Photos by Kane Lehanneur and Tyler Bell of The Sauce
Last week, the boys from Ocean Alley were in Bali, playing a few shows at beach bars and resorts.
Next week they’re flying to the US for a mammoth North American tour that will span three months. Right now, though, they’re back at home in Newport on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, enjoying some of the simpler things in life. With just a short window of downtime in the midst of a hectic touring schedule, guitarist Mitch Galbraith says he’s been hitting the beach every day, cooking for himself and trying to water his dead plants back to life.
‘Nothing too strenuous, eh,’ says Mitch, sounding every part the Northern Beaches surfie-tradie that you might imagine. ‘It’s those little things that give you the most enjoyment before you go and climb back on a bus or a plane again.’
This week’s return home comes with some big news: Ocean Alley are playing Splendour in the Grass 2019. They are the ‘Mystery Oz Act’ on the bill. ‘Yeah, there’s going to be a lot of hype,’ says Mitch. ‘I hope we can live up to it on the night, to be honest. There are always some good nerves floating around for a show like that.’
Hype and mystery aside, Ocean Alley seem a pretty safe choice to deliver an exceptional and memorable performance at Splendour 2019. Their brand of surfie-reggae-rock nods to classic 70s soul music while providing distinctly contemporary vocals and lyrics, distilling both old and new grooves to create a layered, full-bodied and incredibly tight sound. Their repertoire includes ‘Knees’, ‘Happy Sad’, ‘Baby Come Back’ and ‘Confidence’—songs that are ripe for dancing and singing along to. And at this stage, nearly everyone knows the words.
Last year, Ocean Alley were the fifth most played artist on triple j and earned themselves three songs in the top twenty of the Hottest 100, including the top slot for their catchy surf-reggae tune, ‘Confidence’. That particular song, which has over 22 million streams on Spotify, was so popular that even one of the dudes from One Direction took to the internet to dub it a ‘banger.’ The Northern Beaches lads have also toured relentlessly over the last six months, playing a string of shows across the country with Tash Sultana, a couple of dates in New Zealand, and the aforementioned gigs in Bali.
The band’s trajectory was relatively slow and steady at first, with their first independent EPs, Yellow Mellow in 2013 and Purple in 2015, gaining some attention, followed by the breakthrough success of 2016’s Lost Tropics. They wrote and rehearsed some of these songs in bassist Nic Blom’s back shed, before upgrading to the living room of the Newport sharehouse where most of the band still resides. But it was 2018’s Chiaroscuro that skyrocketed Ocean Alley into a different league altogether—when they go out in public now, people recognise them.
Recently, I was at an Iggy Pop show and I noticed that Ocean Alley frontman Baden Donegal was standing next to me in the crowd. It wasn’t long before some other people noticed too, and some got distracted from the gig in front of them and started pointing at Baden and getting selfies with him. He obliged the fans but then disappeared pretty soon afterwards.
‘Yeah, it’s definitely different to when we weren’t noticed at all,’ says Mitch when I tell him the story. ‘Sometimes it’s a pain, but we realise that our music makes a lot of people happy so we sort of don’t want to deny anyone any fun they might get out of saying hi.’
It’s a good attitude. And it’s likely that nobody wants to hear a successful band whinge about the small inconveniences that come with fame. Mitch obviously knows this. ‘As the saying goes, it’s part of the job,’ he explains, ‘and it doesn’t seem like too much of a sacrifice to do that for all the cool stuff we get to do.’
As far as ‘cool stuff’ is concerned, it doesn’t get much better than ditching your day job to tour the world playing music with your best mates. All six of the Ocean Alley lads—Mitch and Lachlan Galbraith, Angus Goodwin, Tom O’Brien, Nic Blom and Baden Donegal—are long-time mates. They managed to quit working regular jobs about 18 months ago. Before that, a few of the boys were tradies and the others were working casual jobs, Mitch tells me. Part of their motivation is ‘not wanting to go back to that.’ But it wasn’t that the work was so terrible, it was more that the opportunity they had as a touring band was so desirable. ‘It was just so exciting, the chance that we were given, so we sort of just went for it.’
Taking that leap has led to all sorts of unexpected experiences, including the opportunity to go on The Project—a primetime TV talk show—to talk about the NSW Government’s war on festivals. ‘That was my television debut,’ Mitch laughs, going on to explain why he thinks the Berejiklian-led state government are failing the Australian music industry, by imposing expensive regulations on NSW music festivals.
‘There were some festivals that just changed location recently because of rules that came in in NSW. But it didn’t really stop the festival, it just moved it out of NSW, so it seems like a bit of a waste of time,’ he says.
Mitch is referring to a festival called Rabbits Eat Lettuce, which moved to Queensland at the last minute in order to avoid the expensive regulations imposed by the government. Essentially, the NSW government has deemed a whole bunch of music festivals as ‘high risk’ events and ordered festival organisers to employ more police, medical professionals and ambulances. This comes at a significant cost to festival organisers, and some of the smaller events simply can’t afford to shoulder the extra costs. The result was that several festivals, including Mountain Sounds and Psyfari, were forced to cancel their 2019 events entirely. Their organisers described it as a ‘war on festivals.’ Mitch says this is a shame on multiple levels.
‘It’s a massive income for everyone in the industry—not just the performers—and it’s so important for the fans,’ he says. ‘Those events need to be championed rather than suppressed so people can still enjoy them, others can still make careers in that industry, and the government can still run a functioning economy.’
While Mitch insists that politics is a ‘rabbit hole’ that he doesn’t particularly want to go down during our interview, he’s quite comfortable talking about the value of music festivals, both for society at large and for the band personally. ‘It’s always going to be important to us,’ he says, explaining that he and the Ocean Alley boys would attend music festivals like Splendour as fans before they were playing them.
It probably comes as no surprise to anyone that Byron Bay and the surrounding area have always been an attractive place for Ocean Alley. ‘We’ve grown up going on trips heading North from where we live in Sydney,’ he says. ‘That whole [NSW North] coast is just so beautiful, and it’s definitely a place that we like to spend a lot of time. It’s always lots of fun, the weather’s a little bit warmer up there, and if you can find a wave to yourself, you’re ripping.’
In terms of new music, there’s an album in the works, but with such a heavy tour schedule it’s been hard to find time to record. One single, ‘Stained Glass’, is already out, but the album is far from finished. ‘We’ve been working in these disjointed blocks between touring, so that’s a challenge in itself to write an album like that,’ says Mitch. ‘I dunno yet… we’re just as unsure of when it’s going to come out as you guys are.’