His last album as Oh Mercy netted him an ARIA Award but Alex Gow grew tired of the sound of his own woes. What else to do but get out of his head, peek into other people’s lives and lighten up? Now he explains how this happened.
MERCY MERCY ME
Alex Gow all but splutters his coffee, his sleepy eyes suddenly wide open and part horrified, part amused – but mostly horrified.
Holding up the cover of the new Oh Mercy album, Café Oblivion - with Gow looking dissolute in what could be grey, striped, prison, or concentration camp, uniform, asthma inhaler in hand and the smell of the night (or week) before practically oozing from the case - I suggest to him that maybe Auschwitz chic is unexpectedly in style.
“Auschwitz chic? That I have never heard,” he finally gets out. “That’s funny, and fucked up, and no comment.”
The image actually is set inside the bedroom from where the album emanated. It wasn’t Auschwitz, it was Abbotsford. Which is one thing, as is the fact it’s the first time Gow – who has been Oh Mercy effectively for the “band’s” 12-year existence, with a live band as fellow travellers - has put himself on the cover.
However, it does rather stand out that he has put himself on the cover looking somewhat short of salubrious. Gow may as well be wearing a sign that says, no I don’t take myself half as seriously as you might suspect.
“That picture wasn’t taken with the intention of producing an album cover; it was just a shot of many that were taken on that day by my friend, Melissa Fulton, who is a great photographer from Melbourne,” he says. “When we got it back I thought it had it all. It has the fertility blanket, the crappy bongos, the bass guitar I used on the album, and an ARIA [award] sat horizontal on the shop, the asthma puffer, my Aldi pyjamas – ten bucks from Aldi.
“I don’t think I look dissolute or attractive, I just think it’s all there. It’s a pretty good representation of the playfulness of the music in there.”
Playfulness, or even outright fun, is the USP of the new Oh Mercy. Not to sell to us initially – that hopefully will come, bolstered by some of Gow’s most engaging tunes yet – but to Gow himself, who, going in, was determined to stop restricting himself, with language and song structure and sounds. To be as loose as those Aldi PJs.
“I would agree with that descriptor,” says the suddenly serious again Gow. “A word that I returned to over and over when I was writing the lyrics, was irreverent. I feel like that’s a big part of my personality and it was important for me to be able to get my sense of humour on this record: that absurd, irreverent humour, which to me means taking the piss out of things that are deemed to be very serious or very important.”
“Including myself. Not that I think I’m very important but the image of the white guy with an acoustic guitar arranging songs, that, that illusion is very important and I want to take the piss out of that. And out of my Catholic upbringing, which wasn’t as intense or as interesting as someone like Sarah Blasko but I wanted to turn it on its head and have fun with it.”
Some of us who grew up with/survived Catholicism do believe that the two best things that Catholicism gives you – once you get past it - are guilt (which is good and bad, obviously) and something to rebel against. Here is a wall of truth and appropriate thinking which you soon realise is neither true nor appropriate, ripe for defacing or knocking down.
Lapsed Catholics do feel sorry for those who had altogether happier, non-ideological/theological lives: what do they have to fight against, or laugh at?
“For me it was that and being a very privileged, white, straight male,” says Gow with a lazy smile. “I needed something to push back against because there wasn’t much.”
Something else to push against was the man he was a few years ago. For every action there is a reaction and having last time around given us an album which played on the Raymond Carver phrase “what we talk about when we talk about love” (2015’s ARIA-winning When We Talk About Love), maybe Café Oblivion, might be subtitled “what we talk about when we talk about everything else”.
“I had to find a way back into writing songs after that record because I was such a sad sack and I had real tunnel vision in terms of the lyrical content,” Gow confesses. “My whole life at that point was tunnel vision towards the problem and the heartache blah blah blah. The way I got back into writing was just to start jotting down observations and extrapolating those observations to their absurd and surreal end.”
Gow explains that he would sit in many cafés not talking to anyone, or engaging, hearing snippets which would form the characters who would end up populating these new songs and the album’s personality. Getting out of his own head was the starting point.
“Arguably I was the subject of the last album, in classic reflection, in heartbreak. I wanted be done with that and start looking at everything else,” Gow says. “And it paralleled the time for me when I was getting happier, more comfortable, getting older.
“I wrote this album when I was 29 and in a much better spot that I had ever been, and with that comfort came a desire to be more playful because I felt that that was very much part of the best version of me. The guy I want to be.”
The guy he wants to be, living his best life, in striped pyjamas. Some people have all the luck.
Oh Mercy play Lansdowne Hotel, Sydney, April 13; Black Bear Lodge, Brisbane, April 14; Howler, Melbourne, April 20
Café Oblivion is out now through EMI