ALIAS brings multiple personalities to the stage

“The ALIAS live experience brings the music to life as a full-on, hips-a’-gyratin’, rock ’n’ roll revue that channels the spirits of Sabbath, ABBA, the Big Bopper and Nirvana in equal measure.”

Emmanuel Alias comes by his identity honestly. 

The conservatory-trained jazz drummer and multi-instrumental singer/songwriter relocated to Montreal from Aix-en-Provence, France, nearly a decade ago. 

Since then, he has applied the considerable versatility of his craft in his nine-to-five at Montreal-based XS Music. Contributions to the HBO series Sharp Objects and Cirque du Soleil are just a couple of standout examples that barely scratch the surface of his professional accomplishments. 

Alias has also worked closely with Quebec label Musique Nomad, producing beats for Indigenous artists such as Anachnid and rapper Q052.

Growing up in France, Alias says he was as interested in discovering Bowie and Zeppelin with his parents’ vinyl collections as he was in studying jazz musicians or learning about hip hop and sampling by listening to the Pharcyde and Wu-Tang Clan. 

So when he started a project of his own, the first decision he made was to strip himself of rules and restrictions. 

Released on Simone Records in 2021, his debut EP It’s Not Funny So Stop Smilin’ set the table for ALIAS as a solo artist with a psychedelic-leaning sound. 

The following year, its full-length successor Jozef danced its way into deeper territorial explorations of sound and substance. 

And the ALIAS live experience, as witnessed this summer at Jazz Fest (and at FME last weekend), brings the music to life as a full-on, hips-a’-gyratin’, rock ’n’ roll revue that channels the spirits of Sabbath, Abba, the Big Bopper and Nirvana in equal measure. 

Nailing down ALIAS is a fool’s errand. 

So we decided to speak with the man himself, ahead of his performance at Bar le Ritz PDB on Saturday.

Here’s what Emmanuel Alias had to say about the multiple personalities of his musical endeavour. 

Darcy MacDonald: I loved your Jazz Fest show, but that’s all I really know about you. Please tell me what ALIAS is all about.

Emmanuel Alias: I conceived ALIAS to be kind of a character I created for the stage. Not an eccentric one, per se, but I don’t really have any rules. And I also really love to tell stories in my songs. So in taking a lead role, I kept that in mind. 

When I started working with the band, it was mostly me writing and composing all of the music. And I play and record all of the instruments myself in the studio. The band brings that to life. So taking the frontman role was quite natural. 

The keyboardist comes from the same town in France as me and had the same drum teacher (at Conservatoire Darius Milhaud d’Aix-en-Provence.)

We also worked together at XS. We’ve got a bit of an alchemy, having worked together for so long. We can communicate with a single look. The rest of the band are musicians I’ve tried to remain loyal to, so I guess we’ve developed a kind of band spirit. 

ALIAS was really meant to be a solo project, and I signed to Simone Records as a solo artist. But the band is like family to me. 


DM: Your music and live show go in so many directions. Is that intentional, or is it naturally inside you as a composer and a performer?

ALIAS: I have a bit of a problem with the fact that I like so many styles of music.

When I compose, or even when I have an idea, it all gets mixed up. I always start out wanting my compositions to sound a certain way, and I’ll have a preconceived idea. But I never get there because I listen to too many things at the same time. 

So I don’t know if it’s intentional, because I love so many different genres. I love rockabilly, I love blues, grunge and noise. I love older bands as much as I do modern artists like Ty Segall and King Gizzard. 

It’s like I have these ingredients in my mind and I’m going to cook up a dish, but I don’t know exactly how it’s going taste. I just know that I love all of the ingredients I’m cooking with. 

DM: The first EP and Jozef are very different from each other. Can you please talk a little about your process along the way and in between creating these projects?

ALIAS: To explain the process between them, I have to go back a little bit before the first one, the EP. 

I had written an entire album and went to record those songs with the band at Tone Bender, which is a studio that is also known as Mixart. I was on much more of an indie/folk vibe and listening to a lot of Bob Dylan, Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. 

But after recording it, I tossed that whole album in the garbage.  This was right around the start of COVID. I felt I was putting myself in a corner with folk music and giving myself too many barriers. 

So I threw it away and recorded the EP, It’s Not Funny So Stop Smilin’. I recorded it in my kitchen during confinement. And in that process, I realized that I didn’t have to impose rules on myself. We didn’t know what would happen with the pandemic, and I applied that uncertainty to my own music. 

I just went with the idea of like, ‘I don’t know.’ There was no clear ambition. And by taking that approach, I learned that I didn’t have to limit myself. So between the first ALIAS EP and Jozef, I kept working that way. 

There are certain musicians that I love, like Thom Yorke and Jack White, and a part of why I love them is because you never know what they are going to try next. Will it be more electronic, more ambient or acoustic? Will it lean more modular, or will it be textbook rock ’n’ roll? 

I told myself to use that same recipe. And even now, from Jozef to the next album, it’s totally different. For example, my next album has no guitars. I’m using analogue synths. There’s a hip hop element to it, too — the next ALIAS album will feature rappers. 

I really wanted to develop this idea that every album I release is going to be different. I want to keep having fun by playing in different playgrounds. 

DM: So many artists I speak with talk about being totally immersed in their own music throughout the creation process. It’s rare that someone says they are as interested in other people’s music as in their own when writing and recording. 

ALIAS: I can’t just listen to my own music! It’s almost as if the more other music I listen to, the more focused I become when I get back to the studio. It’s almost like it reminds me that the bar is higher and that I want to reach it. 

When I go see a great show, my first instinct is to get back to the studio and work harder. That’s what keeps my engine fuelled. And it’s funny, because it can be a hip hop concert, and it makes me want to go harder with an idea that’s more punk. Or it can be a punk show, but it makes me want to do hip hop. It’s really about the energy that I take in. And that can remind me, like, ‘Shit, I’m not on that level yet.’

That means I have to work harder, that I have to focus more on each sound from each instrument, and that I have to apply myself. 

So the reality is that I actually must listen to other music to make my own be what I want it to be! 

DM: Did you see any great concerts this summer that knocked you out?

ALIAS: Yeah, I saw the Osees with Hot Garbage. Man, j’ai freeze from how diabolic the energy at that show was. C’était evil! Just the whole performance was so in your face.

Also, last year, when I played at la Noce in Saguenay, I saw an artist that I’d really love to collaborate with on my next album, Magi Merlin. I hadn’t heard her album, so I discovered her music in concert. It really touched me. The drummer had these gospel chops, the bassist was using fuzz effects amazingly, and her voice was just…wow. 

So yeah, those two shows really impressed me. 

Darcy MacDonald: You used the term “in your face.” Do you believe that great rock music requires genuine urgency?

ALIAS: I really love it when a performance is frontal. Like for example, I’m a big fan of Art Blakey from the Jazz Messengers. There are a lot of live recordings of Blakey where he starts with a single hit to the crash cymbal, and then the swing kicks in. 

I don’t want to be held by the hand and given a build-up and be guided into a vibe. I love it when I’m suddenly given, like, a phaser jolt. That’s what I love and what I try to do with ALIAS. Not to prepare the audience, but to get right into it, like we’re boxing. ■

ALIAS plays with openers Debate Club at Bar le Ritz PDB (179 Jean-Talon W.) on Saturday, Sept. 9, show 7:30 p.m., $20.98.

For more Montreal music coverage, please visit the Music section.