Local Wire

Art-rock Outfit Emby Alexander Waves the Phoenix Flag, Whether or Not You Like It

Michael Alexander doesn’t mind starting an argument.

That’s why the singer/songwriter named his art-rock band Emby Alexander’s latest album Sound of Phoenix. For Alexander, it was a way of drawing a line in the Sonoran sand, a declaration of his heritage as a native Arizonan. He knew it would raise eyebrows. In fact, that was part of the appeal.

“I knew going in I would not be the ‘elected representative of Phoenix,’ and I liked that,” Alexander explains. “I’ve been accosted a few times by other artists and things like that, and that’s what I wanted it to be. [I figured] ‘Nobody else is saying it, so I’ll be the first to say it.’” 
Speaking with Alexander, you get the sense he’s not aiming to “troll,” although he does use the term to describe the album title. Rather, he’s into creating deliberately provocative art. He’s willing to utilize combative language to describe it. He’s got little use for neutrality.

“I thought I’d swing for the fences,” Alexander says. “Hopefully, you’ll agree or disagree strongly. I didn’t want to tread in the middle.”

Of course, there is no singular sound of Phoenix. The city’s musical heritage is a muddied blend of traditional Native American folk, twangy country, strains of surf rock and rockabilly, the black and Latin soul of south Phoenix, various stripes of DIY punk, metal, hardcore, and the chiming power pop and alternative that strummed its way off Mill Avenue in Tempe.

Emby Alexander’s sonic makeup doesn’t owe much to any of these forms. More rooted in the New Wave/post-punk aesthetic of the Talking Heads and the orchestral indie rock of Grizzly Bear, Emby Alexander’s claim to the Phoenix sound tag is more ideological than musical.

“Purposefully, the record isn’t called ‘the’ Sound of Phoenix,” Alexander says.

Sound of Phoenix isn’t a traditional concept album. While previous Emby Alexander albums — like 2015’s Behaves Like Beehives and 2014’s Frontispiece have employed narrative forms, detailing a more thorough storyline, this latest is a collection of more individual vignettes. Alexander has an uncanny ability to translate big thematic concerns. He renders emotional violence as jubilant pop on “In Your Doorstep Bleeding,” sketches grandly ornate scenes on “Rich as the Priest Asks,” and evokes the Zen emotionality of J. D. Salinger on standout song “Franny Zooey.”

As Alexander pulled together a theme, Phoenix seemed to embody an idea the songs revolved around. As the band’s toured heavily over the last couple of years, Phoenix became a lens through which Alexander could view his own identity.

“I’m a Phoenix native, and I think developing as a human, you don’t know how unique you might be until you do something else,” Alexander says. “Really touring the last couple years pretty heavily, and seeing how things are in other cities, for better or worse, mostly different, you kind of see what about you is really a Phoenix thing.”

In the process, the album allowed him to vent his frustrations with Phoenix’s most creative artists often leaving town for bigger cities. Alexander feels compelled to stay here, and wishes other musicians could dedicate themselves to fostering the kind of creative spirit in Phoenix they might find in Portland, New York, or Los Angeles.

“I don’t like to be too political, but on the surface level, I felt like people saying Phoenix is no good were the first to leave,” Alexander says. “[With the album], I wanted to wear Phoenix proudly, because I hadn’t seen that in my graduating class of musicians. I haven’t seen people championing it. I wanted to just put it out there, especially again touring on the record; [by] calling it the Sound of Phoenix tour, it was trying to shine a light back on Phoenix.”

Emby Alexander is scheduled to perform Wednesday, January 4, at Valley Bar.
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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.