“I was dreading it, I must admit,” concedes John MacLean, “November in Britain, in a band, lifting all our own gear. I mean, it’s fine, but maybe it’ll be nice to get this stage over.” Having caught up with The Aliens on the final date of their debut tour in a wet and windy Brighton, it is easy to see where MacLean is coming from. You see, it wasn’t a very long time ago that MacLean and his fellow band mate, Robin Jones would have been sat in a cosy tour bus whilst other less fortunate folk were moving amps and fiddling with microphone leads. But Jones and Maclean are no longer in The Beta Band. They’re in The Aliens now. Moving amps is simply part of the deal.
This cult musician understands this, although at times he may not particularly like it. “I think we’re expected to behave like a gang of teenagers, lift all our equipment up and down the stairs and be enthusiastic about being in a van in Wolverhampton on a rainy Thursday morning. In actual fact, we’re all kinda showing our age.” This mild weariness is understandable though. Having toured with the hugely influential and critically successful Beta Band for the best part of a decade, starting again from scratch with a new band might have been a daunting prospect. However, for MacLean and Jones, it is something that was always going to happen.
The other member of their new band is Gordon Anderson, a man whose image graces the back sleeve of The Beta Band’s ‘The Three EPs’ and is singled out on ‘Champion Versions’ with the words “Special thanks and love to Gordon. Take the South road soon.” Anderson was a founder member of The Beta Band but due to an illness that saw him spend a large chunk of time in a psychiatric institute he missed out on his former bandmates’ success, having to go it alone as the suitably titled Lone Pigeon (The Beta Band were originally called The Pigeons). The Aliens are thus more than a new band; they are a band that nearly was before.
Considering the history between Maclean and Anderson, who were friends well before The Beta Band from their school days in St Andrews, it is understandable that Maclean feels like he has to look after the erratic Anderson. “Gordon keeps you on your toes with his misbehaviour. Fifty percent of the time we’re like two fighting siblings. The other fifty percent of the time it’s like I’m a dad and he’s a child.”
Perhaps Maclean has become more sensible after the excesses of The Beta Band and the legendary debt they landed themselves in with their own record company. I ask him whether he was worried about signing a new record deal after the experiences of his former band? “Yeah of course, but I suppose you just have to weigh it up. If you try and do it all yourself you end up making more money for each record you sell but then you balance that up with the power of the record company to distribute worldwide. It’s just easier. The Beta Band lost money due to our extravagancies, mainly touring. We were putting on large productions that matched huge bands whilst playing to 400 people in Dallas. We were losing thousands of pounds each night.” But there are no regrets of course? “I wouldn’t go back and change it. It was the way we felt at the time.”
And it felt right to the audiences as well. But The Aliens are different. The final show of the tour is simply a fantastic gig, free from lightshows, costumes or video trickery. With MacLean and Jones taking up their well-honed positions behind the keyboards and drums respectively, Anderson is finally in the limelight. The set mainly consists of tracks like ‘Robot Man’ from last May’s ‘Alienoid Starmonica EP’ along with a couple of songs from the soon to be released album and the recent single ‘The Happy Song’, all tunes from the mind of Anderson, all unique but similarly familiar. And Anderson clearly has plenty to write about, a factor which has made choosing songs for the new album a tough process. “In comparison to the album, the EP was easy,” says MacLean, “we choose songs that fitted with the alien theme, like an introduction, and we made it like a story. But the album was tougher. In the end we just picked twelve of Gordon’s songs that sat best to each other.”
Fifty percent of the time we’re like two fighting siblings. The other fifty percent of the time it’s like I’m a dad and he’s a child.
And Gordon’s strange mix of influences do generally sit very well together. It is easy to suggest that The Aliens simply sound like The Beta Band 2, but that is not the whole story. Of course the melodies are catchy, sometimes poppy, sometimes epic and always liable to stay in your head for days. However, on record The Aliens sound more like The Beatles at their most experimental than The Beta Band ever did, and this is frequently infused with a beat that makes you actually want to dance rather than simply sway and step in time. The Aliens are their own band with their own agenda and their own songs.
Not that The Beta Band are forgotten. How does Maclean feel when he hears his former band heaped with praise while he’s trying to forge a living out of his new one? “It’s nice to hear,” he admits, before adding, “but it doesn’t pay the gas bill”.