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February 2021
Cover Story

Alt-J: In cold blood

Three albums in, and there's still no band quite like Alt-J.
Published: 1:23 pm, June 07, 2017
Alt-J: In cold blood

Three albums in, and there's still no band quite like Alt-J.

Words: Liam Konemann. Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Gus Unger-Hamilton is having his hair cut in a private members’ club off Soho Square, waiting for the rest of Alt-J to arrive. Later, the band will meet with a host of journalists who are flying in from the continent specifically to interview them. Most will fly back out of London tonight, having got their scoop on new album ‘Relaxer’.

The band themselves have just got in from Paris sometime in the last twenty-four hours. Before that, it was a week or so in Australia, and before that, they spent about a fortnight in the States. Such is the life of a band whose debut went Platinum and netted them both the Mercury Prize and an Ivor Novello award.

Then, of course, there was the ‘difficult second album’ phase - which for Alt-J included a certified Gold record and a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden. Their success and the schedule that goes with it is the reason that Gus is having his hair done now, first thing in the morning in a photographic studio before a full day of press.

Singer Joe Newman arrives neatly turned out in a shiny black jacket as the final adjustments are made to Gus’ new ‘do, and Alt-J settle down on a brown leather couch tucked into one side of the long room. Joe nestles into the corner of the sofa; legs curled up. Keyboardist and backing vocalist Gus, rather more straight-backed, sits next to him. He perches a cup of tea somewhat precariously on the couch’s arm.

You’ve heard this before, but Alt-J don’t seem like pop megastars. It gets said a lot because it’s true. Gus and Joe are calculated, but not calculating - albums and interviews are laid out with a rough mental blueprint, with elements added or subtracted based on the result. Alt-J’s work and image are carefully considered, but in a way that is precise rather than manipulative. They aren’t trying to be mysterious or edgy, just accurate. It’s getting easier as they get further along the path. “We’re better equipped now than when we started,” says Joe. “There’s more of a flow.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width="stretch_row
[vc_column][vc_single_image image="16046" img_size="full" alignment="center
[/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]That said, this third album has been something of a slow burn. Recent single ‘In Cold Blood’ was originally dreamt up when the band lived in Leeds, back before even their debut album ‘An Awesome Wave’ had been released. The rest of ‘Relaxer’ has come in dribs and drabs, floating in the ether through previous tours and album campaigns.

“‘In Cold Blood’ is probably unique on the album in terms of how long it took us to get around to finishing it,” Gus considers. “Most of our songs are ideas that have been brewing for quite a long time. ‘Adeline’ was something that we were playing in soundchecks on the last album tour.”
Joe agrees: “Another example is ‘Deadcrush’, that was a jam recorded in 2014. It’s nine minutes long, and I forgot about it for a couple of months because we got caught up in recording the second album. Then I started listening to it on tour, and I sent it to the guys. It was just drums, nonsense lyrics with a melody, keyboards and guitar. It sounded really, really cool.”

He gets lost for a second and looks to Gus to pick up the thread. They’ve worked together long enough by now that it’s clear Gus will be right there in harmony, whether it’s musically or in the three-dimensional real world. He catches the end of the sentence, carries on with Joe’s thought process.

“By that point we had the second album wrapped up – or we had enough material that was in a better stage of completion. But there was a certain kind of excitement in being able to say ‘That’s probably going to be a stand out track on the third album. Let’s keep that in the freezer for later’,” he says. “When we finished ‘This Is All Yours’ we were like ‘Wow, we’ve pretty much emptied the cupboards’. There are always small things [like the ‘Deadcrush’ jam] brewing, but... I think I could’ve named a lot of the songs on the second album when we were recording the first album. And that’s not the case for this album.”

Joe hums and drops back in on his own train of thought. “I think more and more as you write albums you empty the cupboards.” He glances at Gus, smiling, and notes: “That whole analogy is good because really, the cupboard is now bare.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_video link="
" align="center[/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Alt-J had a little help emptying the cupboards on ‘Relaxer’. Lead single ‘3WW’ features Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell, while the beautifully stripped back ‘Last Year’ sees a guest performance from none other than Marika Hackman. “What’s interesting about those two cases is that both times we’re not just using a female voice for the sound of a female voice, they’re playing characters,” says Gus. “Those two songs are probably the two most literal narrative songs on the album. In ‘3WW’ Ellie is doing two voices, playing two girls who leave a note for the protagonist of the song, and then in ‘Last Year’ Marika is playing the ex-girlfriend of a guy who’s killed himself. We see our songs as being quite filmic, so in a way, we’re casting them in roles within the song.”

They’ve cast the roles well. Ellie’s performance on ‘3WW’ is rich and dark, vaguely ominous in a way that you can’t quite put your finger on. Then there’s Marika’s lilting vocal on ‘Last Year’, which floats on top of Joe’s picked acoustic guitar to create a touching and melodic portrayal of a former partner left behind after suicide. Alt-J might say they struggle to identify specific moments of darkness and light on ‘Relaxer’, but some tracks do seem to fall quite clearly on one side of the divide.

“‘Last Year’ is one of the darker songs,” Joe observes. “And ‘Pleader’ to a certain extent is quite a dark song. It taps into a sense of pride I think you may have for your country, that you don’t know you have until you listen to it. It’s quite pastoral, kind of longing for a country that used to exist.”
Gus arches an eyebrow. “Maybe.”
“Maybe,” Joe emphasises. “Post-Brexit it can be seen as satire.”
“Yeah, kind of ironic. You know, those UKIP people talking about some version of England that never really existed?” Gus says.

Still, Joe doesn’t believe that the faux nostalgia on ‘Pleader’ is entirely wrong, or even that it’s without hope. He enjoys the uncertainty. “It has a side to it that’s people coming together and singing, you know it doesn’t matter what’s going on in the world you can get together and sing. It refreshes the soul. It’s quite an ambiguous song, with a lot of loaded lyrics that could go either way,” he smiles. “It’s nice to go into the darkness.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width="stretch_row[vc_column][vc_single_image image="15841" img_size="full" alignment="center[/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]They might lean into the darkness, but that doesn’t mean the album is devoid of light. Alt-J’s tendency towards narrative writing and occasionally macabre lyrics, coupled with their layered, detailed instrumentals has given them a false reputation as being overly serious. The band don’t buy into the rules set out by the leather-jacketed rock’n’roll playbook, preferring to fly under the radar, working away. Still, it’d be a mistake to consider them po-faced.

Their second album, 2014’s ‘This Is All Yours’ featured the absurdly dirty tongue-in-cheek single ‘Every Other Freckle’, which included the line “turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet.” It was hardly the work of a group of severe, joyless musicians. ‘Relaxer’ includes a moment of similarly filthy humour, on ‘Every Other Freckle’’s more snarling sibling, ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’.

“I was driving on the motorway with my girlfriend, and I didn’t see a puddle – I hit it, and my steering went all gummy and I lost control of the car,” Joe says. “We were aquaplaning and I just – it happened, and I regained control of the car, and my girlfriend was like-” he puts a hand on his chest, eyes wide as if trying to get his racing heartbeat back under control. “And I went, ‘Fuck my life in half! Shit! Sorry’.

“After we got home, I was like, ‘You know when I said ‘Fuck my life in half’? That was pretty cool, wasn’t it?’ and my girlfriend was like, ‘Fuck off’,” he laughs. “Then I thought, ‘I think that was good, I’m gonna write that down’. We worked it into the lyrics as ‘We’re going down, fuck my life in half’ after the leather slings that you use to hang so that you can fuck standing up.”
“Oh, yeah,” Gus remembers.
Joe grins. “Thought that was quite cool.”
“Yeah, it is.” Gus smiles. “Gold.”

The dirty humour is all the better for the fact that the band have bleeped out a single word in the track - ‘fisting’. They’ve left all the curse words in. In the past, Gus has cheerfully pointed out that the bleeping is completely arbitrary. The song would be fine without it, but Alt-J are all about the details, and this one works.
Gus grins. “We love that bit, but you wonder if it’s a joke that only you’re going to get. When you’re in the studio for so long, you can’t tell if you’re just laughing because you’ve gone completely mad.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_video link="
" align="center[/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]They might not have got carried away that time, but there’s no question that they’ve amped things up for album number three. ‘Relaxer’ is just as focussed on the details as ‘This Is All Yours’ and ‘An Awesome Wave’ were, but there’s a much larger scope these days. Elements that used to be small scale have taken on epic proportions. In places on this record Gus’s usual vocal harmonies are backed up by a full choir, and instead of bringing in a few members of a string quartet the band have called in the cavalry and hired a thirty piece string section for six songs, including ‘Pleader’. To Gus, this step up has been in the works for a while.

“I remember in February 2015, being in Paris and having a conversation about how on the next album we should go crazy with all sorts of different instruments. I think Joe, in particular, felt a little bit hampered on the first two, with having ideas but time and budget constraints preventing them. Being like, ‘Maybe we could do that’, but having to suck it up a few times.” He glances over at his bandmate, and says, “On ‘Nara’ [off ‘This Is All Yours’] you were keen to get some Sikh men to sing on it, or something. Like a Sikh choir?”
For a moment Joe looks like this is news to him. Then there’s a flicker of memory. “Ahh. Yeah, I can’t remember,” Joe shrugs.
Gus continues. “I don’t know if you stand by that idea now, but I seem to remember that you were quietly pissed off that everyone was like ‘Yeah, maybe, probably not going to happen’ and you were like ‘On album three we’re going to go for it’.

Joe nods. “Yeah, that’s true. There were a few things that I thought I was going to have to get in there early. The major three were Ely School for Boys Choir-”
Gus’s mouth twitches under his moustache as he tries to tamp down on a fondly exasperated smile. Then he gives in, chuckling, and says, “It’s not called Ely School for Boys.”
Joe frowns. “What are they called?”
“It’s called Ely Cathedral Choir,” says Gus.
He would know, considering he used to be one of the choristers. It’s where he learnt the vocal harmonies that have served him so well with Alt-J. “Ely Cathedral Choir,” Joe repeats. “And the other two things were the twenty classical guitarists, and the strings we recorded at Abbey Road.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width="stretch_row[vc_column][vc_single_image image="15897" img_size="full" alignment="center[/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]In a way, the band note, this step up in scale was partly down to their friend and producer Charlie Andrew, who has worked on all three Alt-J records. “We use strings on all the albums, and usually we use Charlie’s wife who is a great violinist,” says Gus. “She used to be in a string quartet, and so she’d bring various members of that quartet along, and this time Charlie thought that instead of just getting them to come and play we could actually really go for it. They’re quite big songs, and it seemed like fun. Almost like we’re treating ourselves on our third album, you know? The first album cost like fifteen grand to make, which is nothing, and the second album didn’t cost much more. I think on this album, you know, not to talk about money but through having such tight purse strings on the first two we’ve sort of earned the right to have a thirty-piece orchestra.”
“We were quite proud of how frugal we were on the first album,” Joe points out.
Gus nods. “It adds to the narrative, doesn’t it? It’s like JK Rowling writing Harry Potter on napkins. You know, I’m not comparing us to her, we didn’t sell as many copies,” he laughs, “but it’s that kind of thing. It adds to the romance.”

The question is, how do you make a thirty piece orchestra translate to your live show? Joe widens his eyes, sucking his teeth for a moment. Then he glances over at Gus for help. “We... we don’t know,” he says.

Gus laughs. “I think we’ll have to figure out a way of doing it with just the three of us on stage, and maybe for special occasions get other people to come in. That’s what we’ve done in the past...” he shrugs the problem aside. “We’ll figure it out.”

There’s always the option of the Alt-J Proms. Gus and Joe exchange a long look, then both say, “I would love that.”
“I really, really hope they ask us to do it. Loads of people have done it! Kasabian did it – obviously, they’re a massive band, but I’m like... come on!” Gus laughs, gesturing to himself and Joe. “We’d be perfect for the Proms!”

Clearly, Alt-J aren’t thinking of scaling back anytime soon. But, as Gus points out, they’ve never really had to worry about fitting a mould. “Our first album was uncompromisingly unusual, and it was successful. So I think that’s given us kind of a license to do what we want and not have to worry about fitting into a certain sound or being radio friendly because frankly getting a song like ‘Fitzpleasure’ onto the Radio 1 A-list was bizarre. So I think we’re like, ‘Great, we can always do whatever we like’.”

No arguments here. If they’re going to carry on delivering albums like ‘Relaxer’, it’s probably best to let them get on with it.


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