alt-J - The Under the Radar Cover Story Bonus Q&A

From the Foundation Up

Dec 23, 2014 Issue #51 - September/October 2014 - alt-J Photography by Pal Hansen Bookmark and Share


Read some of the reviews of alt-J's full-length debut, 2012's An Awesome Wave, and you'll get a sense of how difficult it is for even seasoned music critics to describe the band's sound. Folk music mixed with hip-hop beats? Electronic indie dub? Experimental choral music? All of the terms were attached to the band, and none of them make any more sense now than they did then. With This Is All Yours, their sophomore release, the task becomes even more difficult.

Unsurprisingly, the members of alt-J don't seem particularly eager to define their sound, either. In fact, they've just made an album that seems designed to frustrate any efforts in classification, expanding and deepening the range of textures under their control while erasing any remaining stylistic reference points. That's a point of pride for Joe Newman (guitar, vocals), Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards, vocals), and Thom Green (drums, electronic programming), and the trio seems most proud of the fact that they've made an album that makes little sense when taken song-by-song but that fits together when taken as a whole. Here, the band examines the foundation upon which they've built that aesthetic, the creative crossroads they're quickly approaching, and the future that is just out of reach. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with alt-J, quotes that didn't make it into our main print article on the band.]

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): To start, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the music that you grew up listening to. Your music seems to pull in so many directions that it seems like it must be the collision of some discordant influences.

Thom Green: Because we met at university, we went through our teenaged lives separately. I liked a lot of metal bands and grunge bands growing up, and I played drums in bands like that. And then I came to uni, and I listened to the same kind of thing, but then I started to listen to more folky stuff. Then I met these guys, and I now listen to mostly electronic music and hip-hop and experimental music.

Joe Newman: I used to listen to a lot of hip-hop growing up. I can't just listen to what the people around me listen to, so I don't think it disagreed with me enough to stop playing that music. I was just like, "Yeah, this sounds good." So I was listening to hip-hop from the '90s and British hip-hop from the '90s and a bit of trip-hop. Then, my dad played a lot of James Taylor-style artists, so I was exposed to that era when I was younger.

Gus Unger-Hamilton: I was into very indie music when I was young, bands like The Strokes. Then in the background at home my family played classical music.

How did your families react to the music you were making the first time you played it for them?

Gus: They were very positive about it. We'd been playing for a few years at university, so it wasn't like we'd just formed a band. We'd played our stuff a bit.

Joe: I grew up not playing to anyone, just playing to myself. When I got to university, I was like, "This is a new place. I need to get out and meet people." The best way to do that was to perform in front of the people that I was beginning to trust enough to do that. Then when we started writing songs, it was just about writing songs. It wasn't that we were a band; we were focused on songwriting. I may have played some of the early songs to my parents, but I'm not actually sure when I got over the worry of playing for other people. I can't remember.

Thom: My dad didn't like it very much. He didn't get Joe's voice, which really wound me up. But now he loves it.

Joe: Now that everyone else likes it. [Laughs]

Thom: Yeah, exactly. He's such a copycat.

Joe, do you remember the first people you shared your music with?

Joe: I met [former alt-J bassist/guitarist] Gwil [Sainsbury] on the fine art course, and we became quite close and it transpired that he played acoustic guitar and bass and had an interest in recording music. I thought he was a nice guy to maybe share my music with, and he responded pretty well to it, so that gave me confidence to think, "Well, this could be a separate project." He was the first guy I really played anything to, really.

How long had you been writing songs by the time you got to university?

Joe: I think I'd started writing when I was about 13, and that was when I was about 19, so it was about six years.

Since you'd been writing for so long, why hadn't you shared your music at that point?

Joe: I just didn't think I sounded very good. I was always writing songs like, "How come I can't get it to sound the way I want it to sound? How come I can't get this to sound like the songs that I like? Why isn't this working? There's some magic formula I'm missing."

What do you think was missing?

Joe: Saucy beats? I don't know. I just don't think I'd figured out how to write good songs. That was just something that I figured out after a while. I don't know when it was, but there was a time when I understood how to write and how to engage with people through that writing, whereas before it was like, "Why can't I write anything good?" This time it was, "I'm good at writing, and this is how I write. This is how I make things sound good." I just knew for some reason.

So, Thom, given your metal background, do you think your carry those influences into your current playing?

Thom: I think so. The first album, yeah. There are certain things that I've taken from The Deftones, because Abe Cunningham is one of my favorite drummers. I've listened to a lot of his stuff, and a few of my fills are taken straight from his stuff. Live, I hit as hard as I can, and whether that's metal or not, I don't know. But I like those particular grooves, and most of the tempos we use, the majority almost seem like hip-hop tracks, where there's a bit of the same groove and it's comfortable playing. Growing up playing in metal bands, it's about speed and the rolls and things like that.

Gus, would you say your classical training informs the way you approach vocals now?

Gus: Possibly. I think there's a certain way that I work with harmony that comes from classical training, definitely. I like to do that with singing and with keyboard stuff.

Joe, do you remember the first time you realized you had a voice that could be a unique instrument?

Joe: I think it was probably in university and singing publicly. Like my songwriting, I didn't think my singing was that good. I didn't think I was a very good singer at the beginning stage of the band, and I was of the opinion that it would only be a matter of time until we had a female vocalist to sing our tracks. Then I realized I was actually quite capable of singing and that I knew how to sing. I had confidence that some people found it quirky and refreshing and inaudible, but that was the way I felt comfortable singing, and I realized it sounded...not unique, but it certainly didn't sound like a lot of Disney or X Factor singers. So I played on that and spent those years seeing where I could take my voice. When I was younger, I never sang in front of anyone, and I really didn't think I was a good singer. But I really liked to sing, so that's why I kept singing. But I didn't sing in front of anyone, because I was embarrassed. I didn't want anyone to think, "Poor guy. He thinks he can sing, but he sounds like he's dying." [Laughs]

Since the vocal harmonies are so striking in your work, have you all studied composition and arranging?

Gus: I have a choir background, so that's something I definitely learned from that. Then Joe did some choir stuff in university which was quite good for us, I think.Joe: On occasion, we are a complex band with an interesting layering of ideas, but we spend so much time on tracks, and we only spend time on tracks that we want to spend time on. We don't have 50 tracks and trim down to 12. Every track that is written is a track that we take seriously as a child of ours. It takes a lot of time to write these songs, so you have a lot of time to make it as detailed as you want to make. That's something that we strive for, and we also don't want to make something predictable. As soon as someone comes to the conclusion of, "Oh, I can see that coming," the sooner they become bored. So I think when you have someone first listening to our music, we take them in directions they didn't expect to go in, and then we layer it with ideas in one track. It's not something they can get used to quickly, so they can come back to it and be like, "Oh, shit! I didn't hear this part before, but now I'm hearing it for the first time." We want there to be layers and layers of things that people are always discovering, so they don't listen to it 20 times and get bored. They listen to it 20 times and discover new things.

Gus: In the studio, you have this physical capacity to try adding things, and you can play the track back and go to the vocal booth and add more harmonies and see how they sound. That's the unique luxury of the studio, so the tracks do change once you get to the studio. I think generally now we know we have things we like to add in the studio, so we leave them until we're recording.

How would you describe the difference between This Is All Yours and An Awesome Wave?

Thom: The most obvious thing is this sounds a lot more polished, I think. The production is a lot cleaner. It's a lot more direct. The first album is quite rough. It's a little more indie-sounding than this album. I suppose this album sounds like us as we are now-more mature and more confident and happier. I've listened to this second album a lot since we finished it, and I don't listen to a lot of albums back to front. I listen to a lot of music, but it's usually tracks or mixes. But I love the structure of it; I love how it flows. It flows perfectly, and that was deliberate. For me, it has a lot of emotion behind me. The music is quite intense at points. The sounds of the strings or the piano melodies are kind of amazing. When I listen to it, I can't believe we did that. How did we do that? How did we manage to get that much emotion behind it? The biggest thing is that it sounds more polished and well-produced, and that's down to our writing and also our producer. He's obviously had more experience since the first album. Charlie Andrew, he's just got a lot more skillful and he knows more, so that comes across quite well.

When you think about the future, are there certain pitfalls you want to avoid as a band?

Joe: Working with Miley Cyrus. [Laughs] Pitbull maybe. I wouldn't be up for a collaboration with Pitbull.

Gus: Pitbull is the one person in music that I'd have no problem slagging off. There's a rule among musicians that we don't slag each other off, but I'd have no hesitance slagging off Pitbull.

Joe: Things we want to avoid doing...heroin.

Since bands often start to run out of momentum around the third or fourth album, what do you hope to do to avoid that?

Gus: We've made two albums in quite quick succession. We'll probably take our time in the future. It will probably take us two or three years to make the third album.

Joe: In the music industry, there's that creative shelf life where you are new, topical, innovative and that exists around the younger generation. As you get older, you lose touch with those things, and you start writing things that aren't necessarily exciting, because it doesn't have anything to do with what's happening at the moment.

Thom: You can become used to your situation and take it for granted. We're aware that you can start thinking, "Well, I have enough money now. I don't need to keep doing this."

Since your sound is so idiosyncratic, it seems like you'd be well-positioned to avoid falling into repeating yourselves. You really could go in any direction at this point.

Gus: I agree with that. I think that's true. I think we're quite lucky with that. There's certain things like Joe's voice that will be a constant. There are tracks that will be his voice, tracks that are just piano, and tracks that are processed drums and Miley Cyrus, and it's still recognizably us. I love that. That's really exciting. That's the best way to be, I think. If there was a checklist of things that I want, that would be at the top.

Joe: I think we do have a similar sound to a few of our contemporaries, but I think we draw from a greater number of references. I think we'll be remembered within a certain style of music, but that's going to be easier to define in 10 years than it is now.

How do you describe your music to people who haven't heard it?

Thom: I've never been able to figure it out. It depends who asks. If it's a cab driver, I'll say it's indie guitar music. If it's a friend, I'll try to refer to different bands. I'll usually say, it sounds a bit like Radiohead with a bit more hip-hop drumsthat kind of thing. Or it's guitar music with some electronics added to it. We used to say it was folky, but I don't see that anymore. Some of the influences are quite folky, I suppose. I'm not too worried about being able to label it. I think if people hear it, they'll hear it. I've never been able to describe it. I think that's a good thing. I think that we don't have a particular name of a genre, I think that's the best way to be as a band.

Are there any bands whose careers you'd like to have?

Joe: Radioheadstraight up.

Gus: Next question. That's an easy one.

Why Radiohead?

Gus: I think they're commercially successful but they're cool. They've stayed relevant for 20 years. They've progressed through different musical sounds. They're just someone you respect. They'll never not be cool, while being ridiculously popular, as well. Coldplay, for example, they're not very cool, really. We're probably closer to Coldplay than Radiohead in some ways, because we're not as cool as Radiohead. The world needed their music to progress.

Joe: The world does need anomalies to function. It needs an exception to the rule for everyone to understand what the fuck's going on. I don't know how they've done it or how they do it, but I think they're always in a lovely pocket of chemistry. They find themselves in this nice sweet spot, like swimming in a cold ocean and finding a warm patch. They've been in that warm patch for 20 years, and that's where they write their albums.

Have you met those guys?

Gus: I tried to meet Thom Yorke, but it didn't go well.

Joe: They're on their own circuit. They just do something because they want to do something, and Radiohead is the best band because they do what they want to do, when they want to do it.

Is it strange to now be on the other side of that musical hero worship with your fans?

Gus: I think we have fans that are clearly beside themselves with excitement, and I think that's partly an age thing. It's hard to listen necessarily to what they say, because you don't know what to say. Sometimes they say nothing at all, and that's the weirdest.

Thom: On tour, I try to avoid going out of the bus when there's a lot of people waiting outside, because it's too much. I feel bad sometimes, because you feel like you can't give them what they wanted. I try to avoid it, really, it's just easier.

Do you have any particular expectations for how This Is All Yours will be received?

Gus: I think I'm less obsessed about it than I used to be, because I used to hunt down our press, and when we had an interview, I wanted to read it. Now I'm less interested, because there's a lot more press than we had for the first album. I heard us on the radio while I was in the bath today, and I stopped drying myself to go out in the living room to listen to it. [Laughs] I wanted to hear what we sounded like on the radio.

Joe: I will read [the reviews]. On the eve before the reviews come out online and in broadsheets, I will be thinking about the next day. It's like Christmas. It will be on my mind. I do care about what people think about our music.

[Note: These are extra portions of our interview with alt-J, quotes that didn't make it into our main print article on the band.]    

[Note: This article first appeared in digital version of Under the Radar's September/October print issue (Issue 51).]

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