Interview by Allyanna Anglim, based in Hong Kong
“If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” – a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Uncle Alex as it appeared in his essay collection entitled A Man Without a Country, as he remarked on the inability of people to recognize and acknowledge their own happiness. Eight years after the collection was first published, Kurt Vonnegut’s “good uncle” Alex also inspired the name and philosophy of Hong Kong’s rising acoustic duo, Uncle Alex.
The musical duo, with Vicky Allington on vocals and Steve Westlake on guitar and vocals, describes their music as acoustic with folk and bluegrass influences. Formed in June 2013, Vicky and Alex have performed at various venues across Hong Kong, including The Wanch, The Flying Winemaker, Kila, The Canny Man and Fill in the Blank.
Amidst the dark but cozy interiors of an Irish pub in Hong Kong, Art Zeen met with Vicky and Steve to discuss some of the challenges of mixing music and romance and the impact that music has on culture.
Naked as We Came by Uncle Alex
Art Zeen: How was the duo formed?
Vicky: I was auditioning for a gig at The Flying Winemaker when I realized I needed a guitarist. I knew Steve played the guitar so I sent him a message.
Steve: I received a Whatsapp message saying, “I need a guitarist. Can you play for me?”
Vicky: And good thing he said sure! So we had a week to rehearse some 20 songs and ended up working really well together. We realized we had the same taste in music.
Steve: We did a lot more rehearsals after that…and the nights were long…
Vicky: (laughs)…and that’s how we became a couple as well.
Art Zeen: So the music came first before you became a couple. Can you tell us some of the challenges of working together?
Vicky: Time is the biggest rival. I’m a kindergarten teacher and I also do some freelance work in the afternoon, singing and directing, so it’s quite difficult to find the time to work on our music.
Steve: That’s also the challenging part of being a couple. When it’s already very rare that you find time to see each other, when we’re actually together we just don’t want to look at a guitar or think about music. You kind of just want to spend that time together and not think about anything else.
Vicky: I think we also have very different styles of working.
Steve: I’m more laid back and Vicks is more…motivated.
Vicky: And it works! We complement each other and we’re getting closer to the point where we can pre-empt each other’s thoughts, which is very helpful when we’re brainstorming about music ideas. People are always surprised that we’ve just been together as a duo for a few months because it feels very right and very comfortable.
Art Zeen: Do you write your own songs?
Steve: That’s definitely where we want to be. Right now we do a lot of covers when we perform, but we’re in the process of creating original music. We’re inspired by other musicians who tell stories through music and that’s something we’re also very interested in doing for ourselves.
Vicky: We’re very aware that it takes a lot of work to produce and build something great. I also think there’s as much importance in listening to or singing someone else’s songs as there is in writing your own. If a lyricist has written something better than you can express yourself, it’s so helpful to sing those words that explain what you mean.
Art Zeen: What can you say about starting a band in Hong Kong and trying to make it here?
Vicky: One of the challenges is that you can’t be a full-time performer here. I also grew up in Hong Kong, but being Caucasian somehow forms a barrier between myself and the local people. It’s hard to know that you’re on the inside but feeling on the outside because you can’t fully understand the local culture.
Steve: On the other hand, what I love about Hong Kong is that no one’s competitive here. In the UK, you don’t share information about gigs or anything to help out other musicians because you see them as competitors, even within your own band. In Hong Kong, everybody’s generous with tips and advice and we try to pay that forward as well.
Art Zeen: You’ve quoted Kurt Vonnegut in your band’s biography and his Uncle Alex has also inspired your name. When Vonnegut passed, The New York Times called him “the counterculture’s novelist.” What do you think about music and its impact on culture or on people?
Steve: I think it has an opportunity to sneak ideas into the mainstream, when you catch yourself singing a lyric and you think about what it really means and how it relates to what you think your place in the world is. Music is also a way to meet people and bring people together. One of my most memorable performances in Hong Kong was my friend’s wife’s birthday party at the Peak. I knew him from football and I had never played in front of my football mates; it was a part of me they had never seen. It was the first time my worlds collided, and it was also the first time they met Vicky.
Vicky: Music is very important and all music is therapeutic. It can be used to express a culture or as a means for people to express themselves; it can be cathartic. With our music we don’t try to be anything more than what we are. We know how important music is to us, and our philosophy towards music is similar to what Uncle Alex evokes in us—that it should be enjoyable and pleasant, and playing music is a moment that is worthwhile in and of itself.