By Garry Lu (@mrputneyswope)
Golden boys of indie rock and alternative folk, Alt-J return with their new album Relaxer, following the monster success of This Is All Yours, and An Awesome Wave. The Tessellate and Breezeblock stars have also just announced a massive Aussie tour this December. We sat down with Joe Newman, Gus Unger-Hamilton, and a laconic Thom Green to discuss the construction of sound, the trends of the industry, and the shelf-life of music.
It’s easy for artists become comfortable in their sensibilities, style, and sound. Often times, this leads to complacency, and of course the music stagnates. How and when do you arrive at the point where you find the courage to evolve?
Gus: We don’t really make conscious decisions to change.
Joe: Yeah, we don’t think about it too much.
G: I think we’ve always known somewhat instinctively that our identities as a band was very fluid… We’ve made music of all different types and right from the word “Go” our songs all sounded quite different. The fact that our first album, which was a very unusual album… it was successful which gave us confidence to go, “Ok, great. Clearly we can get away with this without having to be one kind of band, one kind of music.”
And was the process of developing this new soundscape any different from previous?
J: In a way we make a kind of decision to keep it as we have rehearsed, and worked on songs in the past… we try and keep that together when we start working on new stuff. Not because we’re superstitious in any kind of way, but I just think we are too grounded as people, as a band, to think that going to Australia, going to LA, or getting the better equipment to record or rehearse with will make us any better.
G: So I think what Joe’s talking about is when we were a band in Leeds as students, we were just, like, set up in one of our bedrooms, take sort of minimal gear. No microphones, or like that, and just jam or write together like that. So I think on all albums, we’ve found a space that was similar, and we’ve done that again, you know? It kind of involves finding warehouey studio spaces we can just head up in, leave our gear there, come in any hour or day or night, and work, and feel at home. It’s really helpful when it comes to work.
That’s how you originally developed your sound, isn’t it? The noise restrictions on campus.
G: Yeah… noise restrictions but also the restrictions of what we had instrumentally. Joe only had an acoustic guitar so his style was a more naturally picked, delicate sound. Thom only had a few bits of drums, so we didn’t have the cymbals. Which kind of developed this drum machine sound, and I had a very basic keyboard, but one with lots of different… it was one of those secondary school keyboards which has like flutes, violins, everything on there… So if I wanted to play strings, yeah it sounded shit, but I was still always using those kinds of sounds. On an Alt-J record, you hear a lot of synth sounds, a lot of different textures.
Where previous albums followed a continuous narrative from track to track, you’ve upped the stakes with hints on social media in binary codes, a companion video game which is almost unheard of. Even your cover art fits in this entire ethos of gaming and computers. What was the motivation behind this?
J: It’s just a way of engaging people before they hear the music, sort of textbook…
J: PR, yeah.
G: Bit of a boring answer…
J: Bit of a boring answer.
J: Our main concern is the songs, but then everything else around that is up for grabs in terms of discussion for how we can get in contact with people before we release music. And we have a really great team of people who come up with some really cool ideas… It’s not a concept album but it does have to have a common link.
More artists are shifting away from the conventional release of an album accompanied with music videos. Childish Gambino with companion film pieces, Miami Horror opting for art pieces over music videos. Do you think that this is the future of the music industry?
J: Hasn’t that always been part of what music is?
G: I think one trend that is happening is maybe albums are becoming less of a thing. We still believe in the album, we like albums, we grew up with albums. Don’t think we got any plans to stop putting out albums in the conventional sense.
Something that was of a personal excitement to me was the collaboration with Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice.
J: We’ve toured with Wolf Alice…
G: They toured with us.
J: They’re really good guys, and Ellie’s a great voice… with the song, it was a good part to be sung by another artist. We thought, definitely a female, and we knew Ellie. Phoned her up. She was available.
G: When you want to use something, whether it’s someone playing a trombone… or whatever it is, naturally you think first, your friends. Because it’s easier to organise. So rather than approach someone we didn’t know, we thought, “Who do we know.” They were in a writing studio around the corner from us where we were recording. So it was just like super simple to get it organised.
I would go so far to say you guys played a pivotal role in making indie rock/folktronica cool again. I’m not going to ask you to agree, because that would sound…
G: Oh no, I agree.
J: We agree.
J: We all agree.
G: Alt-J nod rigorously.
Artists always hope that their work is received in a particular way. What do you hope your fans will get out of your music—yesterday, today, and tomorrow?
J: That they keep listening to them.
G: Yeah, I think that’s a big one, isn’t it? Wanting it to have longevity, wanting it to be not just like a piece of chewing gum, that you enjoy for the first few chews, but then you just spit it out five minutes later.
J: I think initially, we wanted to surprise them, that’s what I always hoped… we don’t know what we’re doing… we don’t know where we are until we see the reactions from fans. So, I hope that they’ll be surprised… and I hope that they’ll be challenged. But at the same time I just hope that they’ll listen to it.
G: It’s nice to think of an Alt-J fan who might have very strong opinions about what kind of music they like, and then they listen to new music of ours and they enjoy it. Like, “Hmm, maybe I don’t just like the ‘X’”. If they enjoy a song like Matilda, they might hear a song like Dead Crush and be like, “Never really thought I could get into this kind of thing.” We’re the gateway drug, as it were.