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Interview: Alex Ellis (Our Man in the Field)

4 December 2023

With an IMDB page highlighting his acting work, Alex Ellis has spent the early part of this decade dedicated to telling stories through a gifted songwriting lens under the name Our Man in the Field. The moniker allows Ellis to take on the role of observer, and reporter, as he delivers Americana-based, soulful Southern hymns accentuated by strings and pedal steel guitar. Producer Tucker Martine (Modest Mouse, My Morning Jacket, The Avett Brothers) lends his deft touch to the 11 tracks which were recorded in his Portland, Oregon studio in December 2021. During a recent conversation with Ellis, the singer/songwriter shares that Martine enlisted musician friends to lend their talents to the songs and offered up a treasure trove of non-standard instruments for Our Man in the Field to experiment with during the recording process of the band’s sophomore album, Gold on the Horizon.

We started our conversation by talking about the musicians who contributed to one of the best Americana releases of the year.

There are a lot of different musicians who play on your new album, Gold on the Horizon. Were they all hand picked before you started recording or did you bring people in to record certain parts once you started recording and considered what you needed?

ALEX: Tucker and I had been talking for about a year about trying to get the album going but it was in the middle of the pandemic. While we had to wait to start recording, what we were able to do was talk a lot about arrangements and I was able to send him different demos. He wasn’t working on any other music because nobody was going to come to his studio. It was a tough time. From a creative point of view, it allowed us to do slightly different things than had it been normal times.

My band, at that point, didn’t have a permanent bass player and I really liked upright bass on records. It’s a little bit more difficult to tour with an upright bass but if you get to the studio and I’ve got a choice, more or less I would always choose to have an upright bass. Tucker brought in Luke Ydstie from Blind Pilot and a band called The Hackles. Luke is a really nice guy and a fantastic player. He played the songs as if he had been playing with us for years. I think “Road Interlude” was the first song we worked on.

Greg (Bishop), Henry (Senior) and I had been playing together for years. Greg’s the drummer, Henry’s the pedal steel/dobro player. It was just the four of us in those first few days. I remember looking over at Greg in the drum room, Henry and I were in the live room together, and it was like, “This is pretty good.” And Luke was such a nice fellow and we discovered he could play a lot of other instruments as well. We had a great time exploring different parts and I think that’s why Tucker brought him in.

Apart from Luke, there was Jenny Conlee from The Decemberists. She came down and played some keys, some accordions, and some organ. She plays a lovely pump organ on “Long Forgotten,” that sort of ongoing drone in the background.

And then Ana Fritz and Kyleen King – they’ve played with Jason Isbell, they’ve played with everybody – came in and did some string arrangements. And a couple of the guys from Calexico played some guitar parts.

It was a really nice experience for us because we got on really well with Tucker. The first few days, we were staying with a guy called Jerry Joseph, who we toured with a bit here in the UK. He’s also a Portland guy. Our pals from the Dimpker Brothers were going to do harmonies in Sweden where we would send them music and then they’d work overnight and send harmonies for the songs back to us. But, they decided they were just going to come to Portland. They said, “We’ve bought flights and we’re coming” and they showed up. They knew Jerry because we’d all toured together. They stayed at Jerry’s and me and the other guys, we found a place close to the studio.

It worked out really well because Jerry and Tucker, their wives are friends. We ended up falling in with Jenny Conlee. She plays in Jerry’s band. We ended up going to her birthday party and hanging out with Peter Buck and all the people that Tucker and those guys knew and then some of them came to play on the record. It was just a really nice time.

What was it like working with Tucker?

ALEX: We were getting on great when we first started speaking to Tucker. We had a relationship with his management because we had to deal with contracts and so on. His management was like, “Tucker’s a really strict guy. He’s only going to work these set hours. He’s going to finish at this time every day because he’s got kids.” I was like, “Cool, it’s all good.” But, I was marrying up the Tucker I knew on paper and the Tucker I knew on the phone. I was like, “It’s cool but that doesn’t seem how it’s going to be.”

When we were in the studio, his work ethic was basically that we keep going past midnight every day. We’d walk back to where we were staying and come in the next day at 9:30 or 10 in the morning. He discovered that he’d worked on the songs after we left. He got maybe two or three hours of sleep some days but was still full of energy. It was incredible. That was a great learning curve for us because working with Tucker was a big step up from the things we had done before.

You look at it and say, “What is it that makes people like Tucker special?” And it is obviously their creative brain, but it’s also how hard they work and how immersed they become in the project. It’s easy for me to get immersed in my own songs and think about them all the time and nobody expects anything less. But when somebody else actually pushes you to work even harder, it’s why the record sounds so great. His enthusiasm rubbed off on us and on Luke and the people that came in. We were having a great time, we were all getting on really well. Every time we’d finished a song, we’d listen back to it, we were like, “Gosh, that’s so good.”

It’s nice that you were able to work with a lot of people in the studio. I’ve talked to a lot of artists who have said, “We’ve never met the people that played on our album in person. We sent files to somebody halfway around the world via Dropbox and they’d send their parts back.”

ALEX: When we did our first record, I wanted to make it sound like a band in a room. I didn’t mind if there was bleeding in the mics. With that record, I was fully expecting there to be some mistakes. I wanted it to sound like the band on stage. It was our first record and I wanted people to go to gigs because they’d heard the record and that’s very close to what they’d hear live. There was no cheating. I think that’s more or less what we achieved with that record.

This experience was like the grown-up version of that. I don’t think I could go back to doing it any other way. Tucker and I have already exchanged more demos and, as soon as possible, I want to go and do it again. We know even more now what we’d like to do. We’d like to have strings in for a longer time. We’d like to have more players in the room.

That’s the modern way, isn’t it, to swap files with people you’ve never been in a room with. You might have a string section in Austin and a bunch of drummers and percussionists somewhere else. I don’t think I could ever do it like that. Recording music has never excited me in the same way until we did it in Portland. It was always a means to get the band somewhere. Now the end goal is to make this thing that sounds great and people can listen to it forever.

And how do you plan to play it live?

ALEX: Since we recorded it, I did have a rethink about the live lineup. We’ve now got a cellist who’s more or less full time in the band, Maddy Cundall. Harmonies are a big thing on the record and while Greg, the drummer, and I did a lot of harmonies, we didn’t really have anybody else that could do it in the band. Now we’ve got a bass player called Eva who’s a fantastic singer as well. Now there’s two female voices and two male voices which builds a soundscape a bit more in the direction of the record.

Luke Ydstie’s talent is hard to replace. Some nights after we’d finished the live tracking, we’d bring out different synths or drum machines and put them through different guitar pedals and see what we could make. “Last Dance” has a kind of oscillating synth and that was done at probably two in the morning. We just tried something and were like, “That sound is going to fill the space we’re looking for.”

What we’ll probably do with that is that Greg, our drummer, is one of those super-talented people who can play a lot of instruments and we’ll either have him with a small synth, because he plays drums with one hand and keys with the other, or we’ll have a pad with a bit of something loaded into it so he can have those extra bits. We’ve tried a bit of that but sometimes on stage it can get a bit chaotic. We’ve also got Raul (Biancardi), who plays keyboard, and he can do a lot of those synth things. He was the one guy who was not able to come to Portland, but he has a studio at home. To be fair, he was sending stuff overnight and then Tucker was mixing those in.

You’ve had a career acting and being in front of the camera. As a musician, do you like being in the control room and going behind the scenes to see how the sausage gets made?

ALEX: Yeah, I do. That’s a good way of putting it. I like stories. I enjoy watching good acting performances all the way through, not just momentarily. It’s natural when you’re acting in something to see the completion of it. With the stage stuff, you’re involved every night and you get to see the whole thing take place. But, most of my acting is in television or film and you don’t get that sort of experience.

We played a festival called the Maverick Festival in Suffolk in the summer. I was talking to a violin player called Chris Murphy, an American chap who came and just jumped on stage and played with us. I was talking to his partner and she was asking about stuff and she said, “Oh, I understand you, you’re an actor as well.” I was like, “Yeah, but not really. I’m a bit out of sorts with acting at the moment and generally I find musicians much nicer and more approachable than actors. Male actors, they’re so competitive and they’re so worried about their image.” She was like, “Oh yeah, I know what you mean.” It turns out, she was (actress) Barbara Hershey!

When you’re acting, the crew is the audience and everything is being recorded. When you’re performing live music, there are a lot of people watching you and you don’t get to do multiple takes.

ALEX: That’s a good point. We played a show last weekend with this current lineup and it felt like it was probably one of the best, if not the best, show we’ve done. And part of that was because it was sold out, packed, people crammed into the space, and there was just some kind of excitement in the room. They were immediately on our side, and we could respond. I responded, and the band responded to me and the audience and I think that maybe it’s because people have started to hear the record, the songs have started to come out. There are people turning up to the shows that didn’t know us until they’d heard something.

When I’m performing as a musician, once you’ve mastered the song in terms of what you’ve got to play and how you’ve got to sing it, then you can do it depending on what the room is like that night. You can change the way you do it and that’s a bit like theater. But most of my experiences with film and television is with no rehearsal, it’s all about getting it as quickly as possible.

Unless you’re the lead or you’re the protagonist or part of the story, they’re really not that interested in you, which is understandable. It means that you’ve got to be really good really quickly and you’ve got to accept that even if you’ve not done your best version, you can’t put your hand up and go, “That wasn’t the best, can we do it again?”

I love how you said the audience was on your side. I have to imagine each night there is one of three scenarios – the audience is on your side from the beginning, the audience takes a bit to warm up but eventually ends up on your side or the audience – or members of – will just never be receptive to your live performance.

ALEX: That’s true. I figured that out. It took me a while to get comfortable with the idea that there were going to be times when it wasn’t going to work. I would think, “Should I change the way we do things?”

When we were in Portland, we played a little show in a noisy bar and we had Patterson Hood on stage with us and we had all these Jerry Joseph fans in the audience. Tucker was there. I wanted people to shut up and listen to the songs and it was clearly not going to be, that was not going to happen and it was sort of frustrating.

We had a festival earlier this year that we hadn’t played before in just outside London and, again, we were on stage and it was really noisy near the bar, people were up for a good time but our music isn’t necessarily the right thing for that and I’m totally comfortable with that now. I just said to everybody in the band, “We won’t play this one again, it wasn’t for us.”

We tend to look for places to play where people have to sit down because, in that gig at the festival, there were a lot of frustrated people at the front who couldn’t hear what we were doing but had come to listen to us and that kind of frustrated me as well. I was thinking I didn’t do enough, or I didn’t pick the right songs to sing. You have to let yourself off the hook a bit and say sometimes it just isn’t the right spot.

You’ve done music stuff in Portland and you visited places like Nashville and Memphis. Have you visited other cities from a music perspective and/or have you visited the U.S. on vacation or for other things?

ALEX: Yeah, a number of times. A long time ago, I got an agent in Los Angeles for my acting stuff. I found that I didn’t get along with Los Angeles as a city. It was bad because I was mixing with quite a lot of British actors, and that goes back to the super competitive, not collaborative sort of part of that industry that I’ve never really been comfortable with. But also, we’ve done some music stuff there and there are some lovely people I know in Los Angeles.

In New York, when we showed up to do some gigs, friends of friends were falling over themselves to lend us gear and help us out. It was all for free. They just wanted to help out. Obviously, we’ll reciprocate, and we have reciprocated when people come over here. In Los Angeles, I understood that we were going to be getting “mates rates” for the gear we were borrowing. What I didn’t realize is that, for the upright bass that we borrowed, when we brought it back, the guy was like, “This is how much money you owe me” and it was four times what a rental place would have cost. I was like, “Oh, I thought we were getting mates rates” and he was like, “Yeah, my mate is getting me a deal.” I was like, “Oh, it doesn’t mean that in England. It would mean that I’d be getting the deal.” He was like, “Not here.” That was a learning curve.

In 2019, I had a run of solo shows and then the band came out to Los Angeles and we had showcased to some agents and it all went really well and then everything went south with the pandemic so we had to sort of park it. We’re just sort of building those relationships back. When Henry and I went to Nashville, we played to some of the agents that we’d met before and built some more relationships. We’re looking to go back possibly for the Folk Alliance Festival in March or April. This time we’ve got a team and I think we’ve got a much better shot at finding the niche that we need to be in.

Is there a music scene comparable to Nashville where you’re from in England?

ALEX: Teesside, where I’m from, has a kind of counterculture alternative art scene. There was a very famous theater called the Dovecot Arts where lots of experimental music, theater, and punk music was performed. There’s a band called Shame that are doing quite well and they are from up there. There’s a band called Benefits who are sort of extreme but they’re totally authentic. I know one of the guys and they used to be a band called The Chapman Family. The part of the east side where they are from is a good spot for edgy, sort of visceral, art that reflects the area. It’s an industrial, forgotten about, part of the UK with lots of unemployment and lots of low-income families.

London is a have-or-have-not sort of city. There’s a bit of everything. I came to London because it was the only place you could really audition to be a professional actor. One of the things that I think has helped me is that I’ve never wanted to be a part-time musician or a part-time actor. I’ve never accepted that I can do that, which means my bank balance is always pretty low but I think it means that I’ve pushed through stuff that maybe the people who are super talented don’t want to take that risk.

But in terms of a music scene, I expect people would say Manchester and Liverpool have a lot going on. I know people that are quite successful in the Northwest in Manchester, Liverpool but it doesn’t translate all that well to London, ticket-wise or whatever. I think it’s a little bit easier if you can establish something in London to then go out to the cities. I know that Leeds and Newcastle, they go through cycles of trying to invest in the arts.

I’ve got an opinion, not a fact. There’s a lot of Arab money now because the football clubs are all owned by Gulf states. Manchester’s just had a big 23,000 indoor venue built specifically for music by the Qatari state. It’s almost like a competition. Newcastle is having the same thing happen. I suppose the people of Newcastle, people of Manchester, it may feel to them like that that’s going to be a benefit but I know some people involved in music in Newcastle who said they stopped going to watch football because they don’t agree with what’s happening. They go to watch Gateshead or something, non-league teams. And I’m almost 100% sure that there won’t be any opportunities for local bands at the 23,000 seat indoor arena. It doesn’t help those people that are really making great music sell tickets in their hometown.

We tour quite a bit in Europe. We’re going over to Sweden three times in the next four or five months. There’s a really good scene for what me and my band do, which is hard to describe. It’s like they’re very keen on Nashville, that part of America, that part of American culture. And they make a Swedish version of it.

When you’re in Nashville, do you feel like a stranger in a foreign land or do you feel like you’re at home?

ALEX: The time before when I went, I did a very fleeting visit. We were driving from New York to Los Angeles and stopping on the way, playing some shows and it just was like a blur. I didn’t really get to understand it as a place.

This time, we were there for a lot longer and it was really nice. Going back to the acting comparison, it is like the music version of Los Angeles because it seems to be where everybody has an office, where everybody goes and does shows all the time. But the difference was how nice everybody is to one another and how collaborative everybody is. I mean, I was introduced to Braison Cyrus, Miley Cyrus’s brother, and we got on really well, so we did a little bit of writing together. We’ve kept in touch and he’s going to come play with us, I think, when we do European stuff, because he happens to be in Europe at the same time. That wouldn’t really happen in the acting world. Somebody who’s established and with that kind of background wouldn’t be interested in me and wouldn’t listen to my stuff or wouldn’t watch something I was in and go, “Cool, maybe we can do something together.” So that was really nice and refreshing.

Nashville seems to have a very strong community where everybody knows everybody and is willing to help out however needed.

ALEX: We traveled to Nashville and we needed to get a dobro for Henry to play our shows with. We looked around the shops and we couldn’t quite find anything that was quite right. We met four Our Man in the Field fans from England, who randomly were in Nashville and were like, “What are you doing here?” So that was cool. And then I was at the bar and there was this chap there that looked at me and he goes, “Where do I know you from?” And I was like, “I don’t know but we’ve obviously met.” It was Jason Morrow, Lauren Morrow’s husband. He plays guitar and stuff and we have a drink and he listened to the story about trying to find a dobro and he goes, “I’ll make a call. I think I know somebody.”

This guy, Whitten Wright, just lent us a really nice dobro. We just turned up at his house, two random fellas from England. He gave us all this stuff – pedals and stuff – and let us take it for the week. It was unbelievable. We didn’t know his stuff and then we were looking at who he plays. He was playing at the, I don’t know what you call it, the Megadome, whatever it is, in Nashville for three nights, with a band that I’d never heard of that sold out 60,000 seats or something. That was just normal in Nashville, for somebody to go, “Somebody needs helping out, so we’ll help him out.”

So while your music definitely has an Americana, kind of country-ish feel, the beginning of “Silver Linings” has this R&B kind of bass. I’m assuming that’s an influence as well.

ALEX: Yeah, definitely. I love Van Morrison. I know he’s turned into a different guy. He’s gone for a completely different crowd now. As I’m progressing, my voice is changing in different ways so I’m able to do songs like that, think about them differently and then write differently because when I’m writing the song, it’s usually not so much lyrics but I’ve got a bit of a musical hook or something and I’ll sing any old words to it. There’s a couple of Paul Weller albums where I’m sure Van Morrison was an influence. I listened to those albums a lot and that’s definitely an influence. That last Ray Lamontagne record, Monovision, was an incredible one. That informed a lot of my writing because I’m a big Credence fan. That was like an undercurrent. It’s not obvious, I don’t think, in listening to my stuff, but I just love it.

What is the idea behind Our Man in the Field? What do you tend to sing about?

ALEX: Most of my songs are about people. I really set out with the idea of Our Man in the Field being like a Jack Kerouac or an Albert Camus or a journalist who also writes novels or long reads, a correspondent-type character, not a secret agent. I quite like the idea of taking me out of it. I find it much easier to write songs about other people. In my subconscious, it’s probably all about me but the way I can access the story is if it’s about a friend or about a person I’ve encountered. It’ll come really quick once I understand who it’s about and what the feeling that I’ve got is trying to say.

Your lyrics seem to come from different perspectives, they are not all strictly auto-biographical.

ALEX: I try to do that. For a long time, I wasn’t sure whether to tell people the story of what the song was about. I’m much more confident telling the story now. The stories are usually about people that I know.

“Glad to See You” is about a doctor that I met who told me about the things he had to do in the hospital during the pandemic. You interact with people who are saying it’s all a hoax and then you’ve got this doctor telling you what really happened. You can’t help but be moved by that guy.

“Come Back to Me” is about my friend, George, who’s a teacher. It’s a personal thing, because it’s about our relationship, but it’s really about him.

Is there a story that your friends have heard 100 times, but you’ll tell people the first time you meet them to break the ice?

ALEX: Our Man in the Field is supposed to be a correspondent. There’s a guy called Jon Snow who was a famous Channel 4 news reporter. Channel 4 does the good news, it’s not biased, it’s state-owned but not state run. They’re the ones that get in trouble because they’ll go to places where the BBC or ITV won’t go because they wouldn’t want to upset the establishment. Jon Snow was their anchor.

He did a report from a children’s hospital in Gaza in 2013 where he was so moved by it, he couldn’t just leave it at what he was allowed to say. So, he did another video using the Channel 4 stuff that they let him put out on YouTube saying, “This is what I wasn’t allowed to say. This is the amount of children that died. Whether there was a rocket here or not, what you need to know is this is how many children are affected. This is a little girl who’s now blind.” It was very, very moving and you could see in his eyes that he was going back in his mind to the actual news reports. When I watch the news now, you watch those guys who are actually on the ground and when they’re about to pass it back to the studio, there’s almost a split-second moment where their eyes change and where they are like, “I’ve done the bit where I’ve had to toe the line but this is where I am.” Jon Snow went further and made this report. It was incredible.

I wrote a song called “Something’s Got to Be Done,” that’s just a working title, and it’s about that. It’s about him basically saying, “I just can’t do this. I’ve got to do something else.” We recorded it and I sent it to his agent, this was like 10 years ago, and said, “I’ve got this song and it’s about Jon Snow and the video he made. If you could ever play it for him and, if he liked it, you could give me a quote, that would be cool.” I sent it to him and forgot about it.

I went to Paris to have dinner with friends. We were going to go and watch a band called Fat White Family that we know one of the guys from. That was the night of the Bataclan attacks. We were in a restaurant, we’d had a lot to drink and we were eating and then there was pandemonium outside. We got kicked out of the restaurant, out onto the streets. We didn’t really know what was going on. We had this experience that I would never wish on anybody.

Going back to our hotel, we had to walk. We ended up having to walk 10 kilometers very slowly because they blocked up loads of roads. There were French police in their normal cars in their pajamas with bulletproof vests on and their guns drawn running around and stopping everybody. We were on the other side of the block from the Cambodian restaurant that had just been shot up and we could hear what was going on. We saw all these army vehicles suddenly arrive and there was no phone signal, no internet. We could text. I was telling my partner, Ellie, where we were, what the street corners were where we were at and she was guiding us. That’s how we got back to our hotel. We had to walk over a flyover bridge over the hospital where they had put loads of trolleys with bodies on them. The bodies had sheets over them that had blood soaking through.

We got back to our hotel and eventually put the news on and discovered what happened. We were like, “This is going to be a lockdown situation so we’ll just stay in our rooms and work it out.” I was restless and I went down to the reception area and Jon Snow was coming in with a Channel 4 news crew into the same hotel. I was sitting at reception and there was a TV so I was trying to read French television and work out what was going on. He sort of stood next to me so I was like, “Should I ask him what’s going on or would that be weird because he’s working and it’s a traumatic thing that’s happening and the last thing he wants is me bothering him?”

But, then I thought, “It’s too much of a coincidence.” I said, “Excuse me, Mr. Snow” and he said, “Yes?” I said, “Look, I know you’re busy so I’ll be really quick. I sent your agent a song that I’d written about you and that video that you made and I just thought that I couldn’t not come up to you tonight and say ‘that was me’ and ‘good luck with what you’re doing’ and that sort of thing.” I kid you not, he pulled his iPhone out of his pocket and he went, “Are you Our Man in the Field?” I said, “Yeah,” and he goes, “I’ve been listening to the song all the way here. What a wonderful song. Do you want some breakfast?” It was like three in the morning and we had a croissant and a coffee.

He was such a lovely fellow and we kept in touch. We had this really quite strange conversation because, at the time I had quite long dark hair, and he just spent the previous day at Google offices with the guy who plays Jon Snow in Game of Thrones. He was going, “You look a bit like Jon Snow and I am Jon Snow.”

There’s a thing called the Frontline Club, which is a charity which raises money for news people who lose their lives in conflicts. There’s all these things that are under the line that we wouldn’t ever hear about. Jon did kind of break, he couldn’t continue doing those types of reports.

We were going to do a music video where the reporters would lip sync to the song but then Channel 4 lawyers came along and said we couldn’t do it, we’d all get sued to high hell, so we just had to park it. At some point, we might do something with the song.

That’s the story that I always tell people that never gets old.