“The night before I was freaking out. I was thinking this could either go OK or absolutely shocking. This is my voice, people could tear me apart and rip the piss out of me for it…”
Dark, desolate, dreary and cold – the Friday afternoon in November that Alex Gough and I met for a chat felt more like the inaugural day of winter. Luckily though Alex was almost a living juxtaposition of the horrible conditions. Bouncing up the stairs in comfortable looking clothes and one of his many hats, the Waterford native and I were already familiar having met at numerous gigs before. Most notably one of his Anomaly collective’s showcase events that promoted some of the country’s best up-and-coming talent.
Our last fleeting interaction was in between stages after his performance at Electric Picnic this year so the chat that followed was a welcome catch-up. Topping up on caffeine and leaning back in the chair after what was already a long day of promo, the young percussion maestro was still as buoyant as ever.
Possessing the kind of grin that comes with an innate self-confidence, Alex asked what part of his discography I first encountered. We talked about his instrumental projects and he confirmed my suspicion that his early work did contain his vocals, but they were hidden.
“I had this really big period of not wanting to use my voice,” he told me
“Where I’m from in Waterford there wasn’t really any rappers so I didn’t feel like I could. I was always rapping and messing but I always thought, ‘Oh Irish people don’t rap’. But the more the scene grew, the more my confidence or willingness to put my voice out there grew.”
He revealed that those with keen ears may have noticed his vocals hidden in his earlier stuff, almost like an Easter egg.
“If you listen carefully on ‘The Infomercial Tape’ on the track ‘Emotions’ my voice is on it at the end really quietly and that was the first test, like here’s a little bit of my voice and let’s see how that goes.”
For someone so comfortable in his own skin I never would have guessed he previously hesitated to share his voice with the world, but as the chat progressed Alex seemed at peace talking about his past inhibitions. The release of ‘Afraidofmoney’ was the moment he finally felt he could, “get away with” using his voice on tracks.
It seemed that starting CIT Cork School of Music was a real coming of age moment for Alex.
“Maybe it was just the environment I was in, I went to an all boys secondary school that was very sport heavy,” he recalled.
“There was music, but it was kind of seen as uncool to do what I wanted to do. Coming into my first year of college was when I would release ‘Breakfast’.”
Alex remembers feeling hopeful about the release, but freaked out as the day neared.
“The night before I was freaking out. I was thinking this could either go OK or absolutely shocking. This is my voice, people could tear me apart and rip the piss out of me for it or they could be like, ‘Oh that’s kinda sick.’ I never expected it to be what it is now.
“Looking back on it,” Alex continued, “It’s got 400,000 plays and I have got so much from it. It’s been a pivotal point.”
The buzz around Alex’s music grows as the artist continues to study drums. Having access to the studios and other resources at Cork School of Music is a huge help, just as long as his professors don’t leak his solo material!
“At the moment I have a recording project due,” Alex told me.
“We have a high spec studio in college… so I went in and recorded stuff that I could potentially release for my solo project. Next week I have to arrange a piece for 10 person band, so I’m arranging ‘AfraidOfMoney’.”
Alex then sitting up straight noted, “You can give off a different side of yourself. You realise what you want to do and you just go for it.”
Then he pulled back a sock to show me a breakfast bowl tattoo on his ankle.
“I was like if it gets to 100,000 plays I’ll get a tattoo,” he explained.
Then it (‘Breakfast’) got to 300,000 and six months later I said that it was a really important moment in my solo music… So I just thought I’d get the tattoo!”
His confidence complements the traditional idea of what it means to be a rapper. However, there is far more to the Waterford musician than the sleek bars that frequently lace his head-nodding hits. Alex incorporates the drums into his live performances, offering a totally different experience for fans, another layer of intrigue.
“I could never justify seeing an artist who isn’t going to give me a different experience live,” Alex explained to me.
“Why would I pay a big artist 80 quid to play a record? That’s why when we played ‘Breakfast’ live, we rearranged it slightly and it’s re-harmonised. I said to the lads, ‘Whatever you want to play, play it as long as it’s good.'”
“People see me live and they say, ‘Oh I wasn’t expecting that’, and I’m delighted with that. I want people to have a reason to come to the show. Rather than, ‘Oh I love this song, I’m going to go see it somewhere else with bigger speakers.’ It’s a different experience”
He noted previous support slot offers for trap artists, but stated that none were a good fit for where he was looking to go. Alex is a different beast live and the big picture becomes much clearer during his shows.
“As an artist I have way more to offer than hip hop and bangers… If you are releasing banger after banger, that’s class and people do really well off doing it, but I have more to offer than that.”
“I listen to so much different music,” he continued.
“I think it is really interesting to not settle on a sound because you can go anywhere. So even if you look at the difference between ‘Step To Me’ and ‘Breakfast’ and then into ‘I Remember’, it’s more modern and I love that. It’s funny because I can hear the similarities, but also the differences and I hope when people listen they can say, ‘Oh that’s sick, but that sounds like Alex Gough.’ I don’t want to box myself in, but I also want it to be recognisable.”
This idea of not wanting to fit into an existing sound, but also wanting an instantly recognisable discography appears complicated. However, these potentially conflicting ideals reflect the multi-talented artist’s musical identity. He doesn’t fit neatly into the rap lane and despite drawing some comparisons to the likes of Easy Life, who he recently supported, Alex doesn’t exactly follow their lineage either.
“I always insist people call me a drummer rather than a rapper,” he said.
“Even though I rap I don’t consider myself a rapper. I love rap and I love producing, but drums has always been my main focus.”
Alex brings that same energy and enthusiasm for drumming, to his catalog. Despite dropping ‘80%’, an EP filled to the rafters with catchy production and ear worm hooks, he’s put a lot of work into his singles.
“Singles are great because you can release them without context. What I loved about ‘80%’ was releasing singles and creating a narrative around those and them filling them in to what became ‘80%’. I find it really cool when artists can almost back date, like this single came out a year ago, but here it is in a different context. It has a different meaning, it’s almost like it has a double meaning. At one point in my life this could have meant this but now that it is in context with everything else it means something else. I think that’s a really cool thing to do.”
On first listen Alex Gough appears to be another product of rap’s booming economy that borrows from jazz and J Dilla, but live he seems more comparable to a combination of Anderson Paak and the aforementioned Easy Life.
The truth is that Alex, like the collective he champions, is an anomaly.
Photography: Ellius Grace