Interview: Nine Black Alps

Their songs are full of self-loathing and disgust, and they are obsessed with suicide. But in a year full of pop poseurs in thin ties, says Dave Simpson, Nine Black Alps are giving music a gutsy new lease of life

In 2000, future Nine Black Alps singer Sam Forrest had saved his dole money to see Elliott Smith in Manchester, but missed the last train home to York and found himself wandering aimlessly outside the venue. Suddenly, along came Elliott Smith.

"He just said 'Hop on the tour bus,'" remembers Forrest. "I met him like a sad fan. I ended up begging him to tell me how to play the songs on guitar."

Something in that 21-year-old kid with the dreamy eyes obviously appealed to Smith because for three hours, he taught Forrest the entire recently released Figure 8 album.

Six years after that encounter, Forrest is in other ways exactly where Smith (who committed suicide in 2003) was in 2000: the industry-speak is "hot, hot, hot". One music paper has tagged his band the "most likely to save rock'n'roll", while months of constant touring - including some riotously received dates with Kaiser Chiefs - have seen them branded "the must-see festival band of this summer". After two Top 40 hits (the latest Not Everyone, crashed into the charts on Sunday) their raw guts and passion - something like Nirvana meet the Buzzcocks - are a refreshing jolt to the senses in a year populated by poseurs in thin ties. It has also been noted that the dreamy, broody, shy but pouting 27-year-old Forrest has all the makings of a star. "We're trying to keep a lid on it," he says of all the hype. He remains wary of bands who "blow up very quickly and then it's all over or they go rubbish", which may be why he begins most evenings manning the stall that sells the band's T-shirts.

As he joins the rest of the band in their unstarry dressing room, this quiet downplaying reaches almost Spinal Tap-ish self-mockery. They describe their refreshingly untouched-by-stylists look as "Oxfam chic", while their remorseless, exhilarating gigs are "a bunch of blokes panicking and sweating".

His songs - filled with self-loathing and disgust for pretty much everything else - have such titles as Shot Down and Unsatisfied. His heroes Elliott Smith and Kurt Cobain both committed suicide. The band name comes from Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide. Even a cursory listen to Nine Black Alps lyrics throws up an almost macabre interest in doing yourself in.

"It's one of the big things," says Forrest, absent-mindedly playing with a beer bottle but preferring not to dwell. "I didn't want to end up like the Streets and sing about burgers and lawnmowers."

Forrest was always what older people would call an "awkward, mixed-up kid". He wore an Iron Maiden patch to primary school, which perhaps introduced a note of caution among parents familiar with the sentiments of Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter. By nine, Forrest was "obsessed" with Cobain although as he says, "everybody was". But he took the Nirvana man's death badly and didn't listen to the band again for years. He drifted - from a job in an asbestos factory to guitar-playing in countless "rubbish bands". He eventually left York for new adventures in Manchester, and had begun documenting feelings of alienation. He wrote constantly, while living alone in a flat, for a year. "I had no money to go out. I didn't have a telly, so it was probably lack of entertainment. There was very little daylight ... it was very bleak."

Meanwhile, a formative Nine Black Alps were forming in Greater Manchester's desolate satellite towns. They too were going nowhere fast, until Forrest arrived with his songbook and "everything went whoosh". He'd never intended being a singer, but when he sang his lyrics to demonstrate, the band were stunned. "We just said: 'Don't you realise this is great?!'" remembers David Jones. Forrest suggested the band name after reading his mum's copy of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, but he plays down the significance. "It was very depressing," he grins.

They played their first gig in a hotel, after a madcap local promoter booked a room. "A complete mess," says Forrest, but word soon got round about this demented, death-obsessed, feedback-ridden group. When they received 30 phonecalls from record companies asking for CDs, they made tapes instead, and laughed when the companies had to "rummage around in the cupboards for something they could play them on".

Amidst the A&R scramble, they also had meetings with no fewer than 47 managers, finally opting for the one who could get them a practice room rather than the others, who went "ker-ching". The band are similarly sanguine about the experience of recording their imminent debut album Everything Is, with Beck/Elliott Smith producer Rob Schnapf.

"We watched a lot of television and ate a lot of food," says drummer James Galley as Forrest laughs along. Little in his manner suggests a tortured artist or prophet of doom.

However, while Forrest is as polite and friendly as his band's music is loud and uncompromising, he is prone to sudden outbursts. Without prompting, he blasts off at "bands with these half-baked political ideas they heard from somebody in the pub", while his lyrics attack people who "don't deserve" to have children. But after each outburst, he's embarrassed and apologetic, which may be why he's found a release for his more uncomfortable feelings in songs.

Some of them, he admits, are rooted in real events, but doesn't expand. However, he denies that last year's debut single Cosmopolitan - "You spend the night/ I'll take my life/ We'll kill our time/ Be dead by sunrise" - describes some kind of fantasy suicide pact.

"I picked up my girlfriend's Cosmopolitan [magazine] and after a while reading it I felt old, ugly, unsexy, poor, stupid," he says. And he picks at a beer bottle as he dismisses the widespread speculation that the deceptively sweet, acoustic Intermission is written about Elliott Smith, because it opens with images of fooling around with knives. It was penned six months before he died by stabbing himself through the heart. "I was watching something about the Iraqi war. I was singing and writing randomly, and this stuff started bleeding into the song ... Shock and Awe, Iraqi people running."

But what kind of person writes stuff about suicide and knives? Someone who's listened to too much Kurt Cobain? Or someone who has an interest in the transitory nature of life and death that captured Elliott Smith? As the tour manager calls him stageward, Forrest seems rather frail - it later transpires he's suffering with mumps. Should we be worried about him?

"Ha ha, no," he chuckles. "I'm not suicidal! Screaming your head off about deep stuff every night is great fun! It's all I've ever wanted to do."

Jones, however, signs off with one last note of blackest humour: "It would be nice if we all make it to the second album."

· Everything Is is released on Island on June 13.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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