Of all the artists we love at Indie Shuffle, few have truly experienced the global success and stardom as our beloved trio from Leeds, Alt-J. Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboard/vocals), Thom Sonny Green (drums/percussion) and Joe Newman’s (vocals/guitar) first album had an explosive debut. The band’s affinity for unforgettable, introspective noise, paired with their composed demeanor, all but fractured our hearts. Critics wasted no time agreeing. An Awesome Wave took home the 2012 Mercury Prize. Their sophomore album was nominated for a Grammy Award. Over the last few years, we watched Alt-J tour extensively, seducing stages all over the globe.
It was in fall of 2013, that we first had the honor of interviewing Alt-J’s modest Unger-Hamilton. We discussed the band’s swift rise to fame following An Awesome Wave and a desire for a second album. (This Is All Yours was still an unnamed, distant dream.) It was impossible to predict what the blinding future held for these deeply talented musicians and their infectious sound. We now know that the fervor surrounding the band is uncontainable.
This week, Alt-J is ready to gift fans with their third release, Relaxer. The album continues to reveal and illuminate a poetic path determined exclusively by the band. Relaxer contains just eight mystical songs, which don’t even take an hour to devour. It is a fascinating listen, possessing a startling dark depth that is sure to take devout fans by surprise. The haunting beauty of this work will drown you if you’re not careful.
Ahead of Relaxer, we had the honor of speaking to Unger-Hamilton for a second time to learn more about the inception of new songs, recording at Abbey Road Studios, and prioritizing friendships.
Indie Shuffle: After two massively successful and beloved albums, what were the biggest lessons you brought into the making of this third album?
Gus Unger-Hamilton: Oh, that’s a good question. I think probably trusting our instincts is a big one. We’ve always sort of done our own thing and never really tried to be anything that we’re not. And not take other people’s advice, not let other people influence our albums. I think we’ve learned that was a really good way to work. I think that also not trying to be willfully unusual or different, remembering that if we’re not interested in what we’re doing then other people probably won’t be either is a really big one.
I think those are two things we definitely learned from making the first two albums that we put into practice on this album.
All three of your releases have been produced by Charlie Andrew. Can you share a little bit about that working relationship and it's evolved over the years?
Absolutely. Charlie was really lucky we met him, really. It was a friend of ours [Nick] who was starting out in the music industry and happened to meet Charlie at a gig. Our friend Nick was like, ‘You know, I’m a junior scout at a record label,” and Charlie was like, “Oh Right! I’m trying to establish [myself] as a producer. If you find any good bands who want to demo, send them my way.” And then like two weeks later, Nick heard our music.
We [Nick and the band] knew each other from school actually, I don’t think he paid too much attention-- just another friend of the band, sort of thing. He listened to our music and was like, “Oh, this is quite good,” and sent it to Charlie. We went to London with him in the summer of 2009.
Luckily, Charlie offered to record a demo, which was “Matilda.” He did it on spec, we didn’t have to pay him. And we subsequently did two more demos, coming down from Leeds to London for a three-days, staying with friends’ sofas, doing more demos. We recorded “Matilda,” “Breezeblocks,” and “Bloodflood.”
When we then got signed, we had these really good demos, and [the label] was like, “Okay, who do you want to make the album with?” Well, it made sense to stick with Charlie.
In terms of how the relationship has evolved, it’s amazing. As much as we’ve had a big rise from nothing to where we are now, it’s the same with Charlie, really. Our album was the first album he ever produced. He won producer of the year at the Music Producers Guild Awards, he won the Brit Award. He’s now a highly decorated, respected, sought after, producer. It’s very pleasing to be able to look at each other and be like, “Remember when we made an album when neither of us had ever made an album before?” It’s pretty cool.
Social media has allowed fans to catch tiny glimpses into your recording process. I saw you recorded partly at Abbey Road Studios, alongside incredible string and brass arrangements which we hear throughout Relaxer. Can you share that experience?
It was really interesting. We decided to go down this “more is more” route with strings on this album. I think we wanted to really beef up the sound. We got almost hooked on the strings for these songs-- It just sounded so good and we just loved it.
Getting to go to Abbey Road was really amazing. To go in there to work, not just look around, is a really unique privilege so that was fantastic. There is something about hearing your song transcribed into strings or brass, and standing there, and watching people playing it --watching these great musicians play it-- it’s a thrill. A huge thrill. We loved it.
I’ve never asked this before, but I’m wondering if you can briefly speak to three different tracks off of Relaxer. Maybe something memorable about its inception or recording.
The first is “Hit Me Like That Snare,” which grabs the listener with that cowbell and shriek-- jarring. It’s a demanding song, with the slurry “fuck you” anthem. Tell me about this track.
I think that song came about pretty much entirely from just an unexpected jam that happened in the studio. We were set up live to have a bash at recording another song, that didn’t make it onto the album. We just had our instruments there and Joe started playing this guitar rift that he’d been messing around with for awhile but had sort of forgotten about. Immediately, Thom and I responded to it very positively to it, and we clicked in together really quickly.
Luckily Charlie happened to hit-- well, not happened to. He cleverly hit record. We weren’t aware we were being recorded, we were just sort of jamming and we actually ended up using that recording as the basis for the song. Luckily, we were playing to a metronome. I can’t remember why. But the drums are those drums from that initial jam, so we managed to capture that immediate spark of inspiration that we managed to strike and keep that on the record which you almost never do. It’s pretty rare to use a final, recorded song that was taken from the fountain-head, as it were, of inspiration. That was really cool.
Second, I’d love if you could help frame “Adeline,” which I found beautifully reminiscent of “Nara.” And very emotional. Can you share more about this track?
It was a song that was sort of written on the road while touring our last album. It was one that we would play a lot in sound check and kind of work on in that way. It’s quite an unusual story, in terms of the narrative to the song.
It’s about a Tasmanian devil who falls in love with a woman that he watches swimming. While she’s swimming she’s singing this song, “The Auld Triangle,” that’s sort of an Irish-- [interrupts self] It’s not actually an Irish folk song, it’s been written sometime in the last 60 years, but we sing it on tour when we’re out, probably having a few beers, we’ll often sing it together. We treat it as a folk song.
So she is singing that song while swimming, so it’s a song within a song if you like.
The last song I’d love to spotlight is “Last Year.” I’d love to know about this heartbreaking song. Who is the female vocalist on this track?
On the “Last Year” is Marika Hackman who is a singer/songwriter from London. We know her because she is also produced by Charlie. There’s a bit of a gang of us who we know each other through Charlie and we play at his festival in the woods sometimes. She’s been a friend of ours for a few years and did some guest vocals for us on our last album, “Warm Foothills.”
Marika’s part is another a song within a song. The first part, where Joe is singing, is someone reading sort of literally of this decline and depression and death over the course of a year. And the final line is “to be sang at my funeral,” which leads into this person singing at his funeral.
It’s a very, very sad song. It was the last song to be added to the album. It was one that was written at Christmas. Joe was talking to me about it and like, “Yeah, it’s really, really, really sad. I’m not sure I can show it to anybody, it’s depressing.” But it’s a beautiful song, so we put it on the album.
You guys are known for your deep, introspective lyrics that have previously played on literature and narratives. Have any books or novels seeped into Relaxer that we hear?
Yes, they do. I’ll give you one example. The last song “Pleader” was based on the book, “How Green Was My Valley” by Richard Llewellyn. It’s a book about a Welsh, mining community in the 19th century. And so that song, “Pleader,” is almost structured like a hymn. It’s a kind of pastoral celebration of a time that’s no longer, a time that’s gone.
We went to a cathedral in England, Ely Cathedral, to record the boy’s choir there, to record the organ there, to add this church hymn sound in the song.
Joe read, while we had time off between albums, and was very moved by it. And I read it, subsequently. It’s great.
Ahead of your album, you guys created an interactive website for your album. I know Thom allowed fans to interact digitally in new, exciting ways with his solo project. Did that play a role here?
I don’t know. We are a band that embraces our status as a post-Internet band, I suppose. Two-thirds of the band, me and Joe, are not very tech savvy. Luckily, some very kind people at the label created that website, which we think is really cool and really fun, and we’ve played it a lot.
I think that Alt-J is really fundamentally about music and albums in a quite traditional sense. You can use the internet to do all kinds of amazing, musical collaborations. You can put Stems up and people can create their own songs. You could make a really conceptual album. You could write an album, put all Stems online, and have everyone mix it themselves or something. Everyone creates their own version of the album.
But I don’t think we are that kind of band to do that. We quite like old fashioned albums and that’s really what we’re about, I think.
What can new and old fans expect to see and hear on this world tour, which includes a slew of festivals? How will your new sound take shape on stage?
I think we’re going to adding the majority of songs from Relaxer to the live set. I would say five, at least. And of course, the majority of songs we will be playing will be songs from the first two albums, naturally.
We’re looking forward to these new songs immensely and we’ve been rehearsing a lot over the last few weeks. Perhaps the new songs it will involve lots of technical wizardries, but we have an amazing team around us to help us with that. I think the rehearsal is going really good. We can’t wait to play the new songs, really. It’s going to be great.
I know between This Is All Yours and Relaxer, all three of you really pursued some interesting personal endeavors, and you opened up a cafe, Dandy. Can you share a little about that project?
I have two partners, who we started the restaurant together, and I think you realize the extent to which relationships that you have in a band are very similar to relationships you have in any other creative partnership. It was so funny, I was identifying my two partners in Dandy almost like identifying which one was Joe and which one was Thom because there were so many similarities. It’s really funny.
You come to the conclusion that it’s a lot of fun and it’s a lot of hard work, and that’s really like being in the band as well. As much as being in a band is not just standing up and jamming, and hanging out with your mates, having a restaurant is not just about opening up, and sitting around eating and drinking, having people come in. It’s bloody hard work. That’s the really big lesson.
I think one of the things I’m most fascinated with, with you guys is the colossal respect that critics and fans surround you with. Deservingly. I’ve asked about navigating pressure before-- but would love to ask again. How do you listen to your heart/head above the noise?
Find good people you want to work with. Trust them, and trust your friendship to be the thing that guides you. Nurture the friendship as much as possible. I think that’s the best way to describe our approach to making music.