Photo: The Sauce

Interview: Ocean Alley – The much-loved Australian band at the forefront of restarting the nation’s music industry

Ocean Alley are the most Australian of bands, beloved in their home nation and now working on the front line in the country’s attempt to restart its music industry after COVID-19. Conor Lochrie spoke to the band’s Mitch Galbraith about their monumental gig coming up this weekend.

Since Ocean Alley formed almost a decade ago, the six-piece from the Northern Beaches of New South Wales have been on a steady incline to the summit of Australian music. Their upbeat and hazy style has been embraced by both the festival crowd and the commercial mainstream. They’re part of Australia’s proud history with psychedelic rock – Babe Rainbow, Bananagun, Sunfruits, and Psychedelic Porn Crumpets have all emerged from the latest crop – but their laidback style belongs as much to reggae and surf culture.

For a band who thrive so much in the live setting, the onset of COVID-19 hit with an undeniable force. After releasing their third album Lonely Diamond in June (it reached #3 on the ARIA album charts, their highest position to date), they re-recorded it live in the studio, providing their fans with a taste of what the pandemic had unfortunately made them miss out on. They also started the #FeelExtraordinary initiative to get people talking about mental health, in a country where doing so is often still a struggle.

Now, as Australia has finally got a hold on the COVID-19 situation, they’ll play a historic concert: their gig at Sydney’s Qudos Bank Arena on November 28 will be the biggest indoor event held in the country since the pandemic hit in March. As they prepare to aid Australia in trying to return its music and arts community to some semblance of normality, I spoke with the band’s guitarist, Mitch Galbraith, to discuss their latest album, their mental health initiatives, and their upcoming gig.

I think we’ll just start at the obvious place – how’s COVID-19 and the lockdown been for the band?

It’s been a bummer because we haven’t been playing live music, but we were very lucky where we’re living. We’re just out of the city (Sydney) and have just been keeping it real at home, visiting family and friends, surfing and stuff. We’re fully annoyed that we can’t be on the road but we’ve been writing new music, rehearsing, basically just trying to turn a negative into a positive really.

2018 and 2019 were such big years for you, with the release of second album Chiaroscuro and “Confidence” topping the prestigious Triple J Hottest 100. Was there any part of you that secretly wanted a bit of a breather in 2020, to refocus?

That’s a very good point. We probably didn’t want that, but we didn’t realise how good it would be to happen. We’ve been forced into having this time off to recharge and just gather ourselves. It was easier because the decision was made for us to have a break.

You re-released your third album Lonely Diamond as a live recording in September. Was this just your way of giving your fans as close an experience of live music as they could get?

Yeah of course. It was sort of a way for us to get back to a ‘gig’, if you could call it that. It gave our crew work, it gave our videographers work, and gave us something to do rather than just sit around at home! It was most importantly for the fans, and that’s also one of the reasons we released Lonely Diamond in the first place, even after lockdown. We thought it’d be a cool thing for everyone to be listening to during it.

Did you find that the recording of the original and live version differed much in sound?

I don’t think they differed very much. We’ve tried to make that the modus operandi of our group – we only ever record songs that we can then recreate very similarly live and vice versa. It’s an important thing for us because we consider ourselves a live band.

With six members, what you were all listening to must have been varied during the making of Lonely Diamond? It really sounds like it on the record.

Yeah! We’re always listening to so much different music. We spend a lot of time together, living together, working and playing music together, so we’ve all got our own little secret playlists that we listen to in our own time to get away from one another! I think there’s such a broad range of genres between us all.

Was there anything in particular that inspired Lonely Diamond though?

Khruangbin is a band we’ve been interested in recently. They’re from Texas and they for sure influenced our stylistic choice to play more kind of Western songs, the intro and outro, and that’s the aesthetic that we’ve played around with.

In the past you’ve mostly always been called a reggae band or a psychedelic band. If you truly were to align yourself with just one genre though, which one would it be?

It would have to be the rock side of it. I think when we first started, doing that reggae stuff, we were still trying to be a rock band, but it just came out that way. I think now we’ve found our footing and honed our skills and I think that the music we write now is rock-based.

There’s always seemed to be such a connection between Australia and psychedelic rock. What do you think inspires this?

I think it’s definitely got something to do with the laidback lifestyle that a lot of people grow up living. It’s probably due to the proximity to the beach and the coast and surfing and spending a lot of time in nature. I think we’re just calm and relaxed people and that’s the style of music that then reflects this. You can imagine yourself sitting on the grass at a summer festival listening to it.

That’s also what I wanted to ask – have you been missing festivals? Your sound is just so associated with that festival atmosphere.

Yeah. I’m glad we got a couple of good ones in before it all finished, like Splendour in the Grass. When we played the main stage there one evening, that was probably the coolest gig we’ve ever played. That’s where we’re working towards trying to get back to again when everything opens up.

So surf culture is a big thing for you as a band?

Yeah, 100%. That’s where we grew up and I don’t know what the statistic is but I think like 70-80% of people in Australia live within 100km of the coast. It’s pretty much everyone all over the country.

I wanted to ask specifically about the song “Tombstone”. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it but it seemed to be about the bushfire crisis?

It was a big coincidence to be honest. That was well spotted. The lyrics are more thinking about a place that you’ve been to and you remember fondly and when you return again it’s corrupted or it’s different to how you remembered it. Then the bushfires happened and that’s when we released the song. It had already been written and recorded so it’s a bit spooky. That just goes to show that art imitates life and so on.

I’ve always thought that Ocean Alley could have made a spectacular 70s jam band. How much experimentation is actually involved in your recording process?

We’re 100% a jam band. That’s how we started, and you can imagine we were in the garage out the back and shit, slapping around on instruments making nonsense. If you do that long enough as a group I think it all turns out. We’re actually away right now, just north of Sydney in an Airbnb, writing and rehearsing. I’m just looking at the living room and it’s all set up with instruments. We just face each other and we’re in a circle and we just start jamming stuff out. No ideas are off limits and you can say what you want to anyone and no hard feelings! That’s how we’ve always done it and we continue to do it like that because that’s the way that we get the best product.

I wanted to talk about your #FeelExtraordinary initiative.

Yeah, that’s another thing, that we first of all needed to stay busy in this off period. We were thinking of other ways to get involved with the community and get involved with our fans. We’ve been involved with those three charities that we were raising money for: One Eighty, which is a mental health and suicide prevention charity around where we live; Cerebral Palsy Alliance, which offers support to families and patients with cerebral palst; and more recently Red Dust Australia, which focuses on youth health initiatives out in regional areas and in the outback. They work a lot with Indigenous kids. We had those charities and it was just a way for us to connect with our fans while doing some good. We started this thing where everyone had to tell their mates a song that they thought made them feel extraordinary and everyone picked it up and the response has been great. Hopefully there can be a real change and that’s why we did it.

In Australia, men especially have a problem talking about mental health; this idea of being a ‘bloke’ and all that. I think that such mental health support coming from a band like you who have a lot of male fans is helpful.

Around where we live there’s been a lot of youth suicide, friends of friends. I couldn’t count them on two hands, man. It’s just about trying to get the conversation out there so people are more aware of their own and other people’s mental health. It fluctuates, sometimes you do feel happy and sometimes you do feel sad and everything in between. It’s about being able to open up to someone and get the help.

That’s fantastic. You’ve been doing a lot of big tours in the U.S. and Europe over the past two years – does the audience reception in those places differ from Australia?

It’s hard to tell, because sometimes those shows that we play overseas it’s all full of fans, but sometimes you have mixed receptions. When we went on tour with Tash Sultana, we played these beautiful venues in the States and we would get into a seated auditorium and no one would be clapping after the songs. They didn’t know who the fuck we were, they just wanted to see Tash! But it’s always fun, you just work on the crowd and try to get them involved by the end. If you see a few extra people clapping then that’s pretty good.

You’ve got the historic Greatest Southern Nights shows at the end of this month. Congratulations on that!

Thank you. It’s the first run of live shows in the country back (since COVID-19 started). It’s part of an initiative by the government trying to kick all this stuff off again. There’s all these different venues happening all over the place, and we got asked to do that, and we’ll do anything we can right now. It’s hard to put on a show of your own with all this risk floating around, so when people take the time and the effort to put on curated shows like this, it’s really helpful.

You’ve also rescheduled your next tour for February. Does it feel like a blessing in disguise having all this extra time to properly plan your concerts out?

Yeah, true. I think we do best when we’re just in the thick of it, just go, go, go. We like a bit of pressure because otherwise we just get a bit lazy.

It’s important to reflect on better times – did you have a favourite show from 2019 before everything got locked down?

Oh yeah! We played in New Zealand, we supported this band called Six60. That was a huge show and such a special night. It was amazing to see Six60 and how much their country loves them. We love New Zealand, we love the people, almost as much as Australia, so it was such a special night.

You say you’ve been recording so are there plans for a fourth album?

We’re writing new songs as we speak so I suppose we won’t be able to sit still. Once we get into touring this Lonely Diamond record and we’re a bit more settled in a rhythm, we’ll start to collaborate on these new songs and put them into record form. That’s down the track but we do have a couple of fresh songs we like the idea of. It’s a slightly different direction but still tied back to our sound and that normal progressive style of writing that we like to do.

Ocean Alley’s Lonely Diamond is out now. You can find the band on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.