Along with Drew McAlister, Troy Kemp is one half of McAlister Kemp, the Australian country rock duo who have climbed to the top of the Australian country music industry in just four years. McAlister Kemp will release their next album, Harder to Tame, during the 2014 Tamworth Country Music Festival but they are whetting their fans’ appetites with the title track now released as a single. The track makes reference to a particular animal that can’t be tamed, so when I interviewed Troy recently I started by asking him whether it’s he or Drew who is the untamed horse …
‘That’s a great question,’ Troy said, laughing. ‘You know what, I think we’d both say me. Mind you, Drew can be wild, don’t you worry, but yeah, I’m generally the one that’s just a little bit more off the hook. He keeps me a bit more level headed.’
When asked if he’s always been wild or if his mum would say he was a good kid, Troy confessed with a laugh, ‘My mum would say I’m a good kid ’cause I totally had her fooled. I think every kid has their crazy streak and I definitely had mine. I got around surfing and playing guitar. I was always around crazy guys and doing crazy things. But that’s huge and even getting older, just being in music and then doing what we do, I think it just keeps you young and young minded and I just think it’s a lot of fun. I love my life, my career and everything and everything I d. Outside of my life I still love to surf. I love to get outdoors and do all sorts of stuff, so, yeah, I’m not really a couch potato and let’s just say it’s good fun. [A] wild and untamed existence.’
Being a musician playing live on a regular basis seems like a great job for someone who’s a bit on the wild side, but Troy and Drew also have the structure of having to turn up to record and write and rehearse so there must be a part of Troy that likes a little bit of order.
‘Yeah, there’s definitely a discipline there that needs to be sort of adhered to as well,’ Troy said. ‘For every crazy horse, it’s got to have a calm side as well, and we’ve got that. We’re very serious about what we do. We always lock in together and we write these songs together and we talk business, and it’s really a business at the end of the day.
‘So we can be out there presenting as the crazy wild country music stars, but at the end of the day, behind the scenes, there’s a lot of thought and effort that goes into it that sort of makes it what it is, and a great management team and an agency and a record company and everyone getting together and banging their heads together to make McAlister Kemp, keep it staying afloat. But, again, you balance it all. You have fun with it and for all the hard work you put in behind the scenes, you then get to go out on stage and rock out and pretend you’re a rock star in front of a bunch of people who sing all your words back and they throw their hands in the air and drink Bundy and party with you. So it’s good fun. How could you not want to do that?’
When I put it to Troy that we should hope there are no teenage boys reading this interview, lest their parents think he’s encouraging them into the life of a touring muso, Troy responded by saying, ‘Well you know what, my parents gave up trying to make me a banker years ago. My dad would say to me constantly, “When are you going to get a real job?” But I said, “Dad, this is my real job now, like it lump it.” So I think he’s quietly happy that I finally have sort of gone on and started to have a career 20 years later, so he’s finally getting some sleep, I think. He’s getting sleep at night and I think his hair’s not turning as grey as fast as it could have, so that’s good.’
Listening to Troy talk about the business of McAlister Kemp, it strikes me that that’s something that very valuable for up and coming musicians to hear because – or even musicians who are kind of mid-career and wondering why things haven’t taken off the way they wanted them to. Although it doesn’t sound very ‘arty’, when a career in music is approached as a business, the musicians understand that they’re there in a large part to serve their audience, because they’re thinking, What’s the best way I can set this up so that my audience gets what they came for?
Troy agreed with this impression, saying, ‘We’re always sitting back and analysing [our] core audience, so to speak … With our style of song, people between 18 and 35/40 are probably going to be the ones that really dig our stuff. We know we’re not doing Slim Dusty, John Williamson-type songs. We’re not as laid back as Troy Cassar-Daley. We’re putting on a pretty energetic country rock show. We love bands like Big and Rich so we wanted to be the Big and Rich of Australia type of thing – a bit more rowdy and fun. So we have to really sit back as a business and go, “How are we going to appeal to these people? Not only visually, what we sound like, but how are we going to market our merchandise to those people who might want to buy it?”All these different things you have to think about all the time.
‘And constantly trying to stay ahead of the game so that you stay at the forefront of the industry and you’re always being talked about. What are we going [to do] on our next video clip to keep them cool and cooler than the next person’s video clip? Unfortunately, sometimes in Australia we work within budgets that don’t allow us to sort of have these big fully blown American-style video clips which we’d all love to do. In America the record companies control million dollars of a video clip, but in Australia we’re lucky if we get ten grand, so how are you meant to compete? So you do what you can and you keep your head down. I think the harder you work the more chance you’ve got of luck finding you. So that’s pretty much how I look at it.’
Of course, the best publicity is word of mouth, so if McAlister Kemp put on a great show and people have a good time and leave feeling upbeat and positive and that the band has been professional, that’s the best possible advertisement they’re probably going to get.
‘That’s exactly right,’ said Troy. ‘We’ve worked really hard over the last four years to make our live shows as entertaining as possible. We don’t want to be a band that gets on stage and looks at our feet all night and doesn’t interact with the crowd. We want everyone involved. We want them throwing their hands in the air. We want them singing the words back at us. We want to give them a rock ‘n’ roll show that gives them their money’s worth, because concerts aren’t cheap these days, so you want people to leave going, “Wow, I definitely got my money’s worth out of McAlister Kemp. I do want to see those guys again.” They wait in these merchandise lines to line up and meet us and have photos and get things signed. Even right there, you have to give them as much love as you can in the minute that you get with them … Whatever we can do we do it, because everyone is so important to us. We don’t take that for granted.’
Troy revealed that, early on, he and Drew had a bit of help from an industry stalwart and that this help has inspired them to do the same for other artists coming through.
'[W]e had a lot of guidance from Adam Brand,’ he said. ‘Adam really gave us a start and got us out there on tour with him and helped us with lots of ideas around building a career, not only live shows, but how to deal with fans, how to do this, how to do that. Not to say that we didn’t have any idea and we were totally dumb to it, but anything you can pick up along the way from anybody is obviously very valuable information and Adam is a master of it and he got a good career out of it. He probably watching someone before him doing it, you know what I mean?
‘Hopefully we’re setting a good example for somebody else coming through, and if we can pay it forward and give other people advice as we move forward and help them out, then I sure as hell am going to be doing that myself and helping someone else because I just think it’s fair. I want to see everybody do well in this business because it’s really tough, and I think everybody deserves a shot. If they’re prepared to pick up a pen and paper and a guitar and try their guts out to do a good song to make people feel something, then I think everyone deserves a shot. So as we move forward, hopefully we can be Adam Brand to somebody else.’
McAlister Kemp are unapologetically ‘country rock’ as opposed to traditional country – which is not always an easy thing in a genre that is known for having some rules – and they take their roles as entertainers very seriously, ramping it up a notch in their shows, which feature four backing dancers and four backing singers in addition to the band members.
‘Essentially we’ve sometimes got 14 people onstage and it looks like a circus, but that’s how we want it to look,’ said Troy. ‘Sure, we’re shaking it up a little bit and we probably get frowned upon by some of the people in the industry or the older country music fans, but you know what? Country is changing and moving forward and you can see that coming straight out of America … Luke Bryan and Jake Owen and Blake Shelton and all these guys who are doing their shows, and Miranda Lambert – whoever you are, you can‘t deny that this style of modern country is coming through and we love that. That’s what Drew and I listen to ourselves, and not to say we don’t love Slim Dusty and John Williamson and all those guys. These guys are our history in country music here and thank God for them, but people have to accept that country music is moving forward.
‘I personally think it’s getting a lot cooler and tougher and I think the more people can hear it, particularly the younger generation, and even half of Australia doesn’t even know McAlister Kemp exists or that country rocks like it does. And then you say “country” and people say, “Oh, you play country and western.” I say, “No, we’re not western.” It’s country rock. We don’t do the western thing … It’s just trying to get that awareness out there right across Australia so that we might have a John Farnham career rather than a smaller thing. Who knows? I think anybody who loves Cold Chisel and 1927 and Noiseworks and all those people are going to love McAlister Kemp.’
Troy was very generous with his time during this interview so I ended up with enough material to make a very long interview. So I’m going to keep it in reserve for when the album comes out … McAlister Kemp fans, you’ll just have to wait! In the meantime, there’s the single to keep you happy.
The new McAlister Kemp album will be released on 17 January 2014.