Alex Munk 1.jpg

Course Studied: BA Jazz

Year of Graduation: 2009

Top Career Highlights:

  • Self-releasing the debut Flying Machines album which was subsequently reviewed by the likes of Guitarist magazine, The Guardian and Jazzwise
  • Flying Machines 24 date UK tour, culminating with a sold out headline show at Ronnie Scott's
  • Performing at Latitude Festival on the BBC Introducing stage with Flying Machines

Since their inception in late-2014, Alex Munk’s Flying Machines have shown great promise. Centered on Alex’s unique compositions, the quartet (which features Conor Chaplin, Dave Hamblett and Matt Robinson) have established their own sound, drawing influence from rock, prog and jazz. Notable highlights for the band include a 24 date UK tour, a sold out headline shown at Ronnie Scott’s and performing at Latitude Festival on the BBC Introducing Stage.

Here, we talk to award winning guitarist Alex about how to build a strong community of followers, finding funding support and running a successful crowdfunding campaign.

When did your love of jazz, improvisation and composition begin?

As a young teenager when my parents got me an electric guitar. I'd been struggling with classical lessons up to that point and not really feeling it. The electric was much more exciting to me. I remember being drawn in particular to soloing. I was desperate to find out the formula to it. What notes can I play along with this pop tune that will sound cool? That led me to the pentatonic scale, the overdrive setting and wailing around over Dire Straits and Michael Jackson tunes for years. I had no idea what jazz was at that point, or any kind of awareness of what improvising was. I just loved the power of that simple shape. My brother got so pissed off with listening to my noodling all the time. I remember him coming into my room and saying, "try and learn the melody and chords as well" - that was good advice. 

How did studying at Leeds Conservatoire prepare you for your career as a professional musician?

My one to one lessons with Jez Franks were invaluable, in terms of demonstrating what was required of a professional improvising guitarist. My awareness of what jazz was and what it took to play it well, as well as who and what to aspire to, went through the roof. He taught me so much about playing guitar, effective practise and more conceptual things to do with finding your own voice. Like so many of the other teachers I was fortunate to study with at Leeds Conservatoire, he was also encouraging, which was important at that stage when you're trying to find your way in a new environment.

There was great variety in the course and real depth in the teaching faculty. I was exposed to so many different styles of music and playing and I tried to take on as much that was on offer from all these different schools of thought. That helped encourage a more personal and informed way of playing and practising. I also had my first composition lessons at Leeds. I gained confidence in my writing and went on to start my own bands. Then we started to do gigs around the city, where there were always opportunities to go out and play in front of an appreciative audience in great venues. That was invaluable experience. 

How did your band Flying Machines begin? What’s the concept behind the name?

I formed Flying Machines in late 2014, having met Matt, Dave and Conor while studying at the Royal Academy of Music. Having graduated from the Academy a couple of years before, I was itching to play my own music again. We already shared a big playing history together by this stage and we had similar musical influences, as well as a good chemistry both on and off the stage. 

The name is inspired by my father, Roger Munk, and the Airships (now more commonly referred to as Hybrid Air Vehicles) that he dedicated his working life to. He was a renowned expert and world leader in the field of lighter than air technology and he was integral in creating and developing every aspect of these astounding vehicles. The company that he founded in 2007, HAV, are now flight testing the world's largest air vehicle. It's an epic and majestic thing and I also think that marries up with our music quite nicely.

Before setting up Flying Machines, you spent some years performing as a sideman in many leading projects such as Stan Sulzmann's big band and guesting with the CBSO. Did you find this experience valuable when you came to start your own project?

All of those projects made me a better player and exposed to me to great music. It's amazing to stand next to Stan Sulzmann for instance and hear that incredibly personal and melodic playing on the bandstand. I was lucky enough to do some gigs with the James Taylor Quartet which gave me experience playing in front of big crowds and playing with a lot of energy. I also had to learn a lot of repertoire inside out in a short space of time - there was no set list on those gigs, he'd just a call a tune and that was it!

Playing with the CBSO was really high pressure in a very different environment. I enjoyed it but it was heart in the mouth at times and it made me realise that I was on the right path doing what I was doing! Ultimately they all made their mark somehow, you just have to reflect on what it is you want to take away and bring to your own thing. At some point I realised that while there was something great in all of these experiences, I wanted to play my own music that resonated with my own influences a bit more. 

Your debut album was created as a result of a highly successful Kickstarter project. What made you choose crowdfunding as a tool to support this work?

It wasn't something I'd always had planned. Initially I started out approaching various labels and we had a couple of offers. Nothing felt quite right for what it felt like I was giving away though. At that point, I began gearing up for a self-release. I knew I'd have to raise money to finish the release off and I had been a sideman in a band where the bandleader had funded part of his album on Kickstarter, so it was already on my radar. It also seemed like a good opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and force myself to get proactive and find ways to promote the music effectively to new audiences. 

How did you seek to build a strong community of followers and supporters, from the outset?

I think that having a mailing list is a really important way of keeping your audience engaged and updated. Doing the Kickstarter campaign enabled me to compile a long list of emails of people who were interested in the music so that was a great start. From then on I tried to make sure that I kept in regular contact with newsletters that I spend a long time on, trying to make sure that they are interesting and entertaining as well as informative. Generally there is only one call to action, it's important to try and be concise. I was also conscious of wanting to update our followers on social media regularly with a good mix of content. 

What was it like to perform at Latitude Festival? To what extent does Flying Machines music naturally lend itself to performing at this type of event? Did you prepare for this differently to the rest of the dates on your 2017 tour?

Latitude was a really special gig that put us in front of a large crowd who seemed receptive to what we were doing. I really enjoyed the whole occasion. I think our music is perfect for festival stages as we play with a lot of energy and the music gets to the point pretty quickly. I think the rock influence in particular really lends itself well to this kind of a gig. We just did our thing when it came to the playing, I didn't want that aspect to be any different from any other gig, we just made sure that we picked the more energetic and visceral tunes in our repertoire. 

What direction will you take for the second album with Flying Machines?

What I like about the second album is that it still sounds very much like the Flying Machines sound. We haven't radically changed direction or consciously tried to avoid devices that we've used in the past, we've just got better at doing what we do. It's certainly a big step up from the first album in pretty much every way though. The compositions are stronger, there's more variety and surprise in the arrangements and we've all improved as players. It's become more collaborative in terms of how the material I come up with has been arranged and treated. Everyone has at some point has come up with a great idea that has totally shifted and influenced whatever I've written for the better. We've become more honest and open about discussing the material, what works, what doesn't, what it needs. That's been really significant. 

There's a track on there that's the heaviest we've ever recorded that will probably appeal more to rock and metal fans than jazz fans. There's also lots of epic and dreamy stuff. We recorded some jams this time around, explosive blasts of sound and moody, spacey interludes to break up the written material, which like the first album can be quite through composed. All in all, I'm really excited about it!

You’ve chosen to work with Grammy, MOBO and Mercury nominated producer Sonny Johns. How important is it to get the right producer for an album?

Sonny has been great. Most importantly, he's been a fresh set of ears to bounce our ideas off and I'm giving him free reign in terms of the mixing for him to do just do his thing and hopefully come up with some stuff that I would never have thought of. The production element plays a greater role in this album, in terms of overdubs, effects and creating some really distinctive soundscapes. 

Up to this point I hadn't a great deal of experience with producers as there normally isn't enough of a budget. However, when Pete Lee did his album we were lucky enough to have Matt Roberts on board. He was a huge asset and took the role really seriously, making notes about each take, which ones were the happening solos and what we needed to think about for the next one. That was incredibly helpful, to have someone looking at the whole picture. 

The branding and digital presence of the group has always been strong. How important do you feel this is for musicians working in jazz and the wider music sector?

Thanks! That's good to hear. I'm interested in entrepreneurial people and different ways to try and engage an audience. I think it's easy to overlook this because it's so easy to get tied up in the creative side but ultimately I want as many people to hear the music as possible. So that's forcing me to consider this stuff more and more. I'm still trying out and exploring different strategies on social media to see what is effective and to try and find out more about who are audience is and what they particularly like about what we do. A big part of this is taking a more organised approach to it, planning posts in advance and posting more regularly with a wider variety of content.

What projects, releases or tours do you have planned for the near future?

My priority right now is getting this second album as good as it can be. Hopefully it will be out by October this year (2018) and we'll certainly be doing another tour to support the release. I'm also looking into ways that we can expand beyond the UK but that's a bit more of a long term goal. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to a number of albums coming out that I was a sideman on, such as Pete Lee's 'The Velvet Rage' and Sam Rapley's 'Fabled' - both really great projects that I love being a part of. 

Find out more about Alex via his website - click here

Alternatively, to find out more about Flying Machines by following this link

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