We here at 13th Floor were thrilled when we learned that Albi & The Wolves were releasing their new album, This Means War.
To find out more about the album, we invited Albi guitarist and vocalist Chris Dent over to take us through the record song by song, track by track.
Listen in as The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda talks to Chris Dent about This Is War:
Or, read a transcription of the interview here:
M: So we’re here with Chris from Albi and The Wolves…
M: …and we’re gonna talk about ‘This Is War.‘ I recognise the name of the song because a couple of years ago when you guys came up and played for the 13th Floor, you performed that song.
C: We did, yeah we performed Story and This is War and both of those songs are on this album.
M: Yes, they sounded very familiar to me, very good. So before we get into the nuts and bolts of each song, maybe you can just give me an overview of where the album was recorded and under what circumstances?
C: We recorded it at Michael’s house again, if you’ve heard our first album Michael Young, the double bassist and backing vocalist in the band, he recorded and engineered it.
M: I must say, I was listening to your record today and I was very impressed with the sound quality, those instruments seem to pop out of the speakers.
C: For the first album or the second album?
M: The second one.
C: Yes, we wanted to try something new so we worked with Scott Seabright for the second album, but we did it in the same place, so we had that same familiarity from the first record and we were all really comfortable in his home, but we had that extra level of production and interaction.
M: Definitely worth it
C: Great, I’m glad.
M: So when you record, do you kind of just set up and play live or do you play your individual bits or a mixture of both? How does it work?
C: The first time we multi tracked everything and this time to capture more of that live essence, we had three booths set up in the lounge. Michael plays an electric double bass and Pascal plays the electric violin, so we were able to play together to get the rawness which became the centre of the whole record. We overdubbed a lot of stuff after that, but those three instruments, for the most part, were played in sync.
M: Then there’s additional instruments, additional people singing and playing occasionally?
C: Yup, we had Amy from Looking For Alaska, for I’d Go Anywhere, the second single, and her partner and band mate Aaron Gott he performed keys and some guitar and other tracks and then we had Tom Broome to come and do the drums which we recorded out at Milly Tabak’s house they’ve got a studio there and then Helena Piper, that name has left me I’m sorry, but she played percussion on some tracks too.
M: Who’s playing the banjo?
C: Nat Torkington. Have you met him or heard of him before?
M: I don’t think so but I’ve heard the banjo on it.
C: He is one of the best banjo players in the country, he plays with all sorts of people really and he played on our first album too.
M: Cool. Alrighty, now that we’ve got the background business out of the way, let’s go to the songs. The first song on the album is the title track, which is called This Is War, which is one that you performed a couple years ago, so the song’s obviously been knocking around a bit, so what can you tell me about it? Can you remember back to when you wrote it?
C: I can, I really can. This song was an interesting one because essentially I went on tour with a fella and our personalities grated. We just didn’t hit it off at all and I came to, I guess actively dislike him, so that’s where the whole chorus came from and it was so close and real that we changed that, we took it away and made it about a sort of lover … changed that metaphor just so it wasn’t such a personal attack, that essence is there, but yeah that’s where it came from.
M: So does this person know that the song is about them?
M: It’s kind of a You’re So Vain kind of thing.
C: Yeah, It sort of is, and I don’t know if they ever will, we’ll see, and I think I’d rather it that way. It’s sort of like writing a letter with all the things you would say to that person you’re really mad with and then reading it a week later and throwing it away rather than sending it. I’m glad that the song exists, but, y’know.
M: And you feel better about it all now?
C: Yeah, I think so, kind of felt nice to have something kind of rebellious and oddly it’s such an upbeat number for us, so when we play it people really get up and dance, there’s a really liberating thing about the whole thing.
M: The underlying anger pushing through.
M: It almost has a Western Swing kind of feel to it, although I wouldn’t call it necessarily that I’m just kind of feeling that vibe, is that something that you guys listen to at all or kind of touch on?
C: Michael Young plays some lovely Western Swing guitar and sings. He knows how to play the mandolin as well and as the band has progressed, we’ve spent so much time together driving around the country, especially when we’re touring, and we’ve shared a lot of music with each other and so I wouldn’t say Western Swing is something that we all listen to, but it has now become a part of our lives due to his influences.
M: Seeped into the reality of the three of you hanging out together. Track number two is called Closing Time which is a slower number what can you tell me about that?
C: So they’re all stories about people. That was sort of a theme, that happened to come almost by accident because this is a collection of songs that took three years to make so the first story was about the tour, the second story is kind of that awkward patch when you’re dating people being single or what not and you don’t know whether to go with something and sort of live sort of carefree attitude or maybe sort of be a bit more reserved and maybe a bit more cautious with your decision making, which can be a hard thing to do in the heat of the moment.
M: Yes indeed and what decision did you come up with?
C: I can’t remember now. I think I went with the other one. I think I decided to stay a bit more cautious right at the moment. Just out of interest, does that song give that feeling? Does that make sense when you hear it?
M: I think so it’s kind of got a moody feel to it. It’s like obviously contemplating something or other and it’s got a very heavy bass line to it as well I noticed that Michael throws in there.
C: I think that bass rift makes the song to me it really lifts it gives it that oomph.
M: And then you guys take the solos.
C: Yes, that’s my first ever recorded guitar solo I think.
M: Really, congratulations! What brought that on?
C: I’m not much of a guitarist I’m a singer, and I know how to play the E pentatonic scale and that one happens to be an E and just when we were messing around live it just happened one day, and I thought, ‘Can we do it?’ and it sounds alright.
M: Pretty cool, Pascal knows how to play the violin though.
C: Yes, absolutely, I would say I’ve learnt an awful lot from him and people like a guy called Zarach sometimes, he’s an amazing guitarist so they are very great to learn from, to hear tasteful soloing.
M: You can kind of get carried away with the whole soloing thing. I mean a guy like Pascal who’s so familiar with his instrument, he probably can do anything he wants to on that thing and could just fly off the handle and play forever if he wanted to.
C: That was actually something we thought about with this record. So the first one had such a long incubation period we lost a band member and then had to patch an album out around that. And when we had this one, we thought what can we give the listener that would be more interesting? We love having the violin harmonies but what other instruments can we add to really give those moments where the solo comes in, a real lift and make it extra special. And that allowed for more room, say for Michael to come out or just the harmonies themselves to come out.
M: Now this next one is an interesting selection, Wayfaring Stranger. What brought that on? That songs been around for aeons.
C: We are a folk band, kind of, and it’s a folk song. We just wanted to play with it really. So the chorus, Pascal’s vocals.
M: I thought it was Pascal singing.
C: So Michael does one line, I do my main vocal line, and all those other crazy harmonies that was Pascal. And that took honestly maybe five or six hours one afternoon just writing them and negotiating them with Scott. I love folk songs because I think it’s Kimbra with Plain Gold Ring, that’s a folk song and I love that version that she does live on her first EP, because all the folk song really is a melody isn’t it? And then you can do whatever you want, and I guess this was our play with that, a nod to folk tradition and also this is what we do with it.
M: Also some banjo in that one? Which was a key for a folk song I think.
C: Yeah. absolutely, I like how it starts with Nat. I think Nat’s a beautiful player. He’s so gentle and thoughtful, you can hear it. It almost sounds lazy those first strokes, I like that very much.
M: Do you have a favourite version of Wayfaring Stranger other than your own?
C: Ella Fitzgerald, that was the first one that I heard.
M: Nice one. If I’m not mistaken, Neko Case does a killer version of it to, I remember hearing her …… We’ll go back to some of your own tunes, the next one is Oh Father, what are you gonna tell me about that, It’s got a stop-start kind of thing happening at the beginning of it, doesn’t it?
C: It does. This was an interesting one because we’re always looking to, I guess explore the genre and just play around with what we can do. And for this particular song, we really took a shift, it’s nothing like any of the other songs but we kind of thought, why not? How could we best pull that in? I think we were listening to a lot of Bill Withers at the time that kind of makes sense I think when you’re thinking about Use Me and those tunes, those grooves.
M: Are you performing it live?
M: How does it go down?
C: It goes down really well. So the thing with our live performance is we still play as a trio. When we really want to lush it up we might get a fourth player. It goes down well, we get the audience to sing the Oh Father bit and speed it up a little bit, it’s a little bit more aggressive when we do it live and when you’ve got the whole room yelling ‘Father’ and people dance and stuff, it becomes its own moment but it’s not quite as relaxed as the feel on the record.
M: What inspired you to write the song?
M: That old standby
C: If you wanted to go back through all the Albi and the Wolves songs, there’s sort of a series there. The take on this was just how neat my family are, so the Oh Father is literal. My family have always been awesome, always have my back. We’re not in each others pockets, but we all care for each other and we’re all sort of there and that’s really consistent and felt worthy of the song.
M: Very nice. Do they all live around here in Auckland?
C: My folks live down near Rotorua, got a brother here, a sister in Puhoi, they’re around.
M: Now we go to I’d Go Anywhere, this is a female vocalist.
C: It does, Looking For Alaska, are you familiar with them?
M: No I’m not, I think I just heard something about them the other day, something came through in an email or something, but other than that, that’s all I know.
C: Well they crowd funded an album, so that must be coming out eventually, so check it out. We’ve toured with them a lot, they’re really great friends of ours and both of them are very talented musicians.
M: They’re a duo?
C: Yup, they play as a three piece though. One time I wrote this song with the two of them.
M: You wrote it with them?
C: Yeah. So it’s a collab. I think I was playing a gig in Hamilton staying at the house and we wanted to promote the tour and so sort of had this idea and we bounced it off one another and came out with the tune and the video sort of took off, people really, really loved the track, and when we were deciding what to do with the album, it only felt right to put it there. It’s another heartbreak song but that story is interesting.I wrote the chorus first.
M: It’s got a good opening line ‘You got me wrapped round your finger,’ you know it’s gonna go downhill from there.
C: Yeah, it’s a loaded statement isn’t it? I would also like to say here that lyrically I do do a lot of writing for the Wolves, and the melodies and song ideas, and so I’m really glad to be talking with you here, but it’s important to point out that we really do write the songs as a band. When we get in the studio, I might come with just a chorus or just a verse or a whole song, but we really go through and work, like the harmonies for example and those parts and those sections and the feeling of the song, it’s all negotiated and played together and then we take those ideas, put them in a live context, figure out what really works with the audience, get some rock in or effects, then going back to the drawing board and develop it. So even though I’m the starting point, without the band…
M: Well I think it comes across listening to the record, it really sounds like a group effort like everybody’s in there doing whatever there needs to be done, like you say vocals kind of bounce off of each other, everybody’s playing something, it sounds like everybody’s in there for the greater good.
C: Yeah, I think so. Sting and the Police do it for me, but Sting by himself maybe not that so much for example.
M: Again, the name of the singer, the female singer?
C: It’s Amy …… I’ve made fun of so much just fooling around on tour and I’ve said her name wrong, but It’s Maynard I think, Amy Maynard, so Aaron Gott and Amy Maynard from Looking For Alaska.
M: Very good. Next one is called Waiting For a Train. Sounded to me like a very folky song, a folk song straight up.
C: Yeah it is. This song was about our old band mate. So this one recording, probably meant the most to us. I think when I came to them with the verses and choruses I think there were parts in the song where we had to take the ‘I’ and turn it into a ‘we.’ It meant so much to all of us. We parted amicably but there’s a long story there which I don’t think I need to go into, but it was a big thing and this was us looking back at that whole time. This is one of my favourite songs as far as the production goes. Scott really helped us, especially from that second verse when that rolling beat comes in and what I think is amazing about Scott Seabright’s production is that bass part that you hear, that was Michael’s original idea and he was able to help us shape a sound around our core ideas which I think is really amazing.
M: Some of the lyrics are fairly biting I guess.
C: Yeah, that’s true.
M: ‘It’s hard to believe you, my trust in you has gone.’
C: Yeah, it’s hard to not go into the story too much really but I think, if you spend a lot of time together as a band, it really kind is like a relationship. You invest so much of your time, so much of your heart, and sometimes you get paid really well and sometimes you don’t and sometimes you out your heart and absolutely everything you have into something and it can go nowhere. And when you ride this journey with other people, you have to trust them that’s so important and so when you part ways, whether it’s amicable or not, it’s a big thing and there are some biting words which kind of tell the story for me that maybe it wasn’t the nicest, cleanest farewell, but yeah, it’s crazy. I do think that being in the band has enriched my life so much, almost just for the people I’ve got to spend so much time with. I would suggest if anyone out there listening wants to play music, find people that you trust and care about and that care about as much as you, and then go make some stuff and it’s so good.
M: It’ Ain’t Easy is next. Another one with banjo on it, so what can you tell me about that one.
C: Pascal sings the opening section, he takes the lead, this is the first time we’ve delegated that and he sounds great and he sings the choruses in the song too.
M: I imagine one of the reasons that you can’t have him singing all the time is because it’s very difficult to sing with a violin stuck to your chin.
C: He does, y’know that rhythm you hear in the chorus, he does that and plays and plays it live. He can, and all of those harmonies that you hear and those violin parts that you hear, while we adapt them to a trio format, he does them at the same time as singing. And this song’s just a nice simple one. It’s just about a girl that you really like that is on the other side of the world and you’re not there. It’s just a nice, happy story. There had to be some.
M: I like it, the fact that the happy song is the one when you’re actually not together with the person that they’re so far away that nothing bad can happen.
C: You wanna go be with them, so that is a positive thing, I think.
M: Now track eight is called Something In The Way, it’s not the same as the James Taylor song of the same name.
C: No, it’s not like The Beatles song either. Something, man that word is ….
M: If I’m not mistaken, George Harrison lifted the line from the James Taylor, cause James Taylor was signed to Apple Records at the time in 1968 he released his first album on Apple and poor George is always kind of soaking up these phrases and lines and then regurgitating into his own songs and he got sued at one point for doing that, but not for this one, but anyway, I digress because I do. You obviously didn’t, or the band didn’t, so tell me where it came from.
C: This is a funny one, so if I remember the track list, the next song may be about the same person, but it’s another break-up tune but it’s sort of knowing that it could’ve been and even though you feel and both of you know how you’re feeling, there’s a connection there and the things really good, it’s other reasons that make you decide to split up, and that is just a weird space. It’s a weird feeling to have because there’s nothing really you can do about that, it sort of just sucks a little bit and you wish it was different and you want it to be different and you can’t.
M: It’s an older song right? Like it’s been around for a couple of years? Cause I do remember hearing it back in the day.
C: Yeah, that’s probably true. I think it’s about the same era that Story was written, I think Story’s the next song.
M: It is yes.
C: About the same time pretty much about the same person.
M: Ok, let’s segue right into Story.
C: This is one of our favourite songs. I think I can probably tell people now, but we’ve recorded a music video for this.
M: Oh you did?
C: We did. We just chose a song that we loved and worked with a director that loved it and the video is looking very cool.
M: Where did you shoot it?
C: Well she shot it, Gail Hockman, just out South Auckland. I’m gonna leave the rest to be a bit of a secret.
M: When are we gonna be able to see it?
C: It’s gonna be late August.
M: Alright, well that’s not too far away. We’re early August now.
C: Yes, it’s only a couple of weeks away.
M: So what is the story behind Story?
C: Ah the story behind Story very good. So the same partner. She is one of my best friends in the world and again it’s another post relationship thing. But when the relationship ends and you’re really disappointed about that but you can only see good things that happen when the both of you were together. So it’s sort of like a melancholic look at that and like a thank you or think back on that really nice time and that’s almost why it’s more heartbreaking I think, because you can see so much ….
M: But it’s better than bitterness and recrimination don’t you think?
C: Absolutely, I think it’s just a tinge sadder there.
M: It’s like, doggone it, should have worked.
C: Yeah, and that even though it didn’t, what a nice, nice time and that’s what that song’s about, nice and simple.
M: We’re down to the last one, which is called Canyon, track ten. More banjo?
C: More banjo, this is probably the closest to a pop song I think we’ve written and this is about a friend called Zarach. He is this guitarist and we got a band together and I just toured with him over in Europe and he is the most determined, thoughtful, driven person that I know. He is going after his goal of just being an amazing, eclectic guitarist and when he performs, not in the style of, but you could compare it to Tommy Emmanuel where he has his arrangements and he talks with the crowd and it’s so charismatic and so lovely and we do everything independently here at Albi And The Wolves and sometimes I wind up with a lot of book work and the harder things when stuff doesn’t quite go to plan and when you’ve been working by yourself for a couple of days, that can be really hard, especially to stay driven and to stay focused and energised, so this song is about realising that there are other people, especially for me there’s this one, that is working just as hard at his own goal and a path that I can relate to, and it’s just great to know someone like that, that is a wonderful blessing.
M: It is a very positive and upbeat song to end the album with. Do you think in terms of the whole album and how you want the songs to flow from beginning to end?
C: I really care about it. But we’re in an age where I don’t think it’s as relevant as it used to be.
M: Well y’know people keep saying that, but then again every time I talk to somebody who makes an album, they still say the same thing that they think of it in terms of an album and they still want it to make sense.
C: I want it to be a body of work. I want it all to relate. But I mean we’re such a live performance band so we don’t play with setlists we just get up and if we’ve got a two hour set then maybe we figure out the first two and then we just go, we just play, and roll with whatever feels right and there has to be arcs and there has to points along the way. So you know the road map, but you don’t know what cities you’re gonna pass through and so when I came to thinking about the album, I was kind of thinking like that and taking some of those things we’ve learnt, some of those cues. Yeah, we just at round a table, it didn’t take us too long to do actually.
M: That’s cool, the three of you must have a similar mindset and a common idea of what you expect from Albi And The Wolves. Would that be a fair statement?
C: No, not at all. We are three very different individuals. For three sort of I guess white people that have been brought up in a similar class whatever, our upbringing, we are so incredibly different in the type of music we all listen to, how we approach music, how we approach harmony ideas it’s wildly different. That was actually one of Scott’s, the biggest things that he did. He sat down and essentially negotiated between different band members, how to make everyone happy, how to create the sound that everyone liked and that took a lot of compromise and a lot of thought.
M: It doesn’t sound like it would work, I mean it sounds like it’s an awful lot of hard work and it’s like making music by committee but doesn’t sound like that on the record.
C: In the rehearsal room, it’s not like that either. We just have quite a simple system, there’s three of us so if there’s two votes then that’s the idea and you just let it go and if someone really feels passionate and they can explain why, sometimes we’ll just go with it, but while we’re always going to the drawing board, once we’ve made a call we stick with it and we’ll play that idea in. It’s unique what we have, we’re all able to talk quite openly, I think that’s part of why this album is so eclectic because no two ideas come from the same place.
M: So the band’s gonna hit the road promoting the album?
C: Yeah, we’ve kind of started the tour already so we’ve played two of the shows. I do have a bit of a sad announcement, we aren’t going to the States any longer. That’s really disappointing but just logistically it just couldn’t work out. It’s really a massive ordeal what we wanted to do but we are following through with everything else, we’ve got Dashville Skyline in Australia which we’re playing alongside Wagons and Archer and Tami Neilson, that’s gonna be magical. We’re in Rarotonga in two weeks we’re doing a bunch of gigs there and then we are travelling around most of the major centres, we’ve got Hastings, Hamilton, Nelson, Auckland, and the Mussel Inn, that’s such a wonderful place to play and that’s what we’re doing in the next couple of months.
M: Sounds like it’s fun
C: It’s a hoot.
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