Alan Grice’s songs sat unfinished for over a decade. During that time, he was a sideman in various Brighton bands, including the Electric Soft Parade. “I didn’t even have the guts to play these songs to anybody for many years, just kept them to myself,” he says. He’d tried to get his own band together a few times, but it never quite worked.
But then, working in a charity call centre, he met Adam Rowden, a journalist by training, who helped him finish the lyrics. A new version of the band came together, and it worked, and he finally got the songs properly recorded. The album’s now looking for a distributor, and with this in mind, Grice – a reluctant self-promoter who used to get “really bad stage-fright” – spoke to Andantarctica. This is his first ever interview.
In the mid-80s, when Alan Grice was about four, he made up a song about his brother’s bottle. “A recording exists of me singing this song. It was kind of a childish nursery-rhyme-type structure, with some gibberish language in it. But it is coherent – it’s catchy!”
Around this age, he used to play the glockenspiel, moving up to the piano when he was seven. The first real performance he can think of was as the pianist for a school-assembly rendition of Let it Be.
“The first band I was in was at junior school, with this guy called Dan. I was really keen to play music, but he seemed to be more interested in doing other things. So every time I wanted to suggest ‘let’s write a song’, he’d go: ‘Oh, no – first we need to skateboard down the road.’ No music ever happened. We just met up and he’d find some reason to do something else.
“I wasn’t really in that many groups till a bit later on. I was a bit shy actually. I think the first thing that I loved about music was just exploring the world of sounds and tones and chords…for years I didn’t even play music with other people, much, I just used to play on my own.” He used to record solo stuff at home, on a four-track his dad bought him.
His early efforts in bands weren’t entirely successful – a “cheesy” funk band, and a “wilfully pretentious” university group playing “really obtuse noise music”. He joined an early version of the Electric Soft Parade in 2001, but missed most of their rock-star period. “I left pretty quickly, because I found gigs pretty nerve wracking.
“Music, for me, had always been being at home, playing, and exploring a world that was of my interest. Standing up in front of people felt really awkward, and I just got really bad stage fright, which continued later when eventually we went on tour. I used to be sick every night before we played. I came back from the tour really ill, then I fell out with the manager. It wasn’t to be, and probably for the best.”
He rejoined the group three or four years ago, and is also in their frontman’s new band, The Fiction Aisle, as well as the Brighton-based acts Octopuses and Foxes. Since the time of his first stint in the Electric Soft Parade, he’d had these songs that he’d been working on. But he hadn’t wanted to impose them on the bands he was in.
It was in 2011 that the songs were revived, after a chance conversation at the call centre. Adam Rowden says: “I hadn’t heard any of his music before we sat down to write the lyrics. We were just chatting about music at work and I mentioned that I’d written some lyrics for other people. Alan said that he had some songs but needed help with the words, so we agreed to try and come up with something together.
“Alan brought in a demo with some home recordings of about four of five songs and I loved them straight away. We ended up meeting up every few weeks at first, co-writing the lyrics at Alan’s house. But we did slack off a little and ended up meeting up every few months. Every now and then I’d get a message from Alan, or we’d meet up for pizza and he’d hand me another disc with another couple of songs on for me to take home before our next writing sessions.
“The songs were so good that I was always really excited to get home and listen to them. I’d say that from the day we started to the day when all of the lyrics on the album were finished, took about two years. Roughly.”
It then took ages to get the album recorded and mixed. Now they’re at the stage of “looking for some way of releasing it, either finding a label with money or magicking up some money,” Grice says. It may come out “sometime next year”, around 15 years after its songs were conceived.
“It’s an easy, quick thing to say: ‘Oh, I’ve got these songs, I really want people to hear them.’ Then you realise that there’s quite a lot of barriers to that, like rehearsing them, recording them, getting them to sound good, mixing them, putting them on a CD, and then once you’ve finished it, getting someone to actually broadcast it on their radio station, or publish about it in their magazine. And that’s all a load of work that you didn’t think about when you were writing that song in the first place.”
Grice is 33. I gather that he doesn’t yet earn enough from creative music making to be able to spend all his time on it. He also teaches music, runs an open-mic night, and plays in a function band. He’s “never had that fantasy of myself as a massive popstar,” but says it would be nice “to just be able to do the music and afford a normal lifestyle, instead of being a bit of an impoverished artist.”
With a career like music, I asked, how do you deal with the fact you’re going to be working strange hours, you’re generally not going to have that much money, and people might not listen?
“It depends what day you catch an artist on. If you catch them on a day when nothing’s going well, and they’re skint and no-one is listening, then they’re going to say ‘I’m quitting and getting a nine-to-five’. But then, catch them on a good day, they’ll say ‘oh, I’m so glad I’m not doing that, I’m so glad I’m doing something I’m enjoying – it’s fine I haven’t got the most expensive clothes, or the most expensive car, I’m happy to be playing music that I want to do’. I think it really depends on when you catch them. It has ups and downs.
“I think success is making music that you think is good, and other people thinking it good, enough to exist as a musician, and nothing more. It might be that you’re not very popular, that you just about scrape by, or it might be that you’re huge. But you’ve got to be doing good work, and work that you think is good. And obviously, at the moment I’m not successful because the album hasn’t come out yet. I haven’t had a successful record, in the sense that, it’s been popular enough to not have to do other things.
“People go, ‘only make art for yourself, and make it with integrity’. And that’s true, but there does come a point where the value of it has to be external to the artist. It can’t just be ‘oh, I’ve got this off my chest and therefore it’s validated a year’s worth of work’. If you’ve spent a year working on something and nobody’s listening to it, that’s unfortunately a waste of time.
“…I’m kind of a bit dazed by this process. I’m not in the best of moods today, so I’ve probably said a load of negative stuff that I wouldn’t have said on another day. So, sorry about that. I said there’s no value to things if it’s not ultimately successful or popular in some way, but I think that isn’t true, because you can take from it skills that are useful.
“I feel like the whole time, what I’ve essentially been doing is learning how to make a record, and learning how to do the whole package – how to put a live band together, etc. Maybe one day I will get it right, one of the bands I’m in will get it right. Maybe it’ll take four more bands before it happens, or four more records before it’s done the way it’s supposed to be done.
“Because every time you make an album or look back on it, you go – ‘ah, could have been better, could have done this, should have done that.’ But you can’t spend too long on that; you’ve got to make the next thing. So I don’t know…
“It’s keeping the faith, isn’t it? That if I keep doing it, eventually something of value will come out of it, and then all the things that haven’t worked prior to that will be justified, because they’ll have been part of a journey to get to the thing that has worked. Until that thing comes along, it’s a coin that’s been tossed in the air, with success or failure written on each side.”
Words by Steve Ramsey
Image by Tim Mitchell
NB: I want to admit straight-up that Adam Rowden is a personal friend, and a colleague on this website. I’ve done my best to stay objective, and thus avoided giving any opinion on Fierce Friend’s music.