This interview is week 5 of Sean Claes' 52 Weeks of Austin Music Interviews.
Alpha Rev Gets back to their Roots
Playing four Tuesdays in February at Saxon Pub
By Sean Claes
Alpha Rev, formed in 2005, has been high on my personal list of “local bands to interview” for a good number of years. In 2007 I saw them open for Blue October at Stubb's, and they really impressed me musically and lyrically. Lead vocalist Casey McPherson has a fantastic way with words, he truly writes poems set to music.
In 2010, Alpha Rev was signed to a major label and released New Morning and had a modest National hit with the title track, which reached #3 on the Triple A charts.
Since then, they have parted ways with the major label and have come back to their... well… roots. With 2011’s City Farm: Roots, McPherson and company took the reigns back on their career and musical direction, and if the EP proves one things, it’s as long as you love what you’re doing and treat fans right, anything is possible in music.
Alpha Rev includes Casey McPherson (vocals, guitar, piano), Alex Dunlap (bass), Drew Walters (bass) Brian Batch (violin), Dave Wiley (cello), Derek Morris (keyboard, accordion), Zak Loy (guitar), Tabber Millard (drums, vocals)
And, McPherson is the epitome of coming out the good side of bad situations, he has had his share of tragedy happen in his life, from family members deaths to the implosion of his former band, Endochine, to learning to be an indie band again.
I had the chance to interview McPherson, and we talked about the past, his songwriting, and the four week stint Alpha Rev is doing, playing every Tuesday, this month at The Saxon Pub.
Claes: The name Alpha Rev loosely means “beginning something new.” You began the band after his previous project, Endochine, broke up in 2005. Can you tell me more about the name?
Casey McPherson: I love Latin and Greek prefixes/suffixes. "Alpha" meaning one, or the beginning, and "rev" which is such a great prefix to so many words like revolve, revolution, revolt.
Endochine was an amazing band, but we really self-imploded… mostly because of my self-destructiveness and torment during those days. Ironically enough, the name "Endochine" came from "endo" and "chine" which roughly translates into "to explode from within"
Claes: In between the 2010s New Morning and 2011’s City Farm: Roots Alpha Rev parted ways with Hollywood Records. What’s the story there?
McPherson: Ha. Just ask Fastball, Bob Schneider, and the 98% of other bands that sign to major labels. Many of the staff were incredibly great people, but we were not the right fit for them. I remember when the General Manager asked me "you wanna be star don't ya?!?" That's when I knew something had gone terribly wrong.
They did a great job with New Morning, and now we're on to the next release and soon a new label. So many bands go through so many different labels in their lifespan. All in all, it was a great experience.
Claes: City Farm Roots is decidedly different from your previous efforts. The songs are scaled back and stripped down. Was this the plan going into the recording process?
McPherson: Yes. I needed a "creative recording bath" so to speak. After spending over 180k on a record, making it twice over, 3 months of pre-production and a slew of people telling me what I should or shouldn't do on the past release, I wanted to do a record based around simplicity and sustainability.
Claes: The album was also recorded live, each song having the full band play in a single take.
McPherson: Yes. It was important to me to know where we were at as a band. It's a great way to find out if you get rid of auto tuners, edits, and building your tracks. We kept a tally of who screwed up a take, and whoever had the least screw ups, won $100. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I had made the most mistakes out of everyone in the band.
Claes: You actually took to the fans for pledges in order to release the new EP. How did this idea arise?
McPherson: My friend Michelle (Nehme) was raising money for her film on sex trafficking in America, specifically focused on Texas (www.tradeinhope.com). She asked me to do the score and showed me her pledge page. It made perfect sense. Our fans were amazingly supportive, and it really renewed my faith in one of the simplest, most powerful relationships... the fans and the music.
Claes: A portion of the money raised went to Trade in Hope and another charity, Mental Health America of Texas (MHAT).
McPherson: Trade In Hope, I mentioned earlier. They are going to be making big waves in the arena of sex trafficking.
MHAT is an amazing mental health organization that I have the honor of serving on the board of. We primarily focus on mental health information and resources in schools, facilitate training programs, and fiercely lobby for Texas laws to cultivate quality mental health for all of us here. They keep me out of trouble.
Claes: Tell me about “Lonely Man” which is a track off the EP.
McPherson: " Lonely Man" was originally written by the Texas Ukulele King. I was so moved by the lyrics, and consider the topic so pertinent to relationships in our day and age, that I took his version and rearranged it to fit how I felt the tune. I guess in some ways, this story is always a reminder in the back of my mind when I think about my wife, and my future children.
Claes: I think my favorite track on City Farm Roots is “Stop Tryin.”
McPherson: So much about being in a band can be about trying so hard that you feel like you're fighting. Fighting against the odds, fighting to get a deal, fighting to get a gig, and sometimes just fighting to prove yourself to the people around you.
I feel, as of late, that the fighting really isn't that important. Sometimes, just doing the right next thing in front of you is enough. “Stop Tryin” is a kind of poem to that sentiment.
Claes: Do you have a favorite track off the new EP?
McPherson: I think “Black Sky” is one of my favorites. I really wasn't sure what the song was about at first, but a filmmaker, Raymond Schlogel, here in town shot a bunch of footage during the Bastrop fires and put it to the song, it's as if that song was written for it before it happened. The band was almost in tears when we saw it.
Claes: Your fans seem to be more personal than average music fans, and you seem cultivate that relationship well. How important is this connection?
McPherson: It's extremely important, they support me, and I support them. Mutually inclusive. They've allowed me to make a living at my trade for many years now.
Claes: The lyrics of Alpha Rev songs can actually stand alone as poems. What comes first, the words or the music?
McPherson: Usually a melody, and if I'm lucky, words will follow. If they don't, I usually sit and star at a blank page for longer than I'd like to admit.
Claes: You’ve been through some amazing tragedies in your life with the suicides of your father and brother. How did you rise above the demons and channel your tragedy into such amazing music?
McPherson: I have no idea, I feel like I was pulled out of the quick sand by angels. It took a long time, but they got me out before I suffocated.
Tragedy will break us all at some point, but I believe, it's what we do with our brokenness that defines its affect on our lives.
“I’ve taken too much, given up / I am twisted, burning, breaking up / I need to find a way of letting it go / when everything falls apart.” – Phoenix Burn
Claes: You write some pretty personal stories into your music. Do you ever write something that is just too personal to share, or is the sharing part of the therapeutic moving forward.
McPherson: Music can be such a healing force if we can look past the trends and dive into the sound and spirit of it. I'm sure I have a few songs that I would never release publicly, but, for the most part, I've always been an open book.
Claes: Austin artist William K. Stidham painted you as a part of his “Sacred Heart of Austin” series. What did this mean to you?
McPherson: Bill is an incredible human being. He exudes light. It was humbling that he was inspired to include me, and it was more affirmation that whatever was flowing through me was a good thing.
Claes: Back to music… do you have a favorite song that you’ve recorded?
McPherson: Yeah, it's called "Arches of Freedom" I've only performed it live once at Riverbend Church here in Austin. They wrote arrangements for a choir, orchestra and band. I think you can find it on the Internet somewhere....
Claes: While on Hollywood Records, in 2010 the track “New Morning” took the band on a heck of a ride, peaking on the VH1 Top 20 Video Countdown at #7 and cracked the top 100 on Billboard. What’s the story behind that track?
McPherson: It's so strange when something catches on. I've spent hours trying to write a hit song, whatever that is, and they pick the one that I wrote in 15 minutes. Go figure.
Claes: I caught you when you played a surprise set at Texas Rockfest in 2010. How’d you end up gracing the stage last year?
McPherson: Adam (Brewer), the founder of Rockfest, is the rebel of Austin with a heart of gold. He always keeps an unofficial spot open for me.
Claes: You were tapped to play SXSW again this year. How important is it to continue to represent yourself in your hometown at this festival?
McPherson: I don't know. SXSW is a conference, one of the largest music conferences in the world. I think it's great to get everyone potentially on your team (agents, managers, attorneys, publicists, promoters, labels, ect) to hear and hang.
I remember the first time Endochine, applied to SXSW for a showcase, we sent in a 5 min long song called "Fire" with air sirens and cricket sounds for the first two minutes of it, and we couldn't figure out why they wouldn't pick us.
Claes: In February you are playing every Tuesday at Saxon Pub. What can we look forward to hearing?
McPherson: New stuff, old stuff, and probably a little more laid back personal show.
Claes:If you could book Alpha Rev to a “dream” line-up of bands, who would you play with?
McPherson: Sigur Ros, Willie Nelson, and Pink Floyd.
Who are some of your favorite Austin bands?
McPherson: Soldier Thread, Johnny Goudie's band "Liars and Saints," and who can't dance to Asleep at the Wheel?
Claes: Anything to add?
McPherson: Yes, as my ole' friend Tuk says, "Don't let reality stand in the way of your dreams."
Note: Tuk = “Texas Ukulele King”
Catch Alpha Rev live acoustic tonight (2/7) or the next three Tuesdays in February at The Saxon Pub, or on 2/28 at The Oasis on Lake Travis. Find them online at http://alpharev.com.