Interview A Grave With No Name: ‘I’m Glad That I’m Not a Natural Musician’

Alexander Shields talks to Jake May about his third album, ‘Whirlpool’.

Despite all of their allure, elusiveness and mystery, people in bands are ultimately just that - people. It’s easy to forget and get caught up in the hype, but a human being is a human being and music is just something that they ‘do’. With an artist like A Grave With No Name, centred on London musician Alexander Shields who until this new album has worked very much alone, you imagine a quiet, independent man who keeps himself to himself and spends 99% of his time writing songs in his bedroom. As it turns out, surprise surprise, Alex is actually a funny, friendly, normal human being.

Speaking on the phone from his sister’s house where her kids are running around playing in the background, he speaks of his art thoughtfully and passionately. The majority of our thirty minute conversation centres around his project’s forthcoming third album, which hears Alex working in a very different way to what we’d usually expect. In the past Alex worked very much alone. On ‘Whirlpool’, out 1st July on Stare Records, we hear Alex team up with some pretty talented friends - including Linda Jarvis (Echo Lake), Akiko Matsuura (Comanechi) and Alanna McArdle (Ides).

‘It’s stimulating and at the same time it’s quite worrying,’ Alex says of putting himself in creative position that he’s less used to and comfortable with. ‘I think if something doesn’t come naturally to you, and I don’t think collaboration and being that communicative does come that naturally to me, you start to question your motives and perhaps the process as well. It feels much less personal, and that maybe challenges the validity of it. But I think now it’s finished and I can see the end result - that’s been a good experiment and it worked.

Worked it certainly has - ‘Whirlpool’ is a very strong album. Unlike previous records (‘When we started out people said that we sound like Animal Collective, then My Bloody Valentine and then Deerhunter’), it’s difficult to draw too many comparisons. This is clean, crisp, experimental pop.

As well as working with others, Alex thinks the fact he’s now a better musician also increases this artistic palette. ‘When I started out I genuinely couldn’t play guitar until the end of the song. I had to use building blocks of sound quite a lot of the time and it was a real, real struggle to play the chords or lead parts. And obviously over the process of doing something for however many years you become naturally better at it… In a way I’m glad that I’m not a natural musician. You don’t ever want to become clinical in assembling art.’

That’s not to say Alex doesn’t have high standards, as he talks excitedly about his plans for the future. ‘I just want to make that masterpiece record,’ he says pretty much out of nowhere. ‘I’m very into albums. The things I listen to - The Microphones, Sparklehorse - and there are just back-to-back masterpieces that reward you every single time you listen to them. It’s so exciting that I can still have my chance to make one of those. That’s what I want to do in the future. I’m not saying I have the talent to do that or I will do that. But that’s what I want to aim to do.’

On top of a new album release and plans to write a masterpiece, Alex is also set to head out with a full band on a European tour with Youth Lagoon - this for a band which, originally, never set out to play live. ‘I think it’s really stupid,’ Alex says of playing live bluntly and to the point. ‘It’s not something that comes naturally to me… I’m not a very good musician. I almost feel like [artists playing live] is showing off, and has very little do with what I find creatively rewarding.

So why the exception? ‘I just think, creatively, I thought it’d be cool to explore going out to play the record as well as possible, being well rehearsed. Again [like collaborating] a kind of creative experiment. Because I’ve never understood what rewards that might reap. I just want to experience that sensation of almost clinically assembling a band and playing a record as well as possible rather than just bashing it out with a backing track or as a three-piece with loads of distortion, as I’ve done in the past.’

On the topic of collaborating, I note that he must feel lucky to have such talented friends that he can just call up and ask for help. ‘They’re lucky that they’re my friend more like’ he says, clearly with a massive grin on his face. A normal, funny guy who happens to make music. Who’d have thought it?

‘Whirlpool’ is out 1st July via Stare Records.

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