April 13th, 2018: Drummer Alex Gough is sitting at home with his brother Jordan, then joint members of indie-rock four piece Central Hall, for an interview with University Express; an interview which Gough insists “feels like yesterday”, despite all that has happened – in his life and beyond – since then. At the time, Central Hall were fresh off a promising triumph at UCC’s Battle of the Bands, bolstering the group’s promising trajectory with €600 worth of recording time at Blackwater Studios. Alex sat with a humble proficiency behind his drum kit at each passing gig, occasionally chiming in with vocals but keeping a comfortable distance from the type of spotlight that comes with a solo endeavour. There was no reason then to believe that two-and-a-half years on, Alex Gough would have become an entirely different beast.
With the release of his breakout solo tune Breakfast in 2019, a drastic switch-up in Gough’s stylistic path was drawn in the sand: the ear-pleasing indie rock sound of the Central Hall era bartered out for something entirely different – driving, funky hip-hop with a beat that sticks in the head like some jazzy parasite. Admittedly, the genre was always something which held Gough’s attention; “We like hip-hop and that sort of stuff, which people say they can always hear in our music”, he told University Express back in 2018, perhaps unaware of the irony this statement would soon-enough take on.
Now, with features in BBC’s Normal People and ABC’s The Rookie under his belt, along with upwards of a million Spotify streams across his discography and a cascade of sold-out shows dotted across the Winter season, Gough once again sits down with University Express to discuss the release of new mixtape FOREVER CLASSIC, along with all that has changed in a world where things refuse to stay the same.
With each new project you seem to be homing in more on your style while also proving yourself to be consistently versatile and eclectic. What stands out for you when you look back on how your style has developed over the past few years?
I think when I look back on everything I’ve made over the last few years, the main thing I notice, aside from developing my skills, is that my personality and voice becomes more clear as it progresses. I feel there’s more of my personality and taste in my music now then there was even a year or two ago. Maybe I’m just more comfortable as a solo artist, so I subconsciously allow myself to be more honest.
The production of your music has always stood out to me as being fundamental to your style, and I’m curious to know how that has evolved, too. I know you collaborated with Nate Burgess on the new mixtape, did that mean a change to your usual work process in terms of production? How did the process of producing Forever Classic compare with your older projects?
My production skills have increased quite rapidly in the past year, at least in my opinion. I taught myself to produce and use Logic, the DAW I work in, so there’s plenty of things that crop up in my production that might be unorthodox or different to people who may have been taught production in some form. The only way I found to better myself as a producer, and I’m sure other producers will agree, is to keep making music every single day. Try to replicate songs you like or techniques you hear in your favourite music and of course, the more music you hear, the more you improve if you take that approach. So, I guess, time – and maybe curiosity – has bettered my production, like anything.
It was so amazing to work with Nate for FOREVER CLASSIC, I’m a huge fan of some of the projects he’s worked on like Unlocked with Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats, so it was an honour to work so closely with him. My ideal mix engineer is someone who’ll work with what I do, not work against or try to change what I do. Nate worked with me in that sense, so together we achieved exactly what I was after. Nate is a legend and so easy to work with. It was a dream.
You’ve mentioned that your musical tastes were more up the alley of rock, punk and metal in your younger years – even in the days of Central Hall; do you think that style has become an influence in any way on the type of music you make now? If so, what bands/artists stick out?
One hundred percent. Even if I, or you, don’t hear it straight away. When [on FOREVER CLASSIC’s title track and intro] I said, “It’s about every day till now that I spent making my way”, that’s what I meant. Every song I’ve heard, every note I’ve played, every lyric I wrote, didn’t come because of yesterday or two years ago, it came from everyday up until that point. Every day informs your future thoughts, ideas, life, even if you don’t realise it.
I wouldn’t say any artists or bands of that genre directly influence my songs today, I mean they might in the future, but without them I probably wouldn’t be the drummer I am or have the musical sensibilities that I do have as I sit here. But just because you asked, I still really like System Of A Down.
I recall reading somewhere that you never intended to rap or perform vocals on your own music – was the rapping something that just developed naturally as you progressed or was there a distinct moment when you decided to try your hand at the vocals?
There’s a lot of cringey, Americanised verse buried somewhere on my computer. It was something I half fancied myself doing but was never any good at. Me rapping like I do now came out of necessity, really. I struggled to find voices/artists that suited the beats I had or wanted to jump on them. There were a few but nothing ever came of it. I had beats I really liked so I just tried it myself. After forcing myself to write every day and get my Irish accent out till I found something good, I wrote Breakfast. Fast-forward a few years and I kind of slightly got the hang of being myself as a “rapper”, I still don’t really consider myself one though. I spent a lot of time singing and playing drums in bands growing up, so I already had that experience. Rapping and playing actually proved easier than singing. And now, I guess here we are, still trying to improve and get comfortable – but I’m getting there.
As a mixtape which has such a vibrant energy and tongue-and-cheek approach, this project must have been quite a strange one to put together in an environment like lockdown. Did the circumstances of the pandemic have an effect on you while making FOREVER CLASSIC?
I don’t think FOREVER CLASSIC would be what it is without the lockdown. It definitely had an effect on me, but early on I decided to put everything I could into playing drums and making tunes. I already had the name and some demos, so the tunes I was making became the mixtape. There was a plan in my head for the mixtape very early on during the lockdown. I pushed myself to the last and it may not have been healthy, but I made my favourite project I’ve ever made. FOREVER CLASSIC was literally my light in a dark tunnel for a lot of it, it kept me busy and focused in a time where there was absolutely nothing to hold on to.
Unsurprisingly, if you’ve heard the record, I learned a lot about myself and discovered things in my life that I didn’t have time to discover before then. As well as that, FOREVER CLASSIC became a world in itself. I always plan to create a world around every project I make, but when my world became small and confined, I was forced to write songs in places I’d made up, in scenarios I’d fabricated, which is the world of FOREVER CLASSIC.
Your music has such a strong energy to it, and a lot of your songs have struck me as though they would work very well in the context of a film, be it in some sort of visceral Rocky-training-montage or otherwise. I know you’ve had features in BBC’s Normal People and ABC’s The Rookie – Is your music being used in this context something that ever occurs to you while making it? How does it feel to hear your own music being used on-screen to complement and enhance someone else’s art?
Thank you, that means a lot. I try to make music as free flowing as possible, I try not to think about making it for a specific situation. If I do, I’ve probably sat down specifically to try and achieve that, but if it’s for a project or a single, I try to focus on what I want to say or how I want to make the song feel. I definitely use a lot of visual context when I’m making music, but usually I’ll develop my own vision or scenario based on what I’m hearing or feeling.
Rather than “Oh, [what] if this was in a TV show or scene of a movie?”, its more “What would be going on if this song was happening in front of me?”. I suppose because of that, one complements the other. The fact I often think visually while I work creates music that works with TV or film in the same respect. It’s always so mad when I hear my music in the context of someone else’s creation, The Rookie especially, it felt a bit surreal when I heard it, like someone made an edit of it for the laugh or something. It was really cool.