Alaskalaska is a British band that was formed in 2016 when Lucinda Duarte-Holman (lead singer, guitarist and songwriter), Fraser Rieley (bassist and producer), and Calum Duncan (guitarist) were studying pop music at Goldsmiths University. They were then joined by saxophonist Fraser Smith and drummer Gethin Jones. The band has spent the last few years curating a sound that is unique and replayable. They refuse to be categorized and refuse to streamline the way we think about difficult topics. Through not simplifying complicated concepts and taking advantage of the freedom granted by not being confined to a certain genre, ALASKALASKA released one of the most sonically and lyrically ambitious albums of 2019. I had the opportunity to meet with the band before their show at The Hug and Pint in Glasgow.
The Dots is a follow up to their 2017 self-titled EP. The album benefits from having time to experiment with broader sounds and subjects. According to Calum, “When you’re releasing singles and EPs, it’s not a lot of space to work with. So whether consciously or not, you're thinking like you want to win people over. You feel the need to sum yourself up in a little four minute, five minute chunk of time.” He explained the benefits of making an album, “When you make a record, in 45 minutes to an hour you can do loads of stuff. There’s a song on the record called Sweat - it’s a lot of people’s favorites it’s probably my favorite as well - it’s something that’s hard to get away with on an EP…. Because, you can actually get a bit of time to reflect on it, work out what you sound like. That’s why an album is really good, and that’s why it’s still such a relevant format.”
Narratively, each song makes sense as a standalone, but contributes more to the overarching theme. The album plays like a series of reactions to complex concepts and the questions they introduce. ‘The Dots’, the album’s introduction track, plays a conversation where Lucinda sings “lover, boy I’ve had a rough day / That ole' muscle in my chest, can you take it away? / So easy to get caught up, stuck repeating the same phase / Remembering to join up the dots before I lose my way.” After a tough day, Lucinda reminds herself to connect the dots.
These “dots” are the topics of each of the album’s songs, and Lucinda sees their connection as her story. She expands this, “I think there’s a bit of a story that connects the dots... it’s as simple as that really. I mean most of the songs are about my experience over the last two or three years... Like you know there’s this weird balancing thing where we’re constantly trying to piece together and connect one bit to another…. It’s always connected in some way... Constantly remind yourself. The actual song ‘The Dots’ is about that. It goes full circle.”
‘Meateater’ begins with Lucinda clarifying the band’s philosophy with a single idea. “Put me in this box like you always do, lock it up”. She sings about the idea of being pigeonholed, and follows with a confused reaction to why we try to constrict others. She later sings, “Cruel so cruel / it’s black and white and it’s feeling good / so how did you find that being?” Lucinda asserts that binary terms can appease the stress or tension caused by a situation’s complexity, but it’s inhumane. She then questions the origins of this thought process. The rejection of simplification doesn’t just apply to how ALASKALASKA is viewed, but to how they view the world around them. This makes ‘Meateater” the perfect lead single.
The busier songs on The Dots present an interesting juxtaposition of lighter sounding tracks with heavy subjects. ‘Moon’, a song about navigating difficult PMS, is infectiously danceable. Lucinda speaks on this juxtaposition, “It’s nice to surprise people. It’s also nice to have that deeper meaning, but it’s not like you have to read into that meaning if you don’t want to. Have a dance if you want to have a dance. It’s a fun contrast.” Fraser chimes in, “I think it’s important to have something people can enjoy on different levels if they want to... Hopefully they’ll just listen to all of it and enjoy it. That usually doesn’t happen. It’s hard to find the balance between making something that you’re proud of and is relevant and unique.”
‘Bees’ presents this juxtaposition with its music video. It features cat videos amongst other meme-like clips yet is about the cyclical nature of consumerism. These clips are a light way to present and clarify the song’s more urgent message. Lucinda explains, “I wanted the lyrics to be very backed up by the imagery as well. I wanted that to be very, poignant…. There are a lot of cats in there. It’s a contrast between this really serious stuff going on and having the comic video backing it up.” The video’s imagery both clarifies the song’s message to continue questioning our actions as consumers and makes it digestible by featuring goofy videos, without undermining the subject’s complexity.
ALASKALASKA is confident in their musical identity, even when dipping their toes in different genres. They actually find comfort in not being confined. When discussing genres, Calum asserts, “It doesn’t matter. Unless you’re in HMV looking for a record, it doesn’t matter. It’s more of a categorization thing That’s the only use it has really. And there’s always a danger of sounding too contrived if you try to aim the band to firmly in one place.” Not identifying with a genre has given the band more freedom to experiment in the recording process. Lucinda chimes in, “It was encouraged if you’ve got an idea, just throw it in, try it! We joke about a sample or baseline, but let’s try it. Do it! It’s fun. It just makes it a bit more exciting.”
Their confidence allows them to not know exactly where they’re going, but play around until they’re happy with the outcome. Fraser believes, “(the sound) always diverges. I think you’d be kind of stupid to not let that happen…. Songs evolve and sounds either get more or less interesting as time goes on so you always go off the path.” There’s no formula to their music other than finding what works for the five of them. Lucinda says, “It’s about what works with everyone else. That’s the main thing: us working together to make whatever it is we want to make together.”
Lucinda explains how a project helped her understand their musical identity, “When we were studying, for one of our modules we did this thing where we basically had to do covers. One of my teachers said something that I thought was really interesting: that you really learn something about yourself by covering another person’s song. You’re thinking about how you would do the song. You get this kind of openness to it like you’re giving it exactly what you think is right for that song. Not like this is a soul song so I’m going to do a soul cover. It’s your interpretation of it. It’s what makes you the artist. It’s okay to do that, it’s good, it’s fun. Be creative.” This is apparent on ALASKALASKA’s cover of Edwyn Collins’ ‘A Girl Like You’. The cover sounds nothing like the original while having their funky, catchy, synth-heavy influence all over it, fully showcasing the band’s identity.
Their willingness to experiment and reject genre-conforming norms may lead one to think their album would be chaotic, but The Dots surprises with a cohesive sound and narrative. Their smooth transitions back and forth from jazzy riffs to poppy synths, and beautiful overlapping moments, allow the album to sound diverse yet unified. No track feels out of place, although it never feels like ALASKALASKA does the same thing twice. ‘Sweat’ is a minimal, stripped down song about intimacy. Its straightforwardness complements busier songs like ‘Meateater’, ‘Moon’, and ‘Bees’, which bounce between poppy synths and jazzy saxophone sessions.
ALASKALASKA’s The Dots feels like the start of something special, while also the culmination of years spent experimenting to find a unique sonic identity. The band thrives when they’re doing their own thing. They make you dance to a song about PMS. They have you thinking about consumer behavior while watching a clip of the infamous ‘Spider-Man pointing at himself’ meme. They transition from a pop song to a saxophone solo with ease. The Dots is the product of accepting a philosophy of experimenting and throwing any genre-conforming behavior out the window. As Lucinda asserted on ‘Meateater’, they don’t want to be put in a box, and if The Dots is what happens when they reject traditional placement and structure, HMV is going to have a difficult time figuring where to place more timeless works.