Sian Alice Group shares a name with its singer- but it's no songwriter project.
Wed Feb 20 2008
Photograph: Carla Brookoff
In the beginning of February, the members of Sian Alice Group boarded a flight from their hometown of London and traveled to New York, where they immediately holed up in a cramped Greenpoint rehearsal space. Two weeks later they’re still sitting there. The room is dim and lifeless, bearing a scent that the musicians liken to unwashed feet. The four bandmates—Sian Alice Ahern, Rupert Clervaux, Ben Crook and Sasha Vine—face each other as they play, joined by a pair of New Yorkers who will flesh out the group’s lineup during their upcoming American shows.
Bands always seem ungainly in rehearsal, forced to go through performative motions for no one’s apparent benefit. This ensemble is no exception. Ahern, a Welsh native whose first name is pronounced “shawn,” shuts her eyes as she sings, her angelic voice merging with her bandmates’ instruments; the effect hints at exquisiteness, but seems oddly mannered as it resounds in the tiny room. When they finish a pastoral ballad, in lieu of conversation they unceremoniously swap instruments and dive into another number.
Sian Alice Group is in town preparing for the release of its debut album, 59.59 (the Social Registry). The record is blurry and unaffectedly enigmatic, full of shifting textures and styles: lush folk, shoegaze pop and dreamy sounds reminiscent of Birmingham bands like Pram and Broadcast. The variety is no accident. “In England, being a musician can be very restrictive,” says Clervaux, 31, speaking in a nearby bar during a break. “You become a guitarist in a rock band, period. The musicians are better in New York. You have an understanding of free jazz as much as hip-hop and heavy metal.”
The group’s evasion of restrictions extends to its members’ roles. Onstage, Clervaux spends most of his time behind a drum kit; on the record he is credited with nearly a dozen instruments. He is also the quartet’s producer and chief lyricist—facts that render the band name, which suggests a singer-songwriter project with Ahern as dictator, misleading. “Using Sian’s name is a nod to jazz groups,” Clervaux says. “But mainly, it’s because once you hit 30, you just can’t sit around thinking of a band name.” “It’s the Edge theory,” Crook, 32, adds. “The guy’s, like, 50 and he’s still called ‘The Edge.’ It’s so depressing.”
Due to crippling stage fright recently curbed by prescription medication, much of Crook’s life in music has occurred behind closed doors. The guitarist met his match five years ago when he encountered Ahern, a similarly shy performer who’s now his girlfriend and bandmate, at a karaoke party—“the only situation in which I could sing,” she claims. The musicians were forced to get over any jitters pretty quickly: Last year, with only a single performance under their belt, Sian Alice Group was solicited by Jason “Spaceman” Pierce to open theaters for Spiritualized. “I basically squeaked the first note out,” Ahern, 27, says. (Pierce, a longtime friend who heard their recordings after his girlfriend clandestinely copied them from Crook’s hard drive, raves that the group is “genuinely trying to find their own voice.”)
Two nights after its band practice, Sian Alice Group is playing the first date of its American trip, at Bushwick’s Market Hotel. The performance was arranged by Todd P, the local promoter celebrated for putting on shows in obscure locations that conjure a mythic “underground” lost to contemporary New York—in other words, comically punishing events that could make a teenager feel old. On this night the subway directions are misleading, the stairs to the venue are treacherous, and the room smells like Donatella Versace’s mouth. The show is scheduled for 9:30pm; by the time Sian Alice Group takes the stage, 3am looms.
And yet, within seconds of its opening note, the band is thoroughly captivating, the promise of its rehearsal fulfilled. Ahern, her pale face framed by a mop of black hair, sings with breathy poise, essentially another instrument in the band’s mash of guitars and violin. The musicians’ shadows line the wall behind them, a portrait of late-night exoticism, and their songs balloon in the cavernous room. For one fleeting moment, the grueling night’s stab at underground cool seems realized.
Sian Alice Group plays Mercury Lounge Thu 21 and UnionDocs Sat 23.