After a seven-year hiatus, McAlister Kemp – one of the last decade’s most successful Australian country acts – are preparing to release their fourth studio album, We Roll On. Ahead of the duo’s extensive Australian tour, Bryget Chrisfield checks in with the Blue Mountains-based Drew McAlister – one half of McAlister Kemp, which is rounded out by Troy Kemp (who currently calls Nashville home) – to discuss getting the band back together, writing an album via Zoom from different timezones, how much they love drinking beer (and wish they could be paid for it) and performing for the troops.
Why can’t we get Paid For Drinking Beer?
“Paid For Drinking Beer is just such a fun, ridiculous song, because, you know, if we were paid for drinking beer we’d be rich, man! Or I know I would be. There’s one line in the song, it goes, ‘Guess I’d wake up around nine o’clock, start knockin’ ‘em back ‘round ten/ Hell, if I know me I’m gonna overachieve, over and over again.’ It’s a good, fun song and we’re kind of renowned for those songs – we’ve got some pretty big party songs – so it seemed fitting for us to release that one: a raucous, full-on party song.”
Pouring out the hits
“Paid For Drinking Beer didn’t take long to write, and when I Googled that title no one had written [a song with that title] and I couldn’t believe it – no one had written it! And when we wrote Country Proud – that was a big hit for us and we wrote that in an hour-and-a-half, in Nashville. And I did the same thing, Googled it, and no one had written a song with that title, either! I couldn’t believe it. So it’s pretty rare that you get those songs.”
Boozy Fraser Island songwriting trips
“There’s one song [on We Roll On] – it’s called Play Up Show Up and it’s a really uptempo, punchy song – that we wrote, I’m gonna say 10 years ago. We were on a writing trip on Fraser Island and it was so long ago that we couldn’t remember who we wrote it with, and Troy [Kemp] doesn’t remember writing it at all! There was a few beers that weekend [laughs]. We were with another cowriter Mike Carr and I called him up and I said, ‘Man, did we write this song together?’ And he said, ‘Nuh, I didn’t write that song with you guys; I think it was just you and Troy’.”
Getting the duo back together
“Troy texted me one day out of the blue to say hello and we just got chatting again – that was three years ago now, before the pandemic. Two weeks after we reconnected, we got a call from our manager Dan Biddle and he said, ‘Have you guys thought about doing a 10-year reunion album?’ And I said, ‘You’re not gonna believe it! I was just speaking to Troy two weeks ago’ [laughs]. And then it just sort of took a while to get everything together and then Covid hit, and that stopped everything – I mean, the album gets released in August – but, yeah! It’s happened really organically and so here we are! It’s crazy.”
After The Breakdown was written in a day
“Troy came to my house up here [in the Blue Mountains] and we were sort of reconnecting and having a beer. And we sat down and started talking about some people we knew who were going through a pretty tough time. And we didn’t plan to, but after about three hours sitting there writing we actually wrote a song that day called After The Breakdown.
“When you listen to After The Breakdown’s lyrics, it’s kind of fitting that it was the first single off this album because Troy and I had sort of split and went our own ways. So being back together, it was a bit therapeutic writing that song as well.”
Reunited and it feels so good
“Since we’ve had that break, we’re both different men than we used to be and are just letting each other be who we are sort of thing. People don’t realise, but Troy and I were solo guys for 20 years before we met. And so when you’re a solo guy, you do things a certain way – you can kinda control your own ship. Then when you get together as a duo, that all changes and you’ve gotta give and take. And that’s something that Troy and I have learnt to do – certainly this time ‘round – that perhaps we weren’t so good at a few albums back.
“I think what I’ve learnt is to not take stuff so seriously, ‘cause in the end certain things just do not matter, you know? This stuff that you worry about, it doesn’t matter; if it hasn’t changed your life a year after it happens, it wasn’t worth worrying about. So I’m just being a bit more chilled about stuff, you know.
“We’re two guys with big egos – you’ve gotta be, in this industry. So we’ve both got our roles and we’ve worked that out now: Troy’s like a flighty horse and I’m the levelheaded one [laughs] – he’ll admit that. But you need that, you know: he’s a bit more of the rockstar and I’m a bit more ‘steer the ship’ type of thing… maybe the tortoise, just plodding along – I dunno, but, yeah! We make it work; we know our roles.”
Zoom songwriting from different timezones
“Basically, during the lockdowns we wrote heap of songs over Zoom and that’s how we created We Roll On. I’m not a fan of writing over Zoom, to be honest – I’d much prefer to write in a room with someone; I think you get a better feel for the song. But we just had to do what we had to do and we did it! Because Troy’s over in Nashville and I’m here, the timezones were different, obviously – he’d be writing at night and I’d be writing in the morning – and, yeah! We somehow made it work and then we’d just do acoustic demos and jot down the lyrics, and put them all in a folder.”
Memorising lyrics while mowing
“During lockdown, we all had no gigs so I went landscaping and mowing lawns. And so basically I’d rehearse with my AirPods in while I was working and mowing lawns, and memorising the lyrics again of songs we haven’t done in so long. So that’s how I did it, just repetition – I’d run the songs over and over and over again – while I’m mowing lawns to really get them back in my head. Memorising lyrics, for me, is just running little movies in my head; every song is like a little movie – that’s the only way I learn. And then the chords are like maths, they all interconnect so they’re not hard to remember.
“It took about four or five weeks to really get the songs back in my head again, and rehearse them on guitar to get the chords down and all that sort of thing, before our Dubbo show recently [May, 2022].”
Performing for the troops
“I’ve been to Iraq, I’ve been in Baghdad playing for the soldiers – I did two trips over there for that… Basically, I was contacted by one of the gentlemen there who would organise to take acts over. It was like they used to do in the ‘60s: they’d take over a music act, a comedy act, a country music act or a pop act and you’d all go as a troupe. So I got asked to do it and it was a two-week trip the first time and, yeah! I got flown over and then we just hit the ground and went around to all these different bases to do a show for the troops.
“The second time, I went over for another two-week stint and that time we actually went over on a Hercules [helicopter]! So we flew all the way to Dubai – actually, we might have been in Qatar, I’m not sure now – on a Hercules. It was pretty amazing. I mean, you got to go in Humvees! I got to go on a chopper out into the gulf to get on a huge ship to play to the soldiers in their mess hall and things like that, so it was pretty cool. For years after, I’d be playing somewhere and soldiers would come up to me and say, ‘I was there at that base when you came and played,’ and I loved it.”
The Florida Georgia Line and Luke Combs effects
“When you look back at Florida Georgia Line, for instance: they released a song called Cruise. Now for the next 10 years everyone was just doing that song, basically. And they called it ‘bro-country’, ‘cause it was like hip-hop in a country song. But now it’s moved away from that again, with the influence of Luke Combs. Now he’s gone back to the ‘90s country and doing that kind of thing, with great lyrics and, you know, heartfelt songs. So that was kind of our template: not to go far away from what we did before, but … we made a country album, we didn’t make a country-pop album, if you know what I mean.
“We had a great band over in Nashville track everything – incredible players. So we have a bit of everything on We Roll On: there’s fiddle, there’s mandolin and there’s lots of stuff. We’ve got acoustic stuff on there, we’ve got full-band stuff – it’s a real assortment.”
We Roll On by McAlister Kemp is out 19 August via ABC Music.
Watch McAlister Kemp ‘Live At Your Local’
Ettamogah Hotel, Kelllyville Ridge NSW
Tickets here: https://bit.ly/3z27rPi
Thursday, September 15
Hallam Hotel, Hallam VIC
Tickets here: https://bit.ly/3PMerWn
Friday, September 16
York On Lilydale, Mount Evelyn VIC
Tickets here: https://bit.ly/3wP9F1X
Saturday, September 17
Gateway Hotel, Geelong VIC
Tickets here: https://bit.ly/3wUuAkc
Saturday, October 1
Racehorse Hotel, Ipswich QLD
Tickets here: https://bit.ly/3LUp6vh
Sunday, October 2
Hamilton Hotel, Brisbane, QLD