alt-J on “Relaxer” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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alt-J on “Relaxer”

Hymns and Harmony

Jun 02, 2017 Issue #60 - Father John Misty Bookmark and Share

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alt-J‘s music was hauntingly echoing off Ely Cathedrals’ aged walls, as guitarist/vocalist Joe Newman, drummer Thom Green, and keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton stood inside and played the notes to their new song “Pleader.” The Ely, Cambridgeshire church was the perfect setting for recording that track, which closes their third album, Relaxer (the rest of which was recorded in a conventional studio). “Pleader” has a hymnal cum classical tone different from much of the indie rock band’s prior work, though it was very much in line with the classical music that Unger-Hamilton had been forced to spend hours practicing as a boy.

“I was very much the boy that labored over the piano, but I’ve now acquired the taste for it. I now realize how awesome it was for my parents to have done that, even though as a boy you wanted to be out playing with your mates or watching TV,” says Unger-Hamilton, sounding as well adjusted and relatable as countless children with similarly musically inclined moms and dads. “I’m glad my parents pushed me hard to do it, because I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today, and I look forward to inflicting it on my children as well one day.”

There’s an endearing everyman vibe underpinning such statements from Unger-Hamilton throughout our interview, which is refreshing given the number of clichéd haughty bands that hog the limelight with their infighting. Unger-Hamilton instead recalls how much fun he had spending time with Newman and Green in recent months, even after their touring and recording obligations were over, and is quick to compliment them rather than hogging credit for himself.

“I think classical music has more of a role on this album, Philip Glass and things like that,” Unger-Hamilton says. “It’s something Joe and I listen to a lot, although it’s more my background than his. But aside from classical music we’ve also got new songs like ‘Deadcrush,’ with strong hip-hop vibes. Like our previous albums it’s an amalgam of the things that influence us but, more than anything, it’s inspired by the enjoyment we get from playing together, inspiring each other, and sharing each others favorite genres and influences.”

Unger-Hamilton’s upbeat attitude even extends to a moment that might have led other performers to fits of jealousy. When alt-J invited Ellie Rowsell, of the white hot up-and-coming London band Wolf Alice, to take a break from sessions that were coincidentally in the adjacent studio and pop in to guest on what would be Relaxer‘s first single, “3WW,” Unger-Hamilton graciously stepped aside.

“That was originally going to have Joe and I singing on it,” says Unger-Hamilton of the hushed, melancholy track, adding that Rowsell’s soothing speak-singing verse was a perfect fit for the tune. “We gave her the lyrics, told her how the melody went, and she did a few takes and absolutely smashed it quickly. It was so powerful, she just did it live and did it so well, we knew right away it was the right thing to do.”

And although Unger-Hamilton loves to sing and contribute harmonies on nearly all of alt-J’s songs, he’s more than eager to have Newman literally take center stage in that regard, and to see his bandmate’s progress and evolution as a singer.

“Joe particularly found it hard at first,” Unger-Hamilton recalls of alt-J’s early days, before they won the Mercury prize for 2012’s debut album An Awesome Wave. “It took him a year at least to build up the confidence to sing in front of us in the band, and then for the longest time he’d sing with his eyes shut onstage because he was so embarrassed. He’s much more confident now and I’d like to think I’ve helped him with that, and that we’ve helped each other.

“Joe was and will always be the lead singer, but I love to sing too, I’ve sung my whole life. There’s pretty much never been a song we’ve done where I haven’t done harmonies on it. And I think Joe and I really enjoy singing together,” Unger-Hamilton continues. “And in the past couple of years we’ve grown really comfortable singing with each other. And that’s a really nice thing for our friendship and the band, the music the band makes.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar’s Spring 2017 Issue (April/May/June 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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