Gareth Shute talks to Annabel Alpers about retiring her Bachelorette moniker and finding a new way to play live.
From her very first EP as Bachelorette in 2005, Annabel Alpers was lauded by local music critics. Her first album, Isolation Loops, prompted Gary Steel to write in Metro: “Alpers’ imagination makes most songwriters seem like dullards.” So it came as little surprise when her next two albums were released through legendary indie label Drag City (Ty Segall, Joanna Newsom, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, etc) and their support extended to pressing new runs of her earlier releases too.
More recently, Alpers has been living in Baltimore, where she’s been working on creating an immersive live experience by writing music specifically to be played in surround sound and using a unique technological set-up to deliver her music to audiences. This new project, Particle Tracks, is being supported by a Kickstarter campaign that runs until 28 June. I spoke to Alpers about her past achievements and what inspired this groundbreaking new venture.
How did the deal with Drag City originally come about?
It happened through my manager at the time, Xan Hamilton, with the help of Will Oldham. I played a show with Bonnie “Prince” Billy in Auckland and gave him some of my music, which he liked. He put a word in with Drag City and they saw me play in Chicago on my first US tour in 2008. We stayed in touch while I was recording My Electric Family and they eventually offered to release it. The funny thing is that years earlier, just after my first EP, I had a dream that I lived in Chicago and that I was on Drag City. I like to think that the little seed in my brain had something to do with it, but really I have Xan to thank.
You had some great musicians go through the band around that time – Pikelet, Craig Terris – but you eventually reverted to playing solo…
Yeah, I wanted to tour with a band when I put out My Electric Family because the recording involved more musicians, but it actually felt wrong to get these great musicians to play the music the way it had been recorded when they were amazing songwriters themselves. After that experience, I didn’t want to involve other musicians live unless they were getting something fulfilling and collaborative out of the process from the beginning.
You toured with some amazing acts. It must’ve felt you’d achieved a teenage dream, even if the reality had some downsides.
Yes, it was definitely a dream come true to tour with heroes like the Magnetic Fields, Will Oldham, and Animal Collective. It was amazing to me that they liked my music back. Really that’s more than I could’ve hoped for – for my music to be appreciated by the musicians I respect the most. I felt lucky to be able to hear their music live so many times, and I learnt a lot from watching them. I could see that touring wasn’t an easy way to make a living, even for bands at the top of their game, and I think that helped me try to keep making music for the right reasons.
The past year, there has been a lot of talk in New Zealand about the sexist nature of the music industry (leading to Coco Solid’s Equalize My Vocals series) – have you had your own brushes with patronising sound guys and so forth?
No one’s been particularly patronising to me, but I used to have annoying experiences where guys assumed that I was coming onto them because I wanted to work with them musically, and it was obvious that that would never have been an issue if I was a guy. That was a uniquely New Zealand experience, too, so I’m not sure what was going on there…
I think it’s good that people are discussing this, although honestly, in my experience men have been just as supportive of my music as women, if not more so. Anyway, patriarchy only works if women are complicit. My most critical album review was by a woman from Auckland, and all male New Zealand reviewers that I can think of have been really supportive. I don’t think it’s solely men’s responsibility to support women’s music anyway, or that it necessarily means they’re sexist if they don’t. My way of being a feminist, in music, is to support the music of other women when I like what they’re doing, by playing shows with them, buying their music, telling other people about them, collaborating, etc. Men have been doing that for eons, and I think it’s great that more and more women are doing the same for each other.
At what point did you switch to the Particle Tracks name and why?
I knew I was done with the Bachelorette moniker when I was recording the last album. Bachelorette to me represented a particular way of playing music that I wanted to move away from. I wasn’t happy with the level of compromise in how I was performing the music live, and I didn’t want to keep touring because of that. It’s because I was recording the music first and figuring out how to play it live later, and I wanted to turn that on its head. I wanted to go further into making music for my ideal listening environment, rather than trying to make it work in the usual kinds of bars and venues on the touring circuit. Anyway, as for Particle Tracks, that’s been the umbrella name for any of my music projects since I started the website in 2011. I’ll probably use different names for different projects, but I’m using Particle Tracks for now.
Tell me about the current project. I get the sense that you’re trying to use the kind of quadrophonic sound technology that has been in cinemas and apply that technology to live music?
For this project, I’m using 5.1, which is 5 speakers and one sub (the same as in movie theatres). I’m doing it because this would be my ideal way to hear music live – to be relaxed, seated, perhaps move around a little, have a drink in my hand, but not have to stand squeezed up against other people and stare up at a stage. I find that whole set-up a little weird. Why stand and stare up at a stage? Why not sit and close your eyes, or look down from your seat and just listen? I like the idea of speakers surrounding the audience, so they can choose the mix for themselves a little, so I’m not dictating which part of the music the listener is focussing on. I’ve always been into the synaesthetic qualities of music, and think music can have a powerful transcendent effect when it’s not restricted to being a background to other activities, so that’s a big part of it as well. There may be some static visual component to just compliment the atmosphere of the room, but I don’t want all-out visuals because I don’t want anything to get in the way of potential synaesthetic experiences.
As far as the album itself, in what ways are the themes a continuation of your work as Bachelorette and what new elements are at play?
I think personal experiences have always been an inspiration for me musically, and I try to pinpoint the universal elements of that experience in order to communicate it to others, so that it’s no longer about me. In this album there is this search for beauty and meaning in the more mundane aspects of life, like doing the dishes, feeding the cat, whatever… I’m not trying to communicate these things too literally. I’m trying to find the spaces in between that are still there, that make us feel good about our existence. And then there’s how much I miss New Zealand and my friends and family there, so I’m exploring these ideas of what home is. Home for me is in two places, and it’s been causing a lot of creative tension because I wish I could be in both places at once.
Your work has always had a balance between catchy synth pop hooks and more experimental sound treatments (perhaps reflecting your university studies in composition). How much will the new album lean in one direction or the other?
With this surround-sound project, I was wanting to start out in this very pure, experimental place, trying to move away from the ease of the more formulaic poppy songwriting, and wanting to use purely my voice and found sounds. My love of some instrumental sounds and drum beats keeps coming back, though, so I’m still retaining some of that poppiness in places, but moving further into the territory of less conventional sounds and arrangements.
Find out more about Alper’s latest project and to contribute to her campaign here.
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