"I think we know that we’ve got a little bit of license with our fan base to try new things..." - hmv.com talks to alt-J
After winning the Mercury Prize with their acclaimed debut An Awesome Wave and receiving Grammy nominations for its 2014 follow-up This Is All Yours, genre-bending trio alt-J went into their third album Relaxer with the weight of expectation on the shoulders, but to hear keyboardist/vocalist Gus Unger-Hamilton tell it, it's a wonder the album got made at all.
Struggling with burnout from relentless touring, making Relaxer was, by his account, a very tough process, after which the band decided to take a much-needed break, blocking out out 2019 as a year of rest.
That break soon got longer, however, thanks to the global pandemic, but despite the challenges that presented alt-J had reconvened feeling refreshed and reinvigorating - something that audibly shines through on their fourth full-length offering The Dream, which makes its long-awaited arrival in stores this Friday (February 11).
Ahead of its release we spoke to Gus about why this album was a breeze to make compared to its predecessor, and why The Dream has become their most personal record to date in more ways than one...
It has been five years since Relaxer - the gaps between albums seem to be getting bigger, was that more to do with the pandemic this time, or is it just taking you longer these days?
“I think it’s a bit of both. I mean, the pandemic probably has delayed things by around a year, that’s partly due to the lockdowns, meaning that we had to down tools in the studio for quite a long time. And then with such a crowded release schedule in 2021 we decided to hold back the album until this year.
"We basically finished and mastered the album in June, so I guess we could have pushed it out there in the autumn, but it just felt better to have a longer lead. We did decide to have a whole year off in 2019, which was something we all needed, and I think the album is a lot better for that. With Relaxer, our third album, we were definitely quite fatigued while we were making it and I think that showed a bit in the fact that it was only an eight track album. It was a difficult process to make that album, whereas this time round it didn’t feel difficult at all. It felt really great and we were all just happy to be back together writing and recording."
Was there any particular track that started the ball rolling with this album?
“We came back together into the studio in January 2020 and we knew that we had a sort of basket of recordings of sound-check jams that we’d done on tour in the previous year or two. So we listened through those and most of them we knew or were aware of, but there was one in particular that none of us remembered at all, which has basically become ‘U&Me’, our first single of this album. None of us could remember doing it, no-one knew that it had been recorded, but it was pretty much all there apart from the verses and a solid lyric. The guitar hook, the chorus, the keyboard parts and the drum beat were all there, and we thought: ‘Holy sh*t! This is amazing, it’s like someone’s written a song for us!”
"So that was a really nice way to kick off the process of this album and I think that kind of set the tone, in a way, for the making of this album in that it was actually quite a breeze. It never felt difficult at any point. On Relaxer we were literally asking our label how long it had to be before we could call it an album. It was like: ‘Have we got enough? Are we done now?’ It was like when you’re a student and you’re writing an essay, and all you’re thinking about is the word count. With this, we were actually cutting songs off the album.”
How does the songwriting process usually work for you guys? Do you write together in the studio?
“Joe is the main songwriter, many of our songs are things that he brings to the group and then we work on together, but I suppose jamming has become a bit more important as time has gone on. We don’t get the time so much to do a regular band practice in the way that we used to when we were starting the band. Our first album was written as a result of us getting together two or three times a week over the course of a few years, writing songs and being a student band, essentially. So actually soundchecks on tour have become a really good time for us to get back to that feeling of just doing band practice, where we’re all coming up with little things on the fly."
You have such a unique sound it’s difficult to find any obvious musical reference points, was there anything in particular that had an influence on the material on the new album?
“I mean, we’re not massively influenced by other things when we’re making an album, but at the same time we’re not sticking our fingers in our ears and going ‘nothing must distract me’ either. I think ultimately it’s just that we have a great musical chemistry together and we’re all quite curious musically, I suppose. And I think we know that we’ve got a little bit of license with our fan base to try new things a little bit and do what we want."
There have always been a lot of cultural references in what you do, especially in the lyrics, which suggest that you take inspiration from a lot of other areas too, besides music…
“We’re always finding new things and there’s so much music out there to discover from a historical perspective as well. For example, I was listening to a podcast called Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell, and he was doing a podcast about something to do with musicians forgetting the lyrics to their own songs, which is something that happens to Joe quite a lot. It was talking about Elvis and how he always used to forget the words to this one particular song – and I actually can’t remember what the song is called now – but Gladwell’s position on it that was that it was do to with the extreme emotions in this song, or something like that.
“Anyway, the point being that there was a bit in this Elvis song where he goes off on this long, spoken-word kind of thing in the middle of the song, and it seemed like a really sort of 50’s thing to do that people don’t really do anymore in their music. Then Joe showed me this track which has ended up on the album called 'Powders’, which really reminded me of an Elvis, crooner kind of song. So we thought it’d be interesting to try this thing where there was almost a kind of skit in the middle of it, because it’s a song about teenage love, or a first love, so Joe wrote this section and Tom and his girlfriend performed it. So I suppose in that way it was a very direct musical influence, and I thought it was interesting that because no-one was really doing this, it made it seem new by being old.”
This seems like a more personal record lyrically than some of the material you’ve written before, would you agree?
“Yeah, I would agree with that. I feel like Joe has reached a level of maturity and confidence in his lyrics now that he’s not so reliant on these cultural references and things. I think that was something that people really picked up on with our band early on and they liked it, but it quickly became a bit of a millstone around our necks, maybe, and I think now it’s something that Joe just doesn’t feel the need to do any more. I’ve talked to him about this, so I think I can say this, but I think there was almost a bit of imposter syndrome on his part writing lyrics on the first album or two, that he somehow wasn’t really a ‘lyricist’, so he’d put in these little quote from authors and things to add gravitas.
"But as I said, I think now he doesn’t really feel the need to do that any more, and I suppose this is a more personal album in other ways too, we’ve got family members partners and friends doing little things on the album. My mum and Joe’s mum are both on ‘Hard Drive Gold’, my wife is singing backing vocals on ‘The Actor’, Tom and his girlfriend did the thing I mentioned on ‘Powders’. It was a nice way to involve people who are important to us and it does make the album more personal to us. I think the fact that you’ve picked up on that as well shows that it can be heard by other people too.”
You’ve worked with Charlie Andrew once again on the new record – what is it about him that makes him a good fit for you guys as a producer?
“He loves trying out new things, he’s always very keen for hat. I don’t know about other producers because we’ve basically never worked with another one, but I imagine that many of them have ‘their sound’, if you know what I mean, like they want a record to sound a certain way when they produce it. But I think Charlie has got no ego in that way. I’ve honestly got no idea what sort of music Charlie listens to in his own time, because he’s so knowledgeable about everything, about classical music, the history of rock music, and he’s up on contemporary music too, he’s got his own record label. If we say to Charlie that we want to make a song that sounds like opera, or like the Velvet Underground, or like house music, Charlie’s just like ’yep, got it, no problem.’ He’s great that way.
“Also it’s just always worked well with him and we’ve had lots of success working with him, but if you were to judge from what a song sounds like before and after we’ve recorded it with Charlie you’d see that he certainly contributes a hell of a lot to the songs, so it would be mad to do otherwise. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I suppose.”
In doing that you build a lot of trust as well, which must help Joe with what you were talking about earlier, having the confidence to write from a more personal place?
“Yeah, definitely. I mean, performing music can be quite embarrassing, it’s a bit like being naked in front of somebody, in a way. And we’ve been naked in front of Charlie for the last 12 years, so I guess that’s easier than being naked in front of someone new!”
What are your touring plans looking like for the new album?
“We’ve got lots of dates booked, we’re starting off with two months in America, and then the UK tour in May, summer festivals, and then hopefully we should be going into a few European dates and then Australia. It’s really exciting to be going on tour again, but it’s also kind of nerve-wracking. There’s an uncertainty about it still, because for the last two years postponement and cancellation have been the order of the day, but we’re really optimistic.
“In terms of the live show, we’re still working with the same lighting team that have won awards for the shows they’ve done with us, so it’s going to be an amazing light show as per. And that’s the way it should be, I think. We love putting on a good show, and ultimately it takes the pressure off us a bit from having to be ‘rock stars' on stage, so we can just concentrate on playing our instruments, let the lights do the razzle-dazzle, as it were.”
Can we expect a career-spanning set at this point?
“In terms of the stuff we’ll be playing, we’re going to play lots of stuff off the new album, but we’ll also be playing lots of stuff of the first album, we always do. We know it’s a fan favourite and we know that it’s the album that made us. It’ll be the 10th anniversary of An Awesome Wave this year and people have been asking us if we’re going to do anniversary shows ad stuff like that, but we were a bit like: ‘Well, why would we do that because we’ve never really stopped playing that album?’ We’re proud of it and we love playingit, we know the fans love hearing it, so we always play almost every song off that album.”
Is it becoming a challenge putting a setlist together now?
“In a way, but actually that’s a funny thing with playing live. It’s a cruel truth of live gigs that ultimately even your biggest fans who spend substantial amounts of money coming to your gigs, they still love to have a chat. I’m the same when I go to gigs, you’re always taking any opportunity to chat to whoever you’re with, and so it’s nice to get to a point where we can fill the set with loud and uptempo songs that don’t really encourage that sort of thing. Even on tour with the last album, there were still a few moments where I thought ‘I wish that we could play another banger right now’. So now we’re trying to make it 'bangers only'. My wife refers to the quieter ones as ‘talkers’. Like ‘Yeah, I like that song, but it’s a talker’”.
You mentioned having to actually cut songs off of this record, are you already on your way to having enough material for the next album?
“I think that Joe is in a very fruitful stage of his creative life, I know that he’s written a lot of songs since we finished this album, so yeah, I hope so. Perhaps we might not tour this album for quite so long, given the global situation, but who knows? We might even be able to the studio next at some point. I don’t know. But rushing things has never really worked for us, we rushed our third album a bit by signing up to a deadline that, in hindsight, was probably never really manageable, and we felt it showed. Good work always takes as long as it takes, is what I would say.”
The Dream is available in hmv stores now - you can also find it here in our online store.