June 03, 2010

An Interview with Alex Kemp

When Alex Kemp set out on his latest solo project, the former vocalist/bassist for the indie-pop band Small Factory envisioned a song cycle about a character not unlike himself. “There’s this younger guy who’s down on his luck,” Kemp says of the narrative, “who’s away from people who know him and who’s trying to figure it out. I’ve felt like that guy my whole life. I still feel like that guy.”

That sense of isolation is heightened as Kemp places his character in Paris during the age of the Lost Generation, when literary giants like Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller riled up the Left Bank with voracious abandon. For what will ultimately take shape as a four-part series of EPs, Kemp has released the first installment, Rat D’Hotel – Part I – Rat Walks Into A Bar.

“What I’m not doing is becoming a character,” he clarifies faster than you can say "Ziggy Stardust." “I’m not doing that. What I’m trying to do amongst other things with the music is get a little bit outside of myself—or maybe deeper inside myself, I don’t know—by focusing on some images that have been popping into my head.”

So, Rat Walks Into A Bar is the first release in a four-part series set in 1920s’ Paris…

I hate for it to sound too purposeful or like it’s a rock opera or something. I wanted to explore the idea of this character or this imaginary version of me that never really existed, but should have. It has a lot to do with aspirations. You ever have dreams where you have to beat somebody up, but you’re weak and you can’t? It’s like that. In a way I’m trying to imagine this really great life I could have led, but even in imagining it, somehow something dark happens.

Reality creeps into the dream?

Or darkness is there even when you’re being hopeful.

What sparked the narrative?

I’ve just always been fascinated by that particular era, the expat artist scene in Paris between the wars. There was something so animalistic about the art at that time, drinking and fucking… What I like about it is the feeling that they were detached from their roots because they were somewhere so far away. And in being detached from their roots they were freed to be a little bit more animalistic or hedonistic or sensual. It’s made a lot of sense to me that as you get detached from family or from people who knew you when you were a kid, you can kind of stretch your wings.

And then there’s the music.

The thing that I’m about is what happens when a person listens to a song a couple times and gets inside it and something starts to mean something to them. That’s what I’m all about. That slightly more private moment is everything to me. [On] a lot of the stuff that I’ve written, but specifically these songs, I’ll do certain tricks where it makes it a little bit more satisfying to listen to the second or third time around. Like, I won’t do things the same length each section… Things will be slightly different lengths so it’s a little bit less predictable the first time you listen to it. By the second or third time, once you’ve kind of internalized that, you really start to feel like you’re on the road with the song. You’re driving in the same car. You’re not just driving next to it.

You also allow the listener to discover new elements that weren’t as obvious the first one or two times.

Hopefully so. It’s not extremely complicated music. There’s no orchestra involved. I like to keep it kind of stripped-back or at least a little bit on the unadorned side. Hopefully it’s a hot girl in a T-shirt and jeans rather than the whole make-up and earrings and everything.

About the musicians...

The back-up band that I’m playing with is all contemporary gospel musicians. Part of what I was trying to do was [in] wanting the grooves to feel good from the first downbeat. And something that you look to for that kind of music is certain kinds of R&B; and the R&B and gospel community, there’s a lot of crossover there. The guys I’m working with, I’m really inspired by them and what they do. I’m not Christian even a little bit.

You don’t have to be to appreciate that kind of music, though.

Exactly. The idea that [in] working together we’ve all dragged each other out of our comfort zone is, I think, the thing that’s relevant. We come from really different backgrounds. We have really different beliefs. And we forced each other to learn how to play together very differently than we play anything else.

And you find common ground in the music.

You can learn a lot about yourself by stepping out of yourself.

For more information on Alex Kemp, please visit the artist's official website.