Aleks And The Ramps: Crash Barriers
Are Aleks And The Ramps Melbourne’s most talented novelty band or its most misread pioneers?
“The transparency of my assumed identity was just like your dress/There wasn’t much left to guess.”
Sung in ridiculous falsetto, the opening line of Aleks And The Ramps’ debut album rests on a knife-edge. Is it unsustainable novelty or strange beauty? This is the decision the band’s listeners are faced with. Many have dismissed the Melbourne five-piece too quickly for their ludicrous stage presence. Often dressed in matching but ill-fitting basketball uniforms with tight short-shorts, they jump up and down manically through songs, switch instruments freely and generally seem to be having too good a time to take much seriously. Outside, before each set, they can be caught rehearsing dance routines.
But there’s something else going on as well. On record, Aleks And The Ramps are a different proposition. Their music is an absurd jumble of genres, switching between folk, electronica, operatic rock and heavy metal, often within the same song. The lyrics are vivid, wet with sexuality and full of horror, cataloguing lovers’ quarrels from inside the mangled wreck of a car crash. Deep and morose by default, Aleks’ voice is sincere and surprisingly affecting. It is experimental pop at its most creative.
In January this year, Michael Dwyer – authoritative contributor to the EG, the music lift-out of Melbourne broadsheet The Age – articulated what many critics had been hinting at for years: “As illustrated by The Darkness and Wolfmother, the place where solid rock used to be has shifted beyond definition. The real thing is acknowledged to be extinct, so the world embraces its substitution with more or less authentic replicas.” What critics haven’t admitted is that this problem extends well beyond the Top 40 charts.
Vibrant though it is, the Melbourne independent scene defines itself against the pastiche of mainstream bands like Jet, Wolfmother and The Vines without realising it often follows the same pattern with more obscure influences. It is so safe in its “difference” that it can appear insular and arrogant. Mildly-famous bands now introduce themselves on stage under a pseudonym, as if not recognising them in the flesh was simply laughable, and earn critical applause for doing so. Hundreds of fans come together to talk through performances – safe in the knowledge that there will be another the next day, or even later the same night – while bands re-enact stage antics well past their expiry date.
In this context, Aleks And The Ramps’ habit of making audiences uncomfortable – for reasons beyond their intimacy, or lack thereof, with this month’s “in” bands – is a pretty valuable skill. Exuberant and flirting psychopathically with different forms of pop, they spark bouts of nervous laughter and leave listeners feeling confused about what they’ve just experienced. The vague sense of familiarity which creeps into most gigs is blasted out the window. “If I’d sat in my bedroom for 100 years I could never have dreamt up anything so wilfully eccentric,” wrote music critic Emmy Hennings after seeing them for the first time.
“We must have looked like such a strange pair/Me with my respirator, you with your wheelchair.”
Aleks And The Ramps’ first full-length, Pisces Vs. Aquarius, does have its share of eccentric moments. ‘No Se Si Es Amor’ is a cover of Roxette’s 1990 chart hit ‘It Must Have Been Love’, sung in Spanish and backed by primitive electronic blips and beeps and Aleks’ banjo. Other song titles include ‘Aminals’ and ‘Diary Of A Lizard Man’. But there are also threads of a much darker lyrical obsession woven throughout. Often, they appear as dialogues, either between two people or a conflicted memory, which travel along the entanglements of violence and sexual politics in neatly rhyming couplets.
In the story told by one track, ‘Brain’, two cripples hobble aboard a bus and share a flashback to a car accident. The lyrics are written as two individual memories which spool together into a kind of disjointed conversation. “If you were in pain, I couldn’t tell,” laments Aleks in deadpan character. “I was dealing with a punctured lung.” The voice which replies is so playful and effortlessly gorgeous that it’s difficult not to become entranced by the contrast. “Your gasping reminded me of the first time we made love,” sings Janita, member of The Ramps and Aleks’s real-life lover.
This barbed call-and-response is a remake of an earlier song, ‘Cuts Make Scars’, from the band’s self-titled EP (which is, unfortunately, almost impossible to find). On that track, the two memories are even more vicious and unfold, again, after a car crash. While Aleks reflects on his partner’s injuries, a rock opera rages over the top, mixed from strings, vocal harmonies and what sounds like a recording of jumbo jets landing. In contrast, Janita’s slow, sweetly-intoned reply is bereft of accompaniment and echoes around the room. The detail wrapped up in its simple rhyming pattern is impressive:
“You stumbled when you tried to get up and stand/If my arms weren’t in plastic, I’d have given you a hand/But the neck brace made it hard for me to look you in the eye/That’s why I didn’t notice when you started to cry/Your trembling hands were more than I could take/So I left with an excuse you could tell was fake/The quiver in your voice when you said you couldn’t cope stuck in my head like a pubic hair in soap.”
The absurdity of that verse is matched only by its pointed sense of hurt. One track later on the EP, Aleks returns to the scene of the accident. “Must you call me by my real name?” is the opening line of ‘Air Drums,’ followed by a non-sequitur about being unable to stand up properly. The whole thing is made up of then/now juxtapositions, as if he was recounting a relationship’s problems and its bloody aftermath at the same time: “I slipped over your corpse and I noticed that your hair was not the same/Oh, I was intolerable and you were in denial/Your skull cracked wide open when you hit the tiles.”
Yet again, the accident hinted at – perhaps metaphorically – is the warped steel of a car crash. At the centre of the song lies a black joke. “Even if only for a little while, I know we’d stay alive,” Aleks implores someone behind the wheel. “If you would not air drum while you drive.” There are few other young Australian bands writing lyrics so interesting to unravel.
“At first you thought it was a coincidence, your bedroom window was in line with the hole in our fence.”
Face-to-face, Aleks Bryant is reserved and has never been in a car accident. He speaks at a medium pace with frequent hesitation and shrinks at the suggestion his music is “crazy”. He is tall, thin and always seems to have a half-grown moustache that, despite itself, never looks an affectation. There’s little trace of the energy he shows on stage.
Aleks grew up in the southwest suburbs of Canberra and went to a single-sex Catholic school with “sixteen football ovals and half a drum kit” before moving to the left-wing, arts-focused Narrabundah College for his two senior years. Many of the themes on the band’s first EP are plucked from the riddle of suburban communities: close physical proximity mixed with emotional isolation. ‘If You Want It Come And Get It’ describes a love affair between a directionless girl and her neighbour who watches her through the fence. They only speak once, over a telephone.
Aleks: “Canberra is pretty much one gigantic suburb. It’s a strange environment that, on occasion, gives birth to interesting people. There’s this thing about people from Canberra which is kind of weird and kooky, but not weird and kooky enough to be creepy... [There’s] a strange, socially-dislocated feeling growing up in suburbia. When I was young I used to watch people a lot more than I would interact with them. I got all sorts of strange ideas about what they were like.”
When he was 15, Aleks would leave the gates of Marist College – a competitive sporting boys’ school – to spin the Sonic Youth and Silver Jews records he was constantly pushing on friends. He was bored and shy, particularly around women. Sometimes he’d walk to the corner store for a superfluous purchase to admire the young lady behind the counter: a short, Mediterranean girl with pasty skin and well-defined eyebrows whose shifts he was, for better or worse, well aware of. He’d plan the conversation in his head along the way, but found it difficult to progress past small-talk.
One of Aleks’ earliest relationships would help inform the suffocating imagery of his songs, though he didn’t know it at the time. A friend, who he had seen for a while and parted with on good terms, later fell for his brother who still lived under the same roof. The three had a falling out, but couldn’t escape each other’s presence. He laughs about it a little in hindsight, but still remembers the vivid feeling of being trapped. The sense of being “stifled” is what he relates most to the scene of a car crash.
Aleks: “I like the imagery of it. I guess it’s the claustrophobic feeling of not being able to move properly when you’re stuck with a broken leg or something and the frustration of not being able to move. If we’re talking about physical ailments as metaphors for emotional trauma, which is not anything new, it probably just came out of real-life moments where I felt quite immobile and stuck.”
The feeling could just as easily relate to the concentric streets of his hometown. After starting a communications degree in Canberra at the age of 17, Aleks moved to Melbourne and enrolled to study film production at the Victorian College of Arts. The move was to a lively inner-city culture both exciting and humbling.
Aleks: “I always thought I had these particular tastes that were completely unique. Then I moved to Melbourne and I realised everyone was into The Silver Jews and Sonic Youth. Once, we played at this shitty little place and someone came up to me afterwards and said he thought my voice sounded like David Berman’s [of The Silver Jews]. I took it as a compliment, even though David Berman can’t sing very well.”
“He was someone to feel up while I was feeling down.”
In Melbourne, Aleks found himself playing bass in a band called Heady’s Lament, led by Simon Connolly who would later join The Ramps. The band never made it very far. When a show in Newcastle fell through, no-one bothered to keep their travel plans except Aleks, who had a flight booked and a tax return cheque in his pocket. Finding himself alone for two days in another bland city, he bought a cheap banjo and sat in a park learning how to play it. He still hasn’t learned how to play it properly.
Travelling alone isn’t unusual for Aleks. It was on a three-month journey abroad that he found Roxette’s Balladas In Espanol among a pile of pirated music in Bolivia. The Swedish pop band had recorded a compilation of their love songs sung in Spanish for release in South America, including ‘It Must Have Been Love’, or ‘No Se Si Es Amor’. Later, Aleks would be inspired to cover the unusual track after taking part in Melbourne critic Shane Moritz’s 33 & 1/3 compilation of local bands recording renditions of famous songs (which features an Aleks And The Ramps glitch-pop version of Rick Springfield’s ‘Jessie’s Girl’ spliced with Missy Elliot’s ‘Work It’, next to The Crayon Fields covering America’s ‘Horse With No Name’).
After finishing his first year at VCA and facing a three-month break without a job, Aleks travelled to Tasmania for four weeks on a whim. He spent his time letting it drift by – “it’s an alright place for doing nothing by yourself” – and bushwalking. He climbed Cradle Mountain and lived in the travellers’ hut at its peak for a few days, reading, writing and drinking coffee. On the descent he was caught in a snowstorm and huddled for five hours in an emergency shelter that had been built, he learned, after several schoolchildren had died there in severe weather a decade earlier.
In Hobart, Aleks called Janita, who he had met while editing a film for uni in her then-boyfriend’s shed in Melbourne, and who was back to visit her home state during the break. The pair went to see a puppet show in the markets of Salamanca Place, along the city’s waterfront and next to Princes Park. They spent the night drinking with Janita’s friends at an RSL club. The evening was interrupted when one of the girls answered her mobile phone, to be told a friend had been killed in a car crash.
Aleks: “We were just standing around drinking. I didn’t really notice at first. I think she got a phone call, and then all of a sudden she was sobbing. We didn’t know what was going on. Her boyfriend escorted her outside and we were left there, not really knowing what had happened. He called a few minutes later to tell us that her friend had died.”
Aleks and Janita spent the next few days together watching episodes of Sex And The City and making apple and rhubarb crumble. They drove to Launceston to see Janita’s family and ran out of petrol on the way. After hitchhiking to the next service station, the owner gave them a lift back to their car. When Aleks returned to Melbourne, he started dating Janita and formed Aleks And The Ramps. He’s not sure which came first.
“I hope you’re not bitter that the paramedics had to cut your new skirt.”
Aleks And The Ramps, the band’s debut EP, attracted only one review on its release. It wasn’t until a year later, after most of the Mess+Noise team found themselves at a Cumbersome Records party in Collingwood where Aleks And The Ramps were performing, that it received its second (Mess+Noise #7). At the time, it seemed odd such a unique band had received so little attention.
Since then, the band has recorded an album, performed a live-to-air on Melbourne radio station PBS and accrued a reasonable amount of interest. But when Aleks tried to book a venue for the launch of ‘They’re Recording Everything We Say’, the first single from Pisces Vs. Aquarius, he found it a difficult task. Many of the smaller inner-city venues he had frequented had closed – including Good Morning Captain, where the first incarnation of the band had played its first and only gig – and those that were left were either too small to fit five animated musicians, or wanted to play hard-ball on the door figures.
Aleks: “There are more bigger venues opening up [in Melbourne] like the East Brunswick Club and Northcote Social Club, while really tiny places are either getting pushed into the outer regions or closing down. And at the smaller places which are left, it’s getting really hard to convince people to give you a show.”
With size, it seems, has come a kind of inertia. No doubt it is difficult for larger, well-maintained rooms like the East Brunswick to risk booking young or experimental bands in a headline slot, while venues in their shadow – bleeding door numbers – have become more fastidious about ensuring each night’s profitability. The result can be a closed door for bands that are untested or outside the current status-quo. Whether due to fatigue or necessity, the problem is reflected in the habits of venues’ music directors.
Aleks: “A lot of bookers don’t actually watch the bands. It’s really weird that the type of people who are put in these positions are the type of people that don’t bother watching music. I think they just sit in their office in this weird little bubble browsing MySpace, judging who are the best and biggest bands based on how many friends they’ve got.”
The danger is that, in a situation not too dissimilar to what Michael Dwyer described of the mainstream, well-known sounds will become all too embraced and entrenched. It is disappointing that in Melbourne, a few years ago the destination for pioneering bands who had outgrown the limits of their hometowns, Aleks And The Ramps are now left bitter from the experience of booking a single gig. There is no romanticism in Aleks’ description of the inner-city circuit.
Aleks: “The music scene here isn’t really all that nurturing. There’s this weird safe-distance people keep from each other. It’s not really that critical, either. The bands who are being heralded are generally not the ones doing something original. Most of them seem to be caught up in various fads. The only difference is that they’re ripping off underground punk bands from 20 years ago instead of mainstream rock bands… A lot of the street presses are just set up to pamper to anyone who’s bothering to put out music.”
It’s a bold statement to make on the eve of a new release, but no bolder than the music itself. Aleks And The Ramps have courage to burn, which is what makes them one of Melbourne’s best acts. “This isn’t the most polished record of the last year,” Mess+Noise said of their EP, “but it is one of the bravest – and by no coincidence – the most interesting.” In that sense especially, Pisces Vs. Aquarius doesn’t disappoint.
Janita Foley is Aleks’s girlfriend and occasional co-vocalist, giving a sweet offset to his morose singing voice. She plays bass for The Ramps, but her instrument of choice is the organ. The pair met in a mutual friend’s shed, where Aleks was editing an art film when Janita walked in: “She was like, ‘Oh, what’s this?’ and I was cutting together footage of girls in lobster suits with supermarket security camera footage or something.”
Joe Foley is Janita’s little brother. A “boy genius” who can play most of the instruments in the band, he spends most of the time behind the glockenspiel or running around. During one gig that was being filmed for the Super 8 Diaries project, Joe tackled Aleks to the ground and broke a snare drum and a hi-hat stand. He has his own band, Extreme Wheeze, which features most members of The Ramps.
Shultz Marshall plays the drums and performs interpretive dance. He has known Aleks since high school and with him formed the duo La Vera Robot, the predecessor to Aleks And The Ramps. They played just one gig at Good Morning Captain, wearing “tight, spangly clothes” and making a racket with a bass guitar, three distortion pedals and a drum-kit. The song ‘Air Drums’ was debuted at La Vera Robot’s first and only show.
Simon Connolly owns an old, oversized Mercedes, plays guitar and lives for music. He’s the only member of The Ramps who cares how his instrument sounds and regularly tunes the other members’ for them. Aleks joined Simon’s now-defunct band, Heady’s Lament, when he first moved to Melbourne. They were also from Canberra, and after auditioning, Aleks half-remembered having seen them when he was drunk. Simon now has a new band, the alt-country outfit Potential Falcon.