ANDY HAZEL is given a disorienting introductory tour of the bizarre world of ALEKS AND THE RAMPS and returns a converted believer, with a saucer of milk.
When entering into the company of Aleks and the Ramps, reality undergoes a sudden and very thorough makeover. Ideas are battered around like a five-way table tennis match, no one seems to be trying to be anything, there is just a comfortable contagious weirdness…and there is always music in the air.
Beginning as a motley group of friends who formed four years ago with the sole aim of playing one gig, Melbourne has had a similar reaction to the band as Aleks does to their own second album Midnight Believer. “It’s grown on me,” says the banjo-player and lead singer after a moment’s reflection, to laughter from the other members. “It’s a lot to digest, I think some people might listen to it and get overwhelmed.” While some listeners may be put off by the schizophrenic nature of the songs shift between moods and catchy but unrepeated motifs with wilful abandon, songs like the infectious first single Antique Limb, Destroy The Universe With Jazz Hands and Circa 1992 Ideas let you know from the outset they’re not a standard band after a standard response. Aleks and the Ramps’ longstanding independence obviously requires some faith in their own abilities and in each other, but the album’s title Midnight Believer is no referral to this.
Aleks continues, “Lily [Coates], who was doing the cover art, said I can’t do the cover until you tell me what the title is and she was doing sketches and we said eventually ‘why don’t you do the cover and we’ll get our title from the cover.” “Believer is one of my nicknames,” adds bassist and keyboardist Janita Foley aka Denim Owl. “There’s so much rhyming slang for the name Janita…gazebo, granita, shaniqua…I decided Believer was my favourite nickname.”
This form of creativity and reactivity seems usual for the Ramps, a band who confess their own music is made by and for short-attention spans and as such has a lot of colour, the odd synchronised dance routine, costume themes and is overflowing with ideas in a way that, perhaps most amazingly of all, is never cloying or affected. “It’s actually the kind of music I’d listen to,” says Denim Owl, almost surprised, “there are a lot of different images and themes threaded together.” “It’s a pretty seamless record,” adds multi-instrumentalist Joe Foley, aka Extreme Wheeze, “it’s got some pretty nifty segues.”
Since their 2005 debut the band has evolved from an ‘anything goes…kind of smartarse’ band to one who is “more deliberate about shit,” as Aleks puts it. “When you do it for a while you eventually realise it’s such an effort rehearsing and lugging gear around, maybe we should think about exactly what we want to be doing when we write a song or play a show. A while ago, there were ideas that slipped through - ‘yeah, fine, that sounds good let’s do it,’ and afterwards, after it’s been played and recorded…it’s not quite as good. The filtration process is a bit more harsh now.” “There’s a tighter filter now,” adds Extreme Wheeze before Denim Owl takes over: “Before, it was like one of those plastic sieves that the spaghetti comes through…” “Now not even the starch makes it through…it’s like muslin.” finishes Aleks. “I have an idea that certain people liked us when we were a bit more…adolescent,” he says quietly. “We were quite wacky and wild, before the ideas were filtered.” “Now they just compare us to Architecture In Helsinki…I hate those guys,” says Extreme Wheeze [about his good friends] to raucous laughter.
With so many gigs under their belt, there must be some sort of modification of a show for different environments, right? A redeployment of resources or skills for maximum impact? “No, we never consider the crowd,” says Denim Owl with mirth-inducing offhandedness before Aleks interjects, “there was that one time in Tasmania that we thought someone might throw a beer bottle so I took off my glasses.” “One of the best shows we played was in Auckland,” pipes drummer Jon Tjhia, better known as Black Wasp, “we chose not to bring the party, we remained still a lot and concentrated on playing.” The band chorus in agreement. “That was great, I actually realised that we were making pretty music and I didn’t have to jump around and not mind if I didn’t hit the notes properly,” says Denim Owl.
While their strain of experimental pop is all their own, something else that sets the band apart is their personal names and identities (guitarist Flying Diamonds is absent today). “I don’t think we need fake names to give us self-confidence,” says Aleks explaining away a theory. “Black Wasp’s father said to him, ‘you’re not my son anymore’ so we had to change his name to Black Wasp so that he could live as Black Wasp and with his real name. His is the best reason. I think it’s maybe to escape from our own names.” “I’ve always liked pseudonyms,” agrees Denim Owl. “I felt that maybe I’ve had too many, so I decided to settle on Denim Owl. I was inspired by Wheeze because he’s always maintained his pseudonym.”
While not giving them super powers, the members of Aleks and the Ramps are transformed into entertainers par excellence complete with a seemingly bottomless well of energy. Aleks expands helpfully, “sometimes pre show we’ll be like [adopts a tired face] then five minutes in it will be like [makes excited bird-like noises].” “There’s always at least one person who’ll make up for it if you’re not feeling that great, like a safety net,” says Denim Owl before pausing. “It’s usually Wheeze,” she says laughing.
“I really needed to wee on Saturday [their most recent gig],” says Extreme Wheeze quickly, “and I didn’t have time to go before we went on. As soon as we started playing…maybe I sweated it out…and even half an hour after the show I remembered…but I still didn’t need to go!” “We’re actually pretty sedate people,” says Black Wasp thoughtfully, “compared to what people might expect of us.”
Given that Aleks does the bulk of the answering, would it be fair to assume he does the bulk of the writing and deserves to have his name at the front of the band? Extreme Wheeze fields this one. “Think of Aleks and an udder and us as four tiny teats which are trickling out sexy music milk…does that answer your question?”
“Actually, that’s the best analogy,” says Aleks.
“Can we use that one again today?” asks Extreme Wheeze.
“Yeah, we can milk that one,” snaps Aleks dryly.