An Interview With Modern Alarms
Modern Alarms are confident and engaging with an assured style, bringing their own sound packed full of passion, humility and honesty to the masses. Likened to the early Undertones with their pointed lyrics and raw energy, reminiscent of early post punk they provide a modern antidote to the homogenised pop world. They talked to Cheryl Hughes about music, influences and plastic ears.
I sit in the emptiness of the usually lively Black Rooms above the Ducie Bridge waiting for Dom Barber, lead singer of Modern Alarms. We sit in the atmospheric glow of candle light due to the power failure that had graced us and Dom begins to enlighten me about his music, lyrics and how he promotes himself in this day and age.
So, you and Frey started the band, did you both come up with the name The Modern Alarms?
The name came because, well obviously you need a band name but at the time we were just writing acoustic songs and then performing them at open mic nights. Someone had picked us up at an open mic night and asked us to come and play for them in Keko Moku in the Northern Quarter. Everyone was crammed in and people were saying “it’s really good” and “what’s the name of your band?” and we were like…. “No idea. So the next day we went into “Common” up the road and anybody that knows Frey knows his eyesight isn’t the best! Then literally within 5 minutes he was looking out the window and he was looking up and I said “you alright?” And he said, pointing out the window “What about that, Modern Alarms?” The fact that he could see a little alarm box on the wall across the road with writing no bigger than a half inch, it was amazing! I said “You’re telling me you can read that?” He said “Well it’s a bit blurry but its modern alarms innit? That’s a cool name for a band” So we scribbled it down and we stuck to it. We use the name to our advantage too. Every time we go to a different city I take A4 tiles, and spray paint them. Like The Plight of Blighty video, it’s the first video we did, all the way through that I’m making this stencil and then spraying painting it and then I put it up at the end and that’s what we do around the cities, with different images from modern alarms.
From starting out at open mic nights where the furthest is you have been to?
To play its London really, played there a few times and we go down really well, we have a few lined up for places like Scotland. In the next 2 months we will be going to Liverpool and Barrow but we keep getting, “You need to come to Barcelona and play for us” but it’s how you get over there?! So we are going to go and do a tour in France at some point this year and I think while we are over there we might make a long weekend of it and go over to Germany while we are there.
A lot of people say that Europe especially Germany is very band friendly.
Yeah definitely, I mean that’s why we want to go there because they are mad on the rock and roll bands, I’m not sure if we are particularly rock and roll cos sometime we have jazz songs but we have a good time and I think they would like it.
Where do you get the ideas for your lyrics and songs titles, from a glance they seem quite random?
There’s only one song title that actually isn’t in the lyrics but Voodoo Dancing Monkey Man is in the lyrics cos I repeat it a lot haha!
How did that song come about?
It’s about chemicals decibels and flashing lights. True story is I was really hangover and I was getting on the bus to go back out and thought tonight I’m going to dance like an absolute idiot, like a Voodoo dancing monkey man. But it can be about anything.
And what about Plight of Blighty?
“Plight of Blighty”, it’s my kind of take on society; it’s the most political song I’ve written. It is just disguised as a rock n roll catchy song, like a boisterous punky song. I was sat on the bus and I see this mum with her kids and she was loaded up with shopping around the handles of her pram and a box of crisps on the top, she had two scruffy looking toddlers who were swearing saying they were hungry and the mum just went “Oh F*off and have a packet of crisps”. Punched a hole in the crisp box on top of the pram and threw crisps at these 2 kids. So from Blakely to Manchester each one of these kids had 3 bags of crisps and I just thoughts that’s really sad that that’s all they are only going to eat until about 8 o’clock tonight and it will probably be another packet of crisps and that’s what they are learning. That’s their mum, she probably spends more on beer and going to the shop than looking after her kids, that’s why the song – “You people are the Plight of Blighty, the reason the country is weak” it’s a dig at people like that. Some people don’t prioritise and blame everybody else for their situations. That song is just distinctly honest and written the way it was and never changed.
How does your song writing work, do you see something and think I need to write it down or do you band members see something and say we need say something about this?
At the moment, I write in a few ways. I don’t sit down and force write cos I try and write as honestly as possible. I know I can rhyme so I could write 4 songs one day if I sat down and made myself but those songs would mean nothing to me. I wouldn’t enjoy performing them cos I know the process that has gone into them. When I was younger I used to like rap music and I admire the people that can freestyle, so what I like doing is going out the room making a cup of tea for the lads and coming back in and hearing what they have come up with and get into a rhythm. There have been times when I have free styled over them to see what happens. I just get the Dictaphone out and put it in the corner so I can come back to it later and write those lyrics down. If there is a groove to the song and it makes me feel a certain emotion then probably the song will come out like that, which is how the song “See the Beauty” came about. “See the Beauty” is about how you perceive the world. Do you look at it and think that’s amazing or do you think, that scares the crap out of me, questioning the way people view things. One of the lyrics is “Do you take note of the omen that’s shown, Give weight, call it fate or dismiss it as fake?” as in, do you take heed of the things going on around? Do they scare you of do they keep you feeling alive or do you just plod along day to day with blinkers on and just plonk on the TV on.
So there’s always that other idea, a deeper meaning to the lyrics?
I think there has to be, otherwise people get bored. One dimension to anything is useful for a purpose but it can’t adapt and become anything more than its singular purpose. People’s favourite Bands mean something unexplainable to them, they connect, attack, empathise, challenge and council people at periods in their lives. Creating memories and emotions they attach to those songs /albums/ artists. Music is the most subjective medium of art… What’s right or wrong? To be honest I’m not even arsed. Some people get their kicks form music that makes my finger nails want to peel off and sometimes you discover a beautiful playing on someone’s iPod a bit too loudly on the bus. Most things have a time and a place and a willing audience. I just write about what I feel and people will hopefully at least appreciate that.
What’s your favourite song or album, one that when you listen to it makes you think “that’s what I want my listening to feel/ think at some point”.
I know it’s a bit different because it’s not our style of music but Stephen Fretwell’s Magpie album, every song on that album if I listen to that album I am emotional. It’s absolutely touches me somewhere I can’t even begin to describe, it’s brilliant.
Is it the lyrics? Is it the music or is it the whole package?
It’s the brilliance of the balance of the lyrics. The lyrics are brilliant, the music is so simplistic. It’s all pretty much acoustic but the man’s got such an emotive voice! There’s a song on it called “Emily” which I think came out at the right time for me, I had a crap relationship and when it was falling apart I think that song was on. One of the lines was “I didn’t mean to prove that all I was good for is to lose”. I was just in awe that someone could have said my emotions in a sentence. How have you done that?! That’s the brilliance of really good songwriters that can do stuff like that, I love the Beatles and The Rolling Stones and what they have done too.
What’s been your favourite venue to perform in?
There has been a fair few. The two really good gigs we have had, we were so pleased with the sound and the setup is the Snow Goose in Macclesfield and in Audlem. The Snow Goose is brilliant, the stage is big enough, you’ve got loads of space, the sound was always incredible and there’s good lighting in there too. You already feel like performers when you’re on the stage. We played at Academy 2 and although you get all the good feelings, you turn up and you’re just on the band treadmill. We’ve been to really good venues in London and not really felt cared about too. In Audlem, Cheshire, we played there a lot last year and the reception we get when we go there is amazing. We were just walking back with our chips and people were all like “can’t wait to watch you tonight” You can’t beat that. It makes you feel important. We’re intending to do the smaller festivals, just trying to get our name out there, talking to as many people as possible. Festivals are exposure to a lot of people that wouldn’t normally see us. We are ready to play in front of 50,000 people. I really want to get on tour with a band that has a decent following too. We are going out of Manchester with our gigs and they are coming to us and asking us to play which is nice. We are turning that corner now, we work hard and I think it’s deserved, we pay our dues and keep pushing on. Any gig we play were really there and experiencing it along with whatever crowd may be in attendance they know and we know that it’s something special. We F-in love it and you can’t fake that.
How often do you practice as a band?
We always rehearse twice a week and then probably if we have a gig then 3 times a week but it’s not a chore, We love it … we love the songs we have and we know we produce quality it’s never a case of “we’ve got to write this song now”. We go in and make tea have a chat, play through every song. Then when were warmed up we may throw a new song in the mix, let it brew and ferment over a few weeks ….they’re like our little babies and we don’t feel the need to just chuck them into the world under baked. Even though we have got the same name we are not the same band as we were back then, I know we are a great unit now; we all best mates and we go out together, we can spend a whole night not mentioning the band and I think that’s important that we are proper mates.
Obviously going back to performing, you’re very active on stage, do you get nervous?
Do you worry about how people react to your performance?
Where does that come from?
It comes from an absolute confidence of what we do and knowing full well that it matters absolutely F* all to anyone else in the room. The people that come down to our gigs have been to our gigs before so they know what we do and they love it. So the new people I’m not worried they aren’t going to like us cos they will. We all have smiles on our faces we’re all enjoying it there’s no acting whatsoever. We generally get great receptions so that’s positive, I’m sure were not every bodies cup of tea and that’s cool with me..
Do you look at promoting yourself as a band and marketing yourself?
I absolutely look at it, because anyone that is so arrogant to think that their music is what is going to make people listen to it… then no, your music is there to make people listen to it and make people come back and listen again. If no one knows you’re performing your music then why should they go? You can’t expect people that happen upon your music to know who you are, it doesn’t work like that. We have done all sorts; I find it another creative process. If I have a budget of £10, how do I make 300 meaningful flyers out of £10? Let’s have a wander around the pound shop and see what I can find. The first thing that ever came to mind was, it’s a bit weird but I found a bag of plastic ears, hundreds of them, I had them for ages, so when we were launching our EP I dug them out. Then I went on EBay and found these plastic little drums, you got 150 in a pack for about 3 quid so I bought 2 packs of them to go with all these ears. Then we printed a load of tags to put on them saying Modern Alarms, “You Must Have Known”, which was the name of our first EP and then a little QR code so that when you scan it takes you to our website.
We just spent 2 days hanging them up in trees all up and down Oxford road and around Manchester, there were so many of them! There was a buzz, if you went on twitter and stuff there was a load of hash tags and tweets that kept appearing about plastic ears! I mean we started it a bit ourselves, “what’s this” and “ooo look at this”, but it was great! The weekend after that we got a load of punch ball balloons off EBay. I know it’s not a proper marketing budget this but anyway we managed to get hold of some gas. Me and Frey set off at like 3am and we put them all over Piccadilly and Northern Quarter. We put these massive balloons up, drew a big smiley face and wrote Modern alarms on the back of them and put them on string and tied them up, we put a QR code on them again too. We started at 3am finished for 7am. I finished and then went back with a camera to take some pics’ of it all and I ended up getting dragged in to the M.E.N for an interview by quarter to 8 so it was like, that worked. We do it when we go to London too, take a bag of toy soldiers down and do that same with a code on it and where we are playing and stuff top help promote the gigs.
What about online marketing and promoters?
I think it is your duty as a band to promote any gig that you play. Regardless of who is the “promoter”. I don’t believe in the Pay to play aspect, where someone offers you a gig and they say right, you have to sell 50 tickets to come to this event. Bands tend to go “it’s the promoter’s job to promote” but it’s your job as well! As far as I’m concerned it’s both, it’s a business relationship. My ethos is treat people the way you expect to be treated yourself, If you do your job and they don’t do theirs then its once burned twice shy isn’t it… if you end up putting in a lot of effort and it goes wrong, don’t play for them again. As for online, we have our own blog and social media. Also at our last gig we set up a live stream on our site so that our fans in America and people that couldn’t make the gig could listen and watch us perform. We might set that up in our rehearsal room and do a live rehearsal somewhere soon too. There’s a lot of negativity about the internet the way that it is, and social media. “It’s not as easy as it used to be” they say, actually it’s a lot easier it’s just different. Record sales have absolutely plummeted but exposure has gone through the roof. If you’re not in the mass media you’re not going to get talked about, well that’s the complete opposite now, the mass media isn’t where anybody goes for their musical information and gig guides any more, and they go to the social networks.
I mean its 250 quid for an advert in a broadsheet but it’s free to upload your information, music and pictures on your website, it’s free to look on FB and say “we’re playing in Birmingham”. We usually have a look what else is on and tweet about our gig, for example #Birmingham and your instantly going to anyone that follows that hash tag, and someone will retweet that in Birmingham and that goes to their followers and so on and so on.
After a long chat and finished drinks, the candles nearly burnt out, I found myself with a whirlwind of information and an insight that I wasn’t expecting. I feel I have learned something from Dom about his views and his music and where it comes from. With a great aim at developing themselves and marketing like they do, I think the Modern Alarms are one you should be looking out for and keeping a keen eye on!
All words by Cheryl Hughes. More writing by Cheryl on Louder Than War can be found here.