By: Wesley Hodges
Alberta Cross is one of those rare bands that appears almost out of thin air and shocks us to our core. Catchy enough to play for mama, far out enough to play for your weird uncle, and powerful enough to reach the corners of the globe, these expatriates living in New York by way of London undoubtedly have the inspired wherewithal, raw talent, and broad-spanning appeal to turn heads here and abroad.
Lead singer and guitarist Petter Ericson Stakee and band co-founder, bassist Terry Wolfers, have been able to synthesize their spectrum of influences, from Stax soul to Neil Young to Sonic Youth, to create a distinct sound that commands its own space. Stormy and ominous walls of reverberating guitar build around Stakee's beaming vocals on Broken Side of Time (released September 29 on Ark/ATO), a modern day masterpiece running the listener through the gamut of emotions with the chills-inducing burner "Rise From the Shadows" and the razor sharp, balls-to-the-wall "ATX" meltdown. With this debut album out now on a supportive label and legions of fans getting on board at each tour stop, Alberta Cross is laying the foundation for a fruitful life in rock & roll.
JamBase had the opportunity to talk to Alberta Cross frontman Stakee about the challenges of making Broken Side of Time, festival-hopping and the future unknown.
JamBase: Start off by giving us a little background info about the lead up and the recording process of the album, i.e. getting all the pieces together to make the album you envisioned.
Petter Ericson Stakee: Well, it was kind of a crazy one. We [Stakee and Wolfers] started off working on songs in London for our last label. The whole thing fell apart, and we were sort of going a little bit mad. So, we moved to New York about a year-and-a-half ago and continued it here in the States and wrote loads of new songs with the new band as well. I sort of scrapped a lot of the London songs and wrote 20 songs or something. We drove down to Charlottesville to a farm in the middle of nowhere and did some pre-production there for a couple of weeks. Then, we drove up to New York for some more pre-production for the album with our producer [Mike McCarthy (Spoon, Dead Confederate, ...And You Will Know Us)]. We flew down to Austin a month later and started the recording process.
So, Austin is where the meat of the album came out?
Petter Ericson Stakee: Yeah, it was definitely an inspiration being there. I wrote a lot of the lyrics in Austin. I always find its good to be away, outside the city, sometimes when you are gonna write about it. We recorded, went on tour for about a month, drove back to finish the last bits, then took it to New York to Electric Lady for mixing.
| Wolfers & Stakee - Alberta Cross|
That was Jimi Hendrix's old studio, right?
Yeah, a good friend of mine, Ronnie, was a big reason why we went there. We didn't feel like we wanted to record the album in a big city; we felt like we really had to get out of the big place. Austin is pretty ideal. The idea is a slower pace, a better vibe; it's healthier for sure.
What is it about the South that you guys find particularly appealing? You are doing a South-heavy tour to kick things off in support of the new record and the gospel sound is always lurking beneath the surface of the band's sound.
I love gospel, but I don't think it came out of being around the South. We definitely love it down there; it's got a really relaxing, good vibe. There are obviously a lot of mad things going on down there, a lot are a lot of things I don't like, but a lot I do like - the music, the vibe. It's just an inspiring place to travel around. It's gonna be the first show we do in Nashville, so we're really psyched about that.
Here's a conceptual question: What is the Broken Side of Time?
It's kind of about two different things. We were going through quite a few crazy years. Being broke, going a bit mental, stuff going on in our own lives. It's also about the things going on around us at the time we put together the record. We moved here when Bush was still in office. Things were definitely kind of in shambles. Everyone was going a bit crazy and we could really feel it in New York. It really helped inspire the record; not in a political way or anything, more of the situation people were going through with everyone losing their jobs.
You guys picked a pretty powerful, historical time to come to the States. I've always said, and most people recognize, it is during the most tumultuous times when the best, most inspired, powerful music comes out.
Yeah, when the whole Margaret Thatcher thing was going on back in England there were like two million bands coming out. And here in America last year when everything was going wrong, a bunch come around. Good in one way and bad in another.
| Petter Ericson Stakee by Snyder|
This album is in stark contrast with the acoustic-based EP, The Thief & the Heartbreaker. Songs like "Rise From the Shadows" and "City Walls" have a dark, stormy, haunting aesthetic and a gnarly, thrashing sound. How have the loyal, early fans reacted so far to hearing the new songs played onstage with a grittier, nastier sound coming from Alberta Cross?
The EP was like the first three demos we did; it was kind of like our baby at the time. Broken Side of Time was more of the sound we always wanted to do. I feel like the songs I wrote for the album sum up pretty much what I've been inspired by my whole life and how I wanted it to sound. I think every great artist - if you look at Bowie or something like that - they all progress in sound and lyrically. I don't think we could ever do three albums that all sound the same. I would probably have a life or a normal job or something like that if we didn't always progress. The reviews have been pretty great so far but who knows what's gonna happen when we start touring, people might throwing shoes at us [laughs]. It's a bit more like rock & roll now, a bit heavier, with some frustration issues coming out. But, I do think we kept a lot of the soul.
Maybe an album, two or three down the road we'll be hearing all about Alberta Cross releasing their happy album.
Who knows, whatever we go through it'll come through in our records. You never know, it'll probably be like a dance record. No, definitely not a dance record.
With the national release, what are your expectations? Are there any nerves on the cusp of such a momentous day in your musical career?
I feel quite relieved because the whole process has taken awhile. I think with this album we never felt any pressure. I just feel like I wanna go out and tour this album, because we toured The Thief & the Heartbreaker for so long. It's gonna be amazing when people start to get to know the new songs; people are gonna start screaming them instead of "Low Man" or "Lucy Rider." We're releasing it all over the world in places like Australia and Japan. It's gonna be fantastic getting to play all these places. I can't wait. We've always wanted to tour this country like crazy. Doing this proper tour in America is going to be really great.
| Alberta Cross :: Glastonbury 2009 by Cavie|
You guys have already done Bonnaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza, South by Southwest, and Glastonbury. What sticks out to you in your experience making that first big run through the festival circuit, and which has been your favorite?
I think Bonnaroo would have to be my favorite [read the JamBase review of Bonnaroo here]. We played for like 6,000-7,000 people. Our show was just insane, and we played on the first day so everyone wasn't tired yet. It was really like the first time I knew something really special was going on. They've all been great for us, like Coachella is in the desert and Lollapalooza is just a classic I've always wanted to play. It's great to have the opportunity to play all these great festivals before we even released our first proper record. I feel like the American crowd is quite supportive. You go walk around and check out other bands and you get stopped quite a lot. Like at Bonnaroo, people just come up to you and tell you they really liked the show. In other places, people don't really do that. They might love it, but they won't come up and say it to your face.
What's the most challenging thing about going out on the road for extended periods of time? How do you guys keep things fresh night in and night out?
We are very much a live band. We always wanna be out on the road playing for people. We can take songs out a bit. All my favorite bands, like The Verve, create an experience where one song that's like three minutes [in the studio] will end up being like seven minutes. Just give people something different every night. I've seen a lot of bands that play the same things every night. I could never live my life like that. If it ever got like that I'd have to do a new thing.
Continue reading for more on Alberta Cross...
Music fans are so much more demanding these days. It's good that you guys wanna push the envelope every night and give the fans a little something different. Seems like the bands that are making it as live acts these days all stretch the boundaries in some way.
We are very much a live band. We always wanna be out on the road playing for people. We can take songs out a bit. All my favorite bands create an experience where one song that's like three minutes [in the studio] will end up being like seven minutes. Just give people something different every night. I've seen a lot of bands that play the same things every night. I could never live my life like that.
-Petter Ericson Stakee
The industry's changed; it's all about the live show now. It's nice to throw out a record, but at the end of the day, our label really wants us on the road so we can get out to people. You don't really sell records in stores anymore, you go out and promote, like back in the old days. I think it's great. That's the world I want to live in. Playing keeps me sane.
ATO Records doesn't seem to sign anyone unless they can cut it out on the road. Bands like My Morning Jacket and Gov't Mule are road-tested and know very much what they're doing to give the crowd something fresh every night.
Who were you listening to on the tour bus this summer, as far as newer artists, and also what older artists have helped form your sound since you and Terry [Wolfers, bass] initially got together and jammed?
| Alberta Cross|
I really can't wait to hear the new Yeasayer album. They're really great and they're good friends of ours. I've heard some clips and stuff and it's really awesome.
Yeah, I loved the new stuff I heard at Bonnaroo.
I was standing side stage and thought it was fucking awesome! I think Yeasayer's newer songs are awesome, but I think the new MGMT stuff is fucking horrible. When I heard it I was like, "Oh no!" But who knows, it might be a good album. I like some local bands here in Brooklyn. I like the Black Angels a lot. There's a lot of great music out right now; it's a good time. I love Devendra Banhart. I think he's amazing. He's got a new album coming out. He's got a really good voice, can't wait to hear it. There's always a few songs on his albums I think are fucking fantastic, and a lot of crazier, hippie stuff that's a bit too much. He's definitely a great melody singer. Also, Silversun Pickups I really like these days.
And some of the older artists?
Sonic Youth, just the way they do harmonies with the guitar sounds is quite inspiring. We saw Dinosaur Jr. in New York just before we started recording. We also caught My Bloody Valentine around that time, too; their vibe is the best, amazing. We like the blues stuff, loads of Motown, the Stax recordings. Everyone in the band listens to so much different stuff, it's like a cocktail. Depeche Mode has always been a big one for me. If I just listen to one thing too long I just go crazy. I've been listening to a bunch of hip hop.
What in particular?
I like Wu-Tang Clan.
You heard the new Jay-Z?
I like it, man. He's a cool dude. I went to see Grizzly Bear a couple weeks ago in Brooklyn and he turned up with Beyoncé. It was pretty awesome. He must be a cool guy.
| Wolfers & Stakee - Alberta Cross|
If you could collaborate with a person or a band who would it be?
I don't know. It would definitely not be hip hop, because I hear The Black Keys are doing the hip hop thing. All the names are awesome, it might be great, but it could definitely sound weird with the blues and hip hop. Beck has been doing some really cool stuff releasing cover albums on his website, doing [Leonard] Cohen and Velvet Underground. I like all the people he got together. Beck is just fantastic. He got MGMT in there, Devendra Banhart. It's definitely something I would like to do, get together with some great musicians like that.
You mentioned earlier, if you weren't out there on the road doing something different every night you'd have to get a day job. What kind of job would you see yourself in?
I don't know, man. I suppose it'd be cool to be out in the middle of nowhere doing something cool, like doing art in the woods. Or if everything drove me mad, I could see moving to Japan and becoming an English teacher or moving to Argentina and do something random [laughs]. A lot of people I know in signed bands that are touring don't complain a lot; they feel blessed. The one thing people do tend to talk about is the lack of a regular, normal life; everything is weird. When you go out and do music, you don't have a normal pad. People are like, "What day is it? What month is it?" I went in to get a haircut today and said it had only been a month and the barber said it had been four. It had been a while; I started looking like a hippie. That's one thing that comes to mind when I think about what I do miss - the wake up at 9:00 a.m. But I'm guessing after two days of that and going to work I'd hate it and want to go back on the road.
So, you're telling me Alberta Cross doesn't have a hair stylist on staff yet?
[Laughs] Ha, NO WAY!
You and Terry Wolfer's hair were both looking pretty long at Lollapalooza.
We were saying that we better cut our hair or otherwise we're gonna start looking like Metallica.
| Wolfers & Stakee - Alberta Cross|
What do you think you'll think when you look back at this time 10 or 20 years from now?
It's really exciting, but it's been really tough at times. I've been literally broke for a year. We've had some amazing times and some really hard times. I think we'll look back on it and know that it really inspired the album. The album's really dark and soulful because of this; it's real. Maybe that's why the album sounds pretty strong because it's a reflection of the times we were going through and the times everyone was going through. I dunno, we'll probably look back and have some good and bad memories.
Random question: You grew up in Sweden at a time when the dance-pop world was revolving around your country with Ace of Base and such blowing up in the mid-90s. Did you ever get into any of that stuff at all?
No, not really [laughs]. Ace of Base came out when I was pretty young. My sister probably forced me to listen to it at some point. But, the music that I really got into in Sweden I'm still into. The older generation in Sweden, through my dad and the people he played with, were into the blues guys and the Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones, old folk music and some great rock music. The new stuff in Sweden has never really been my thing. I know some people I kind of think are okay. We did a radio show there this morning and they were playing some pretty psychedelic stuff, which I kind of think is cool. But, I can understand the lyrics because I speak Swedish and it's some pretty horrible lyrics, but the music is cool. I've pretty much always hated dance stuff. When I was younger I listened to some crazy stuff, [and] Michael Jackson and Prince, the big time sort of people everyone was listening to. I think people are in desperate need of some real fucking rock albums.
The indie scene seems to have gone heavy on dance-oriented, electronic acts these days. A good jolt back in the rock & roll direction every once in awhile couldn't hurt. What do you think about the indie rock scene's current direction?
I really do love bands like Yeasayer; they're just amazing. They've got good, inspiring songs. This scene over here is so much better than at home in London, like awhile back when every band wanted to sound like Joy Division and it killed us. I love Joy Division but when there's 600 bands trying to sound like them just because it's cool to be like that it gets annoying. In New York everyone's got the big drums thing. I do like it, but it might be a bit too much at times, kind of overkill. That's why I liked the new Silversun Pickups when I heard it; sounds like some real rock music. I miss hearing that sorta thing. There's definitely a lack of true rock bands at the moment.
| Alberta Cross|
To wrap the interview, could you talk about your band's penchant for improvisation? How do you view bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish that really stretch the limits and create a new piece of music every night?
I'm not like a massive Phish fan or anything, but I love the Grateful Dead. Phish is pretty cool for what they do. As far as what we do, we'll never take it out as much as they do, but I think every band has to stretch it out a bit or every show and every record would sound the same. How boring would that be? Every great artist has to change it up. The Grateful Dead is a great band and look at David Bowie. His albums start up with folky stuff and progressed into something different each time. He's a massive inspiration and we're really working hard to do the same thing with our music. We want to take songs out and rearrange them, mix them up, just jam on them, especially when you're touring America and you're driving around. It takes forever because it's so big, but when you get to the place you definitely want to make it different for every person you play for, and also for yourself because otherwise you'd probably go mad. We're all about that for sure.
Alberta Cross is on tour now; dates available here.
JamBase | En Route
Go See Live Music!