alt-j par Rosie Matheson

Interview – alt-j : « If we have a genre, then it’s authenticity »

A few weeks ago, we’ve met the three members of alt-j (Joe Newman, Gus Unger-Hamilton and Thom Green) through Zoom to talk about their next album The Dream, scheduled for February 2022.

You’re coming back with a new album that seems vulnerable, fragile and a bit personal and we can sense that once again you’ve been experiencing with a new musical universe while still having that alt-j sound. How do you manage to always get out of your musical comfort zone?
Gus: I think it’s just that we enjoy trying new thing in the studio. The studio is an environment in which we feel very comfortable. We’ve been working with our producer Charlie [Andrew] for well over ten years now, I guess it just feels like he has a lot of great ideas that he wants to try and knows that we’d want to try, different approaches, using different kind of musicians, pushing in different directions stylistically. So, it’s fun, it makes recording more interesting, because I think that otherwise the creativity would be done when we’d finish writing which would be sad and we would miss out on the whole stage of creating really.

How does Charlie Andrew help you in that research of new sound? Is he part of the band to you?
Joe: I think he’s part of the band, in the sense that it’s a really crucial moment in the capturing of the song when you start recording it, producing it. He’s always seemingly shared a similar vision as we do when we discuss the songwriting and we write the songs. He’s this fourth voice and I think it’s an incredibly important dynamic having Charlie working with us. As his relationship has changed with how he produces, he’s also accumulated a lot more gear. Through that accumulation, he then homes in his favourite ways of recording the music that he works with. I think it creates quite a strong sound. In this particular album we recorded everything back to one amp with David Gilmour’s box from the late 1960’s, so everything went back through that amp, guitar, drums, vocals, and it really gives out this lovely strong sense of something old, dusty, familiar. It was the first time we’ve done that, but we had to go through all the albums to reach that point, it’s a nice development, I think.

Do you work with him when you’re preparing your live set or to you is it something completely different?Gus: We have done it in the past actually. I think when we were a younger band, we needed to some help from Charlie to come in the studio – the rehearsing studio – and listen to what we were doing and give us some points on how we could improve the live performances of the tracks to make them sound more like the album. But I don’t think it’s something we need so much anymore now, I don’t think we’ll do it this time, but he has done it in the past yeah. I think preparing for live now it has more to do with us working with our technical crew who help us to create the sounds and the things we need to play live to make the songs sound as good on stage as they do on the record that Charlie’s produced.

You’ve already announced a North American, a UK+Ireland tour, and some festivals. How do you feel about doing things in big once again?
Thom: I’m looking for forward to it, yeah, I’m really looking forward to being on stage again. It’s been so long it feels quite surreal the thought of actually, you know, being in front of an audience. We’ve been so used to it, to the point, where, for me, I could play with my eyes closed. Some shows you zone out because when you’ve been on tour for so long, the novelty, you kind of forget about it. With the break it’s been so long, it’s so surreal to think that we’ll be on a stage in front of a lot of people. There’s some hesitation, or some nerves around being away from home from a long period again. The first tour is a couple months and I’ve pretty much been at home since 2018, that’ll take some adjusting, being thrown out of your routine a bit. Luckily, we’ve got a great crew around us, we’ve got a great tour manager, we’re not all in one van anymore and that kind of thing. It’s exciting, I’m just looking forward to getting out of the country for a bit as well and getting to see something other than London would be a treat.
Gus: Yeah.

I think Thom you mentioned in an interview that you prefer big crowds rather than small venues. Is it the same for you Gus and Joe?
Thom: Yeah, I think it’s about the fact that smaller shows you can see everyone and that really intimidates me and I find it really hard to look at people when I’m playing. If I look out and I see somebody looking at me I feel very vulnerable and exposed. I feel very silly, like it’s just a weird experience to be playing the drums in front of somebody watching me do it. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just odd. When it’s a big venue, I feel less intimidated. You can feel people looking at you a bit less. But there are benefits in small venues, so I like a balance, I guess.
Joe: I’ve always liked smaller venues because you can feel the heat in the room. You can see everything with so much more details and the atmosphere is so more conducive to a more authentic performance. It’s also better for you voice when the room is hot and it’s sweaty, it’s good for your voice. I think I can find playing really large crowds, you’re really kind of disconnected sometimes and when you do connect with someone in large crowds, it throws me a bit. Whereas if I decide to look at people in a small crowd I guess used to them, it’s almost like they’re friends or relative, you get used to their face and you see that they’re enjoying themselves. It can be shit if you see someone and they’re not enjoying themselves, because it’s hard not to look at them. You keep an eye on them to see if things change, you start monitoring their behavior. I find it conducive of a better performance when we’re in a small space and it reminds me of when we were a younger band and that was the only venues we played.
Gus: Hum, I like both.

From Bloodflood released ten years ago to Get Better released only a few weeks ago, you’ve been gaining so much fans. Do you have some kind of pressure when you’re releasing a new project, that you’ll hope your fans will be receptive to it?
Thom: Yeah. I think it’s inevitable that we are aware of the amazing fans that we have, we’re so grateful. Lots of our fans have been there from the very beginning and are extremely loyal and have always appreciated what’ve done. But at the same time, we don’t… You know, if we’d been writing for them, the music wouldn’t sound as it sounds, we primarily write for ourselves and it’s a huge bonus if they love it as much as they do. You know, we’re not going to suddenly come out with a black metal album, we do have a kind of a path. I think we’re lucky in that we’ve always tried to be authentic and honest and then people could see that. If we have a genre, then it’s authenticity, and as long as we do that, we can kinda do anything. The pressure, there’s always kind of a hint of it and we can try to ignore it completely, but I think that’s not possible. We just have to have confidence in each other and in what we’re doing and we’ll be okay.
Joe: I think it’s interesting being in a band for ten years, the relationship that you have with your fanbase. Even though you’re not always in contact with them, you’re aware that they’re growing up. It’s hard to know, in terms of analytics, how many new fans you’re getting, versus how many old fans that remain listening to your new material. Because you do get a lot of people that are obsessed with the first album, and they haven’t graduate to the other albums. It’s these different types of fans that exists in our world and cause it’s been ten years, a lot of the die-hard fans are ten years older, and they have different lives now and I wonder what the dynamics are with us in their lives, whether we are as involved in their day to day life as we once were, it’s interesting. There’s a lot of reflection on your fanbase. The nice thing is you hope you can reconnect with them by releasing new material, because it’s what defines our relationship.

Thom you were talking about authenticity. Recently Hubert Lenoir, a French-Canadian artist released an album subtitled “Direct Music” in reference of Direct Cinema, that tried to capture the essence and reality of people’s live. This album, The Dream, kinda feels like it, is it something that you tried to achieve with this particular album?
Joe: I think film has always been a big reference in the writing. Once it was direct references in films but now, certainly for me when I write, I’m extremely visual. I create very strong imageries in my head. That’s the thing I think that is one of the connections I have with the fans, it’s that the lyrics have very strong visual references. That comes across as quite filmmaker. And because of that the production that follows suits, so you reinforce those filmmake thoughts by creating these recordings, whether that’s “girls in pool”, whether that’s Thom and Thom’s partner reading a script [in the last song] or whether that’s a choir singing about Coca-Cola. We kinda reinforce these visuals. That kinda lift the idea that you’re listening to things that are similar in a cinematic quality to cinema.

There’s always quite some time between your albums, in an industry where bands are pushed to release albums and Eps almost every year. How do you know that you’re ready to release a new project?
Gus: I think you know when something’s done. You’re dictated to by format to a certain extent, because albums tend to be between nine and fifteen tracks long, so when you feel that you put together a good group of songs, you can say “okay, this is an album now”. And obviously we are in a record contract, which means we have to deliver album. It’s a bit of a mundane answer but when we feel that we’re happy with what we’ve done and it could be put together in an album, then I think it’s when you know you’re done. Moving forwards, nobody knows what people will do music wise. I feel like people have been talking about the demise of the album since we’ve been starting a band, and it hasn’t happened yet, so I think possibly, reports of the album death have been exaggerated to misquote someone.

Your artworks are always an important part of your album, and they’re always a bit enigmatic. Can you tell us about the cover of The Dream?
Gus: It’s a drawing that was done by an artist that was a friend of ours, he’s called Joel Wyllie. We were a little bit stuck for what to for our album artwork this time. We wanted to use a Picasso painting that’s called The Dream, hence the name The Dream, but that was just not possible. Then we were kinda like having different suggestions and then we thought “well why don’t we see if Joel have some work that he’d be interested in us using”. And he sent us some drawings and we all really liked this one. I think it really works well with the title The Dream, you could say that the creature in the cover looks like something you might meet in a dream, or you could say it might be experiencing a dream itself. It’s enigmatic but it’s striking, it’s memorable, it’s intriguing, it’s a bit frightening, it’s a bit funny. In a way I think it’s a bit like the album itself: it has many sides to it, it has many many different ways of making you feel.

Couverture de The Dream

To finish, do you have anything that inspires you at the moment, whether that’s an artist, a movie, a show, etc. ?
Thom: Currently I’m really into an artist, he’s dead now, called Howard Hodgkin, he’s a British painter that I discovered a couple of years ago. I’m just in awe of the simplicity and the message, how clear it is in the painting. I like that kind of things in different medias really, whether it’s music or painting or films or sculptures, whatever is it. I like a complex concept put in a simple way. The painting, sometimes it would just be one brush stroke, a big brush stroke with oil on it, and I feel an emotion and sometimes you can kind of taste it and smell it. It’s just an experience and there’s nothing else like it. Sometimes I would just sit on my Ipad and look at the images and it would just make me feel better.
Gus: I think my favourite actor just died a few days ago which made me very sad, Anthony Sher, who was a stage actor. He was somebody who I saw live, in mainly Shakespeare plays, quite a lot over the last ten years. He was a really great South-African-British actor, he was only in his 70’s, still acting up until the pandemic, then obviously not many plays happened in the last couple of years, now he’s dead and I feel really sad about that. I can’t say that he inspires me because I’m not an actor, he doesn’t inspire me directly, but he’s a very inspirational artist. I’ve read several books that he’s written, he’s a really great painter and draftsman as well. I just wanted to shout out to him.
Joe: I can’t think of anything right now actually. I think sometimes it’s not who inspires you, it’s just how you’re feeling at a particular point within that day. For example, I would pick up a photography book, it’s not about the photographer, it’s about your mood at the time and actually how open you are to absorb something that you can then filter and have an affect on you. I find that it’s more about finding that moment. It kinda doesn’t answer your question and it does.

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