A week or so prior to the US election our pal (and International Anthem founder) Scottie McNiece and I were discussing the nuances of one of our favorite albums of 2020 — Alabaster DePlume’s To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1. A sort of audio balm, the lp’s tones and textures have been a constant companion throughout this pandemic. As McNeice helped birth the project, we asked him to check in with the artist on our behalf…
We recorded this conversation for AD on the morning of November 3rd – election day in the US. I like to think Gus (DePlume) and I have become close comrades over several years of knowing each other, despite our being on opposite sides of the Atlantic and only actually occupying physical space together a dozen or so times. Despite the limited occasions, pretty much every time we happen to be hanging together, or working together, or even just speaking to one another on the phone, it ends up being in context with something broadly significant, or is at least accompanied by a significant, tangible feeling of the presence of things bigger than ourselves. So when we convened telephonically for this interview – Gus from his studio at the Total Refreshment Centre in London, and me from the front room of my home in Los Angeles – on the morning of US election day, this was no exception.
Aquarium Drunkard: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. It’s election day!
Alabaster DePlume: It’s a blessing, just think of all the people who voted today.
AD: Looking out my front window here, I do remember talking to you maybe a year ago, or a little over a year ago, looking at this same view, talking about the election in England.
Alabaster DePlume: Yes, that was December 19th I think, Thursday.
AD: I remember you were super engaged, campaigning for Jeremy Corbyn.
Alabaster DePlume: I had a great time.
AD: I remember saying something about how we need you guys to set the tone, we need you guys to make a big victory for the people. I was all excited, I was like: “come on man if Corbyn could win, then Bernie Sanders could win.”
Alabaster DePlume: Yeah. But it’s not only about that, it’s about connecting engagement in politics with as many socialists, especially young socialists, as possible. The thrill and wonder of working on that election last year, or part of it, was because there was a chance we could get a decent human in to be the Prime Minister. And you know I’m sure that’s similar with your Bernie Sanders. We don’t work on these things only for the immediate victory, we work on it because, like Tony Benn said, “there’s no final victory and there’s no final defeat.” The thing that thrills me about any political situation recently is the youth and the way they organize. I’ve never seen anyone organize the way young people are organizing now.
AD: In the US young people are just smoking everybody. The teenagers are organizing these giant rallies and it’s like…
Alabaster DePlume: This is the real story. I think the people listening to this or reading this interview in a few weeks, they know who’s won.
AD: We’re hoping.
Alabaster DePlume: Oh yeah, maybe they don’t. We’re hoping, we’ve got the choice… Even your preferred choice of US President is part of a neoliberal establishment and he’s into some dark, grim, weird shit… And the real story in politics now is less about who’s gonna win between those two individuals, and more about the engagement of people who care, and people who give a shit. Young people. When I was a kid it was all about fetishizing cynicism, it was all about illness and self-harm… Do you remember that?
AD: Yes, I do. When you’re young, and you’ve got this punk attitude, and there’s no repercussions… Also, maybe it was just our generation, I don’t know, how old are you again?
Alabaster DePlume: I’m 39.
AD: I’m 35, so maybe it was late ‘90’s shit… Culturally, our generation wasn’t ready to accept any type of responsibility, way different than the kids today, I guess. Back then it was just kind of like who cares, who gives a fuck, it doesn’t really matter. What was the turning point for you? This is something I want to talk to you about. Not necessarily about politics, but activism. We tried to communicate this when we were releasing your album. It was random, maybe, from the outsider’s perspective that we were releasing this really mellow, really warm and comforting instrumental music; but in the narrative we’re talking about how this person is an activist. I was hoping that people would be able to connect those dots but maybe they haven’t… It’s one of the things that I found really inspiring about you when I was getting to know you, and I continue to find inspiring… your work as an organizer. So, if you were a young kid and you didn’t give a fuck, when was the turning point? When did you get engaged? When did you think it was important to put yourself out there like that, and to work?
Alabaster DePlume: I felt strongly about the state of our establishment for as long as I can remember. We had the chance to vote someone in to lead the Labour party who was not part of the establishment, who was anti-Iraq war, and it kind of happened by accident. That was a thrilling, exciting thing, so I voted him to be the leader of the Labour party. Once he won and he became the leader, I felt: well I can’t just say all the good things you need to do, I have to get involved. Since I voted, I had to work. So, I started canvassing and campaigning for the Labour party. I became a member and I started devoting myself to that, and the more I did it, the more I was excited about getting other people to do it. I love getting people to do things, I love bringing people the truth of what they’re capable of, or opening them to the idea of what they can do.
AD: So maybe you’re less of an activist and more of a sociopath because you just love getting people to do things…
Alabaster DePlume: I’m a sociopath! (laughs) But honestly, you find that people want to do things, and a lot of the time they’re told that they can’t. And I love to bring them the truth that that’s not the case.
AD: I feel like you have inspired me in that way on many occasions, and I’ve seen it firsthand with the way you conduct your performances, the way you conduct your ensembles. It feels like what you’re working towards in performance is not an execution of anything as much as it’s an inclusion of everything around you.
Alabaster DePlume: Yes, yes, that’s a beautiful way to put it.
AD: It’s like you want everyone in that room to be with you by the end of the show, by any means necessary, and it’s really intoxicating. It’s collectivism at its finest, and I don’t know if this is a question as much as it’s me wanting to tell you you’re amazing… But I love it. Thinking about that collectivism and engaging people… I would love to talk about “Peach” because I was at Peach residually once. I walked in and I was kind of like: “whoa did I just walk into a religious ceremony?”
How did Peach develop? Where did it start, and what was the beginning like, when it was just you in a room by yourself?
Alabaster DePlume: I made a small show to release my album called Peach. I just put a gig on at the Total Refreshment Centre to do that. I was new at the TRC, I had only just arrived there and Lex was like “okay, yeah, you can put a show on.” It was like a beautiful little acoustic thing that I wanted to do. But All Tomorrow’s Parties had an office downstairs and on that particular day, of all days, they were putting on some sort of death metal punk noise. It was so loud… As soon as I arrived that day to do the show, I realized I had two options: I could either cancel my show, or I could be glad it was noisy. And obviously I’m a stubborn and tricky character. I’m obviously going to do the thing I’m not expected to do, so I was ruthlessly glad! And when the people came for the show, we made it everyone’s joke that this noise was going on while we were doing our little acoustic show upstairs. You know what it’s like when you’re at a loud gig and there’s someone you want to talk to? You pay very close attention to them when you’re trying to hear them over the loud noise. So, with enough love, we made it so that our room upstairs was focused in an intense way on the central point of the performance, in a way that it could have never been if there had been no noise happening downstairs. Does that make any sense?
AD: Yes, yes.
Alabaster DePlume: It just demanded of me that we should fill the room with love basically, and so we did fill the room with love, and that was a good thing. When that show finished, Lex was like “you’ve got to do this every month,” and I’m like “fuck off, no, I’m not a promoter, I did not come here to put gigs on, I’m an artist!” I thought: I cannot do this every month, I will die. But then I thought: I can’t do this every month, but maybe we can. And when I say “we,” I mean: as many of us as possible. If I can make this belong to more people, then it can become possible, and it might go further than it would have if it was mine. So I started seeking collaborators. Like Rai Wong to do posters – which would often inspire what the show would be. And if I’m gonna do a show every month, I’m gonna be in the show because I’m an artist, not a promoter… But I can’t just do the same show every month, I’m gonna have to get different musicians to play in my band every month, I’m gonna have to get new songs to play to people, new poems and scripts and things to bring people, new truth to bring, and I’m gonna have to fill the room with love every month… And I thought: does that sound like a bad thing? No! That sounds like a good thing! It sounds like a very difficult thing, but I am not here on this Earth for an easy time. I’m here for an amazing time! And so I did it, and it was magical.
AD: Basically, if you’re showing up to see the gig you could pretty much plan on becoming part of it?
Alabaster DePlume: It’s like this: I would write material for the show and I would book musicians for the show, but they would be different musicians each month, and they would be connected to different communities so that they never had met before, and they were coming from different parts of the cultural landscape of London. And that meant they get to enjoy each other, but the way that we play the songs that I’ve written would belong to those people in the moment because they were encouraged to be as much themselves as they could, and I trusted them with all they had, creatively.
AD: The handful of times I’ve seen you perform, that has definitely been the dynamic on stage. You have these musicians who are walking with you into the unknown very like confidently and very sure of themselves. I could see how much reinforcement you’re giving them. It’s intoxicating, the audience gets drawn in with you and we all feel like
we’re a part of it.
Alabaster DePlume: Yes, it’s like if you tell the audience to encourage each other with work. If you say “you should encourage each other,” that’s not gonna work. But if you demonstrate to them the act of encouragement between you and your musicians then this gives the message that this is a space for encouragement.
AD: That is what the world needs man, we need that so bad right now. I wonder how much better we’d all be dealing with what we got going on right now if we were just able to get together, feel a vibration together, and encourage each other.
Alabaster DePlume: There will be a way, and we are the right people to do it.
AD: There were a couple personal experiences I had with you… I just wanted to relate these memories to you and see if you remember them as well. The first one is from when my comrades and I, the International Anthem crew, first traveled to London. We were putting on this big two-night showcase at TRC. When we arrived, we walked in the door of the upstairs, and you’re the first person we see. You’re sitting there, smoking. We introduce ourselves, and you respond with a question: “how do you like to make people feel?” I was like man… we’re in good hands here! But out of curiosity, is that a question that you often ask someone when you first meet them? “How do you like to make people feel?”
Alabaster DePlume: I love asking that. And I love asking them: “What is it like to be you?” One of the things I like about asking that is that it reminds me that we are making people feel things. Because if I’m going to ask someone else that question, then I need to be able to answer it myself. It brings it to my mind that we are making people feel things. And also, I think that we’ve got a lot of work to do around empathy. We’re encouraged by the media and a lot of things in our society to be afraid and to be weak and to be divided, but one of the ways that we can be more together is through empathy. We need to work on empathy. And if I just ask simple questions like “what do you like to make people feel like?” it just brings the notion of empathy to people. You are working on making people feel things, that is, and so am I. It’s not a strange question if you think about it. It also lets people know that I’m not expecting just chit chat with them. Sometimes you go to a place and you feel like you just have to talk about bullshit. But you don’t have to. You can talk about the real things.
AD: Thinking about empathy, actually, it jogged another memory I have of being with you in London. I think it was the last time I was there, last Fall. We were walking up Kingsland Road. I don’t know if they’re homeless, but there are a lot of street people along Kingsland Road. First you said hi to someone, and then moment later I saw you say hi to someone else. And then this other guy came over to us, you introduced him to me, “Tommy,” and told me about how he was a great harmonica player. Then I started to realize… You actually have relationships with many of these people! I felt very ashamed. I had been at TRC for a couple of weeks at that point, and I’d just been walking past these people every day, not looking at them, not engaging with them, not making eye contact with them, not asking them “how do you like to make people feel?”, not asking them anything about themselves… Actually a woman came up to me when I was walking out of a store and asked me for money – and then you came out, and she saw that I was with you, and she was like “oh you’re with Gus, never mind, I’m not gonna ask you for money.” I was really humbled by that whole experience and it made me realize how many people I’ve just been discounting. I mean, in the US, it’s just common practice if you live in the city, a lot of people, myself included, we just walk past, or step over, or walk around homeless people, constantly… And, again, I don’t know of this is a question or if this is just me taking the opportunity to express how wonderful that was, and how much it changed me to witness that.
Alabaster DePlume: If you’re gonna put a human in front of me then I’m gonna treat them as a human. I think when we ignore people and behave like they’re a thing it’s usually because we’re experiencing the shame that you described… But I’m a very, very stubborn man and I will treat them as a human, and a human has a name, and a human has a face we can look into. I ask myself “am I alright with myself?” and I decide that I am, and I talk to them. But maybe it’s a bit of a cop out, maybe I should be devoting my life to something, maybe I should be working in a foodbank right now instead of doing an interview for Aquarium Drunkard. There’s always more, there’s always more we could give, but I think I have to practice forgiving myself for my position in this society where we are failing to organize ourselves properly, and people are dying. I forgive myself for that in order to move on. And you can forgive yourself.
AD: Yeah, but I’m Catholic, so I can’t forgive myself, I have to go to the priest and ask him to forgive me, and then I can be forgiven hahaha. I was raised Catholic and my guilt mechanism is well oiled, my self-hatred and my shame and my guilt.
Alabaster DePlume: You can forgive yourself for being Catholic, it wasn’t your fault. God is not your fault.
AD: Oh man, that’s deep, maybe that could be the name of this interview. “God is not your fault: an interview with Alabaster DePlume.”
Alabaster DePlume: God is not your fault.
AD: What else do we want to talk about here… Do you have any questions for me? This doesn’t have to be all one-sided.
Alabaster DePlume: We’re devoted to creativity and connecting creativity to people… As we move forward now, shall we work more on bringing people peace and relief, or shall we work more on agitating them?
AD: I think of the importance of balance. It’s not one or the other. I think of ANTIFA as a force for peace, even though it advocates direct sometimes “violent” action. It’s because a commitment to the concept of balance, I think. In our work together I will always be aiming to bring someone more of what they don’t have. And that changes constantly, it’ll never stop changing. I mean, the struggle for balance is eternal, and I think of pure balance as the goal for the universe. Zero sum, sustainable, balance. I think that’s one of the reasons that your music is resonating with a lot of people right now. Being in our brains at all times, it’s created this deep, deep need for nourishment on the level that the music that you put together for this record provides. But in five years, if we’re all living in a utopian society where everyone is super polite and we’re all wearing the same color shirt or whatever… Maybe you’ve gotta show up with a flame thrower! (laughs)
Alabaster DePlume: There’s a thing that a friend of mine said a few years ago. She’s English. She was leaving the country in disgust because Brexit happened, and she was like “how can you stay in this country?” And I’m like: “I am less likely to leav this country the worse the political situation gets. If it was all full of peace-loving socialists then I might consider going somewhere else, because I would be less needed.” I’m not just going to keep running away from things. I feel the same way about the Labour party, by the way. The worse it is, the more it needs socialists like me, and I’m gonna be in it more. That’s my attitude towards it. And some people, whatever the result of the election is, some people who are listening or reading, they might be feeling a despair and a wish to go away. I say: go towards it. Go towards the fear, because you need it now.
AD: Maybe this a good segue to ask you some questions about Gold. You said go towards it, go towards it because you need it. So, you’re working on a new… I guess you could call it an album, but maybe it’s more of a concept that will be expressed in album form, among many other forms, hopefully… But you’re calling it “Gold” and you’re qualifying Gold with the phrase “go forth in the courage of your love.” So just lay it out for us, what is this?
Alabaster DePlume: One of the first things I remember deciding, that made stuff start moving for me, was when I decided to look for what I was afraid of, and go towards it, and be vulnerable. I think that there’s a lot of fear. We’re encouraged to be afraid, we’re made to be afraid. I like to ask: “what do people need?” They all give great answers, and a lot of the time they say “courage.” I think that the main ingredient in courage is fear. If you’re not afraid then you can’t make courage. So next time you experience fear you can say to yourself: “oh good, now I’ve got nearly everything I need to make courage.” I wanted to talk about courage and love and the value of a person. It’s called Gold and “go forward in the courage of your love” because things have moved for me since I decided to go towards the things that I fear. I feel the next thing I want to look at for people involves courage and love.
AD: I was going to ask you how the word “gold,” got in there, but maybe let’s just let people figure it out for themselves. I don’t know, you tell me.
Alabaster DePlume: I would like them to own their own part in that. Most of the work is done by the people themselves listening, they decide most of the stuff, I only work here.
AD: I guess we can just wrap this whole thing up with a plug, which is: yeah, keep an eye out for the album called Gold (go forward in the courage of your love),” coming from Alabaster DePlume, sometime in the future.
Alabaster DePlume: There’s a few repeating phrases in the piece and the main one that’s there is: “I have all I need for the glory of being. I recognize you and celebrate. I am brazen like a baby. Like the stupid sun. And I go forward in the courage of my love.”
AD: There it is. Thanks Gus, that’s a wrap. | Photos by Chris Almeida