC: It’s usually the first question people ask when I tell them the name; well, either that or “Are you Alex?” To that, I say, “No” and stare at them for a while. The best is when it is someone actually named Alex.
It adds to the mystique if you never give a clear answer, I guess. You should tell them that the band is named after them and see what they say. So, you two formed the group in 2011; what made you guys want to work together, and what led to expanding the current line-up to six members?
KELLEN: Initially, I had some recordings of this indie garbage I wrote and I wanted to get a good drummer to record it. I knew of Nic, as we had this mutual friend who played in several projects with him. This mutual friend recommended him, and Nic and I ended up at a car dealership in Seattle, playing every day from 6:00 p.m. 6:00 a.m. I have no idea how much we wrote at that point together, but it was such a fast and weird chemistry.
It sounds like it. Somehow, I’m not surprised by that story, though.
NIC: I was initially attracted to doing the recording because of the freedom I saw to add things like horns and strings. I had just finished a composition degree and was doing a lot of that kind of stuff at the time for my own work, as well as my own band, Malicious Discharge. The current lineup is basically a live representation of what we always wanted to do in the recordings. We actually had a six-piece band for a while in Seattle, but the material was not as thoroughly composed as it is now, and we were relying heavily on other people’s melodies.
Ah, okay. It’s good that you’re finally able to utilize everyone. Another step forward was your moving the band to Berlin (from America) in 2014. What led to that decision?
KELLEN: Its hard to break through this corporate structure that the music industry has built in the States. Although many will tel you about how great it is for an artist now, that’s really only if you’ve already “broken through.” I’ve found there to be a distinct lack of risk and new ideas in modern music, whether its experimental, noise, pop, etc. There’s such an obsession with labeling everything as a genre that bands make sure you know whatever genre they belong to, as that’s the only way they can market themselves in this new climate. I mean, ask yourself: What genres do artists like Jimi Hendrix, Stravinsky, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Prince, or even Led Zeppelin fit into?
Great point. It’s not always that simple.
KELLEN: I’d say that genre classifications usually fall short. And why does it matter anyway? Just listen to the music, right? In our experiences, we haven’t really fit here or there, but we like it that way, music industry be damned. We’d prefer that people just decide what they think for themselves after listening to our music. Also, stop letting the corporations tell you what to think. Going back to the original question, we came to Berlin based on this mission that we would make a difference. We didn’t have any money, we were considered insane, and we suffered quite a bit when we first came here. We were very poor, and it was a real struggle to keep creating. We were sleeping all together in one room in an artist squat for six months, actually, while still just practicing rehearsing and recording.
Wow! There are far too many stories like that.
KELLEN: Absolutely. All our money has been going towards this insane ideal that if you make music you strongly believe in and keep fighting for it, then people will eventually take notice. Lately we’ve been very happy with the positive response we’ve been getting and we hope to keep making beautiful art.
NIC: Most people would say the music scene in Seattle is very vibrant, and I would tend to agree with them in most cases. There are a lot of cool artists (for better or worse), festivals, and, up until a few years ago, venues to play there. However, in a lot of ways Seattle is still trying to hang on to this random surge of awesomeness that happened in the 90s. In my mind, the grunge phenomenon was a fluke and the infrastructure wasn’t there to maintain it. All of the cool venues are gone and even the historical ones are being bought out and torn down.
That’s an interesting point. It seems to be happening all over the place, sadly.
NIC: It’s just the results of gentrification. The real problem for me is that the “scene” is in a constant state of forcing itself down people’s throats. A really great music scene will never have to tell you how great it is; it just is. And the more people try to tell you about the greatness of the Seattle music scene, the more contained and isolated it becomes, which is something that may have worked in Seattle’s favor in the 90s but it no longer has any bearing on the contemporary progress of art around the world. The combination of competition between bands, general apathy towards interesting and unique music, and a low ceiling for being able to do what you want as an artist is what drove us out of America in general.
It sounds justified, though, and it seems to be proving to be the correct move.
NIC: Totally. We honestly knew nothing of Berlin when we got there. Prior to that, we were all over the place—Costa Rica, New York, Dublin, Bristol, London—and when we ended up in Berlin we were basically out of money, so that was that. What we found is that Berlin is a city of chaos with an artistic infrastructure that is more than 100 years old. It is in a constant state of transition, and I think this enables artists to basically do whatever they want. There is no industry telling you what to listen to, and no standard for what art or music should be.
Exactly. Going back to classifications, I have to ask: if push came to shove, how would you describe the sound of Alex’s Hand?
NIC: It’s really hard to say because the only real thread throughout our development seems to be our mentality towards experimenting. Basically, we just do whatever we think sounds good and what we enjoy playing. Now we are writing everything out in staff, though, so it’s a bit more refined and complicated.
You’re influenced by a variety of absurdist yet intricate artists, like Mr. Bungle and Frank Zappa. What is it about this kind of music that appeals to you?
KELLEN: I would say absurdity isn’t necessarily the only kind of music that is appealing to me. “Serious musicians” who take the wrong thing seriously make me cringe. I would say that for acts such as The Cardiacs, Zappa, and Mr. Bungle make me think. They happen to be funny on the surface, yet incredibly intricate in terms of their compositional ideas. And they’re happening at the same time! I mean, laughing and thinking at once? How fucking cool is that?
Very cool, man.
NIC: People get offended sometimes when I laugh at music. To me, it’s just a sign of enjoying the absurdity of it. Like The Mars Volta: whether or not they are making a conscious effort to be ridiculous or funny, their music is so over the top. I think it’s hilarious, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s bad. Really, it’s the other way around. As far as intricacy goes, I am obsessed with rhythm, and I love it when music fucks with me like that.
The Mars Volta is an interesting example. I adore most of what they’ve done, especially Francis the Mute, which, as you say, is ridiculously complicated. Let’s talk about your newest effort, Künstler Scheiße. As I understand it, translates to Art Shit. Where did that title come from?
KELLEN: There’s this story about some artist who put his own shit into these boxes and sold it at art galleries or some such thing. I mean, you can derive the easy answer from this and determine that we had something deeply thoughtful to say about art and what is art, blah blah blah. In reality, I think we thought it sounded neat.
NIC: I think these were the first German words we learned. I have only learned about five others since.
Fair enough. I really like it, for what it’s worth. Going off of that, Alex’s Hand falls into a fairly large pool of acts with a tongue-in-cheek side. So, to quote Zappa, does humor belongs in music?
KELLEN: Sure. It depends on the jokes, I guess. But if you’re gonna make a million songs about how much person A loves person B, with person A always being the singer in this regard, why not have someone write a goddamn song about a sax musician who hates himself or some guy who has shitty breath?
NIC: I think a lot of musicians take themselves way too seriously, and as a result their music becomes bland and preachy. We tend to operate in this middle ground between satire and just having a really stupid sense of humor.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Musically, though, it’s very sophisticated. How does the new record differ from its predecessors? To me, it feels much more vibrant and sporadic than, say,Madame Psychosis.
KELLEN: I’d say Künstler is different in many ways. First off, it was recorded live, whereas Madame Psychosis, Albatross Around the Neck, and The Roaches were all recorded in a specific instrumental order (drums first, then bass, then guitar, etc). Also, when we overdubbed in Berlin, we wrote out horn arrangements and really sat with the overdubs. Typically, in the past, we’d have musicians come in and just let them play what they felt. Spontaneous composition, I suppose, so this record was far more orchestrated than the others. We also began seriously writing with our bandmate at the time, Ben Reece. He provided us with a different perspective than we had in the past in regards to composing more complex melodies on top of what we were already writing.
That’s great! Your music is so dense and unpredictable. It’s carefully arranged madness. How does the band typically approach writing a track? Where do you start and how do you decide what to layer on top of what, etc?
KELLEN: For all our prior work I would write the initial riffs and then Nic and I would flesh out the structure. With Künstler, much of it came from jamming. For instance, both “Slave” and “Samba” were written before Ben Reece started playing with us. Our compositional approach has evolved from album to album. At the moment, Nic and I are composing all of the music, playing it, rewriting it, and then bringing it to a band once we’ve written the horns, main melodies, and such. We add whatever we feel like the composition needs to max it out to its fullest potential while also still retaining what we thought was important to hear from it. In the end, the initial ideas come from Nic and I playing together and me sitting at home by myself for hours working on a riff or section till it’s right.
It sounds like you’ve got a tried and true method, which is working well so far. Another curious thing about the new record is its cover art (designed by Helen Lord). It’s wonderfully colorful and, well, bizarre. What was the inspiration for it and how does it work as a representation of the music?
KELLEN: I think we just sent her “Mars Travolta” and she listened to it and drew whatever came to mind. We wanted it to have this messy splatter shot of ideas. I suppose it captures the madness of how we feel about the music contained within. Künstler has this chaotic, noise-free jazz mix with serious arranged sections; the art portrays a seemingly messy cover with a foreboding serious quality to it. But maybe that’s just me.
No, I see what you mean. So the recording took place remotely between California and Berlin, right? What were benefits and detriments to doing it that way?
KELLEN: I loved the live recording aspect. Although it’s imperfect sometimes, it’s beautiful in its imperfectness.
NIC: We had a lot of setbacks prior to this release, with the main one being that we were homeless and starving in Germany. We had limited access to proper monitors and a mixing studio. Kellen ended up doing some mixing at a studio he worked at and we were borrowing gear from friends. There was also some editing that had to be done because of the live aspect. But yeah, the whole process just took a while.
It was definitely worth it, though. In addition to yourselves, the new album features roughly a dozen guest musicians, including several guitarists, horn players, and percussionists. Why did you decide to include so many extra instrumental layers, and what was the process like for getting them all prepared and recorded?
KELLEN: Well, we felt that instrumentally this was what the compositions called for, so we intensely orchestrated our music for that purpose.
NIC: Aside from the stuff we wrote out in staff, a lot of the overdubs came from just coming up with stuff in the studio. We would bring people in and work with them on certain parts. There was also some improvisational stuff for certain sections, which people here really like to do.
That sounds like it was a lot of fun. You mentioned the opener of the new record, “Mars Travolta,” earlier. It’s easily the silliest title in the set. What made you choose it?
KELLEN: We used to just call the song “M.V.” or “Mars Volta” because for some abstract reason we thought it sounded like Mars Volta. The melody within it. And John Travolta is just a pure sex god [laughs].
Oh, for sure. So do you guys have a favorite track on Künstler Scheiße?
KELLEN: I like “Habibs” the most.
NIC: “Samba,” but yeah.
You also have a musical opera on the horizon for April 2017, correct? Can you discuss a bit about what it’s called and what it’s like musically and thematically? What separates it from the official Alex’s Hand studio albums, for instance?
NIC: Zombie was a piece that we wrote with Ben Reece upon moving to Berlin; it was part of a bunch of stuff we wrote in the Summer/Fall of 2014. We did a small theatre production called Moldy Pony in 2015, and at some point we decided to do a similar thing to Zombie, so Kellen wrote a plot design and it has since become fully orchestrated project, with, like, 30 instruments. Right now, we are working on recording it and making a trailer. I guess it’s different from other albums because its intended to be an actually stage play, so there’s a lot of incidental stuff and dialogue, etc.
It sounds really interesting. Shifting gears a bit, you’ve obviously toured in America and England. How do American audiences differ from European ones?
KELLEN: I would say that although we’ve met some amazing people from every part of the world, Europeans seem to have a different view of the arts. Whether it’s cultural or not, the value of what someone creates is largely respected there in the way that it should be. In contrast, in the United States we would be treated like, “Well, you’re not marketable and you’re not making singles, so why the fuck do you do it?”
Yeah, I’m not surprised by that mentality, unfortunately.
NIC: People in Berlin just love to party, so they are always going out, whether they like the music or not. People actually feel bad for missing your show; it’s like the standard is to go to a friend’s show if he or she is playing, not the other way around. We threw a festival for the release party for Albatross in the States that had 11 bands, free pizza and beer for everyone, and a cover if only $10. This is basically 20 hours of music and we really pulled out all the stops to get people to come, yet for whatever reason, we didn’t come close to matching our expectations. If you did that in Berlin, even with zero promotion, you could still make it a huge thing. I don’t know what that means, but that’s probably why there are so many street fairs and festivals here.
Exactly. I’m glad you guys are finding Berlin to be so cool, though. What are some of your most memorable concert experiences (venue, supporting acts, crowd, etc) and why?
KELLEN: I would say playing Seaprog in Seattle was a bit of a mind fuck. We love Thinking Plague and Mirthkon, and were honored to be a part of the very first prog festival there. It was setup by our good friends Dennis Rea (of Moraine), Jon Davis (Zhongyu), and John Reagan. Really awesome people dedicated to putting out quality music, and trying to make a difference in the largely corporate music scene in Washington. Also, our good friends Glimpse Trio. We’ve played with them a ton of times and every concert is special. Overall, my favorite shows were with Glimpse Trio, Goshawk, Adolf Hibou, and Butler.
NIC: One of our first shows in Berlin was to open for Italian mind fuckers Morkobot. Their van ended up breaking down in Northern Germany, so they couldn’t make it. We ended up doing a two and a half hour set for their crowd. I broke all my drum heads and we had to sleep in the basement of the venue because we didn’t have a place at that time. And they gave us pizza and, like, 20 drink tickets.
That sounds insane. Your touring life must be a wild ride! Aside from replicating the music, what other elements do you incorporate into your shows to make them “performance pieces”?
KELLEN: It depends. Every performance ends up being different based on what we feel like best works with the music we’re playing. For instance, we wrote a play that was performed alongside our group and another band we really love, Goshawk. We hired actors, singers, and an improvisational violinist to perform in-between two bands’ musical sets. It’s interesting what the capability for artistic pursuits are in Germany. For every performance, we usually have a concept, whether it’s a musical, comedic, or improvisational. We love working with other artists who work in different mediums and incorporating it into our live shows. Video, costumes, actors and sound art.
That sounds awesome. What are you listening to these days?
KELLEN: Frank Zappa (but then again, I’m always listening to Frank), Devin Townsend (I really like his work. I don’t always like every pursuit, but I respect that he does it. He’s very interesting modern composer/metalmachine man), Bent Knee (US), Goshawk (DE),and Kendrick Lamar. I love Varese and Stravi, too, and what Thundercat is doing. The list can go on forever.
NIC: Yeah, it’s about time for my quarterly Zappa trip. I also love Ligeti and those contemporary composers, I would say that’s mostly what I listen to. Equevel and always Henry Cow. Also, Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly is great. I’ve been re-listening to The Faceless recently, but that probably won’t last very long.
All great choices. We could discuss Townsend endlessly. So, follow-up question: If you could work with any other artists (live or in the studio), who would they be?
KELLEN: Hmm that’s a tough question. Do you mean musically or not?
KELLEN: I would say on a production basis, we’d love working with Steve Albini or Devin Townsend. On an artistic level, we would love working with anyone who shares our similar vision, although we usually like working with people outside the musical medium, as we generally hire and audition our own musicians to perform the music Nic and I write (so it’d be weird to collaborate with any other groups in that way, not that I would be opposed to it).
Aside from the new disc and the aforementioned opera, what can fans look forward to for the remainder of 2016 and the foreseeable part of 2017?
KELLEN: Our plans change constantly. At the moment, we’re planning a tour in late October through Germany and France. We have our fourth studio album, KaTaTaK, set to release in October as well. We’ve written some music with our previous bandmates, Max Steiner and Carl O’ Sullivan (both of whom appeared on Künstler) that we’d love to release as time allows. We’re planning another improvisational album with some to be named amazing musicians here in Berlin, Maybe Part 2 of the Goblinzs..?! series.
Any final words for readers?
KELLEN: Remember to eat your porridge and listen to exciting music. It doesn’t have to be us, although that’d be good. But enjoy your life, find cool art, live a long time, and have sex with people you really love. Also, most problems can be attributed to some dog. Yah.
NIC: I think it’s important to care about the right things and to give yourself to them completely. Don’t give a fuck about the shit that doesn’t matter. Of course, you have to be able recognize the differences for yourself. What helps me is a steady intake of potatoes and shitty television from the 90s.
All great words to live by. Thanks, guys, and congrats on all the cool stuff you’ve got going on.
KELLEN: Thanks, Jordan!
NIC: Take it easy!
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