interview by Michael McCarthy
The more I listen to Alex Maws and his band The President Lincoln, the less I know how to describe them. They’ve been called a cross between glam rock and Americana by the BB6, but I personally don’t hear glam rock or Americana when I listen to them. The band sounds more like Britrock to me, which makes sense because Maws lived in London for over a decade and the other five members of the band still reside in England. Maximo Park is the band they most remind me of in terms of their guitar hooks, intellectual lyrics, and generally upbeat vocals. There’s a contagious energy to The President Lincoln’s sound, too. Some of their songs, like “Next Year in Brooklyn,” even remind me of the Manic Street Preacher’s slower songs, particularly their ballads. At other times I hear traces of Placebo’s Brian Molko in Maws’ vocals. Perhaps they’d remind you of power pop with their catchy hooks. To that end, I would say they sound like early Marvelous 3. “Fake Flowers Are Forever” might remind you of The Rolling Stones, especially in terms of the lyrics. I could go on and on, but I’d probably just confuse you, if I haven’t already. What I can tell you for sure is that band’s new album, Pilgrims and Aliens, is the best new album I’ve heard so far this year. That’s partially because the songs are so darn infectious and also because they’re so thought-provoking. For example, the album opens with some killer hooks on “An Attack on My Art Is an Attack on Progress” in which Maws sings about William Morris, the late artist, activist and general jack of all trades. Other songs are influenced by history as well. As for the band’s name, we discuss that and many other things in the following interview. Check it out and be sure to give Pilgrims and Aliens a listen when it arrives on Spotify and the like this Friday, the 19th of January 2018.
MM: Hi, Alex. How’s it going in New York?
AM: Good, good. You popped up as Lowell, Mass. A welcome sight to see on my phone there. Everything good up there?
MM: Sure. Are you from Massachusetts?
AM: I am. I was born and raised. I grew up mostly in Newton. I lived in Sommerville and J.P. [Jamaica Plain]. All the things people do in their twenties and that kind of thing.
MM: I’m calling you in New York. Are you in New York City or elsewhere in the state?
AM: In the city now. Basically, I was living in London for like thirteen years. I left Boston in 2003 and this past Spring in April we moved back here. We don’t know exactly [for] how long. I kind of feel like London is home now. But our parents are getting older and stuff like that so we’re spending some time here. My wife’s mother lives in New Jersey. So, it’s nice to be near all the family and stuff.
MM: Your Facebook page states that the band is based out of London. Do you still consider the band based out of there?
AM: Yeah, we do. There’s six of us and the other five of them are there. And I still get back there enough to play the odd gig in London. We actually have a show next Friday. So, our album launch is going to be at a club called The Islington. So, that’s next week, yeah.
MM: What was your family life like growing up?
AM: For someone to turn to music, there’s often a lot of, you know, torment there. I have to say, I don’t have any sordid family history. I grew up in Newton. A nice sort of safe community. Nice schools and all of that. I have an older brother who, as is often the case, turned me on to some really good music. For my fifteenth birthday, he got me tickets to see R.E.M on the Life Rich Pageant tour at the Wang Center and that was one of the things that was a really eye-opening, momentous occasion for me. Musically speaking, suddenly I saw that there was so much more to music than the usual stuff that kids listen to on the radio.
MM: Did you realize at that show that you wanted to be a professional musician yourself?
AM: [Laughs] It’s a good question, whether or not I wanted to be a professional musician. I definitely very soon after that picked up the guitar and taught myself a few chords and at the time all I ever wanted to do was play enough guitar that I could sing along to. Every band that I loved, my focus was always the lead singing. In school, I did glee club and musicals and stuff like that. So, there was always that singing thing in me of wanting to be noticed on stage thing. Certainly, after that I started playing guitar and it wasn’t just any type of music that I wanted to play. That was the thing that turned me on to this particular style of guitar-based, jangly rock pop music that has really stuck with me ever since. I’ve never strayed too far from that musical base. Possibly. [Laughs] Maybe it’s to my detriment. Maybe I should do a little bit more. You look at all of the bands I still love and a lot of them don’t sound too dissimilar to Life Rich Pageant by R.E.M.
MM: Are there any artists from your parents’ record collection who you really liked?
AM: Oh, absolutely. My parents didn’t have the most interesting or diverse collection. But yet they did have – my brother and me went mining through the collection – everything by The Beatles. I kick myself. I don’t know whatever became of those vinyl LPs. All the music, I still listen to big time. And they were massively into artists like Cat Stevens and Gordon Lightfoot and Elton John. These sort of artists from the ’70’s. I have such good memories of long family road trips [listening] to ’70’s AM radio. Filling my head with harmonies and great pop hooks and stuff like that.
MM: What was the first album you ever bought with your own money?
AM: That would be – I know it exactly – The Bee Gees. The album Spirits Having Flown.
MM: BBC 6 Music’s Steve Lamacq described your sound as a cross between glam rock and Americana. Do you think that’s accurate?
AM: Sure. Maybe not as much glam rock. I think there are different ways of describing it. Different people can listen to the same music and describe it differently. What one person might call power pop, another person might call glam rock. Or someone else might call country. Or a different person might call Americana. I think that you can add a lot of different adjectives to something and you’re kind of describing the same thing. But I love that. The description that it’s a cross between glam rock and Americana. It being so out there. An unlikely combination.
MM: Do you have glam rock and Americana influences?
AM: Well, absolutely. I mean, David Bowie is as much of a hero to me as he is to millions of others. And any sort of conversation about glam rock sort of begins and probably ends with him. Aladdin Sane is one of my favorite albums. And then Americana – I know it’s a term that causes frustration for a lot of people because what does it mean exactly? But, absolutely. I completely love artists like Uncle Tupelo and Ryan Adams, if we’re talking about alt-country, which seems to be lumped in with Americana these days. There’s a lot of that sound that overlaps with a lot of other genres of alternative rock and power pop. One of the things I love about Ryan Adams is that he’s obsessed with bands like The Smiths, which you’d never think of listening to his sound. But the inspiration is clearly in there somewhere.
MM: How do you usually approach the songwriting process? Do you start with beats or lyrics, for example? Where does it usually begin?
AM: I have a couple favorite things about living in the iPhone era. First of all, a note file. Anytime a little turn of phrase or something comes into my head – or I hear something that someone said or whatever – I always go, that’s interesting. I always write it down. In the past, people had a pad and paper. You can always lose that, whereas [my note file] is always backed up to the cloud. So, I have this file on my phone where you can just keep scrolling and scrolling through pages of just random phrases and things like that. Every so often when I’m sitting on the subway I’ll scroll through it. Sometimes I add a second line underneath one where I think that would be a nice coupling. Sometimes it turns into a verse or a chorus. So, there’s that. And then the other thing about the iPhone era is that I’ve got this handy, little digital, pretty good quality recorder in my hand at all times. So, if I’m walking along and a little melody pops into my head I just hum it and I record it. I don’t know if you’ve ever used Garage Band, but the app on the phone is insane. The technology to record a whole song on your phone. I’ll sit there on the subway or the bus or whatever with my headphones on and sometimes I’ll just write the tune. As much of a pain in the ass technology can be in our lives, [like] how we can get addicted to it, certainly for me it’s been a good source of – I don’t want to say inspiration, but it’s been a real facilitator of turning whatever the inspiration actually is into a song.
MM: Do you produce your albums yourself?
AM: The most recent one I did produce and I, again, feel like I’m going to sound like an Apple employee or executive or something, but when I say produced it I basically recorded most of the album on my laptop. The drums we did in a professional recording studio in London because it’s hard to do that any other way. But then I would record all of the other parts with the other band members in London and I’ve got my gear set up at home. Microphones and all that kind of stuff. And I put it on my laptop. I would do the rough production and then we have someone who would mix the album and his name is Aaron Tap. [He’s] actually another Boston guy originally, but now lives in L.A. I have to give him major credit for his contribution. Certainly, to both albums. He produced and helped mix the last album and then on this one he just mixed it. It’s amazing what a really good mixer can do to turn something that you just did on your laptop to a really nice, professional sounding thing.
MM: I read quite a bit about The President Lincoln ocean liner your band is named after, but for my readers who aren’t familiar with it, could you talk about it a bit?
AM: Yes. So, The President Lincoln was originally a passenger ocean liner that was built by Harland & Wolff, which is the same company that built the Titanic in Belfast. It was put into service and owned by the Hamburg America line, which is one of the transatlantic ocean liner companies. They would take Europeans to America and Americans to Europe, back and forth, and one of the people that was a passenger on that ship in the early twentieth century was my grandfather. He came over from Poland to America. And there’s this really interesting thing that happened with the ship, which was that during World War I, it was commandeered by America. It was a German-owned ship that was commandeered by America and the American military started using it for their troops in Europe. And it was on one of its journeys to Europe when it was sunk by a torpedo from a German U boat. I think it’s a really fascinating story [how] this ship that was transatlantic and the band is transatlantic, so that is the personal connection, that my grandfather had been on it. And, also, the thing about ownership. It was German, but it was American and sunk by Germany. That was something I really identified with. I’m an American and then I’m also a British citizen now, but I still feel American inside. I just thought it was a nice metaphor. Even though it might be confusing to some people [thinking] that we’re named after the President but we’re named after a ship that was named after a President.
MM: You sing about waiting for a sign on “Song for My Captors.” Are you referring to Lieutenant Edourard Izac, who was taken aboard the German U-90 as a prisoner when they sunk The President Lincoln?
AM: Oh, no, it wasn’t. I’m always really hesitant to say specifically what songs are about because – I say this as a music fan myself – I love the idea that a listener can make the song out to be whatever they want it to be about. It can be about their girlfriend or something they did. Who am I to tell you that it’s not? I think it’s important to say we’re not such a concept band where everything goes back to the ship. That song’s actually just inspired by myself about not being able to make up my mind – to make a decision – about anything. I’m always one of those people who’s like I don’t know, we could always do this or we could always do that. And at some point in life you realize that it’s more than this thing of, what should I have for dinner? I’m just stuck in place because of my own indecision sometimes. So, that’s what the song is about to me. If you want it to be about something else then great, that’s what it’s about.
MM: You sing about William Morris on “An Attack on My Art Is an Attack on Progress.” Is that the author, artist and activist William Morris?
AM: Yes. And designer and Victorian-era British socialist and activist and many other things. He was a pioneer of the arts and craft movement. That everything should be functional and beautiful, I suppose. And he was a real sort of idealist as well and that sort of translated into his ideas about design and architecture and things like that. And the political stuff as well. And he was just a fascinating guy. And where I live in London is right near this house where he grew up that they turned into a museum now. I remember going there to learn more about him. And he seemed like such an inspirational figure. And, also, the thing that he’s known for design wise, is these patterns. You could do the William Morris wallpaper and see these very interesting patterns. And you asked before about songwriting inspiration and I have this idea about patterns, like patterns we have in our lives, and I came up with this lyric that went “I sense a pattern is on display / I hear the sound of William Morris rolling over in his grave.” This personal characteristic. which isn’t very nice, that William Morris would want nothing to do with these patterns [today].
MM: Are you just a fan of history or do you have any background studying history?
AM: Funny you should ask. I suppose I’m a fan of history. I see why you’re asking with all of the references to historic ships and activists and designers, but my actual day job that I have is actually in the field of Holocaust education. So, there’s that history as well. I suppose I don’t know what’s the chicken and what’s the egg in terms of did I get into history because of my work or did I get involved in my work because I’m interested in history. I think they both kind of feed off each other. Certainly, one of the things about the work that I do is that it’s made me interested in issues of identity and where each of us belongs in the world. Where do we call home? And how do people migrate from one place to another? Not technically why do they migrate, but what are the forces that inspire them to go from one part of the earth to another? And I feel like those are things that come up all the time in my songs and that’s all rooted somewhere in this fascination about history, I suppose, and where we fit into it.
MM: Your lyrics have what I’d call a literary quality about them. They’re very intelligent and tend to tell stories and have a wide vocabulary. Are you an avid reader?
AM: First of all, thank you for saying that. I wouldn’t say I’m an avid reader. I’d say I’m an average reader.
MM: Who are some of your favorite authors?
AM: Well, in terms of fiction John Steinbeck is probably a lifelong favorite. And non-fiction, I absolutely love David Foster Wallace. The Dearly Departed David Foster Wallace. It’s interesting because I’m not a big fan of his fiction. I find it a little bit hard to crack. But there’s something about the way he gets inside the human story that reveals much bigger universal stories and that great humor and turn of phrase that I love reading.
MM: What was the last great book that you read?
AM: The last great book that I read, that’s a good question. One that has stuck with me for a while now – I probably read it over a year ago now – is Just Kids by Patti Smith. And I know it seems a little bit cliché that we’re talking about music and she’s a musician, who’s one of my current favorite authors. Did you read that?
MM: I haven’t.
AM: It’s about her relationship in the ’60’s and ’70’s with Robert Mapplethorpe in New York. And it’s just so beautifully written. It just makes me want to read. I suppose it shouldn’t be a big surprise that someone who writes as great lyrics as she does would also be a great author, but it’s just an absolutely beautiful book.
MM: Cool. I’ll have to check it out. So, I understand you’ll be performing at South by Southwest this year. Are you already registered and everything?
AM: Yes, as soon as I got the e-mail I jumped right on it. I was so excited to get it. I mean, you have to understand our band, we’re kind of a bunch of middle-aged nerds. We’re all in our forties and people have kids and jobs and for us to get this opportunity is just such a thrill. We’re so honored to be able to do it. I’ve been to South by Southwest as a fan before and, knowing the types of people who go to listen to music like me, it’s this opportunity to play in front of crowds of people who are just music lovers and are thirsty to hear some new thing. To think that we could be that new thing for somebody is just so exciting.
MM: Are there any other artists who are playing this time that you’re interested in checking out?
AM: Oh, I haven’t looked closely at who’s playing. One band that I saw there is from over in Britain as well, The Wedding Present. They were sort of a bit bigger in the ’90’s [to] our generation, I suppose. Although it’s ironic that I have to go all the way to Texas to do that since they’re from the UK, but one of the things I love about South by Southwest is not seeing the bands that you like, or that you’re likely to enjoy, but just turning up on a Wednesday night. Have you been to South by Southwest?
MM: No, but I kind of know what you mean because I’ve been to Boston Calling and they have a lot of new bands on early in the day.
AM: Exactly. And with South by Southwest, it takes over the whole city. There’s official program that goes on at night, but during the day there are unofficial gigs that go on. It might be in some vacant lot somewhere they put up a stage. I remember a few years ago The Zombies, who were this legendary band from the ’60’s, were playing in this vacant lot and there’s like maybe a hundred people there who paid five bucks to get in or something like that. My mind was blown. And at the same time, the band that comes after The Zombies is some other band that you’ve never heard of before but they’re equally as brilliant. It’s that thrill of discovery, I think, for me.
MM: Your site states that you’ll be playing The Islington on the 18th. That’s in London, correct?
MM: Will you be doing a full UK tour or is that just a one-off date?
AM: One-off date for now. In the summer we’re looking to do more UK dates as well.
MM: You did a UK tour with the Posies. What was that experience like?
AM: It was fantastic. First of all, I was talking before about bands that I love, and power pop music and guitar-based music, [and] they were one of the bands in the ’90’s that I absolutely love. I saw them in Boston at The Paradise in, I don’t know, ’93 or something like that. So, when they asked us to tour with them in the UK, you can only imagine. I would’ve gladly paid to go to those concerts myself. The fact that we were opening up for them was just so great. For us as a band, it was a great learning experience as well. Those guys are just such pros. And to watch every night how it gets done was really valuable to us. And their mentor-ship was really valuable. They’re such nice guys. It means so much to us. To have them as friends and to be able to go out on tour with them.
MM: Your new album comes out on the 19th. What formats are you releasing it on?
AM: Unfortunately, it’s just CD and streaming platforms at the moment. We may decide to do vinyl at some point. We’ll have to make that decision shortly.
MM: That was my next question, whether you were a fan of vinyl yourself.
AM: So, I am a fan of vinyl. My problem is that I’m currently so rootless in my lifestyle, moving around from London to here – and even in New York we keep moving around from place to place – and it’s not possible to have a vinyl collection at the moment. I’m so glad that it’s sort of coming back into fashion – I don’t mean that in a superficial way – I mean that people are engaging with their music that they buy more as a result of this resurgence of vinyl. One of the things I find frustrating about streaming music, and I say this knowing that in many ways we benefit from that technology – I’m not saying it’s a bad thing – but it does come at a cost. And I think that cost is that people don’t feel that sense of ownership over music because they don’t actually own [it]. When you go out and buy the album, or even the CD, it meant something. You brought it home, and you read the liner notes while you were listening, and you follow along with the lyrics. I miss that. And I miss knowing that people might do that in large numbers to my music as well. That makes me want to put out vinyl. And, if I’m honest, I think the demographic of our listeners is like us, probably a little older. We’re not getting loads of sixteen-year-olds probably coming to our gigs and that sort of thing. And a lot of them are the ones who are buying vinyl today. So, I might have to do it.
MM: Do you have any thoughts about the net neutrality issue?
AM: I do have thoughts about it. I’m very much in favor of net neutrality and I would love to see Congress act to overturn the FCC’s recent ruling, which I think is a very scary prospect.
MM: Did you make a New Year’s resolution this year?
AM: [Laughs] I broke my ankle just about a year ago and I’ve been trying to not let that be the thing that turns me into an old man, just constantly groaning when I get out of a chair and limping around. I’m definitely trying to get back into good enough shape that I can go for a little 5K jog or something like that.
MM: Would you consider voting for Oprah for president?
AM: I would definitely consider it.
MM: Are you currently binge watching anything?
AM: I am. I am binge watching two things. Peaky Blinders and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
MM: If you had to go into the studio today and record a cover, what would you do?
AM: I would record – that’s a great question – actually, the band has been working on a cover that we were gonna play live. So, we’ve got one ready to go almost, which is the song “World Leader Pretend” by REM.
MM: Tell us three things from your bucket list that you have yet to do?
AM: I have never set foot in South America at all and I’m desperate to do that. I have never played at South by Southwest, which is definitely on my bucket list. And, let’s think… I’m trying to think of something other than travel because I already said that one. I would like to one day live for some period of time – more than just a vacation – in the remote country somewhere. I’m a total city person, but I feel like I’d like to challenge myself and see what it’s like to live in the sticks.
MM: If you could resurrect any one musician from the dead, who would you bring back?
AM: Vic Chestnutt. I was so in love with his music. I can’t tell you how many times I saw him play. And there’s actually a song on our first album called “Thoughts and Prayers,” which is my sort of Vic Chestnutt tribute. I’m still sad about him having taken his own life.
MM: Finally, if someone was giving you a million dollars to give to charity and it all had to go to one charity or cause, which would you give it to?
AM: Oh god. I’m gonna get in trouble because I work for a charity. But it wouldn’t be that one. I think I would give it to – that’s a very good question – Planned Parenthood, maybe.
Extra special thanks to Alex Maws for taking the time to speak with us. Thanks also to Justin Alexander for putting us in touch.