With Bluesfest plus an international tour ahead and new music in their back pocket, we caught up with Mitch Galbraith of Ocean Alley.
Ocean Alley’s rise to fame has been exponential. Their latest album Chiaroscuro was a chart-throb, they scored #1 in triple j’s Hottest 100 of 2018, and as I spoke to guitarist Mitch Galbraith, they had just wound up three nights at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion with Tash Sultana.
As they cook up a suite of new tunes and prepare for a few more of the biggest shows of their life, we caught up with guitarist Mitch Galbraith to talk. Topics included playing to a wasted crowd, getting booked for Bluesfest, and a wizened return to his high school.
HAPPY: How have the Tash Sultana shows been going? Feel like half my friends went to the shows in Sydney.
MITCH: Really good! I mean we’re playing to huge amounts of people so we’re pretty stoked with that, and Tash has brought us along to some pretty cool rooms, we did the Hordern in Sydney – it was a triple header there – and we just landed in Melbourne. Playing tonight.
HAPPY: I had a friend who was at one of the Hordern shows – they were pretty cooked afterwards, in a good way. Do you guys get a sense that you’re performing to people who might be high and do you try to play to that?
MITCH: To be honest, that’s traditionally what our audience is like, they’re pretty loose and they’re all up for a party. Yeah, I suppose we kind of feed off that, we get a lot of our energy by just staring back to the crowd and see what’s going on, and when they’re all dancing and having a good time it’s really easy for us to do the same on stage. I mean, one thing we have noticed playing the Tash shows is that the crowds are a bit more subdued. It’s probably just a mixture, like Tash’s fans and people who haven’t seen us before or who don’t know us. So it’s pretty fun to watch the crowd at the front begging to be entertained… if you win them over by the end of the show it’s a good feeling.
HAPPY: These big shows are a fair way from where you started. Is there any aspect of those early Northern Beaches shows with bands like The Ruminaters or Blueberry Circuit that you miss?
MITCH: That we miss? Playing to a small bunch of people is fun, when you’re right there in their face. You can feel a bit detached being up on a bigger stage these days. But the camaraderie between all the bands is pretty much the same, I mean we played with Lime Cordiale, they were also playing before Tash at the Wollongong show so we’re still playing with bands and those people. And Tyne from Blueberry Circuit, we see him quite a lot on the festival circuit actually, he plays guitar for Mallrat sometimes. So there’s still a lot of people from those early days that are still kicking around.
HAPPY: And how about the crowds? When you come back to Sydney and play the Hordern do you still see some familiar faces in the nosebleeds?
MITCH: Yeah, we had a whole crew of our friends from the beaches come and watch Tash the other night. It’s good fun having them around.
HAPPY: On a purely technical level did you always think a bigger stage would suit Ocean Alley better? I feel like a lot of your tunes are written to be larger-than-life and cinematic in that way.
MITCH: I suppose that’s an important part of our show, dancing around on stage and that. It just looks good with a good light show there, when you’re not cramped in the corner. It’s definitely been something that we’ve always dreamt of achieving.
HAPPY: Back to the beaches for just a little longer, it seems to be one of the pockets of Sydney that are still really getting behind live music and their local bands. Do you think that’s the case still?
MITCH: I mean there’s not that many live music venues around the Northern Beaches, the main one that everybody goes to is the Hotel Steyne, but I think the place in general sort of allows young musicians to have an easy step up into things. Everyone in that part of the world is living a pretty good life, there’s not too many troubles that they have to deal with, so by that factor everyone gets a chance to be creative if they want to.
HAPPY: You think that sort of environment inspires people to pick up a guitar or start writing songs, as opposed to other areas?
MITCH: Yeah definitely, people get inspired by a whole bunch of things, but it’s just about sticking at it. Just doing what you love and working hard at it.
HAPPY: Was that background part of why you wanted to play the Don’t Kill Live Music rally?
MITCH: Definitely. We did that for heaps of reasons but the first one was because it’s now becoming our career so it’s important to us, but all the people who aren’t musicians that we work with, who aren’t on stage like our crew and stuff. It’s not just for us, it’s for our fans, and all these different festivals. We had the opportunity to have our voice heard, so we didn’t shy away from that. We just wanted to voice our concern on how that would adversely affect our situation and all the people who work around us.
HAPPY: On that day, what exactly led up to you missing the start of your band’s set?
MITCH: (Laughs) Yeah… I was doing an interview for television and they said it would be done just beforehand, but of course, I don’t think that’s how television goes. In any case, I was a bit late, but it was pretty funny to watch the band – actually I could hear them first. I could hear them doing an improvised jam, it actually sounded pretty cool. I had to rush back up there.
HAPPY: That one’s on Waleed then, I guess.
HAPPY: I saw you recently returned to Pittwater House for a visit.
MITCH: Yes! I did.
HAPPY: While you’ve got the floor, is there anyone from Pittwater House you’d like to give a shoutout to?
MITCH: Probably the principal, Dr. Nancy Hillier, she’s doing a great job and she’s changed the school for the better. I went there 10 years ago now, so it was good to go and just say hi to everyone, I thought I’d give them a few wise words… the few that I have. Talk to the kids about having close words with your friends, and reaching out to people if they’re struggling, and just enjoying life, basically.
HAPPY: That must have been pretty special. Now you’ve just dropped Stained Glass which is apparently the first track you’ve written since Chiaroscuro – were there any more tracks written at the time?
MITCH: In that period? No actually, that was a bit standalone, that last track. The idea popped out of nowhere and we went with it, it sounded like something we wanted to release as the first single, it sounded quite strong. Then soon after that period we went into the studio to work on some more ideas that sprung up, and now we’re just plodding along trying to flesh out those ideas. Write some new music.
HAPPY: Is that newer stuff being recorded at The Grove, like Stained Glass was?
MITCH: No, that’s up at a different studio, that’s upcoming work. We’ll probably talk about that soon enough.
HAPPY: And to finish things up, you’ve played with a ton of Bluesfest favourites, but correct me if I’m wrong, you’ve never actually played the festival?
HAPPY: Is it a bit of a bucket list booking for you? The alignment is really strong.
MITCH: Yeah, definitely a bucket list festival for us. I think a few of us have been to the festival but not all of us, and there’s some good bands on there. Ben Harper’s playing, Kurt Vile and the Violators, there’s some acts on there that we’re super excited to see as punters. It’s the biggest buzz being able to be on stage with them.
Catch Ocean Alley’s Australian tour dates below. Further shows in New Zealand, Canada and the US can be found on their website.
Thursday 21 March – Riverstage, Brisbane – with Tash Sultana
Saturday 23 March – Mindil Beach, Darwin – with Tash Sultana
Saturday 30 March – Fremantle Oval, Fremantle – with Tash Sultana
Thurs 18 April – Bluesfest – Byron Bay, NSW – Tickets