ALESTORM – “There Always Has Been This Underbelly Of Idiocy”
May 29, 2020, a month ago
Bombastic, at times ridiculous yet utterly entertaining, Alestorm have become a global fan favourite with their tried and true form of pirate metal with more than a few punt loads of satire and laughs. Led by the incomparable Christopher Bowes, the Scottish formed group have embraced the silly side of heavy metal ahead of the release of their sixth studio album, Curse of the Crystal Coconut, dropping May 29th through Napalm Records. Bowes caught up – albeit remotely – with BraveWords for a deep dive into the comic evolution of the band, forming connections outside of music, and leaving it all on stage in a haze of sweat and booze.
BraveWords: With the global pandemic shutting down concerts and tours worldwide, and with many in isolation, an album like Curse Of The Crystal Coconut really is coming at a perfect time.
Christopher Bowes: “I feel like there’s gonna be a lot of bands putting out a lot of introspective sort of gloomy music. This sort of apocalyptic sort of sadness to it. But we’re like, no, let’s not do that, let’s make happy songs. You know, it’s what we’ve always been about. Happy, fun, party music is what we do. Nothing really too grim happens in our lives personally. So it’s like we don’t have much sadness to draw on, so we just can’t do it. I feel like happy music is always the best thing in sad times. You try to cheer yourself up basically. Don’t get deeper into that hole with really grim depressive stuff.”
BraveWords: How liberating is it to be completely foolish in your stage performance and in your songwriting? Very few bands can get away with some of the things you guys write and sing about.
Christopher Bowes: “There was a time when we started that we didn’t quite know what our place was in the world as a band. Let’s just do this pirate thing seriously and you try to stay in character and ‘ahoy me hearties let’s drink rum!’ But it quickly turned out that was difficult. It’s difficult to pretend to be serious when you’re not, and it’s easier just to be honest to yourself and say yeah, we’re just dorks. Here’s a funny joke. It’s a giant duck! Let’s go! It makes it a lot easier for us. It’s almost like a coping mechanism for the horrendous lifestyle that we find ourselves in, getting drunk every night and living on a bus. It’s good.”
BraveWords: With this album it really does feel like you guys have fully embraced the silliness and fuck it, let’s just have fun philosophy that started a few years back. Was there a turning point where you realized as a band that you knew this was the right direction?
Christopher Bowes: “We started out with our first album and it was pretty straight. There wasn’t much in the way of jokes on it. Obviously it was all over-the-top pirating stuff. But then it came to our fourth album and we wrote that song ‘Drink’, and it’s like we had this sort of magical formula. That song, it was the biggest we’d ever done. It totally eclipsed every other song we’ve ever done by like a factor of 10. And it’s like, OK, this is clearly what we should be doing. People say they want serious songs about pirates, but the statistics say people want three minute party songs about getting drunk. So let’s do that because this sounds like hell of a lot more fun and, a lot less effort. After that we leaned in hard on just being dumb.
“That album we did the song ‘Magnetic North’, which is ostensibly a serious song. But the music video we just went complete nonsense on that. People always mention that song as one of our good serious songs. But really ‘Magnetic North’, it’s actually a cover of ‘Telephone’ by Lady Gaga, just rearranged into a non-copyright infringing way. Like if you go on YouTube and search ‘magnetic telephone’, those two words together, they mashup those two songs at same time. They line up exactly perfectly. It’s the same chords, same structure, the same rhythm. It’s a pop song. It’s a dumb pop song. Even then, we’re making dumb jokes about pop music and people still think we’re serious. So there always has been this underbelly of idiocy. But in recent years we’ve been emboldened to say, fuck it, let’s make the funniest shit front and center, because that’s what people like. We’re just here to entertain people. So we give them what they want, really.”
BraveWords: It can be argued with some of your biggest singles that you really have adopted that pop song structure, which has led to some of your biggest successes.
Christopher Bowes: “Most metal is written in such a haphazard way. It’s just thrown together. It’s not crafted. Our riffs are quite simple. We don’t make technical riffs, but the way we craft the songs, put them together, that’s the real magic of good efficient songwriting is trying to combine everything together in a pop music way. A lot of metalheads go ‘pop is just stupid, easy music. You press the one button on the computer and it makes a song, whereas metal is the real complicated music’. Metal is fucking child’s play compared to writing pop songs. Pop is hard. The bar is so high to write a pop song. You have to do everything right. Every single second of your song counts. Like you have to analyze it and say why is this happening now? Should I delete two seconds from this song because everything counts?
“We always try to structure things and you have to have this nice sort of flow, the way it grows into the chorus and the hook, whatever. But you can’t stick around for too long with anything. You’ve got to go do something different, but then come back to what you’re doing. You gotta be real clever to write pop music. It’s hard, but when it works, oh my God does it work! It’s like you suddenly hit this golden formula and the song just shines. People think they don’t like it. Metalheads love to think, I hate pop. They love pop. They just don’t realize it. All their favorite songs of the modern metal era are just pop music put together with distorted guitar to make you think it’s like metal. It’s a real challenge to write songs.”
BraveWords: With Alestorm and Gloryhammer (power metal band formed by Bowes), there has always been a strong mythology and creative feel surrounding both groups. You’ve been able to create characters and almost worlds for these projects that fans can really invest in outside of just regular music.
Christopher Bowes: “Yeah, it’s great. It’s definitely a way to get people really into your band by giving them a story to follow along with it. With Gloryhammer, people are all about the characters ... people don’t get that involved with regular music. It’s almost like the story is more important than the song. The thing is with Gloryhammer, it’s written the same way as Alestorm. A lot of that symphonic power metal, it’s badly written like. The music just meanders. It goes on and on and on. Yeah, there’s cool orchestra things, but it lasts forever and timing is off and it’s boring. With Gloryhammer the idea was to take those symphonic sounds and the high-pitched wailing vocals, but apply it to pop music structures. You get these, again, perfectly crafted put together songs, but with the orchestra. You think you’re listing to some virtuosic symphonic masterpiece. You’re just listening to pop music with an orchestra, basically. I love that whole story thing. I think it’s a shame in a way that Alestorm doesn’t have that much of a story apart from pirates and occasional references like dog barks and things. But I’ve considered writing a concept album, going on with a big story. That can be quite cool actually to get some characters in there that are recurring and maybe make it a story. That would be pretty advanced. Maybe I’ll do that next time.
“I’ve often thought with Gloryhammer with these spinoff things, like how cool would it be, because the band is like five main characters, to do like a spin off where each of the individual characters goes off on their own adventure? It could be that the Captain America to Gloryhammer’s Avengers, you know, like individual characters all come together. That’d be amazing. It’s just having a big larger than life world. There is the brand which is more than just the songs really. There’s everything that comes along with it. The merchandising is great. We made a little statue action figures of some of the characters for Gloryhammer and there is going to be so much more wild shit happening there I’m sure. You know, it’s definitely cool having the whole world to play in and to make music inside of.”
BraveWords: Take us back to your early days discovering heavy metal. Were you a fan early on? What were some of your gateway bands or artists?
Christopher Bowes: “I’ve always been a piano/keyboard player. I grew up, went to school, got some piano lessons and learned the piano. Could never play the guitar, wasn’t any good at it. I’ve tried but I can’t play it, so I grew up as a piano player. I liked metal music and I think ah shucks because there’s no keyboards in metal. It’s all about guitar riffs. Then I discovered this band called Bal-Sagoth, like an English extreme symphonic metal band. It’s all kind of Lovecraftian lyrics. Kind of a slightly more melodic Dimmu Borgir kind of thing. And I was blown away because like, holy shit, here’s a band where the keyboards are like front and center leading everything and the guitars are just an accompaniment. But it’s like, wow, you can play keyboards in a metal band? That’s insane. So I really got into that whole world. And then I discovered this whole symphonic power metal thing with bands like Rhapsody, symphonic folky ballads like Turisas, where the keyboard riffs are important. And I think, oh my God. It was so life-changing for me, realizing that I could be in a metal band and play keyboards. And it just got me thinking, I’m going to write songs, I’m going to write metal songs on my fucking keyboard. And that was the whole thing that got me started on doing everything I do these days because of this old keyboard based silly music. I was never a fan of like thrash or classic heavy metal. I barely heard any Iron Maiden songs by the time I was 18. That just wasn’t on my radar. But like all this crazy keyboard metal was just my world.”
BraveWords: The big takeaway surrounding Alestorm for me has always been how much fun it seems you’re having. The music videos, the live shows, it always seems like a blast. Live performances, in particular, are so wild and unpredictable.
Christopher Bowes: “We don’t really choreograph what happens on stage. We just go up there, do fun things. We will make a little joke to each other ... it’s always exciting. It’s always fun. Very rarely does it suck. There are some shows where everyone has a shit day and you go up there and you think it’s too hot, this crowd is dull and this venue sucks. I just want to get off and go to bed. Most of the time it’s just this great time. And it’s because the whole thing is about having a party. The fans generally are all get drunk and singing alone. We have a drink or two or three or four on stage and it descends into chaos.”