An Interview: Don’t Mess with Alaska Reid

By Colin Kirkland “I’m driving,” says Alaska Reid, “If I have some road-rage don’t be mad at me.” I picture the twenty-one-year-old rock n’ roller tentatively working her way...
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By Colin Kirkland

“I’m driving,” says Alaska Reid, “If I have some road-rage don’t be mad at me.” I picture the twenty-one-year-old rock n’ roller tentatively working her way through mid-day Los Angeles traffic, getting ready to ram anyone daring enough to cut her off. Reid is the soul-proprietor of Alyeska, a dreamy three-piece band that packs a punch through grungy riffs and honest lyricism. In her songs, Reid’s voice is soft, seductive and confrontational, but on the phone she is kind and goofy, a dedicated artist that won’t take any shit on stage; having played venues around Los Angeles since she was thirteen, she tells me stories about being heckled at shows, unafraid to retaliate. Alyeska was the last band to record at New York City’s The Magic Shop, a legendary studio that is home to David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar. After she parks her car, we discuss recording there with John Agnello, as well as, a Nyquil-infused Jam-In-The-Van experience, musical inspirations, and Reid’s fierce on-stage persona. Buckle up!

Reid grew up in Montana studying classical music with young aspirations of being a professional opera singer. While experimenting with classical and jazz, however, she began moving toward more contemporary styles of music. “I always listened to guitar a lot in songs,” says Reid, “so I think I kind of gravitated toward learning to play the guitar.” Reid’s father is a music aficionado and still sends her new tunes that he thinks are worth a listen. He instilled in his daughter a love for alternative rock at a young age. “I grew up listening to The Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. and also old country stuff like Doc Watson,” reflects Reid, “so I sort of thought it’s what you do, you write your own songs.” Alaska was thirteen when she attempted songwriting for the first time. In an unfiltered directness, she quickly comments, “It was a really shitty song.”

“So what was your first song called?” I ask.

“I don’t even know!” exclaims Reid with a quirky burst of laughter. “Well, I wrote two around the same time. My uncle played in a band and also had a solo project. His name is P.W. Long and his band was called Mule and he taught me this weird tuning that’s like E, D, E, D, E.” Reid picked up the tuning and wrote one of her first songs entitled “Honest” which actually holds a place on her upcoming EP, Crush. Reid explains that she is almost completely self-taught. Before recording Crush at the Magic Shop in NYC with John Agnello, who has produced records by artists in Reid’s wheelhouse such as, Dinosaur Jr, Kurt Vile, and Sonic Youth, she had never truly been introduced to various songwriting techniques. “Even now when I think of verses and choruses it’s very loose,” says Reid, “and my band members always think different things are choruses than I do. But the amazing thing about John is that he took ‘Tilt-A-Whirl’ (first single off Crush) and taught me to be more aware of structure for impact.”

I ask Reid whether or not she wanted to originally pursue a solo career or if she always wanted to be backed by other musicians. “For a while I thought it was going to be me and the guitar,” she says, “but I’ve always wanted a band. Like I said before, I’m a huge Dinosaur Jr. fan, that was the first show I ever saw. But my voice is softer so I just never thought I could play the kind of guitar I like to play and sing the way I sing at the same time so the process of getting together a band the way I wanted it took a really long time.” The one constant in the band besides Reid is drummer Ben Spear, who has been a member since it was formed three years ago. Reid hints at she and Spear’s sonic chemistry: “I’ll bring in a song that I finished and he has a whole different take on it; the mind of a drummer is very different,” says Reid.

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I tell Reid that I think her voice works really well alongside the electric guitar. It gives the music an elusive quality that encapsulates deep emotion while still sounding somewhat laid back. We bond over J. Mascis’ hardcore gliding guitar style and his acoustic album, Several Shades of Why; through a sweeping moment of natural recollection, Reid sings me a lovely snippet of the title track – “Several shades of why / I can’t go back, it’s faster”

I ask Reid how she has evolved as a musician since starting Alyeska and her answer surrounds the themes of practice and an open mind. “You know, I think I just understand a bit more,” she says. “I understand there are many ways to write a song now and I can listen to all different songs and find parts of them that I really appreciate. Reid plans on developing her guitar skills as much as possible and finds that in doing so, she will be better able to attempt playing around with different styles of music and utilizing various instrumental techniques.

One of the reasons Alyeska has made recent headlines is due to their visit to New York City’s legendary Magic Shop, a studio where Bowie spent the last of his days and Lou Reed recorded multiple albums. The studio, run by Steve Rosenthal, has sadly been priced out of its SoHo home. By some sonic phenomenon and Reid’s devotion to those who inspire her, Alyeska became the last-ever band to record in the space. She informs me how it went down:

Reid describes the whole situation as “an accident.” From Los Angeles, she reached out to Agnello on a total whim; she had never met him or talked to him before. She is simply a fan of his work and unbelievably, Agnello responded to her request of checking out Alyeska’s tunes. “He’s such a cool guy,” Reid says. “He just let’s those things still happen; he’s so open to young people and all different possibilities.” Reid comments on how she thinks Agnello thought she was a guy when she contacted him. Either way, “He invited me to this place that’s now closed in Brooklyn” recollects Reid, “and he was mixing Kurt Vile and I played him a song there; that’s how the relationship developed. I went out later and did three songs with him.” What came out of her trip was the first single Reid released under Alyeska, a song called “EverGlow.” When I first heard it, I was immediately drawn to the track’s rain-drenched imagery, Reid’s unveiled sensitivity, and a specific line: “I’ve got a headache and a heartbreak / Feels like change”; so simple yet so telling – we’ve all been there. After this test-run, Agnello agreed to take them on at The Magic Shop and produce their debut EP.

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Reid explains her experience of starting Alyeska’s career while simultaneously watching the landmark studio prepare to shut its doors after thirty years. “It was kind of a miracle because while we were there, it was closing down around us and it was really sad, but it was also celebratory because the place was very successful,” says Reid. While she and the band were there, groups of people were paying homage to the studio, saying their goodbyes. “We ate at this weird bodega every morning,” Reid says, laughingly. “We never left the studio.” Reid and her bandmates were in New York City for a month and didn’t have any time to explore: “Mainly we were in the studio or in the bottom of the subways at like 3AM. You just get so into a groove of working and you don’t emerge until very late.” Crush, originally recorded as a full-length album before being split in half, is seven tracks long and will be out in the next couple of weeks.

Reid holds high standards for honesty in her lyrics and is therefore very hard on herself when writing songs. She writes what she knows about because she finds that that’s the way to be the most direct and authentic. Bluntly, she tells me, “I try and write something that I don’t feel like vomiting after I read it.” “Tilt-A-Whirl” was the EP’s first released track and surrounds a young Reid at a town-carnival. The tone of the music starts out light and whimsical, following the elation of that first adolescent attraction – “Boy, I think you’ve got a crush / You better get the guts / Cuz whispers ain’t enough” – but under the dreamy static of the guitar, it becomes a song about looking back on the easiness of a crush opposed to the complicated world of love and adulthood. “Think about me while we’re young / Think about me while we’re young,” Reid sings at the end of the chorus, possibly viewing the aging process as uncontrollable – like a whirling carnival ride, per say.

Prior to the interview, I watched Reid perform with Alyeska at a Jam-In-The-Van session on Youtube. Between the muscular, seemingly-dependable drummer, the lanky adolescent-looking guitarist, and the commanding presence of Reid in front, I felt that they emitted a natural energy. Needless to say, I was impressed. When I bring this up to Reid, she has an opposing perspective. “No,” she says with complete assurance, “that was the worst thing ever.” It turns out that throughout the performance Reid was “tripping on Nyquil” because she was brutally sick. “They reached out to me last minute,” she tells me, “and if I didn’t say yes, they wouldn’t have ever asked me again so I took a bunch of drugs, yeah.”

“You generally come off as kind of a badass,” I tell her. “Is this an onstage persona? Or are you actually like this?” Besides the drugged-up display of talent on Youtube, Reid can be seen in Alyeska photographs with her long legs exposed wearing boots, a shark-tooth necklace, and maybe something shiny and skin-tight. In other words, she looks cool, like a young rock-star. If you haven’t seen the album-art for Crush, it depicts Reid lying on her side, naked in the snow. However, amidst this provocative personality that so many artists engage in, while talking to her, I sense that she is much more down-to-earth than expected.

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“I think I’m definitely a different person,” responds Reid. “I think you kind of have to be in some way to retain your sanity. There’s definitely people I idolize who have different personas on stage because it is a performance. I want to develop mine further, I don’t know how I would define it; I’m probably a lot less cool if you just hang-out with me.” I tell Reid about the album cover and the stand-out effect it had on me and probably every other person who came across it online. “The album artwork is funny because I was getting really stressed about the EP cover,” she says. “I had this vision where I was going to lie in a snow drift, I don’t know.” Reid told me the story of she and her sister wandering out into the cold to snap a picture of her lying naked in the snow. “Someone asked me if that was fake snow and I was like NO Motherfucker!” Talking to Reid about the cover was humanizing due to the way she sucked out any sexuality one might attach to the image. “It wasn’t about the nudity,” she said jokingly defensive, “There were just no clothes that would work.”

In terms of stage work, Reid is incredibly familiar with venues in Los Angeles, playing solo-gigs throughout her teenage years and now, landing bigger spaces with Alyeska. I ask her what it takes to stay honest and dedicated during a performance. “Right now, the band is a three-piece so there’s no room to hide,” she says. “I have to be really really on it, so I feel like I can’t get distracted but sometimes I get too focused on guitar so I can’t let myself have fun. I think it’s about achieving that perfect balance between not fucking something up on my instrument and feeling out the audience. One of the hardest things is communicating with the audience at the same time as preserving your own thing and the emotion of each song.” Reid told me that she thinks she needs to relax a bit more after a recent show she played where she coaxed a heckler in the audience to come up on stage and stare into her eyes. “After that I realized maybe I need to not be as insane and maybe think a little more about the audience (laughs) before I get angry and intense.”

Then Reid told me about a show she played in Dillon, Montana at a bar that “is famous for roofying people.” Alyeska opened for a heavy-heavy-metal band there that ended up scrutinizing her guitar tuning throughout the entire set. Reid didn’t back down in their bullying presence and ended up verbally retaliating until her band members had to tell her to cool down. Because I haven’t interviewed many female musicians, I asked Reid to reflect on the differences between how she and her male bandmates are treated on the road. “I definitely think it’s different,” she says, “I think it’s getting a lot better and I think in LA people are respectful for the most part. I used to have a lot of issues with sound guys because they didn’t think I knew what I was doing. And in the beginning I did not, but eventually I did and they would be assholes to me. I think once you get to a certain level, people get a lot better. It’s all about if you actually know how to play and you care about your shit it doesn’t matter what gender you are. I definitely think traveling things are different like I get yelled at a lot on stage but I just ignore it, or I get in fights or something. For the most part it’s okay.”

Stay tuned for Alyeska’s debut EP and check out their newest singles, “Sister Buckskin” and “Motel State of Mind”

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