Alt-J – Interview – 2017

They’ve done it again. Albeit perhaps not quite as consistently impressive as their first two albums, alt-J still hit new peaks on Relaxer, an album that continues their foray into that weird and wonderful mix of prog, folk, garage and electro, but which is more spacious and at times punchier. It’s epitomised by the stunning lead track ‘3WW’ (three worn words), a song that, according to the band, “Traces the adventures of a wayward lad on England’s northeast coast, culminating in the whispering of three worn words.” It’s full of sexual awakening and adventure, and features the voices of alt-J’s Gus Unger-Hamilton and Joe Newman, as well as Wolf Alice’s Ellie Roswell. “I just want to love you in my own language“, they sing against a background of beguiling alt-folk, with distorted waves of electronica, shakers, minimal keys, dubby bass and much else besides. It’s one of their best ever songs.

Having already secured a Mercury for their debut album An Awesome Wave, and sold in excess of two million copies for their first two albums combined, alt-J are one of the surprise stories of the second decade of the 21st century. From bedroom band to Madison Square Garden in a very short space of time, they hark back to the 70s when ‘difficult’ bands such as King Crimson were able to sell albums by the bucket load without much in the way of hit singles. Although the idea of muso-cianship is practically anathema to today’s indie youth, they are clearly riding the wave of innovative and vaguely progressive alt-rock bands such as Wild Beasts, tapping into a music-digesting public who like a healthy dollop of nutritious musicality, along with a side order of ‘having a laugh’ (for instance, the use of a Miley Cyrus sample on their second album, This Is All Yours, part of an enduring relationship between these chalk and cheese acts), and not taking themselves too seriously. And, along with their modern pretensions (their name, for instance, is the Greek capital letter delta, Δ, which is traditionally used in scientific study to indicate change or difference, obtained by pressing both alt and j keys on your Mac), there’s also a down-to-earth quality to alt-J. Much of their music is based on folk and acoustica, and Relaxer is equally distributed between the punchy and the meditative.

What is also equally impressive about the band is that instead of using producers like a revolving door (I never quite understood this; do bands have revolving members? Didn’t the greatest band in the world have just the ONE producer over their lifetime, becoming in effect the fifth member of the band?), they’ve kept the same one, Charlie Andrew, ever since their debut single. “We’ve tried to vary our approach, to making albums, as little as possible,” says Gus Unger-Hamilton, keyboardist and singer with the group. “We feel that the circumstances in which we met and under which we made our first album, we were so lucky with that. That was our massive chunk of luck right there. We basically met at Leeds as students and we got together by practising in the evenings, and spending three hours a week working really hard on writing songs. That worked well with us, and we met Charlie, our producer, who we had a great click with.

“So, potentially since then, and with each album, we’ve tried to find a space that closely resembles student digs (where they first made music together). Not a studio, but a space, with sofas, where you can smoke inside, be yourself, turn up when you want, work late at night. We’ve carried on working with Charlie and that is what we have done this time. We found a place in Stoke Newington that works for us in that respect, and we hung out there. So, we’ve always had a superstitious approach to how we make albums. We try and keep it the same every time.”

The same, but different it seems. While An Awesome Wave and This Is All Yours were ‘journeys’, in classic album style, Relaxer is a slightly different beast. First of all, it’s shorter, and there are only eight songs. There are also no interludes (although a couple of their videos feature longer versions. For instance Iggy Pop narrates the beginning of ‘In Cold Blood’ in that impressively deep and languid style of his, and which is not included on the album). Unger-Hamilton recognises this difference. “Yeah, we’ve ditched the journey aspect on this album. For the first two albums we thought people should listen to it in a certain order, with intros and interludes. Almost like a meal, with an amuse-bouche (a bite-sized hors d’oeuvre, don’t you know), a little inter-course type thing, almost dictating to the listener this is how this piece of art must be ingested. This time we feel it’s more of an album of eight really punchy songs, and it’s almost like something that can be enjoyed in any order, I think. We don’t see it so much as an album, than as a snapshot of where we are right now, and eight songs that sum up the current state of alt-J.”

This current state of alt-J is a world away from Leeds where they congregated to go to university to do fine art and literature. “Joe wanted to start a band; he’d written a few songs, and he found us. We then graduated and we were at the stage when we thought it would be worth giving it one year of our lives, rather than go our separate ways. Thom (Green, drummer), Joe and I got jobs to pay the rent (Gwil Salisbury, the original fourth member of the band, stayed an extra year to finish his degree). The band’s fortunes changed for good when they signed with Infectious, on the back of their one and only release up to that date, the limited edition 7” ‘Bloodflood’/‘Tessellate’. An Awesome Wave won the Mercury, while the follow-up This Is All Yours topped the album charts.

It all happened very quickly, although the band didn’t quite see it that way to begin with. “It was in our living room in Leeds,” says Gus, about their first ever ‘gig’, just seven years ago. “It was a big student house that Joe and Gwil lived in. We used to practice there in Gwil’s bedroom and then after two or three months of being a band we were initially like, ‘Do we want to do gigs’? Yeah, we had realised we had been working for the last couple of months on these songs that we were incredibly proud of,” says Joe. “And I think we almost had to explain our absence by putting on this gig, and to prove to people we hadn’t gone AWOL. We were just in our rooms, working very hard on writing these songs”.

“We were not that interested in gigs really,” says Gus. “We just wanted to write songs and make good recordings on GarageBand and put them on Myspace and see if people liked them. Pretty soon you realise you’re enjoying playing together so much, ‘Oh yeah, gigs! It would be pretty fun, wouldn’t it? We could get our friends along, make a night of it’. It was a Christmas party in the house and we made really disgusting mulled wine, which was just wine and cloves. We invited about 40 people, and everyone congregated in the living room, and we made do with the gear we had, borrowing guitar amps and microphones off anyone who had them. It was amazing. We often think of it as one of our favourite gigs. Most of us hadn’t experienced playing a live gig before. It was like, ‘Yes, we’re doing the right thing here’.”

You got the bug!? “Mmm, very much so,” says Gus. “And once when we were students, a friend of ours who was studying music tech let us come into their uni department, and we tried to do a demo. It didn’t go very well. But, we certainly also got the bug from doing that as well; that atmosphere of working in a studio, and recording.

“We grew up with albums, we like albums.” says Unger-Hamilton. “I can’t think of any better way to release music. I think it makes sense every few years to put together the best stuff you’re doing and release it on an album format. I’m not into this thing of a perpetual single approach despite what I have just said (about the album being essentially a collection of tracks rather than a journey). It’s a handy way of running your career, isn’t it? You make an album, you bring it out, you talk about it, and it gets talked about. And then you tour, and then you go away for a bit and then do it all over again. We like that. It’s nice to build a catalogue of work, and that works well in terms of albums. You see them gradually building up on the shelf, like novels. We like that.”

Why did you call the album Relaxer? “It was originally out of a recording that Thom had made. He sent it to us and the title of the recording was Relaxer. From that it became a part of the ‘Deadcrush’ (a track off the album) lyrics,” says Joe. “It was a word, a sort of made up alt-J word that we like,” says Gus. “It used to be part of the lyrics of ‘Deadcrush’, and then we took it out of the lyrics. But at that point we thought it was a cool name. We tend to look to our lyrics to name our albums with, and we liked how it sounded, and how it looked written down. It’s short and punchy, like how we see the album. It seemed to fit in with that.” And ‘Deadcrush’, what does that mean? “It was an expression we made up, finding a photo of someone who is really beautiful, and intriguing, but that they are, unfortunately, dead,” says Gus.

The album’s diversity is impressive, and works surprisingly well considering the variety of styles here. This is exemplified by the primal garage rock of ‘Hit Me Like That Snare,’ a song that might not make much sense to newcomers, although existing fans will be used to this raw approach; ‘Left Hand Free’ off their This Is All Yours album is similarly lo-fi and raw. “It’s a loose post-punk sound,” says Gus. “It’s not a typical alt-J song. Usually our songs are quite intricate and crafted. This one came about as a result of a jam we found ourselves doing in the studio. Luckily, Charlie hit ‘record’ as we were jamming, and we ended up using that initial demo to build the whole song. It was just a guitar riff that Joe had, and Thom and I joined in, spontaneously coming up with stuff. It just wrote itself. Usually we write songs in an intricate, painstakingly crafted, hand-stitched way. But occasionally we get grabbed by some sort of inspiration and just go with it”.

How does a ‘normal’ alt-J song come about then? ”It starts with me, isolated from everything, really,” says Joe. “I have my guitar, and the books that I have read and the films that I’ve watched, and which I’ve recorded in a notebook. So, I have my notebook, and I have my guitar, and an idea in my head, and spend x amount of hours, days, weeks just working on these structures. By the time I’ve finished I have a rough song that I take to the band. The band react to it, and it’s with that reaction that you go through the second process of writing, and we all work on the song together. And then we take it to our producer, and that’s the final process.”

Relaxer also features the voices of Ellie Roswell and Marika Hackman, who also featured on their previous album. It’s all part of the narrative, if somewhat abstract nature of the storytelling, whereby the voices are those playing characters. “In ‘3WW’ Ellie is doing two voices,” Gus has said. “They’re playing two girls who leave a note for the protagonist of the song. In ‘Last Year’ Marika is playing the ex-girlfriend of a guy who’s killed himself. We see our songs as being quite filmic.”

As always with alt-J, there are quite a few leftfield moments littered throughout the album, not least the inclusion of their take on the traditional folk song ‘House of the Rising Sun’. “It’s our version of ‘House of the Rising Sun’,” say Unger-Hamilton. “We liked the idea of taking that song and re-imagining it,” says Joe. “Its origin is unknown, and like all good folk songs they are passed down, like Chinese whispers, through each generation. The Animals’ version is one of the first songs I learnt to play on the guitar,” says Joe. “But, I also heard it as an old folk song that my family sang,” says Gus. “Joe was playing some guitar chords and found himself singing it with a new melody, and new chords. It felt original enough for us to work on as a group. Joe developed this interesting picking style when he was playing it. We had the idea of getting 20 classical guitarists in one big room to play it all together and to see how that sounded, which was really cool. And then we built the track based on that. The first verse is based on the Woody Guthrie version. Eventually we had to figure out what the lyrics were, who owns what, and that weren’t in copyright and stuff. The second verse is all original and there’s an original chorus. It’s definitely an alt-J song. But we felt it was a cheeky, third album fun thing to do. To do a version of a really well known folk song.”

And the album artwork, which looks like an old-school digital image? “The artwork comes from a still from a computer game called LSD: Dream Emulator,” says Gus. “It was a Playstation game in the 1990s, and now it has become a cult game, that people talk about on net forums and things. We stumbled across the screenshot for the game on Twitter – Thom, our drummer, found it – and we thought ‘Wow, that is a really interesting image. What is that? We thought of it as a digital painting, rather than a game. We contacted the artist, and he contacted the game designer and we ended up getting permission to use it. We loved the vanishing point, the sort of ambiguity of what the image was. Is it or isn’t it a dead body? Is it a real landscape that it’s based on, or is it an imaginary post modern world? It drew us in in some way, and we really liked it.”

Now that the album is released alt-J will be spending the next year or two touring. They have already said they like the ‘cycle’ nature of album-tour-album-tour. How do they really feel about touring, and the discipline that involves? “You get good at touring, like you do with travelling,” says Gus. “You work out how much is an appropriate amount to drink on a daily or weekly basis. How often you need to call home in order not to find yourself in the doghouse when you get back, and how much time you spend with your mates, and how much time you spend alone. It’s a way of life you get used to. We really enjoy touring, the travelling and the gigs, and we have an amazing crew that we work with, who are like family. For us, it’s great.

“We are doing some festivals in the UK that we haven’t done before. Boardmasters in Cornwall, Blue Dots in Cheshire. We really enjoy going to America. But really I could be anywhere and having a good time on tour. I ‘m with my mates, eating food, and having a laugh, playing gigs and meeting fans. It’s the best.”

Madison Square Garden, that must have been a highlight for you!? “It certainly was,” says Gus. “It’s one of the few venues in America that anyone outside of America, or even the city itself has heard of. It was crazy. It was at that point that it suddenly clicked. Everyone on the first album cycle was saying to us, ‘You guys have done so well, everything has gone so fast. How do you feel about this meteoritic rise’? We’ve almost resented it a bit. ‘Well, you know, we’ve been a band for years. It doesn’t feel like it has been that quick for us’. And then we realised we were playing Madison Square Garden, early on in our second album campaign. ‘Fuck, what are we talking about’? It’s been crazy. It’s still sinking in.”
Jeff Hemmings