INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTOPHER BOWES
BY KEVIN STEWART-PANKO
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ELLIOT VERNON
Ahoy! If the coronavirus hadn’t worked its deleterious magic on the planet’s seven billion-plus inhabitants, the originators of pure Scottish pirate metal—none of whom are actually based in Scotland any longer, ironically enough—would just now be blasting from the starting blocks for the promotional and touring cycle for Curse of the Crystal Coconut, their latest album of metallic swashbuckling. And if the thousands who were to witness the band on the European summer festival circuit put down their drinking horns for a couple minutes, they might cotton on to the fact that Alestorm’s sixth album not only continues all the waltz stepping odes to the virtues of piracy, alcohol abuse, and fantastically adolescent tales of misadventure, but does so with a bent that could be considered expansive, if not preposterous.
Inclusive of everything from rap and prog metal odes to folk and TV show covers, not to mention an attachment to all things Donkey Kong, Alestorm continues to fly off the rails, push the boundaries of common sense, or both. It’s a combination that would give great cause for those fans to scratch their heads and stroke their beards before retrieving their drinking apparatuses and getting back to doing arm in arm jigs whilst headbanging. But none of that is going to happen, this year at least.
When we spoke to Alestorm’s pirate captain, vocalist/keyboardist Christopher Bowes, as he and his band were understandably excited about the new record and the three videos in support of Curse of the Crystal Coconut’s release. Bowes was also just coming to grips with the emergency brake COVID-19 slammed on the music industry and the reality that he was about to be a landlubber for the balance of 2020.
How were Alestorm’s plans affected by the coronavirus, or was it still early enough before the new album’s release that things were still in the planning stages?
Well, right now the spring period was going to be a dead time for us. We recorded the album in January and then there was the whole video production and blah, blah, blah. It’s going to start getting weird when we get into June, because June, July, and August was supposed to be rammed with us playing festivals and flying around the world and doing shit, and that’s not happening anymore. We’re going to get to June, and I’m going to be like, “Right, I’m supposed to get on an airplane now to go play a festival,” and they’ve all been canceled. I think we had 17 shows, all big festivals, all canceled across the summer. It’s going to start getting strange in the summer when I’m just sitting on my ass, looking for something to do. It’s not quite sunk in yet how much it’s going to suck. Right now, I know there’s all this lockdown stuff, but I live out in the country and not much has really changed—all the grocery stores are open, people are still going to work and doing stuff, and life hasn’t really changed much here, but it’s going to get weirder for me.
I’m assuming you’re still in Tennessee and the rest of the band is spread out?
Yeah, I’m in northeast Tennessee, up in the hills. I live on the edge of a small city, but I spend most of my time going further out into the country, so I don’t see people very much. It’s a good way, and built in way, to stay away from people and keep your distance (laughs). [Gareth] Gaz [Murdock], our bassist, and Peter [Alcorn], our drummer, are both in Belfast in Northern Ireland. Our guitar player [Máté Bodor] is in Budapest and our keyboard player [Elliot Vernon] is in England. I think things are more locked down and weirder for them. I think in the UK you’re only allowed to go outside once a day or something crazy like that.
“THERE IS THAT WORRY THAT WHAT IF THINGS DON’T GO BACK TO NORMAL”
Have you talked about what might lie ahead for the band because you are so spread out? What if there are travel restrictions and/or border regulations and how that might affect Alestorm in particular?
In some ways it sucks, because we not only have the five of us in the band, but a crew of three or four with us, and this is all of our jobs. We go on the road, we get paid, they get paid, we pay our bills, great. And now we can’t do that, but it especially sucks for our crew. We have royalties and passive income that can keep us going, but if you live on going on the road as a merch guy or sound engineer or whatever, even your home gig is closed because you probably work at a venue at home and that’s fucked. There is that worry that what if things don’t go back to normal, what if there’s always going to be this weird shit in the background, restrictions get bigger and people started dropping the quarantine bomb every six months and the world gets shut down? I think people will get bored of it though, and say “Fuck this! We can’t go on living like this.” Every festival we had scheduled for this year has been rescheduled for next year—it’s like a year never happened. It’s a bit worrying right now and sucks for us releasing an album. The original plan was to release it at the end of May, then June starts and people will hear about the album as we’re playing all these festivals. Now they won’t and is that going to affect the popularity of this band? I don’t like it.
Logistically, how were you able to do the “Tortuga” video? Did you all fly down to the Caribbean somewhere, or was that the result of some green screen mastery?
That one was actually filmed in Thailand in January. We recorded the album there and we did the videos at the same time we were doing the album. There’s a scene in the video where I shoot our keyboard player’s face and he explodes, that is literally just outside the gate to the studio. We recorded in Thailand because we wanted to go to paradise for three weeks and have some fun and see what happens. It just so happened to look like a traditional Caribbean pirate island, so we killed two birds with one stone there. The other videos [“Treasure Chest Party Quest” and “Fannybaws”] we filmed just before all this shit went down. We flew to Serbia in February and went to this big green screen video production suite and did stuff. That was literally maybe a week before everything started shutting down. So, we were fortunate with timing. If all this virus shit had happened a month earlier, we wouldn’t have been able to make an album. We can’t really make an entire album over the internet. We need to get into a studio and have a producer help us along and direct us because we need that to help us get that professional sheen. So, we have been kinda lucky. We could have been a lot more fucked over by this.
“THERE’S A SCENE IN THE VIDEO WHERE I SHOOT OUR KEYBOARD PLAYER’S FACE AND HE EXPLODES”
Aside from bands who are actually from Thailand, this is the first time I’ve ever heard a band say, “We wanted to record our album in Thailand.” How did this happen?
Thailand is in that sweet spot where, 1) it’s beautiful, 2) the weather is nice in January, 3) it’s cheap, and 4) it’s still like a real country (laughs). You go to a lot of tropical countries and they’re a bit like shitholes where you can’t get readily anything that you need in order to record an album. It’ll be like, “We need to go buy an expensive piece of gear,” and most of those lovely little Caribbean islands will be like, “Oh, we’ll get on a boat and get it for you for next month,” which is entirely too late. Also, our producer is a sort of a Thailand fan boy. He’s into all that Muay Thai boxing and loves Thai food, so it was kind of his idea. He researched a bunch of studios, and it was absolutely the best decision we’ve ever made. We did our last album in Florida and that was all right, but it was America and kind of expensive. We used to always go to and use our producer’s studio in Germany, but that was kind of grim. Northern Germany in January in a little village where it’s snowing all the time is a really grim place to be. We definitely go to these places to enjoy the weather more than anything else though (laughs).
Pretty much 95 percent of the album was pre-written. We write most of our songs over the internet. It’s me mostly sitting in front of my computer, typing away into music software and just sending these files to the rest of the band and asking them what they think. Then, we change things. It works for us because I think if you get five guys together in the same room and playing, you can’t write good songs that way. You end up with weird, disjointed riffs. It’s a good way to write good, technical music—you do it yourself, get all the details down, and just go to the studio and play it. Obviously, things get changed, but for the most part, we just go there and play the songs. We had so much time to just swim, drink cocktails, and go to the beach.
In listening to how the new album incorporates electronica, rap, and other verboten elements, I found myself sometimes thinking, “How ridiculous can things get?” Is this something that ever crosses your mind?
Sometimes I worry about that myself (laughs). The way we write our music these days is that we are a live band—we play live shows, we play festivals, but nobody actually buys our records. We play some big shows—in Europe, we do 3,000 capacity venues—and if all those people who came out bought our records, we’d be at the top of the charts, but no one buys our albums. They stream them online, and we started to realize that the people we should be making music for are the ones who come to the shows, party, get drunk, and have fun. That’s our target audience. We’re not really writing music for the erudite musical scholar who wants to hear about tales of 17th century nautical high jinks. So, you can see that the shift in the music has gone towards the three minute bangers. That the goofy shit works is the moral of the story. Every time we’ve done something stupid or dumb or fun, that is the shit that goes off live. But on occasion when we play these long serious songs, people are like, “Oh yay, it’s that song…,” and it turns out to not be very good live music. We’ve just sold out and given the people what they want—party songs (laughs).
“THE PEOPLE WE SHOULD BE MAKING MUSIC FOR ARE THE ONES WHO COME TO THE SHOWS, PARTY, GET DRUNK, AND HAVE FUN.”
With that in mind, the new album is available in a variety of format options. Are these strictly aimed at the handful of pedantic collectors?
In a way, yeah. People like good collector’s editions, and obviously we do have fans that buy the records, but if you’re going to buy it, you may as well go whole hog and get a good copy of it. Our fans are sort of that younger generation who aren’t of that generation used to buying plastic CDs en masse and having a thousand high stack of CDs around the house. So, if you’re going to buy something, it should be something worth having. We try and make our deluxe editions very good and we put a lot of effort into them. Stuff will come in wooden boxes with gold leaf on it and comes with all these gimmicks and toys and bonus discs and fun things. It’s a fun product to own, even if you don’t listen to the music, it’s cool to just look at it. But when it comes to the $10 jewel case edition of the album, we don’t sell any of those.
On that note, what’s the story behind the bonus disc of “16th century interpretations” of the songs?
Okay, um yeah, it’s not (laughs). It’s the whole album done in 16-bit video game sounds. So, it sounds like some cheap Nintendo Gameboy thing, but it’s quite cool because the melodies come through a lot more and they’re not buried under a wall of distortion and loud drums. It’s quite nice to listen to if you want to hear the songs interpreted in a different way, but there’s nothing 16th century about it. We lied to everyone (laughs).
Are the songs “Henry Martin” and “Fannybaws” talking about real people/pirates?
Henry Martin is actually a real thing. It’s a Scottish folk song from the 1600s that’s about pirates, which was like, “Holy crap, it was like it was designed to be covered by us!” I don’t know why we hadn’t done it yet, but we’ve done it now. It’s a real song based on a real character. Over the years, his name has changed. It used to be something different, but it’s gradually changed into Henry Martin. It’s one of those songs that a lot of people like 70s folk singers have done covers of—I think Joan Baez has done it and Donovan as well. It’s a nice little song and it’s like our apology to that vocal subset of our fans that love traditional piracy. And “Fannybaws” is an entirely invented character. The main point of that song is that it sounds like it’s about this great epic pirate, but it’s actually the most common insult in Scotland. It’s the most Scottish way you can insult someone because it basically means “vagina testicles.” People outside of Scotland don’t know that—you didn’t—and we’re going to be playing it live in Germany in front of 10,000 Germans who are all going to be screaming “Fannybaws!” without having a clue what it is. It’s going to make my wee Scottish heart smile (laughs).
There’s also “Treasure Chest Party Quest,” which sounds like a response to people assuming something you’re not, and “Call of the Waves” where it almost sounds like an ode to individuality or a motivational speaker type of thing.
I know, right? I’ve never done that before. I’m not very good at being emotional or singing from the heart. I’ve tried to write deep, meaningful songs and it doesn’t work, so I come up with shit about questing for treasure and blowing up ships. But, somehow it worked on that song. I managed to channel some feelings and make a song that’s all inspirational. It’s quite cool and maybe it’ll encourage some people to do some cool stuff. I can guarantee you we’ll get emails from people that are like, “I used to be depressed and I listened to that song.”
“EVERYTHING ABOUT US HAS ALWAYS BEEN A BIT STUPID”
Don’t you naturally get that from people who enjoy the humor aspect of the band?
It’s kind of weird. We do get emails from people saying stuff like, “Your band saved my life,” and I find that hard to deal with because we are a stupid band. Everything about us has always been a bit stupid and it’s hard to break character, go into serious mode, and have a heart-to-heart with someone. Don’t get me wrong, I love it and I love that we can somehow change people’s lives with our music, but it’s difficult for me to get emotional with people and it’s strange that of all the music in the world that makes people happy when they’re in a dark place, it’s Alestorm, but it’s cool.
What is the title of the album, Curse of the Crystal Coconut, based on?
One of the songs on the album is “Pirate’s Scorn,” which is a song from the Donkey Kong Country TV show, so we covered it. It’s about this pirate crocodile doing something with coconuts and Donkey Kong, and we thought it had some cool pirate imagery. So, we threw in the “curse” part and that became the album title. The crystal coconut is the same one you get if you play Donkey Kong 64.
After all the interviews that you’ve done over the years, what do you feel you want to be asked or talk about that never gets brought up?
It’s not just journalists, it’s the fans as well and people in general, but I would love to talk a lot more about the actual music, the real nitty-gritty songwriting and the technical stuff. A lot of our fans just see the aesthetic, see pirates, and think, “Great!” If you go on YouTube and read the comments on our latest videos, no one’s talking about the music, they’re all talking about what kind of hats we’re wearing. I think a lot of people are overly concerned with the aesthetic as opposed to the overall substance of the music. But maybe that’s just me being a music nerd wanting to talk about song structures and harmony with people? I guess that doesn’t translate well with people who don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. I’m a little music dork at heart that wants to talk about pop song structure, but no one wants to read about that, do they? They want to hear about pirate costumes.
“A LOT OF PEOPLE ARE OVERLY CONCERNED WITH THE AESTHETIC AS OPPOSED TO THE OVERALL SUBSTANCE OF THE MUSIC.”
Now, that you’ve brought that up, I’m curious about traditional instrument sounds on your records. Are those from a synth or sampled, or do you use the real deal?
Everything you hear, the violin, the hurdy-gurdy, and the brass is all real. We have session musicians who come in and play all that stuff. The only thing that’s fake is the accordion because an accordion doesn’t sound like an accordion. That “oom-pah” melody thing we have in a lot of our music, that’s not what an accordion sounds like. When you record an accordion, it sounds like crap—it’s thin, noisy, it’s out of tune, and you can’t play very fast on one. So, we don’t use a real accordion. We have had the option and access to accordion players, but it just doesn’t sound right. But ever since our second album, everything else has been real because it’s difficult to fake things like brass, but with an accordion, it’s difficult to be real. That’s my folk instrument story.
From what I know about accordions, the sound seems wheezy and bogged down in overtones that take up space when you don’t want it to.
Exactly! And you can’t fit that into a metal mix. Guitars are very harmonically rich and there are a lot of overtones and the whole nature of distortion is about harmonic overtones and that just eats a mix. Combining a distorted guitar with folk instruments can be a nightmare. It works when you combine something like a violin, which has a thin, piercing tone, but when you try doing an accordion, fuck me, it just dies in the mix. It’s a purely technical reason why we don’t use them.