UK duo Alpines have only been around for five or six years, but already they feel like hardened music industry veterans. Personal and professional kindreds Bob Matthews and Catherine Pockson were signed early after their first batch of tracks—mini-epics like "Cocoon" and "Empire"—built massive buzz online. But before they'd even completed their first album, British major label Polydor decided to let them go.
After self-releasing debut album Oasis in 2014, Alpines are now back with a brilliant second effort called Another River. It's a smart, soulful electro-pop album whose songs seem to reveal new pockets of intense emotion every time you listen. Impressed by this unexpected comeback from an act many people would have written off, I went down to Kingston upon Thames, in south-west London, to meet them. Here, Bob and Catherine share a super-nice apartment a short walk from the city's largest park, a place they often sought solace in as they were rebuilding their career. Sitting in their recording studio at the back of the garden, the duo tell me how—to quote one of their favourite artists—they managed to dust themselves off and try again.
Noisey: So it's been nearly two and a half years since you released your debut album, Oasis. What happened next?
Catherine Pockson: As soon as we released Oasis, we started writing this album.
Bob Matthews: That first album was self-released and it was quite a difficult experience getting it out there with, well, not very much support. It was a real learning curve and we knew that if we were going to make another album, we needed more of a framework. And we realised it all comes down to this: We've just got to make a good album—because otherwise people won't jump on board. So we literally hunkered down here in the studio and the whole of last year we were writing, writing, writing. Catherine and I must have written close to a hundred songs. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves but we worked really hard and kept at it. And I feel like we've made a good step up on this record.
Catherine: It's been really tough—there were a lot of walks around the park! Because we'd been signed to a major label and then left, we learned very early on in our career, in quite a hard way, the importance of just trying to make the music as good as possible. You've got to really, fully believe in it because otherwise no one else will. So it was a lot of pressure because we had no team behind us or anything, but we knew we had to take time to make something as great as we could.
You obviously left the major label before you released Oasis, which is why you self-released it. But how did things actually end with the label?
Bob: I guess like nine out of 10 acts on a major, it just didn't work out. We signed with them really early—we'd put a few songs up on the internet and they liked them. So we put out a few more songs with them and it was going OK, we thought we were on track for releasing our debut album. But then things changed at the top of the label and suddenly we weren't a priority. The guy who signed us lost his job and it was like we were frozen out and people stopped getting back to us. It wasn't one of those horrible things where they, like, shelved our album and refused to give it back. They just said to us, "Sorry, we're not going to commit to this in the future," so we arranged quite quickly to leave.
Catherine: Our lawyer put it like this: We kind of slipped out the label's back door. But as a result, we lost our managers and I found that very hard emotionally because I was very close to one of them. At the time, our managers were having major success with Sam Smith and Disclosure, and it was like those acts were heading in one direction, and we were heading in another. You become very humble and you learn to lower your expectations a bit; it's a good thing.
Bob: I like where we are now with this album, I feel a lot more stable and I know we're going to be able to keep on doing this. I obviously hope we can grow our audience but I feel like we're in a really good place with our music and we're in control of everything. I'm really happy with where we've ended up; it's just been an interesting journey getting here.
After you'd "slipped out the label's back door," what happened next? Like, how did you pick yourself up again?
Bob: That was the hardest thing. At first we tried to replace it with the same thing—we even shopped ourselves round to other labels. But when you've just come out of a major label deal, you're not going to walk into another. If we'd been a band of four or five people who'd been leading more disparate lives, it might have been hard, but because it was just me and Catherine, we were able to dig deep and persevere. It was a lot of soul searching, asking ourselves, "Is this really what we want to do?"
Catherine: A lot of people on major labels were advising us to rebrand and choose a new band name. But I couldn't see that working because we'd generated everything with Alpines: the visuals, the music, the identity, it all came from us. So if we had tried to rebrand, it would have been a manufactured vision. It wouldn't have come straight from the soul; we'd only have been doing it for the business side.
But now, you're actually releasing the new album, Another River, through indie label Metropolis. Why didn't you self-release again?
Bob: I mean, we could have self-released again. But financially it's tough to promote a record to the level you need to if you want it to reach a decent audience. And it was tough not having a team to bounce any ideas off. It wasn't the pride of having a label that we missed; it was the infrastructure for decision-making. Now we have a great label and we're really happy with our new manager too. It means we can focus on doing the creative stuff and not worry about all the tiny mundane things you get asked day to day when you're putting out an album.
Catherine: And actually, a lot of people don't want to talk to the artist directly because it can be awkward. It's nice to have that step of removal between the artist and the business side.
You mentioned earlier that you wrote a hundred songs for the album. How did you whittle them down to the final 10?
Bob: The important thing was narrowing down our vision. Catherine put together a mood board of images for the album and that made it so much easier. It was like, "OK, we're going for quite a minimal thing, clean lines, not too many flashes of colour, quite intense." It's so much easier for me to think about music when I see something like that. And that vision got narrower and narrower until we had about 15 or 20 songs that fit.
Catherine: We always knew we wanted the album to be concise: no filler, no intro, no interludes, nothing like that. Every song had to be strong and we wanted it to feel very whole.
Because of the way you wrote the album—holed up in this studio, just the two of you—are the songs that much more personal?
Catherine: The album's bookend songs, "Another River" and "Under the Sun," are very personal. They're really about family and healing and the intense feelings that come with that. But in between, the album has other themes coming through."Take Me to the Water" is about a few friends of ours who've got married in the last couple of years. It's very emotional experiencing what they're going through; it makes you realise what's important in life.
Bob: I think one of the things that makes Catherine such a good songwriter is her ability to empathise with other people—almost to a fault sometimes.
Catherine: Oh, I know! I'm just obsessed with humans and what they're going through. I'm quite spongey like that. I like watching documentaries that are so real and hard-hitting, and Bob ends up walking out the room saying, "This is too intense!" But I really soak it all up. Being a writer, I think you need other people to draw from—you need to be able to make sense of their experiences so you can make sense of your own.
The album has a real R&B vibe in places—especially on a song like "Stay." Where did that influence come from?
Bob: I guess growing up when we did, in the early to mid-noughties, R&B was really the main pop music. Whenever I DJ, that's always the music I play, so I guess it's influenced us in that way.
Catherine: Yeah, I definitely feel like we've gone back to teenage life a bit with this album. I'm thinking about me, on the school bus with all my girls, trying to learn the words to, like, "Gangsta's Paradise" or Aaliyah. That was my escapism at that time and I mean, they're some of the fucking greatest pop songs ever.
Bob: Those tunes never cease to inspire me. Aaliyah's "Try Again" is one of my favourite tracks because the songwriting and production is incredible and it still sounds so effortless.
Catherine: I've always been obsessed with, what's that JT song? "What Goes Around... Comes Around." It's really sad but uplifting at the same time—I think R&B does that so well. But hip-hop is a massive influence for me lyrically, too. Whenever I'm a bit stuck, I'll put on Lauryn Hill and think, "OK, wow, I know nothing about writing songs really." Same with Loyle Carner and Nas. And then there's Sampha. I actually wrote about how amazing Sampha is in the album notes, but Bob was like, "We can't thank Sampha in the album notes!"
Oh, I think you could have done. Charli XCX thanked Britney in her album notes, just because.
Catherine: Bob knows so much about Britney!
Bob: Yeah, one of my first ever singles was "...Baby One More Time" on cassette—look, it's up there on the wall.
OK, before we go down the Britney rabbit hole, one last question: Given everything you've gone through in your career already, what advice would you give to other artists just starting out?
Bob: Just think about— really think about—why you're doing it.
Catherine: That's it. Do you really want it? And are you prepared for it to be really hard? Because it is going to be really hard. And is that going to make you happy? Are you going to achieve that balance between the struggle and the love of it, because that's what it's all about. I don't think I've ever had a day in this whole process where I've been able to sit back and think, "Ah, everything is fine." You're constantly battling and pushing forward, and that's hard work mentally. So the advice I would give is this: Think about whether it's what you really want. Because if you have any doubts, it's probably not going to work out.
Alpines' album Another River is out now via Metropolis.
Alpines shot by Cyrus Mahboubian.
Nick Levine is a writer living in London. Follow him on Twitter.