alt-J on “The Dream” | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, September 28th, 2022  

alt-J on “The Dream”

Dreams and Details

Feb 09, 2022 Photography by Rosie Matheson Issue #69 - 20th Anniversary Issue
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Joe Newman from alt-J grins as he shows me a candy tangerine Fender Telecaster. “It looks left-handed but it’s not,” he says over a Zoom call. “It’s just that the video is reversed.” This is a small detail, but an important one. Newman plays guitar and sings lead vocals for the British three-piece. Over Britain’s lockdown he picked up a few guitars, which are now displayed in his “man cave.”

Joined by the band’s keyboardist and vocalist, Gus Unger-Hamilton, we talk about alt-J’s fourth album, The Dream, and all of the small details that make its songs so unique. A vague memory became a chorus, an image from a film became a throwaway line, and friends and family lent their voices to help round out the album’s tracks. There are stories behind every lyric, and it becomes clear that for alt-J, it’s cool to care about even the slightest of details.

The aforementioned Telecaster features in the song “U&ME,” The Dream’s first single. So too does the image of a strutting Stellen Skarsgård. Alt-J have made this level of minute observation a defining characteristic, and it makes their songs both effortlessly cool and deeply poetic.

After 2017’s RELAXER and a world tour that wrapped in 2018, the band took 2019 off. Life was in full swing: band members were getting married, moving house, adopting cats, and the trio wanted time away from the pressures of writing and recording. “I think we were quite fatigued when we were making that album,” says Unger-Hamilton, of RELAXER. “We came back into the studio in January 2020 with a renewed appetite to make music together.”

Alt-J’s three members—Newman, Unger-Hamilton, and drummer Thom Sonny Green—rented a house in East London, which they turned into an alt-J shrine. Newman describes it as a “palace of reminders”—kitted out with alt-J tour posters and awards, the little house was the band’s first studio of their own.

All throughout The Dream are those little ethereal details: snippets of pop culture references, self-referential nods to the band, sayings, and memories that form a, well, dreamlike composite. Sometimes these moments are funny, sometimes they’re dark, but always they’re masked by Newman’s rhythmic delivery.

“When you’re writing a guitar riff,” he says, “you have to fill in the blanks with an assorted selection of words that just fit the movement that you want to hear. And then after a while, when you start re-listening to what you’ve sung, you kind of get hooked on certain words.”

There’s the story in “Hard Drive Gold”, about a teenager who becomes a millionaire by “trading that crypto.” There’s the line “packed down a kilo” on “The Actor” (about John Belushi’s death by speedball, told from the perspective of an aspiring actor), which arose while Newman was playing around with the guitar. “I’ve been raised on the American Hollywood standard of gunfights, violence, opportunity, drugs—30% of Hollywood’s film output,” Newman explains. “I thought that song was going to be about a gunfight at a party, and then it just really developed into something else.”

Elsewhere, there are deeply moving moments, such as the examination of bereavement on “Get Better,” encapsulated by the gut-wrenching line “I still pretend/You’re only out of sight in another room/Smiling at your phone.”

Then there are the gripping and dark moments, like the “smell of burning cattle” hanging on “a westerly” wind direction from “Happier When You’re Gone”—inspired by a memory from Newman’s youth, when his family drove up the length of the UK during the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak, while farmers burned their bovine livestock. Upon first listen, The Dream feels just that: a dream. Interspersed throughout are audio recordings from friends, family members, wives, and roadies, which act as surreal punctuation for the 12 tracks. You don’t need to know that the voice saying “scum” on “Hard Drive Gold” is Unger-Hamilton’s mother. Instead, you graft your own friends and family, your own story, onto the tracks. Just further detail to push the fantastic nature of the songs forward.

“I think our music has always had a dreamlike quality, whether that’s a good dream or a bad dream,” Unger-Hamilton explains. “‘U&ME’ is an example of a good dream, it’s the thing we’ve all been dreaming about for the last two years, which is like, going to a field, listening to music, and getting fucked up with your mates. And ‘Get Better,’ is a bad dream: it’s like the worst thing that can possibly happen in someone’s life. Or ‘Chicago,’ which is just a dream dream: lyrically it’s quite confusing—a sort of thing you’d dream about.”

Like dreams, alt-J’s music is open to interpretation. Their lyrics are innocuously delivered, sometimes indecipherable, but the words and stories behind them can be dark and confrontational. It’s in this space, beneath Belushi and Bitcoin, that the band have found their niche. And it’s a niche that doesn’t surprise the band’s members. “There’s always been a sort of darkness to alt-J lyrics,” says Unger-Hamilton.

[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 69 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, our 20th Anniversary Issue, which is out now. This is its debut online.]

www.altjband.com

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