Ali Horn talks streaming gigs, Strange Collective and getting through the lockdown

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Ali Horn

Ali Horn was one of the first artists to stream a gig from his living room once it became clear there were to be no more live gigs for a while, Getintothis’ Peter Goodbody went to have a chat.

It’s a fast changing world. That’s safe to say.

We met Ali Horn about 10 days or so ago.

It became apparent a lockdown was on it’s way, but no one quite dared to believe it. For sure, we’d seen reports from Spain and Italy, but the tack from the UK Government was different. Herd immunity and all that.

We’re not here to debate the rights or wrongs of that stance, but it was a worrying Tuesday evening, following the night before’s announcement that pubs, clubs etc were being “asked” to close. Ali’s phone didn’t stop pinging with cancellation after cancellation.

In an eight minute oration on a Monday evening, the Prime Minister had turned our world upside down.

Ali realised something needed to be done, and done quite quickly. So, the next day he announced he would play a gig from his living room on the 13th floor (how fucking ironic) of his tower block apartment in Liverpool’s Sefton Park.

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And we tuned in on Facebook and couldn’t help be moved at how resolutely cheerful he was being. For about 40 minutes, Ali played a mix of his own material as well as covers requested from the 50 or so souls who were there, too.

Of course, streamed gigs are now becoming the new norm, as we type this. But Ali was the first one of which we were aware.

We decided to go and have a chat with him to see what life is like in this new dystopia, albeit we didn’t know then, when we met, what we do now. Had that chat happened a few days later, then it would have been over Zoom or Microsoft Teams. But that was then and this is now.

As we arrive, Ali’s planting lettuce seeds in a potting tray on his balcony. He needs to be kept occupied.

He puts the kettle on, like a good Brit. And we talk for an hour.

Getintothis: So, Whats’s the Ali Horn story?

Ali Horn: In this current climate, or in general?

Getintothis: Say for the last 20 years …

AH: Good question. 20 years ago I was living in London, I would have been 13, stolen my first cigarette. I had a fairly normal childhood, I think. Joined my first band at 15.

Getintothis: What were they called?

AH: Shall I go through my entire collection of bands?

Getintothis: Yeah, go on then

AH: There were some really bad ones. The first band I joined was called The Burst, it wasn’t my band, I joined after they were formed, so I didn’t have anything to do with the name. Their old guitarist, the one before me, couldn’t play guitar. He basically open tuned his guitar, and just played, like, one thing. So they couldn’t play minor chords. It was just power chords.

Then I was in a band, very briefly, called The Short Straws, and then The Lost Soul Sound System. Then I was in a band called The Parkas, of which I played half a song last night and some of whom were watching last night. Then I was in a band called The Post Romantics, who, now are another band in Liverpool. I was in a band called Albert and the Morons, that was a fun band. Then I played bass for Sugarmen. Then Strange Collective and then [my solo project]. It’s been a long run. And a lot of playing very shit, then kind of alright, then alright and then some good and then some pretty good music. I still think I’m figuring it out.

Getintothis: What brought you to Liverpool?

AH: I came up to study. I studied popular music at uni. I look back and I just cringe about some of the things I did. I didn’t care – I didn’t care about the future. I had no plan. I was just gonna be a rock and roller. I guess we all kind of learn at different times. I remember being in a taxi, just with a guitar, not even in a case, with a couple of pals and we were singing Echo and the Bunnymen songs. The taxi driver was loving it. He said: “Yes, lads, in this city if you keep playing, you’ll never go hungry – you’ll probably not make much money, but you’ll never go hungry.”

Getintothis: How times have changed.

AH: Yeah. I’ve always worked. I went self employed as a musician in July 2018.

Before that I worked at O2 Academy as bar manager, which was good, but it kind of started killing music for me because of the amount of shows and the numbers of hours I was working.

But a lot of the behind the scenes stuff I saw, the realities of the workings of a music venue and how tough it is. I realised I was spending a lot of time being comfortable financially, but not doing what I wanted to do. [Ali tells me the reason why he quit that job, but asks me not to publish the details].

It’s been tough the last couple of years, paying rent, keeping afloat. I had a small amount of savings from when I was working at the O2, to be put away for a mortgage or whatever, as an adult – a grown up rock and roll star – real life stuff. That went in the first winter.

I had no residencies, the odd gig that I’d be chasing, ringing up bars and going: Can I play again? It took me until about December just gone [2019] to establish enough regular residencies and have enough work booked in advance that I was, for the first time, comfortable.

Getintothis: Where were you doing residencies?

AH: I was playing every Thursday at Kazimier Garden. Doing requests. I had a massive pile of paper and people write down whatever they want to hear, put it in my guitar case and I just go through them. I pull up the chords on my phone and with varying degrees of success, I think that’s what makes the evening quite nice.

Sometimes, I’ll get a really weird request, for which I have no idea. [One night] I got some Romanian requests, but I had to say: “I can’t do it”. It’s very hit or miss.

But it’s a great vibe and a great company to be involved with. It’s almost an honour. It’s the best venue in Liverpool.

Other than that, I play at Kelly’s Dispensary on Smithdown Road, twice a month at a pub in Hale [The Wellington Hotel] , I felt brought into the fold [there]and got asked to play twice a month there. I play regularly at The Other Place in Allerton, I do some some stuff in Ormskirk – La Cantina and Mad Hatters. It’s all work. That’s the realities of things.

Ali Horn

Getintothis: And you busk as well.

AH: I busk a lot.

Getintothis: I’m not trying to pry, but presumably that’s worthwhile.

AH: It’s a lot better than any job I’ve ever done on an hourly rate.

Getintothis: You wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t worthwhile?

AH: Yeah. But, there’s super depressing times.

I busked all the way through January this year and last, literally with bleeding fingers. I layer up, so long johns, tracky bottoms, big trousers, thermal top, two jackets, the lot. Two pairs of fingerless gloves, and it’s still fucking freezing.

It’s great, though. We’re having talks with the Council to regulate and control busking. We’re having regular meetings with them to try and work stuff out. We have an open panel.

Getintothis: There’s been talk about that for a while, to try and regulate quality …

AH: Yeah, I think it’s needed. Because there’s nothing worse than people who don’t respect ‘the code’. There’s people with massive sound systems who set up 20m away from you and just don’t care.

I think what may come into play is a two hour rule on one spot. That would make things fairer. If you can do two hours on one spot and then wait maybe an hour and then do two hours at another spot, then that should be enough to cover [you].

But things are up in the air with that. Well, everything’s up in the air at the moment. These are the most uncertain times.

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Getintothis: So, talk a a bit about last night [the streamed gig from Ali’s living room]

AH: Last night I did a living room gig, right here.

Getintothis: Yeah, we recognise the cushions

AH: I kind of didn’t know what else to do.

Ali Horn

Getintothis: You said [online]  you did a gig on St Patrick’s Day, Tuesday.

AH: Yeah. At Kelly’s Dispensary. That was a strange vibe.

No one who was celebrating St Patrick’s Day cared about … or maybe they did and they were just having a day of celebration and forgetting about it [Coronavirus].

So, I was very wary of shaking hands … I just went in and did my set and got out. I had to play the big, classic singalongs. I played Sweet Caroline, everyone was touching hands and it was strange for me, it was really weird.

From Monday night when, basically, all my work just went [down]. I don’t expect small businesses to have to pay me, because they’re suffering as well. We’re all fucked, we’re all doomed in this industry.

It was a heavy 24 hours for me. And then to have to get up and perform and entertain and be, like “Hey Guys!”, it was difficult. I didn’t drink on Paddy’s Day, usually I’d be doing three shows that day and I’d be diving around like Band on the Run, earn a packet and it would be a fucking great day.

But it was just in and out of Kelly’s and I had to put a brave face on the entertaining thing. I guess that’s what last night was as well. I kind of got through the depressing bit and thought, I’ve got to do something. I can’t not do anything, I can’t not try.

I felt strange doing it, as “Help Me!” But it was also “Help your musician friends” This is what all of us are going through. It was difficult to word it.

I thought long and hard about whether to do it or not.

My idea for the virtual busking thing was, if 100 people gave £1, then that’s [great]for an hour’s entertainment if they’re stuck inside. And also it was [after an incident after I’d played at Kelly’s on Sunday]before the whole doom and gloom of mass closures, and this fella was like “You should do gigs from your living room and put them on Facebook” and I was: “Yeah, if we all get quarantined, I’ll definitely do that just to keep everyone happy” …

So, I thought more about it and that’s [where the idea came from]if it helps people out, then it’s already a good thing. I can’t sit around and do nothing. And also, if I get a couple of quid out of it, then at least rent gets paid and worries are slightly less.

Getintothis: It’s funny how quickly you miss it, when you’re used to going out twice a week. And to think we may not have any gigs between now and the end of April, May?

AH: It’s strange that we see all the rescheduled shows that have been pulled are all going for September, October. Do people think that’s when it’s going to resurface?

Getintothis: I saw something was shifted to April 20 or thereabouts. I thought, good luck with that.

AH: For me, playing original material is not a massive money spinner. But, the amount of enjoyment I get from playing with those people keeps me going. I buzz off it so much, it’s incredibly scary, but I still get nervous.

Ali Horn

Getintothis: So, is the covers work your bread and butter?

AH: It’s just bread. Just rent, yeah. It’s better than pulling pints or working minimum wage. But it’s work.

Getintothis: What made you leave Strange Collective?

AH: It was always me and Alex, members came and members went. We had a strange couple of months where we weren’t being very productive.

Nothing much was getting done and it was tough for everyone. Alex asked me if I thought we should just knock Strange Collective on the head and do something else, then we’ll have a fresh start, a clean slate. Then we can write whatever we want to write, because we won’t have this pressure of what people expect anymore.

I was, like, do you know what? I think a pressure off situation would be perfect. It was a good five years, it was great.

I love every member of that band dearly. It was a shame to see it go, but I think it had kind of run its course.

We’d been doing some jamming and Alex said to me – you should just go and do your thing. You have a career, a label and a manager. I appreciated that.

They are still doing stuff under the name Fuma Mata. I’ve seen them three times and it was really nice to watch. I felt weirdly proud, and also jealous because they’re really good. But I’d love to play Strange Collective songs again some time.

Getintothis: Had we not been where we are, did you have any plans?

AH: I would have been on my way to London right now to play a show at Heavenly Records and then I’d be playing a show next week in Liverpool. And then festival season.

I would have been headlining the Getintothis stage at Threshold, which would have been cool.

We would have been playing the Rock & Roll Marathon. I’ve got a shit tonne of music I want to release.

I recorded a single at Parr Street [Studios] about a month ago, which I wanted to get out. I’m not sure if now is the right time to release it. I always worry about public reaction – maybe I should just put it out, but I don’t want to be seen as a dick in a world situation such as this.

And be like, well I’m just putting out a fun summer single, anyway, that has no relevance to anything going on.

Not that I couldn’t write a song about isolation, but I don’t want to be seen as capitalising. But all I can do is try and document, try and entertain. And see what happens.

Getintothis: It’s early days. Where do you go?

AH: Yeah. One of my best friends ordered about £50 worth of merch from me yesterday. I literally just welled up. It was the nicest thing in the world. She doesn’t even have a CD player. I was properly humbled.

I got a bit emotional and she said, ‘Well, you can write me a poem’. So I wrote a song and videoed it. It’s very basic – just ‘thanks a lot for helping me out’.

Pride has kind of going out of the window. I have to pay the rent.

I didn’t really want to do Believe by Cher [at the streamed gig]– I wanted to play all the cool covers. But this is the situation.

That was the scary thing for me – how quickly it happened. I was literally sat here and within the space of two hours, it was, like fuck, FUCK.

But, I’m lucky, though, I have friends and family. There’s a lot worse off than me on this planet. I keep remembering.

As long as I have tins of chopped tomatoes and some spaghetti, then I’ll be alright.

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