An archived live album and reissue of their sole studio LP brings this mid-90s singer-songwriter super trio back into the spotlight
Tramps, which once existed on 21st Street in Manhattan’s West Side was a great little music club that barely gets talked about much anymore.
It was a venue where you could see John Fahey, Pat Benatar and The Jesus Lizard in the same week. Some of the all-time great secret gigs went down at Tramps, like Bruce Springsteen in 1995, Prince in 1998 and Bob Dylan in 1999. Wild triple bills like Mike Watt, Foo Fighters and Hovercraft (with Eddie Vedder on drums) and Common, the X-Ecutioners and Rahzel The Godfather of Noize were commonplace as well, making the club arguably the closest Bill Graham’s Fillmore East (though undoubtedly more in spirit than in size, of course).
Tramps has been gone for nearly 20 years, but the memories of this storied venue still exist in the minds of the multitudes who have caught a show or 5 there. But a new archival release brings to light the night two international pop luminaries brought their new supergroup to the Tramps stage on a frigid November night in 1995.
The band, which went by the name ALT, featured Tim Finn of Split Enz and Liam O’ Maonlai of Hothouse Flowers along with revered Irish singer-songwriter/recording artist Andy White, whose 1986 LP Rave on Andy White is an unsung classic of Irish college rock. They were in Manhattan on the final leg of an international tour in support of their sole studio LP Altitude, an album that will given a long overdue reissue in May. It’s some of the best singer-songwriter driven alternative rock of that fertile period and deserves a second go around.
But first, the trio made this Tramps show available as a digital only release, thanks to the club’s renowned booker Steve Weitzman, who kept the desk-tape of a performance he regards as among the top three shows ever at the venue. Rock & Roll Globe is honored to catch up with O’ Maonlai and White who told us all about it and much more.
ALT Live at Tramps is available now on iTunes, TIDAL, Amazon, Spotify and BandCamp.
First off, I would love to hear when each of you first discovered the music of Tim Finn and Split Enz.
O’ Maonlai: I saw Split Enz on ‘ the tube.’ Around 1981 I think it was. I didn’t follow them very closely but was intrigued by the appearance, especially Tim. While travelling with Tim, I got a sense of what I was missing. It is still a world I have to explore.
White: “Six Months in a Leaky Boat” has such a great opening line! I knew it – and when punk happened in Belfast (and it really happened in Belfast) The Saints played the McMordie Hall and, in my imagination, Split Enz opened. This may just be an NME-inspired delusion, though. I knew about them and their look, though. The first evening Tim arrived in Dun Laoghaire where Liam and I lived, I remember playing each other’s songs on my bedroom record player.
Had either of you played Tramps before this date? I’d love to get your take on the venue prior to playing it. Tramps was my favorite venue to see shows before it closed down. Saw so many gigs there: RZA, Sleater-Kinney, Ween, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, The Fugees, The Roots! Was Tramps as hallowed a venue overseas as it was here in the New York area?
O’ Maonlai: I had that feel where it didn’t look so special in the light, but when the lights went down it transformed. I performed with Mike Scott there as guests of the Saw Doctors. It was a lively night. Mike sang a heart wrenching version of “Pretty Vacant” by the Sex Pistols. I sang a version of John Williams’ “Gypsy Woman.”
White: I hadn’t, no. I had toured the US when MCA put out Rave On and we played places like The Lone Star Café in NY and Club Lingerie in LA. Opening for Hothouse Flowers in 1990, I think we played The Bottom Line. I’d read about these places and it was exciting. Tramps too, but the ALT show was my first time there. It was an honour, looking at the list of our predecessors.
What did you think of the room at Tramps? How did that stage feel for you guys?
O’Maonlai: It was a great night. The density of people’s energy was high.
White: You can hear it in the performance and especially the audience’s beautiful singing. When an audience and a venue are in tune there is harmony. They had never heard the songs before, but sang the whole evening. It’s an exciting elemental thought – going to a concert where you might know of one or two of the performers but not what they’re going to do, and coming out having contributed to the energy of the evening and participating in songs which say “we’re all men we’re not the hurting kind”, or “I decided to fly”. The concert is like three stories joining together and, hopefully, letting the audience tell their own.
When ALT first started, did you guys have an initial idea of what sound you were aiming for or was it a natural fusion of your styles?
O’ Maonlai: It was natural. Our first studio session was in The Factory in Dublin. We lay down a track as three. And layered it as three. So there was this rich wall of vocal and acoustic guitar sound and the rest was icing on the cake.
White: ALT really started with friendship. We stayed together in Dun Laoghaire, went out in Dublin, stayed up late, talked, laughed, played, enjoyed a lovely circle of acquaintance. After we wrote a song, and then two songs together, there was no plan other than to follow where the playing and writing led. It was natural to record the songs, Tim had a studio in Melbourne and asked Liam and I to do so.
What was touring NZ and Australia like for you guys? Had you ever played out there before with Hothouse? I’m a big fan of the Flying Nun scene in New Zealand and groups like The Verlaines, Tall Dwarfs, The Bats, etc. Were you guys fans of that sort of thing?
O’ Maonlai: Yes I’d played there with the Flowers. It felt like a homecoming in both places. I haven’t heard of the Flying nun scene, but it sounds intriguing. New Zealand is a geologically young body of land . The volcanic energy is very apparent. I loved the Maori and love it still. The art, culture and music still inspires me. Australia has an ancient feeling and the people there, the original inhabitants, are an ancient and enlightened people with an infinite amount of wisdom and connection. We are lucky to walk the same earth.
White: It was all new to me, I had never been there although Liam had waxed lyrical about it and I had met various friends of his from Australia. I did listen to the Go-Betweens’ 14 Lovers Lane for a whole year around 1988.
AUDIO: ALT “Favourite Girl”
Sounds like Altitude was recorded as you were creating songs for it. What was that experience like for you guys versus how you would normally create an album?
O’ Maonlai: I needed that freedom. I have a huge appetite for stepping into the unknown and believing in what will come. For me this needed to happen. My father had died, so also this was going to be a vessel that would express my grief. When the winter comes it touches on this…
White: Yes that’s right. We had some ideas from jamming in the basement of the house Liam and I lived in, but many came together when the tape started rolling and that’s one reason the album is so immediate and spontaneous. I might have an idea for a song and one verse where I would tell my part of the story, Liam would tell his and then Tim. Or the other way round. That’s how Favourite Girl was written. When the Winter Comes was a riff and an atmosphere Liam and I set up. He sang the verses from his heart and I sang the bridge from mine. Then we all sang the chorus. Each song has its own atmosphere and story. Liam wrote the first song so fast that Tim and I tried to keep up by writing in the lounge room as he was recording it…
How much material was recorded for Altitude?
O’ Maonlai: All of what was recorded is what you hear. Tim and Andy had a few rough ideas ready to throw in the mix. I was eager to have nothing and to leap at what may come.
White: What you hear on the album is what we did. For the reissue, Tim baked one of the 2-inch masters in an Auckland oven because there was a track neither of us could remember called “The Glad-Eyed Maid.” We mixed it along with alternate versions of “Mandala” and “Girlfriend Guru” for the vinyl reissue. There are also two other songs we recorded in Dublin before Altitude (these were on a Japanese edition of the album released in 1998 when we toured there).
Has this experience with the live album and reissuing Altitude inspired the three of you guys to work on new material?
O’ Maonlai: It might happen. Since the flowers stepped off the main line I have had the pleasure of doing a lot of work everywhere with everybody all the time forever, so everything is possible. Just waiting for my shrink to give me the thumbs up.
White: There’s always latitude for more altitude if the time and place is right.
Seems like Ireland and NZ are largely closer to normal life than we are here in the States certainly. Are there any plans to tour at all? What are your thoughts about getting back to it post-COVID?
O’ Maonlai: I like it that the whole world is getting a taste of the unknown. It is a good time to strengthen one’s resolve. New music, maybe a new art form should come like a great breath. At the time of our chat, Ireland is at level five lockdown so only essential shops are open. Food places are open for take away only. We are limited to three miles travel with certain exceptions. There are plans but everything is hanging on the statistics and the rhetoric of those who have the media. I never saw life as normal!
White: I’m in Melbourne now, and we had a strict lockdown for months in 2020 (just gone back in as I write, starts again at midnight) which worked – yes we’ve been lucky here. NZ moved fast and Australia thankfully thought they should do the same and shut everything down. So sorry to follow events in Ireland, where my family is, and the rest of the world. It’s time for the world to take stock, for sure. Supposedly we’ll be able to travel from Australia to NZ and back again. Who knows … I just would like to see my Mum please!