Some words with Alana West from Hideous Towns

By Tom Barry

Photos by (l)James Hull and (r)Natalia Chipollo

You’ve mentioned at times you’ve turned up to a gig Hideous Towns are playing and felt like other people on the bill have just assumed you are someone’s girlfriend. How does the reaction differ once they realise you are actually the charismatic front woman of the band?

Yes, there have been numerous occasions when the bands have been introducing themselves pre-show and all the guys in Hideous Towns get a handshake except myself. However, after we have played the people that didn’t previously acknowledge my existence pat me on the back, compliment the set, offer me a drink or even try to make a pass at me. It’s interesting to notice the difference. It used to upset me, but now I find it slightly humorous. Once they see me under the lights, all dressed up and seemingly confident, an idea develops in some people’s minds. Sometimes, once they discover the reality, which is that I don’t always look or feel that way, it eventually goes back to how it began, if you know what I mean?

You guys seem like a really tight unit. Regardless of that, do you think it’s more of a struggle getting your opinion across being the sole female in the group, or does that not even come in to it?

We are extremely close and strive to work together as equally as possible in terms of creation, vision and representation. Although I believe that this is something that has improved over time. In the beginning it was difficult, as the guys had already been working on songs for about 6 months, so when I joined the band they had already developed songs and perhaps even an idea of what direction they would like to go towards. There have been times where I have had to be really quite stern with them. For example when we were choosing band names they suggested The Smears and I basically said “absolutely not”. There has only been one time that I have felt as though it was ‘guys against girl’ and that was when we had an interview with Dan Watt on BeatTV and it kinda just happened without my knowing. So when I got home I angrily said to Ryan “It’s like you guys have a boys club.” Ryan explained to me though that they thought I had to work. To top it off, in the interview it got brought up that I wasn’t there and Dan asked about my lyrics and one of the guys said “She has a big book” to which Dan replied “Are all the pages stuck together?” This seemed to imply something unintelligently offensive. In our early days my compositional suggestions were reluctantly considered. I guess it’s easy to assume that singers and musicians are separate. I used to think that too, which definitely was a hindrance to my confidence as a musician. I didn’t even consider myself a musician until recently. There were times when I would make a suggestion and it would immediately be rejected. I had to gain a type of musical trust from the other members before we could get to where we are now. I had to prove to them that I was capable of playing an instrument, that I had a fair amount of musical knowledge and an ability to make music. At the end of last year we went to a beach house for a few days to make some songs and it was the first time where I felt as though we were working in a much more equal manner.

Architect of Reality is also an interesting project of yours. Do you think there’s a different side you need to express that isn’t let out in Hideous Towns?

The thing is, I like all types of music. Well, all except Aussie hip hop and modern country and western. So yes, I need to musically release myself in other ways that expand the borders of the band. I used to find it extremely frustrating being pocketed into the shoegaze genre because at the time I didn’t even value shoegaze music. Like most people I began to gain an interest in the genre starting with My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless album and I’ve been developing an appreciation for the sound ever since, but by no means is it my favourite genre. I still to this day do not consider Hideous Towns a shoegaze band. Especially vocally, as shoegaze singers are often sonically incoherent, overpowered by the instruments and ever so meek. My singing desires and style come from the complete opposite spectrum of that, as my strongest vocal influence began and still remains with soul music. As much as I appreciate being in a band with four minds, I sometimes need to just do whatever I musically please. Because i’ve had all the creative control within my other artistic pursuits e.g. choreography and video editing, I have found collaboration a challenge. Fortunately, my ability to artistically compromise has improved over time.

What are some of the most positive experiences you’ve had so far playing in Hideous Towns?

I would say meeting people. Being in a band has given me a sense of belonging. People within the music community have been so welcoming towards us. I don’t know if it’s luck or location but we have been really blessed with the people that have taken a liking to us. Jack Crook from Contrast has always shown so much support. He was the one who connected us with Mathew Hosking from VHS Dream, who is pretty much our permanent recorder and mixer. I must say that once we had the powers of Crook and Hosking behind us, things progressed fairly fluidly. I also feel extremely fortunate to have met the other members of Hideous Towns, Ashley Stirling, Chris MacLean and Ryan DeCoite. They have been so good to me. We became so close so quickly. I moved in with Chris and Ryan after just a month of knowing them and we just clicked. It’s been two years and we still live together. When the four of us got together, I became a more grounded person. I think that’s the beauty of masculine energy. Having them in my life has given me a sense of protection. I feel like I’ve got three body guards.

I find the idea of being onstage without an instrument quite daunting, but you seem to be completely comfortable and at home on stage singing. How does this on-stage version of you differ from your daily interactions?

I must admit that sometimes I find it slightly uncomfortable being on stage only holding a microphone. I’m so used to relying on movement. I wish I had an instrument to hold. As a dancer, you become tremendously aware of your placement on stage. So the only discomfort I experience comes from the hyper awareness of the position of my body and whether or not it is visually appealing, especially in conjunction with the other three bodies on stage. Because I am not moving very much I find the placement of the arms awkward. I usually wear something that has a pocket, so in moments of uncertainty I can just put my hand in there. I’ve been performing for 17 years and have studied the performing arts at a tertiary level for a decade, so when I sing with the band I try to manifest some of that knowledge into action. Something that is crucial to me as a performer is connecting with the audience. I do this by taking note of my surroundings, even the smallest details. What colours do I see? What are the textures? What is the energy? Once I become aware of my environment, I can then decipher how much energy I can give to the audience and therefore receive. It all comes from the eyes. In ballet I was taught to look out as if I were looking into the universe to create an expansive sensation within the room. I would say that my stage demeanour is strong, calm and confident but sometimes in my daily interactions I can come across as shy, anxious or even vulnerable. I can be completely off in another world, distracted by worries and concerns but I was always told to leave all your personal issues off the stage. It’s something that’s been ingrained in me as a performance rule. When I step onto the stage I separate myself from my current issues and focus entirely on the music, audience and lyrics.

I feel like you guys could be the sort of band that could inspire a whole lot of different people to make music. Where and how far would you like to take it?

That is lovely of you to say and to be honest, inspiring people is one of the main reasons why I am a performer, in conjunction with the fact that music is my life and I would get pretty depressed if I didn’t have an outlet of expression and creativity. I want to take us as far as possible. I would drop pretty much anything to make it work. In the beginning I used to say to Chris that we should all move to London but I see more and more everyday that Melbourne is exactly where I want us to be in the present moment. I guess my plan is to put a lot of energy into the band and to enjoy it while it lasts. However, I don’t think I’ll ever live without making music.