If you’d have told a ragtag group of English university students that their messing about on GarageBand in the hall of their dorm rooms would eventually lead to being called ‘the next Radiohead’, there’s not a chance in hell any of them would have believed you.
That’s the thing about alt-J, though — no-one saw them coming when they exploded on the back of their debut album, 2012’s An Awesome Wave, and five years on from the fact, no-one is still quite sure what to make of them. The chameleonic indie-rock outfit have risen to in-demand festival headliners and comfortable arena fillers, all without sacrificing anything that made their music so weird and wonderful to begin with.
It’s something that crosses one’s mind as they huddle around a back table in a cafe situated on the dock of Walsh Bay, a view of Sydney Harbour hinting out of the window. The three members of the band — vocalist/guitarist Joe Newman, keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton and drummer Thom Green — neither look like nor carry themselves as rockstars. They’re not eyed off as they walk in, the high-school girls nearby are unfazed and they accompanied only by two publicists.
Despite being one of the biggest names in their genre, they walk amongst the living as practically anonymous entities. You sense that this is exactly the way that they want it. To them, it’s paramount that the focus remains entirely on the music. Listening to Relaxer, their third LP, it’s less of a focus and more of a fixation. It’s a hypnotic, mesmerising record that once again redefines and reinvents the band’s sound once again.
The album is out today, but ahead of its release Music Feeds got to know the men behind the music — passionate, intelligent and unexpectedly quite funny — and discovered how Relaxer came into existence.
Music Feeds: There’s a lot to take in concerning Relaxer – it’s completely different to either of your previous LPs, either combined or as separate entities. Could one safely assume that this was an intentional move?
Joe Newman: That’s the thing, though — we honestly don’t know it’s different until people start telling us that it is. For us, it’s the next comfortable step from our last two records. It makes sense to us, but it’s interesting when people tell us that it’s unexpected. That’s what we want to hear.
Thom Green: It’s not easy to grasp exactly what a record is when you’ve been in it for so long. I get that people could see this album as really different, but I think it’s still as us as it ever was. A song like ‘Adeline’ could have been on [second album] This is All Yours. ‘In Cold Blood’ could have been, too. Then again, some of the songs we put together for this record are some of the weirdest things I’ve ever heard.
MF: It does bring into question the nature of how alt-J writes. Is it a case of knowing what you’ve done previously in order to bring in new ideas? Or is it more a case of just naturally seeing where the songwriting takes you? Something less conscious?
JN: The latter is bang on, actually.
TG: We tend to work track by track. We don’t really look too far into the future in terms of overall sound or concept. It’s kind of momentary — we enjoy it at the time, and that’s where it stems from. It’s about being in the moment. It’s about impressing one another. I mean, as the band’s gone on it’s become a little more professional in how it’s developed, but that’s still a big part of where it stems from.
JN: I don’t know what the next album is going to be like, but I know that it won’t surprise people when we make it.
MF: Just because it will be something else entirely again?
JN: Most likely, yeah.
Gus Unger-Hamilton: Going into making this new record, I had no idea what it was going to sound like. I think I always knew that it was going to feature a lot of songs that were very different, though. I think we’ve always known that we’re not a band that just has one particular sound.
MF: That would be a key aspect of what’s connected with people regarding your music — which, in itself brings up an interesting point. Alt-J may be the least arena-friendly arena band that there is right now. You look at artists like Springsteen or Bieber or whomever have you — acts that have been doing it for years — and it feels so removed from what you guys are doing. You’re at this fascinating intersection of being in a really popular band that’s bubbled under the mainstream for years, but you can also go out in public without a massive security detail or anything like that.
GU-H: Arenas are built for famous people — and we’re not famous. [laughs]
TG: It’s definitely an odd disconnect.
JN: We’ve always identified as sort of a left-field band as far as the mainstream is concerned. I mean, we’re essentially writing pop songs, and we write about age-old themes — love, loss and death. People love it, but we package the whole thing in a really odd way. It can be quite challenging for some people, but for some reason we’ve been able to appeal to the masses.
TG: It doesn’t feel like I’m in any way related to that side of pop culture. I don’t feel like I’m in any way like Bruce Springsteen or Justin Bieber. The fact we’d play the same sort of places, that we’d somehow be seen as peers… it’s odd. It’s really odd. I mean, we don’t even really get recognised. Like, ever.
JN: I’ll get recognised on the street maybe once every six months or so. I kind of love it when it happens. [laughs] I’ll phone my mum up and be like, ‘Guess what? I just got recognised!’
MF: Back to Relaxer — this feels like a much more focused record than This Is All Yours. Even on the outset, this is an album that only has eight tracks. This is All Yours, on the other hand, opens with an intro track and then directly goes into an interlude… [all laugh]
GU-H: I was thinking about that the other day, actually. Yikes.
JN: [mock-defensive] That’s not fair! That’s not fair!
TG: How did we miss that?
MF: We touched on intent surrounding the songwriting process itself — what of finalising the record? Once you realised that you had this core of eight songs, did you feel like you had a full cycle and that nothing more needed to be added?
GU-H: I think it was nice to try an album that was a bit shorter. It’s more compact. It felt like what we wanted to do at the time, really. We had a deadline to finish the record, and we got to that deadline with those eight songs finished. We looked at them, and we realised that they worked really well together. The reality of making an album is that you do have to deliver it at some point. If it wasn’t enough, we wouldn’t have delivered the album. We felt like what we had made a lot of sense — four songs a side, no fucking around.
MF: There are a couple of guest vocalists that are brought in on the record, which is not really something alt-J have done before…
GU-H: Yeah. That’s Ellie Rowsell from Wolf Alice on ‘3WW’, and on ‘Last Year’ that’s Marika Hackman… from Marika Hackman. [laughs]
MF: Were these parts written with those people in mind? Or did it sort of occur to you, ‘You know who would be good for this part…’
JN: I think, instead of wanting to work with a name, we tend to go with people we know. We went to see Ellie because we’re friends with her — we’ve toured with Wolf Alice, and they’re all really nice. We asked her and she was immediately up for it. I feel like Ellie brought…
TG: …a dog.
GU-H: Oh yeah! She brought her dog to the studio!
JN: I feel like she brought a really interesting style of singing to that song. She kind of created her own take on the part — this voice that was really raspy, mocking, almost naïve. They’re the kind of things that make you reassess the whole thing — like, ‘That was perfect!’ As for Marika, the story in the song is that her voice is singing at someone’s funeral.
‘Last Year’ is about 2016 and this character’s mental health decline. He ends up dying, and his ex-girlfriend — who broke up with him in January — is now singing at his funeral in December. Marika played it really well — she has this really clean, floaty, lovely voice, and it goes really well in contrast with the way that I sing. She seems to really get the rhythms in which I sing.
GU-H: It’s really lovely, and it’s a really natural voice. She’s not trying hard to push a certain sentiment or anything like that. It worked so well for the story of the song. You might imagine the girlfriend in the story as an amateur singer. Marika’s obviously not an amateur, but her voice works because it’s not trying hard. She just sounds like a normal person.
MF: This may be off the mark entirely, but Relaxer at times appears to draw from ’60s and ’70s folk like Donovan and Nick Drake. Even a song like ‘The Battle of Evermore’ by Led Zeppelin seems to have inspired some of the more rootsy, acoustically-oriented moments on the record. What inspired that approach of writing songs that were more acoustic than electric?
GU-H: Joe and I definitely grew up listening to ’70s folk music through our parents. I’ve been listening to it a lot more recently. That may have had something to do with it. I don’t know… I think sometimes, when you’re working on a song as a band, you’re constantly questioning what direction it’s going in. This time, we felt more confident embracing the fact that certain songs sounded more like certain artists.
With ‘3WW’, for instance, we felt it had a bit of a Beatles vibe to it. With ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’, we were picking up on a Stooges vibe. We decided to embrace it, rather than fear it. That’s probably symptomatic of having two albums under your belt that gives you that confidence in who you are. We don’t feel like we have to try to be different.
MF: It definitely seems as though it’s more difficult to properly define what constitutes an alt-J song now. It’s certainly a far cry from that “How To Write An alt-J Song” YouTube clip that did the rounds a few years ago… [all three band members look at one another knowingly, groaning as they laugh]
JN: I suppose you can’t really apply that lesson to this current body of work, can you.
GU-H: I want it on the record that this entire album is a direct response to that video. [all laugh]
TG: Cheeky bastards.
MF: Stuff like that is surely a reminder to never take yourselves too seriously.
JN: Taking yourself too seriously is the first sign of becoming corrupt. If you lose your humility, and you lose your ability to understand why stuff like that is funny, you’re on dangerous grounds. Essentially, you’ll turn into a diva. You’ll turn into someone who thinks they’re better than other people’s opinions. It’s not a good place to be in.
MF: That also brings up the notion that alt-J’s music has always been up for interpretation. People will see it however they see it. You’ll go onto Genius or whatever have you and see all these discussions about whether ‘Breezeblocks’ is about domestic violence, or whether ‘Left Hand Free’ is about masturbating…
JN: That’s true. I’m often just like, ‘Oh, cool.’ Like, there’s nothing more I can do or say. I mean, I didn’t write that song about masturbating…
TG: You wrote it while masturbating, though.
JN: It’s one of my skills. But yeah, I like hearing what people think our songs are about. Often, they actually don’t want to know what it’s really about. It’s all in their heads a certain way, and that’s great.
MF: ‘Last Year’, as you mentioned, is from the perspective of fictional characters. Do you often write with characters and stories in mind? Does it intersect with your own reflections and your own identity when you’re writing?
GU-H: I think they’re more like dramatic monologues, if you want to get all literary-criticism on the matter. It’s the idea of a poem telling a direct story from the point of view of a character which is completely made up. That’s how I’d explain it.
JN: It’s fancy escapism. It’s talking about real things, but not necessarily things you’ve experienced yourself.
GU-H: There’s that cliché — ‘all stories are true stories.’ They’re not directly taken from real life, but they’re true in that context, in that moment. ‘Adeline’ from the record is a great example of that. It’s a song from the point of view of a Tasmanian Devil who falls in love with a woman who goes swimming…
TG: Not the one from Looney Tunes, though.
GU-H: I mean, you’re never going to actually be a Tasmanian Devil…
MF: It’s so fun trying to figure out if any of this is true.
GU-H: You’ve always felt inherently Tasmanian, haven’t you Joe?
MF: Let’s try and get this back on track — what can you tell us about the recording process of Relaxer? It’s quite a layered record. How did these songs begin in their tracking — do you lay down the drums first and then build everything around that beat? Was anything recorded live?
GU-H: We very rarely record live. Our producer is pretty keen in doing things in a very studio way, which is fine by us. If you made a live recording of what we do in the studio, you’d recognise it as the song — it just wouldn’t sound very good. We very much embrace the process of studio work. When we were putting the album together, it was always in mind with the fact that we were going to be adding strings later on. Five of the eight songs had strings, and another song had brass.
MF: Where did that idea come from?
GU-H: Funnily enough, our producer’s wife is a session violinist. She sometimes plays with this orchestra, so she got them together and she wrote all the string arrangements for the songs. They’re a useful couple to have on your team. They know a lot of musicians.
MF: Is that how the acoustic guitar ensemble came about for the cover of ‘House of the Rising Sun’?
JN: Yeah. It’s a really nice guitar part — it’s actually got similar chords to a song of ours called ‘Pusher’. We’ve been talking about doing ‘House of the Rising Sun’ since we started touring our first album. I always thought it would be cool to sing a bit of it before we went into ‘Pusher’, and then it just snowballed into what it is now. We got about 20 guitarists, and we got them to sit in a circle around this condenser mic. It was such a cool experience — that was a really special day. The song is a reimagining of a folk classic, and we’re really proud of how it turned out.
MF: It’s one of those ubiquitous songs that has been around forever and been covered countless times — kind of like ‘Hallelujah’ or ‘Yesterday’.
GU-H: It’s funny… it’s now such an obvious thing, that it’s come full circle. So it’s at the point where an alternative rock band covering ‘House of the Rising Sun’ in 2017 isn’t obvious at all. People have been saying to us that they assumed it was an original song that we named after ‘House of the Rising Sun’ before they actually heard it. They thought it was a coincidence. I was like, ‘Why would we do that?’
MF: There seems to be a really positive energy surrounding Relaxer. We’ll wrap this up by taking from each of you your individual perspective on why you feel this is alt-J’s best record. What is it about this collection of songs that has you so excited to share it with the world?
TG: I’m proud of it because of the three of us. We brought so much to it in our own ways. I’m somebody who is interested in bands — the people in them, their producers, the mechanics of them. I love discovering all of that. I feel like if anyone else is like that, this album will give them a lot of bang for their buck. [pause] I’ve never said that phrase before in my life.
JN: That’s the headline! [laughs]
GU-H: I definitely see what Thom is saying. You can listen to it and you can pick out who’s doing what — like, ‘There’s Thom doing some 808 beats on that song.’
TG: Yeah, exactly. There’s a lot in there, which I think will last a long time. People will be listening to it for a while to get their heads around it, and I’m really proud of that.
GU-H: I think that, out of all of our three albums, it’s the one where the songs were written in the most concise space of time. An Awesome Wave, as with all first album, has songs over a long period of time. That’s sort of the same story with This is All Yours. This album, for the most part, came about within 2016 in a meaningful sense. That’s quite an interesting thing — it’s the most accurate snapshot of where we are as a band right now. It’s at a healthy temperature.
JN: I think that every song has a special place in my heart. It sounds really cheesy, but I can assign all of the songs some sort of title. The song I’m most proud of? ‘Pleader’. What’s the song that best represents where the band is at now? ‘3WW’. What’s the song I’d like to play in a club the most? ‘Deadcrush’. I could put different titles on all of them. I could keep going.
GU-H: Most likely to succeed!
TG: Best dressed!
JN: Best dressed would have to be ‘Adeline’. It’s such a well-produced song! [laughs] I don’t have a least favourite. Because there’s only eight songs, I don’t see any of it as an afterthought or as filler. Each has its place. It’s lean. It’s athletic.