Alt-J: “British cynicism is so strong. As soon as you become successful, it’s open season”
Is it healthy to sometimes dwell in the past? The members of Alt-J certainly think so. When it came to working on their upcoming fourth album, ‘The Dream’ (due February 11), the British indie stalwarts (lead vocalist and guitarist Joe Newman, keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton, and drummer Thom Sonny Green) had to start somewhere, so they began by turning to their shared history.
It was early 2020, and the trio had settled into their new north London studio, filled with limited edition tour posters from years gone by, record plaques, and various other band-related paraphernalia. They soon dubbed it the “Alt-J museum”.
“Before we started recording, we had a band trip to IKEA to pick up loads of photo frames and poster stands,” Unger-Hamilton says over Zoom today. “It felt really nice, and kind of important, to finally display our achievements somewhere. It undeniably inspired us when we were in the studio, even if it was in a subtle way.”
Two years later, the album that emerged from this richly decorated and intimate recording space transmutes all sorts of emotions – anxiety, joy, pain, escapism – and uses the idea of nostalgia as its central power, one that shifts and bends across 12 widescreen tracks. On ‘The Dream’, the past, present and future form a boundless collage, with Alt-J’s percussive experiments coexisting within a multitude of scratchy textures and sublime, slow-burning choruses.
‘The Dream’ is the result of a focused, very conscious determination – to push Alt-J’s sound to even weirder and wilder places. There’s an ebb and flow dynamic to it; the record’s constantly changing themes – which hopscotch between light and dark, from the heady joy of drinking Coca-Cola (‘Bane’) to murder (the quivering ‘Losing My Mind’) – aim to capture the excitement of a band exchanging ideas and playing together in a room.
“When I listen to the album now, I can almost visualise the studio and feel the air of it,” explains Green. “It has made me realise that we’ve reached a level of success which we could have never pictured when we started a band together in Leeds all those years ago.”
10 years ago, in May 2012, Alt-J released their riveting and unpredictable debut album, ‘An Awesome Wave’. It was, unexpectedly, a huge success: after winning the Mercury Prize that year, the record began to fly, going Platinum in the UK and taking the band to the William’s Green stage at Glastonbury within 12 months. A decade of milestones would follow: the chart-topping ‘This Is All Yours’, released in 2014, and 2017 follow-up ‘Relaxer’ garnered an international fanbase that led to multiple sold-out shows across the globe (including London’s O2 Arena and Forrest Hills Stadium in New York), and a plethora of accolades, including Best British Band at the NME Awards in 2018.
By sampling far-ranging influences – including South Asian bhangra, Afropop and children’s choirs – into sharp and intentionally subversive songs, their music has always been orchestral and detailed, all-enveloping. But perhaps the most attractive element – beyond Newman’s distinctive, never entirely intelligible falsetto – is their offbeat and esoteric allusions to crime, film, classic literature and geometry; the first LP’s title was lifted from an American Psycho quote, while the album itself referenced Hubert Selby Jr’s 1964 novel Last Exit to Brooklyn and French thriller Léon.
Yet, in recent years, Newman’s songwriting has undergone a 360-degree change from the band’s curious and occasionally antagonistic beginnings; after forming at university, they declined to engage properly with the press by refusing to take ‘proper’ press shots in a collective bid to preserve their anonymity. Newman says that he’s consciously started to move away from using tricky and often macabre cultural references, which had previously entrenched an idea that, as one 2014 review put it, Alt-J made inaccessibly “fussy anti-music”.
Newman now understands that criticism, however, and acknowledges that his imagery can get overblown. “I used to be so concerned about the trope that if you go through art school, you feel like the most legitimate voice is often from someone who’s been through the most,” he says. “So I always felt guilty that I had a fairly pleasant upbringing – I didn’t have much to sing about, in all honesty. That meant I would often use other people’s work as a foundation for my lyrics, but now I’ve started shaping stories from my own writing rather than from someone else’s. It’s really been a big step forward for me.”
This progression is evident on ‘The Dream’’s lead single ‘U&ME’, a breezy and – very much unlike Alt-J’s previous material – seemingly carefree summer jam about “feeling funky on a rolling boil” and gleefully discovering that “happiness is between two buns”. It’s a stubbornly simple number: “It’s just you and me now”, Newman repeats throughout the chorus.
Elsewhere on the record, there’s ‘Get Better’, a ruminative, unadorned acoustic ballad that aims for the heart and the gut. Doubling up as a paean to Newman’s IRL partner (who was suffering from period pain when he wrote it) and a fictional account of someone living through grief, it is, by Newman’s own admission, “the most emotionally honest” he’s ever allowed himself to be as a lyricist. Unger-Hamilton says, “‘Get Better’ is so terrifically sad that it should come with a disclaimer.”
The song also nods to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic (“I’ll start the day with tiramisu / Raise a spoon to frontline workers / An underfunded principle / They risk all to be there for us”), placing Alt-J in the here-and-now. “I’m not sure if we could have written that song in any other time,” explains Unger-Hamilton, laughing as he describes how he cried when Newman first played it back to him.
He continues: “If there was ever going to be a world event that made us finally write a song about real life, it would be the pandemic. But crucially, I feel like we’re relaxing into accepting the fact that we can actually write songs about the real world, and we’re now allowing ourselves to go there. If people are still listening to our music in 30 years time, I’d love for them to think, ‘Alt-J did something really special on their fourth album. They really brought themselves into it.’”
Despite its weighty themes, ‘The Dream’ certainly sounds like a different, looser Alt-J. With expansive guitars and sprawling, multi-instrumental arrangements (‘Walk A Mile’ clocks in at six-and-a-half minutes), these songs feel less worked on, and as if they’ve been left open to interpretation.
Newman agrees: “As a writer, you don’t entirely know what the songs are like until they go through the filter of the general public,” he says. “There’s a period of time where they give you their feedback about what they think [the songs] mean, and for me, it becomes a crucial period of discovering what the music is about – it’s important to understand your own music through your fans.”
The imminent anniversary of ‘An Awesome Wave’ has encouraged the band to reassess the album’s fairly challenging relationship with Britain. Even though it quickly connected on a commercial level, charting within the Top 20 upon release, its knotty indie-rock sound was brushed aside as “pompous whimsy” by one magazine, and it failed to land a single broadsheet newspaper review.
This level of dismissal from critics didn’t impact the band emotionally or creatively, but it was enough for them to instead focus their attention on a rapidly growing audience across the pond. The record, with all its tumbling eccentricity, never seemed geared toward a mainstream breakthrough, but its singles landed on A-list rotation on numerous US college radio stations. Many other young fans discovered it online, in an era where the impact of Tumblr and music blogs felt inescapable.
“We’ve never stopped celebrating our debut album” – Joe Newman
“I don’t think you ever really know where you stand in the UK,” Unger-Hamilton says. “British cynicism is such a strong thing here; as soon as you become a successful band in this industry, you’re open season to attack. A lot of backlash that we get is a result of our success.”
Green elaborates: “Being a successful British band makes us an exotic concept to American people, in a way. After shows out there, we meet ‘bro’ or jock-type guys in their 20s – the sort that we would be intimidated by in a bar – and they are just unashamed about the fact that they love us. But in the UK, you can sense that everyone’s a bit too afraid to be completely open about what it is that they like.”
They clearly didn’t expect to become the kind of Stateside success story that they are. The trio seem genuinely amazed by the fact that they’re playing New York’s Madison Square Garden for the second time in their career next month; the first was in 2015, shortly after ‘Left Hand Free’, a blues-y stomper taken from ‘This Is All Yours’, became a transatlantic hit, surpassing UK sales and entering the Billboard Hot 100.
Newman freely explains how he would love to replicate the international success of that single with ‘Hard Drive Gold’, the most commercial track off the ‘The Dream’. A toe-tapping pop number, it imagines the inner workings of the mind of a teenager obsessed with cryptocurrency: “Don’t be afraid to make money, boy!”. Much like ‘Left Hand Free’, it was built around a single riff and written in less than half-an-hour. “We have always been quite realistic in terms of knowing that it’s hard to make money selling music,” he says. “But ‘Left Hand Free’ has been very good to us – to have another hit would be great.”
“This new album is a statement of intent,” continues Unger-Hamilton. “It’s about reminding people that we are still here, and we’re still excited by what we’re doing. We want to re-establish ourselves with every album.”
While every member speaks passionately about the legacy of ‘An Awesome Wave’, it is Newman who lives it the most intensely. A few months ago, when it came to drafting the setlist for their forthcoming spring tour, he fought for fan favourites, including the scintillating folk ballad ‘Matilda’, to remain part of the live show.
“We’ve never stopped celebrating our debut album,” he explains. “We’ve never stopped playing those songs live. ‘An Awesome Wave’ didn’t just do more than our other albums in terms of sales. It became a big part of a lot of people’s formative years in a way that our other albums haven’t done.”
“This new album is a statement of intent” – Gus Unger-Hamilton
They also credit their longstanding friendship for giving the band a layer of solidity that has helped them to maintain their longevity. By taking a year-long break throughout 2019 – they still hung out together, but avoided talking about “band stuff” – they ensured that they entered sessions for ‘The Dream’ feeling refreshed and open to possibility. “Sometimes, it really is that simple,” notes Green. His bandmates offer gentle, reassuring laughs in agreement. After 15 years together, an obvious fondness for one other still binds Alt-J.
“While revisiting our earlier days together, we haven’t ever once thought, ‘Oh that was a different band back then; that’s not who we are now’,” says Newman. “That’s not us at all.”
– ‘The Dream’ is out via Infectious Music/BMG on February 11