1 March 2020

Interview: Alabaster DePlume

Saxophonist, composer and bandleader Alabaster DePlume launches his new album and talks to Charlie Anderson

I arranged to meet Alabaster DePlume at the Total Refreshment Centre in Dalston. As Emma Warren notes in the opening chapter of her book Make Some Space, the entrance is simply a black door with TRC stencilled on it, and a doorbell that doesn’t seem to work. After a short phone call to Mr. DePlume the door opens and out steps a tall, cheerful figure. After a warm hug he invites me upstairs, makes me tea and gives me a tour of the Total Refreshment Centre, which included a brief glimpse of guitarist Thurston Moore in the recording studio. Then we headed to Alabaster’s studio room in which there were cardboard models of a saxophone and piano, posters of his Peach nights at TRC, an upright piano, cardboard boxes, vintage furniture, a wall planner and assorted percussion. I sit on a chair while he sits on the floor, strumming a guitar as we talk.

Alabaster: What do you think people need? Recently. The people of our society, in this country.

Charlie: A bit of certainty.

Alabaster: Certainty? They probably do, don’t they. Do you have much certainty in your life?

Charlie: No.

Alabaster: What do you like to make people feel like, when you’re playing your tunes?

Charlie: I like to make people happy but I’m strangely attracted to music that is unhappy.

Alabaster: I know what you mean.

Charlie: It’s strange, isn’t it, that the music that you play doesn’t quite… match.

Alabaster: Like when people talk about Leonard Cohen, like he’s depressing when he’s actually liberating because he’s putting those feelings into the world for you. So it’s a relief when you have them expressed.

I’d listened to Alabaster DePlume’s new album, To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1 which became the next topic.

“Most of the tunes came from a time when I was working with people with learning difficulties. Two particular guys, amazing guys, I love them. They taught me great things. We needed to support each other to be calm, to embody a kind of calm. One of the things I found useful to do that was singing simple melodies. By doing that I found these tunes. So I want to share them with people now, at this time, in case it’s helpful for people to have something that embodies a certain calm.”

Alabaster: I love thinking about who I’m making this stuff for. I’m thinking about who are they, what is their life like and what language do they speak? I don’t mean in terms of English or whatever, I mean what cultural language, what emotional language. I like thinking about that. I didn’t used to. I’m enjoying thinking about that.

I like talking about it and some people go ‘yeah, that’s interesting, I had to think about that, I like to think about that’. Some people go ‘Look, I make this for me. I can not start trying to guess what other people want. I’m not going to chase after their wishes.’ There’s a purity to that idea. But I don’t feel that way. For me the language of the people that I’m reaching is a central part of the work. The audience decides what this music is about. They do half of the work. I do half, they do half. Their language matters to me because I don’t want to make a message that’s discouraging or dangerous or cruel. We can make a cruel message without realising. I want to encourage people to live, I want to make people stronger and more united. That’s why I do it, and so I care about other languages.

Alabaster: You’ve got such a calm energy. We are surrounded by panic and hectic things and you have a great calm. Thank you for bringing that, your calm energy. It’s very good. It’s very welcoming.

Charlie: I think you’ve got quite a calm energy as well.

Alabaster: Thanks, boss. Some people say I run around too much.

Charlie: What were you like when you were growing up?

Alabaster: I was quite a tricky one. I think I was a bit of mischief. I was very stubborn and obstinate and wilful. But I think I was happy to scare people. I had a lot of knives. I was a silly boy.

After a brief bit of singing, the conversation began again.

Alabaster: So what is going on next with your magazine? And what can I do to be helpful? Have you ever had your nails done?

Charlie: I don’t think so…

Alabaster: Would you like to have a go? These are the only colours I’ve got. This nice dark cherry colour and I’ve got this shiny colour.

Charlie: Could you do it?

Alabaster: I’ll do my own first, then they’ll need to dry. Sit there and I’ll do your nails in a second. And then we can put that in the magazine. Do you think people will want to know about that?

Charlie: Possibly.

Whilst he was painting my nails he asked another question.

Alabaster: Do you think we can encourage people to live, using music?

Charlie: I hope so.

Alabaster: Do you think we can encourage them to be themselves?

Charlie: Yeah, but then how do you know if you’ve succeeded or not?

Alabaster: Well, I think the best things we do in this world are probably completely invisible to us. And I think the worst things we do, we probably don’t know about them. And so all we can think about really is where we’re coming from, with what we’re doing. At some point I would have sneezed at a certain moment that made someone pissed off, they got off the bus early and then they went and did something because they were early off the bus, that they would never have done otherwise. And because they did that, something happened that saved lots of peoples’ lives. The best stuff we do is probably completely invisible to us. So what can we do? We can just think about where we’re coming from. What do we want? I want to encourage people to be fully themselves because I think it’s the only way that I can know that I’m not doing the opposite. I don’t think you can ever really find out if it’s worked or not but sometimes you get a feeling. I believe you get a feeling based on the way that you see someone being at a certain time. You get the feeling that something that you are doing is working. At least you are trying to do it. In this life, what else are we going to do but try?

I asked Alabaster about the band for his upcoming show in Brighton. He creates a new band every time he puts on a show, a practice that dates back to his monthly residency at TRC called Peach, his reasoning being “So that we don’t have time to rehearse it, so that it scares the shit out of me, and so that it brings different communities together.”

On his Brighton show, “I’m still choosing my players for it. I’m going to bring Donna Thompson. She’s going to sing and play the drums. She’s amazing. I’m going to bring Marcus Hamblett who is Brighton, local crew, an amazing trumpet and guitar player. A legend. And I’m still looking at the other ones. It might be Mark Webb, it might be Mikey Chestnutt. It depends if I want to go more deep or if I want to go more stratosphere. How do you choose between those? Please tell the people I am making up my mind between deep and stratosphere. I’m looking forward to being a guest in Brighton again.”

Charlie: So what are you planning on doing for the rest of today?

Alabaster: I want to answer by saying ‘I’m going to go towards the fear’ but I’m not going to tell you the story that that refers to. It would take a long time and it’s a very precious, delicate story. But I want to be honest and say ‘today, in particular, I want to go towards fear, and I want to go forward in the courage of my love today’. Aside from that story, I’m going to be working on an application for funding. I’m going to be booking musicians for shows. I’m going to be focusing the good parts of my spirit on what we will do and how we will do it…at The Church of Sound. It’s a beautiful thing run by beautiful people. In my experience, it’s very particular. It’s magic. It’s my album launch. We will do two sets. I might make a slightly different band for each set. Maybe. But that’s one of the things I’m looking at now.

Alabaster: Thank you for your honest answer earlier when I said ‘What do the people of our society want?’ and you said ‘certainty’. Everyone gives a different answer.

Charlie: Do you find it’s a difficult question because people might be answering it in terms of what they want?

Alabaster: They don’t do that. Well, sometimes. It’s a thing that nobody knows and nobody is qualified to answer. But everyone cares. So just asking the question helps us somehow. I want to think about that and I care about it. I ask the question partly to remind myself that that’s my job. I’m not messing around. People want to say something. People need something. People of our society need something. I don’t know what it is but I care what it is. This is my work. I don’t know how to do it. I care how to do it and I care what it is. I hope that I can do it somehow.

Alabaster: I feel that we’ve discussed some quite human things today. I felt really welcome to be myself, talking to you, and not rattle through some typical questions and I feel really happy with our chat. I hope that what we have been talking about will be somehow useful to you.

As I was leaving he gave me the following advice: “Go forward in the courage of your love”.

Alabaster: Nice one boss, you’re great!

Charlie: Ahhh, you’re great too.

Alabaster DePlume

Saturday 21st March, 2020

West Hill Hall, Brighton


Interview: Charlie Anderson

Main photo: Chris Almeida

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