We caught up with Alex to discuss their experiences as a professional musician, their work with Trans Portrait UK on gender and their exciting new ventures in a range of musical styles.
The Drystones started out as a duo, formed by Alex and friend Ford Collier when they were only 15 years old. The group has now expanded to a trio with the addition of percussionist Evan Carson and is embracing new musical directions.
“Initially, Ford and I fell in love with the hard-hitting, over paced, high-energy approach to traditional dance music which was perhaps a little tasteless looking back but was a lot of fun at the time.
“Over years of exploring, we’ve been lucky to always have a blank canvas each time we start something new. We’ve made some very traditional sounding arrangements, learned the joys
of writing modern tunes, explored the relationship between European and Indian traditional music, involved a lot of extended performance techniques and most recently started using more electronics to enhance our sound.
“I like to use the word ‘glam’ to describe our approach; it’s a little nod to one of my favourite trad-inspired projects out there – The Olllam featuring Tyler Duncan (who also produces Vulfpeck) – the influence from their earlier 90s glam inspired project Ella Riot (formerly My Dear Disco) is evident and makes for a really great sound.
“The fusion we’re headed for next feels like the right place to aim for, particularly with the involvement of Evan and all their amazing experience producing prog music and involving electronics.”
Evan joined the band after working with Alex and Ford on the Vulpus tour and collaborating on ‘Mara’, a piece of music released in aid of the Ukraine Appeal. The piece features The Drystones, but also members of Mishra, Ninebarrow, Honey & The Bear, The Last Inklings and Ranagri.
“It’s one of the biggest collaborations I’ve worked on and was a lot of fun to mix and help produce. Everything is densely layered and built on a foundation of deep, hard-hitting drums, dark chords and a saturated sound world – very prog, somewhat aggressive and great fun.
“Evan is an incredible musician with whom I’ve crossed paths many times over the years. It’s wonderful to find someone who shares our passion for big heavy sounds while remaining sensitive to the fine details and the source material.”
Anxiety and performance
While writing and producing music has always been a passion, Alex has never found live performance easy. Of course, nerves are common for anyone who performs in front of an audience, but it’s rare to hear seasoned musicians talk about their experiences of stage-fright.
Alex is open about their initial discomfort on stage and has even been working on performing music that reflects their increased heart rate and breathing in the high-stress environment of a live set.
“In short, I haven’t fully overcome the anxiety around performing and perhaps I never will. Standing up in front of a bunch of people, particularly those you hold close to your heart, is a scary thing and feeds into our primal fight, flight or freeze response. No matter how experienced you are as a performer it can get to you.
“Instead of pushing the fear away I’m learning to accept it and love my limbic system for trying to keep me safe. Every performance is a new challenge and perhaps the fact that I have such a strong response is part of my drive to keep doing it. I’ve just got to get through that initial ten minutes of a show and then we’re flying!”
Work with Trans Portrait UK
Alex identifies as nonbinary and has recently worked with Trans Portrait UK as part of a showcase of trans and non-binary individuals with a variety of different gender presentations.
“I’ve always known that I’m a little different when it comes to my gender and identity. I was assigned male at birth and started to feel uncomfortable with societal expectations, dress and social codes, even though I conformed to my assigned gender for 25 years. I spent more energy trying to fit in rather than learn about who I actually was.
“I had an amazing upbringing and I don’t regret a moment of it, but I feel incredibly lucky and happy now to have found a space where I can explore my identity in a more authentic way.
The best thing about being non-binary is how it’s led me to dress and style exactly how I want, to play with gender and find new ways of presenting to the world without constraint.
This is not a performance for me: this is me finding my authentic self.
I’ve been lucky that friends and family understand me more for who I am as opposed to being defined by a binary gender. I’m not a boy or a girl, I’m just Alex.
“To anyone who’s asking questions about their own relationship with gender, I’d say: go explore! Starting conversations about transness, using positive, affirming language and becoming a nerd about gender not only helps you but others around you. Don’t shy away from asking questions. Practice pronouns and find local queer groups to help support you in your voyage into gender play.
“Gender is a social construct: it’s there to be transformed, questioned, subverted and flipped on its head. Go and have fun and don’t be afraid to seek a safe space if you haven’t already found one. It’s worth the search.”
From Southampton to the world
While they’re now based in Bristol, Alex remains closely connected to Southampton, returning for gigs, visits and workshops with current students.
“I consider Southampton a second home. It occupies a big space in my heart
“Southampton gave me a really important foundation in how to integrate myself into a city’s music scene which has served me very well since. I used to spend a lot of time hanging out at The Talking Heads, going to concerts at Turner Sims and attending amazing folk sessions at The Guide Dog.
“The music department at Southampton is absolutely top-notch. I met some of the most inspiring people on my course – both lecturers and contemporary students – and made many friendships which I hope will last my lifetime. The opportunity to study in professional music environments and work with some ridiculously good musicians is what gave me the confidence to go away and decide that’s exactly what I want to keep doing in my career.”
It’s clear that Alex’s ambitions, sparked at Southampton, have stood them in good stead, with a track record of writing, production and performance work that spans a huge range of musical styles. Indeed, they are keeping busy on projects that stretch beyond their work with The Drystones.
“I’m about to go on tour with my new folk trio Tarren (myself, Sid Goldsmith and Danny Pedler). We released our debut album Revel last year which was mostly written remotely during lockdown.
“Harriet Riley & I are about to release our third studio album Sonder III. We are a duo with an unusual pairing of instruments – fiddle and vibraphone.
“I also play out regularly with a band called Sheelanagig who have been on the gig and festival circuit for a long time.
“Other than my main projects in which I’m a named member I play with the Bristol-based Terra Collective, often lead violin, which is a truly beautiful collective built around a piece written by composer Benji Bower.”
For any budding musicians in our community, Alex has some words of advice.
“Go and gig. I know it’s easier said than done but doing it really is the only way to get good at gigging. Heed your audiences’ response and remember that everything happens very slowly and it’s okay if you don’t become an overnight sensation.
“Prioritise your practice: it’s really important. Go for quality over quantity. 20 minutes of focus a day is a lot better than four hours of repetitive boredom once a week.
“Explore other avenues to professionalise your music. Teaching music and working in schools, hospitals and care homes alongside performance has not only paid my bills for years but taught me so many valuable lessons I use every day.
“One of the most valuable questions you can ask yourself is what you really love about the music you make and perform. It can be the key to finding satisfaction in your musical career.
“Don’t burn out. If you don’t take a break, the break will take you. Make boundaries with yourself and stick to them when it comes to your precious time.
“Meditate, exercise and find your calm. You’ll only sustain live music further as a career by being kind, gentle to others, considering their needs and being a team player. You will meet a lot of people in some high-pressure scenarios and being easy to work with is one of your greatest assets.”
To find out more about Alex’s projects go to their website.