This week saw the release of the brand new Alt-J LP, Relaxer, coming on the tail of this inventive trio’s Mercury Prize and Ivor Novello Award-winning 2012 debut An Awesome Wave and 2014’s No.1, Grammy and Brit Award-nominated This Is All Yours.
Those factors alone suggest the pressure should have been mounting for an unassuming group of friends who first met and played together while at Leeds University, Joe Newman (guitar, lead vocals), Thom Green (drums) and Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards, backing vocals) having already sold in excess of two million records, with their songs streamed more than one billion times apparently, while headlining festivals across the globe.
They also sold out London’s O2 Arena and New York’s Madison Square Garden on their last tour, and next Friday, June 16th, are set to return to the former as part of the venue’s 10th birthday celebrations. But any resultant weight of expectation seems not to have affected Gus, who remains as likeable now as he was when we last caught up three summers ago. And I started our conversation this time around by mentioning that interview in August 2014 (see link below), conducted at a time when Gus was busy explaining to the world about a line-up change following Gwil Sainsbury’s departure.
“Yes, I remember that … that and questions about Miley Cyrus – two big ones I was fielding a lot!”
I stumble a little at that response, briefly wondering if Gus was having a (rather unlikely) Benny Hill moment. He doesn’t seem the sort. But then I recalled that the US pop icon mentioned – back in the news since our chat after her starring role in Ariana Grande’s Old Trafford fund-raising tribute concert following the Manchester Arena tragedy – is a big Alt-J fan. In fact, not only is she sampled on 2014’s Hunger of the Pines, but she also shot her own video accompaniment to stunning early hit Fitzpleasure.
I didn’t press him on Miley’s love for the band though. He’s been asked that far too much. Instead, we got on to this Cambridgeshire lad’s adopted home city, seeing as he was striding through Hackney towards his flat after a day of rehearsals with his band. So, I put it to him, it seems that Relaxer is very much a London-made album.
“Exactly. And we haven’t changed our approach at all since album one. We enjoy hanging out together, doing the writing then going to Charlie’s place in Brixton or sometimes in this case to Shoreditch and getting the recording done.”
There’s obviously a good rapport with your producer, Charlie Andrew being at the helm for a third successive time.
“Yeah, all we can say is that it comes down to, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t try and fix it’. We’ve never really recorded with anyone else and we’re probably 10% superstitious, worried if we record with someone else it might not work. Fundamentally we like him, we get on well and we’ve always done well when we’ve worked with him.”
Fair enough, and how many interviews have we read where artistes tell us they’ve gone down a slightly different route this time, getting back to their beginnings after departing from the formula that led to their breakthrough? It seems in this case that Alt-J are cutting out the middle man though … or middle album, maybe.
“Yep! We’ve come back without going there!”
The first single from the new LP, 3WW, was the first sign that we had a very special album coming our way, something that wouldn’t be out of place on a film soundtrack, I suggested, coming to that conclusion before seeing its accompanying promo video, ‘a story of love and loss in Mexico’, as they put it, directed by Los Angeles-based Young Replicant, who also worked with Lorde. And what made the band turn to Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell as guest vocalist?
“We got to know Ellie through her band supporting us in the past. We thought that would work well with a female role, if you think of the song as a kind of script. We discussed who we knew, and Ellie was someone of whom we immediately thought, ‘That could work’. Wolf Alice were in a studio in Shoreditch working on their second album, we sent her a text, and she came around that afternoon.”
It’s a wonderful introduction, and one the band reckoned at the time of its release ‘could be the best thing we’ve done to date’. I won’t argue with that, the use of the three very distinctive voices – Gus first, then Joe, then Ellie – perfectly setting the tone for Relaxer as a whole. As for that line, ‘I just want to love you in my own language’, perhaps we have the philosophical platform for the LP right there.
Like much of their work, there’a modern-day folk feel there too, as accentuated by Gus with his vocal part, along with an out west, sleeping beneath the stars vibe, and a laid-back tender feel that brings to mind Blur (and it was only after a few plays that I could see traces of that outfit’s Tender). Imagine Can jamming in your house, playing low so they don’t wake up the sleeping child in the next room.
As for the song’s theme, I was geographically wrong about the location, the band revealing it ‘traces the adventures of a wayward lad on England’s North-East coast’, involving a declaration of those ‘three worn words’ capitalised in the title – as in ‘I love you’. And we need those words more than ever right now, don’t we, Gus?
“Yeah, exactly … although we were not unaware of the appearance of the notion of World War Three in there too, leaving that open, and a little ambiguous.”
Moving on to the second single from the new LP, and track two, In Cold Blood, a promo video had just been released when we spoke, shot in a forest near Copenhagen by Danish film-maker and photographer Casper Balslev, featuring the legendary Iggy Pop as narrator, depicting how ‘a day in the life of a wood mouse can be unexpectedly dangerous’, as the band put it. Think of The Gruffalo, Scandi-noir style. So what was the reaction from Gus and his bandmates on first seeing Casper’s treatment of that track?
“I think it was one thing just to see the mouse doing the trick! We were promised they could teach that mouse to do anything, and we were like, ‘Really? I want to see this!’ Sometimes when you read a video treatment you just have this desire, wondering what that would look like. And we’re always interested in having videos which are not too literal an interpretation of the song’s lyric.
“In this case, while there is blood in the video, beyond that it’s very much its own thing. And this idea sounded cool! We’re all fans of the Coen brothers and that sort of thing – violent, but almost comically violent, with all these different things going on.”
Strange as the concept might seem, it certainly fits well with your music too.
“I think so. I think the songs are kind of dream-like and very much down to the imagination, so when the videos are larger than life and lurid it works well.”
It must be rather satisfying seeing what others come up with to go with your songs. What was the spec you gave Casper?
“It was more about finding cool directors who were up for pitching and seeing what they thought. We didn’t give them any kind of brief. It was purely up to them.”
Whose idea was it to get Iggy Pop involved?
“I think it was Casper’s. We were in the middle of a promo tour in America, getting odd emails in the middle of the night, waking up the next morning to find they could get Iggy. Next thing we knew, there was the video with him on it!”
And there’s so much living in that rich and resonant voice, isn’t there.
“There really is, and I’m a big fan of his BBC Radio 6 Music show. I love that. It’s amazing.”
As for the song itself, its title half-inched from the Truman Capote novel – its mighty injection of brass brings the album fully to life, while the keyboard touches by Gus – put together on a Casiotone model that cost £1.05 on eBay, apparently – add a retro feel not dissimilar to the more dancefloor-friendly material of The Feeling, of all bands. More to the point, and as we’ve perhaps come to expect from Alt-J, those first two singles are very different from each other. Are they indicative of Relaxer as a whole (I asked, before having heard the rest of the album)?
“I think so. They almost span the breadth of the album, where there’s a good balance of up-tempo and more kind of thoughtful. I do think that for this more than any of our previous albums, and all of them were very different from each other of course. And that makes it all the more exciting for us.”
And would Gus say there’s a defined thread running through Relaxer?
“I don’t think so, other than they fit and we were enjoying being together after a break, hanging out and playing our instruments together – the thing we love doing the most.”
A few weeks on, having played the album back-to-back a few times now and loving every moment, I concur with that. And here’s as good a place as anywhere to put in print my verdict, track by track, continuing with song three, the band’s innovative re-imagining of House of the Rising Sun. It’s so much more than a cover too, and has little in common with The Animals version, Alt-J instead taking this standard back to its folk roots – yes, once you can spot the folk influences, there’s no getting away from them on this album – and coming up with something more in tune with a Noah and the Whale release – more Charlie Fink than Eric Burdon – floating on a sea of glorious classical guitar.
In contrast we see the band at their seedy best on Hit Me Like That Snare, an ‘atypically filthy psychedelic grind’ telling the X-rated story of a visit to a ‘sex hotel’, this number unlikely to get too much BBC Radio 2 airplay, I’d venture. On first listening I felt elements of a Japanese tribute band to the Pixies, while the song goes all a bit Radiohead at times, as you might expect from big fans of Thom Yorke and co.
Talking of Pixies, Deadcrush brings to mind Monkey Gone to Heaven for me, with shades of The White Stripes peeping through and even a little Macy Gray soulfulness in places via Joe’s distinctive falsetto style. Word has it that the song started life as a jam, and tackles the band’s in-house professing of love for long-lost, less obvious sex symbols, in this case centred on Joe’s obsession for New York model turned war correspondent and photographer Lee Miller and Gus having the hots for Anne Boleyn. Naturally.
There’s another album highlight in Adeline, an alternative tale of unrequited love that I’ll return to the term ‘filmic’ for, a slow-building masterpiece, its ‘I wish you well’ line bringing to mind Dolly Parton’s superior version of I Will Always Love You. And its theme? Well, it’s the tale of a Tasmanian devil who falls in love with a woman as he watches her swim, our bathing beauty Adeline singing The Auld Triangle as she moves through the water. And when you think about it, that’s not so far removed from the more traditional folk tale of the mermaid and the lover she lures into the deep.
The penultimate song sees the band turn the screw again, this time for an emotional yet subtle hymn to suicidal tendencies, somewhat reminiscent of old school Jesus and Mary Chain, with Joe in his lower register as he talks us through his character’s Last Year, before the talented Marika Hackman pays her tribute in song at his funeral, adding something of the quality of Laura Marling to the proceedings, the latter’s Semper Femina an album Gus professes his love for, and one that should be vying for top spot with Relaxer at the end of year album award ceremonies.
And then we peak on Pleader, partly recorded at Ely Cathedral, where Gus was a chorister, and inspired by Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Is My Valley, an orchestrated, stirring song of brooding beauty that heads towards a mighty choral climax. The Welsh mining theme of the original inspiration brings Public Service Broadcasting’s soon-to-be-revealed Every Valley to mind, while the big sound concept has me harking back to further favourites The Magnetic North. And on its own strengths I can say for sure we have another contender for best ever Alt-J moment here, from what amounts to their most inspired album so far, despite that stiff back-catalogue competition, this trio carrying on where they left off in the studio in 2014.
So, Gus, that line about you being one of the most successful British bands of this millennium, with more than two million sales so far – does that add expectation? Or do you just – as I suspect – thrive on that anyway?
“I think it does add expectation, once you’ve got to that level. You become nervous about maintaining it. Ultimately though, we’ve cultivated a large fan-base of people who enjoy our expertise and eclecticness … and they get it. And that in itself gives us a freedom to do whatever we want and feel free to experiment.”
The statistics suggest the songs have had more than one billion streams. It must be difficult to get your head around something of that magnitude.
“I think it’s best not to dwell on that. It’s such a huge number, you can’t even look at it directly. You have to step back and shield your eyes! We just get on with the job in hand.”
A busy summer awaits Alt-J, on the back of their recent appearance at BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Hull, which Gus was very much looking forward to when we spoke. A timely visit to the current UK City of Culture, I suggested.
Next up are shows in Rouen, France (Saturday, June 10th), Kortrijk, Belgium (Sunday, June 11th), Tilburg, Netherlands (Monday, June 12th) and a sell-out in Berlin, Germany (Tuesday, June 13th), followed by that latest headline show at Greenwich’s O2 Arena, then several festival dates and the first of two North American jaunts.
With those dates in mind, has Gus been back through the catalogue to familiarise himself with the songs so far in a bid to re-learn them?
“Yes, I’ve just come from a rehearsal today, and we’ve set ourselves the homework of watching the live DVD we made on the last tour. It’s amazing how much you forget.”
Is that a bit of an exercise in ‘what went well’ in a bid to carry on the good work?
“It’s more a case of remembering who plays what where! It’s all muscle memory. Trying to consciously remember it is quite difficult. It’s not often I listen to the old albums, but when I do I really enjoy them. The other night I was cooking and put on the first album, not having heard it for a long time … and I really enjoyed it.”
Any advance on yourself, Joe and Thom for the live dates?
“No … just the three of us. We might have strings and brass for some shows, but as regards the core people on stage, it’s just us three, stripping it back to the band, seeing how that goes. And I love festival season, and it’s going to be such a fun way to start this album tour. Those summer shows are going to be sweet.”
Those appearances include a Glastonbury Festival return (Saturday, June 24th), a show in Dublin’s Trinity College Park (Tuesday, July 11th), and headline slots at the Blue Dot (Jodrell Bank, Cheshire, Sunday, July 9th) and Boardmasters (Newquay, Cornwall, Sunday, August 13th) festivals.
The band’s European commitments include further visits to Croatia, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Luxembourg, Romania, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Austria and France, then the first 12 US dates and that Newquay visit. And then there are trips to Hungary, Norway, Poland, the Netherlands, Russia and Sweden.
Which all goes to show that Gus, Joe and Thom are living the high life. But there’s a slightly less rock’n’roll big moment for Gus to live on in the memory banks too, having played a key role for the University of Leeds in a celebrity series of University Challenge aired at the tail end of 2016, reaching the final.
“Ah, that was great fun!”
His fellow alumni on those occasions were novelist Louise Doughty, BBC economics editor Kamal Ahmed, and political cartoonist Steve Bell. So what’s been the most nerve-racking experience then – that or playing live with Alt-J?
“Erm … going down the lift from the green room for University Challenge! I was extremely nervous. You’ve no idea how you’re going to perform under the pressure of the cameras and the lights … and (Jeremy) Paxman’s steely gaze! But it was a dream come true. I grew up watching that show with my Dad, and for some reason was never given the opportunity to apply when I was at university. I must have missed the poster on the Students’ Union notice board. So finally, getting asked to do that it was like, ‘F*ck, yeah!’”
And you got a chance to confer with the likes of Steve Bell.
“Oh God, yeah! What a hero. A really amazing guy. So cool to meet him.”
Was there even more pressure when the music round came along and everyone looked to you?
“Yeah, somewhat! We were all fairly artsy, but I definitely had to prop up the team on that one. And I did okay until the final. What a great experience!”
Since our interview, Alt-J have added more dates – their five-date UK seaside tour visiting Brighton Centre (Monday, September 4th), Margate Dreamland (Tuesday, September 5th), Bournemouth Academy (Wednesday, September 6th), Weston-Super Mare Grand Pier (Friday, September 8th), and Blackpool Empress Ballroom (Saturday, September 9th), before a show at The Hippodrome, Kingston-upon-Thames (Monday, September 11th).
Those engagements are then followed by 18 more US dates, seven in Canada and another in Mexico City in the autumn, before the year is wrapped up with four appearances in Australia and two in New Zealand in December.
For full details of all the band’s forthcoming shows and all the latest from Alt-J, including more live details and how to get hold of the new album, head to www.altjband.com. And for a look back at the last writewyattuk feature/interview with Gus Unger-Hamilton, from August 2014, head here.