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Why Ocean Alley Are Nervous About Their New Album, ‘Low Altitude Living’

6 October 2022 | 12:10 pm | Carley Hall

“It's always been about longevity and trying to be able to do this for as long as we can.”

(Pic by Kane Lehanneur)

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It’s obvious you’re doing things right in the music business when you and your band mates can upgrade the old jam session garage to a tidy $2.35m North Byron pad.

But it hasn’t been an easy slog for Ocean Alley, the Northern Beaches six-piece touring relentlessly and putting in countless hours honing their songwriting craft together. Despite being such a close-knit group, guitarist Mitch Galbraith says two out of the six band members have flown the coup for WA on the eve of their new album, Low Altitude Living.

“It took the guys six days to drive over there,” he begins. “They packed up their lives here, jumped in their cars and convoyed the whole way and had a lot of fun doing it.”

That’s not to suggest anything concerning about the band’s increasingly bright future, which is looking just as bright as the road so far.

Since they tore onto the scene with their second album Chiaroscuro in 2018, they’ve been a staple of the Aus music scene, thanks in part to runaway singles The Comedown and Confidence, the latter of which claimed #1 on the Hottest 100.

With swift success came some criticisms in reviews and features that the band were focusing on their ascension and letting their craft slip by the wayside, which are judgements that Galbraith and co shrugged off.

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“Yeah, we’ve definitely read some negative criticism. But we'll take whatever people want to dish out,” he says. “If that’s your opinion, you're more than welcome to it, and maybe it's something we could change but most of the time we get good feedback. It doesn't rattle us really.

“And it's just about making art. You wouldn't tell a painter, ‘Oh, you shouldn't have done that.’ I think critiquing stuff to that extent is just a bit over the top.”

Criticisms aside, Galbraith explains that for their forthcoming fourth album Low Altitude Living the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns forced the band to a standstill and gave them a much-needed break after hectic touring. It also gave them a lot more breathing space for the songs to percolate and take shape over a longer period than previous recordings. 

“It's probably the most grown-up record we’ve made, but it's still pretty cheeky. And all the songs on the record are quite different from each other. So, we tried to ram in a lot of experimentation and we were just a bit more courageous, I think, in our writing and in the studio in the recording.

“So, we kind of just went for some crazy stuff so it’s probably the most nerve-racking we’ve been before we've released a record, not knowing whether people will be on board - but it's going well so far.

“It was comfortable knowing that we've spent so much time on the tracks and that we were happy with where they ended up. But yeah, the lockdowns gave us plenty of opportunities, taking all that time to change them and to rethink them and try and be as creative as we can but we still try to stay true to what our sound is.”

Stretching those creative muscles for Low Altitude Living has been helped over the years in no small part by producer Callum Howell, who has been with the band since their debut Lost Tropics in 2015.

“We just get along together and are all good friends. And Callum is great at what he does and really devoted to his craft. So that's, I think, what stuck out and impressed us when we first met. And he's just gotten better and better. He's one of the best in his game in Australia.

“We’re always wary of not getting stuck in a repetitive loop, so we branched out to a couple of other producers to see what their take would be on some of our music on this record. And the stuff that we got back, we just didn't prefer.

“We actually went back to Callum and we worked through issues we had with some of the mixes and it worked out better. And that was a good journey for us to go on together. Callum feels the same, that we shouldn't try and get stuck into doing the same thing over and over again. And to make that happen, you need to have different voices and different inputs so that you can grow and develop.”

The lockdowns not only helped the boys slip into the creative gear with a lot more time up their sleeves, it also gave them perspective. For once, they were able to stop and feel the full weight of the previous few years of constant touring and commitments lift from their shoulders. 

Galbraith says they didn’t realise it while they were in it, but it took them close to breaking point. It’s hard to imagine that this time around will be any different for the band with their fourth album release on the horizon - so far single releases Touch Back Down, Deepest Darkness and Home have been working their way under the skin of fans old and new. So how do they make sure they don’t come close to burning out again? 

“We were always kind of aware of, you know, burning out and stuff. And there's been plenty of times where we've said to management, ‘Listen, we gotta pump the brakes a bit.’ They've agreed with everything that we've suggested.

“But there definitely was that crunch time, and COVID was a bit of a break that we wouldn't have given ourselves. Otherwise, that was going to be a hectic year, but we just ended up having every day at home. And that's when we wrote Low Altitude Living.

“It's always been about longevity and trying to be able to do this for as long as we can. And when we first started and we were younger, it was about playing as many shows as we possibly could. And now it's more about playing good shows and putting on the best show possible for our fans. And that means not playing every night at every single venue.”

Despite the figurative and literal miles Ocean Alley have traversed, nothing has changed when it comes to the band dynamic. The long-time friends have always jammed together, surfed together, and fished together. And touring or not, Galbraith can’t see that changing anytime soon.

“We're all best friends but I think it's always been the music that's kept the band going. It's an excuse to just play music together. You know, for whatever reason. When we started in the garage, it was like we would just set the days to rehearse this afternoon, that afternoon, no exceptions - almost. 

“And so even if you didn't want to, or you weren’t as productive during those jam sessions, it didn't matter. The most important thing was that we were just enjoying playing and writing music together.

“And that's still how we feel today. Some days, we aren't best friends. But even on those days, we still have to get up on stage and play together or go into the studio and discuss our music with each other. So, it's definitely the music. That's been the driving force, for sure.

“Even when we're not writing music, it's fun and exciting for us to have a little bit of a challenge. We've never sort of gone into writing or making music wanting to copy what we've done before or stick to a certain recipe or something like that. 

“We always want to try and mix it up and change things around; we made it that way. Because it would have been difficult if it had just been more monotonous. We probably would have ripped into each other more. So, when it's fun and exciting and playful it's much easier.”

Getting in a surf and fish for the six mates on tour is getting harder and harder these days, as new venues, cities and festivals get added to their usual run of shows here and overseas. But if luck is on their side, Galbraith says they can’t resist dipping their toes in whatever waters they find.

“Every now and again you get a day off in a beautiful place, and you can go do something you know, adventurous so we try to get out in nature. We're normally trying to hunt down a swim anywhere we can. We're always looking, but every now and again you find a gem.”

Low Altitude Living is out October 14