Man at His Best

Alt-J: Not Afraid Of Breaking Boundaries

The band talk their new album 'Relaxer', the inspiration behind their words, and turning a classic into an original.

BY Jayme Teoh Jiah Mae | Jul 23, 2018 | Music

(L-R) Gus Unger-Hamilton, Thom Sonny Green, Joe Newman.

Their lust-filled lyrics and carnal choruses leave listeners lingering onto every word of every song. Hailing from Leeds, Alt-J () have certainly made ripples within the music community owing their success largely to their unique approach of perpetual experimentation. Ever since their first album release in 2012, An Awesome Wave, the band have gained unparallel recognition for their esoteric yet charming verses. With their album Relaxer having been released last year, fans are ready to dive into the deep end with their songs, finding lines that speak and resonate with them. Before heading over to the big stage during Good Vibes Festival 2018, we got the chance to sit down and talk to two of the band members, Joe Newman (guitar/lead vocals) and Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboard/vocalist). 

ESQUIRE: Do each of you guys have a favourite song on the new album Relaxer, and why?

GUS UNGER-HAMILTON: Mine would be 3WW. I like the fact that we all put different things into it. As members of the band, I think it's got a really beautiful chorus. I also like the story that the song tells – it's got a great narrative. 

JOE NEWMAN: The song that I'm fond of is Deadcrush. For similar reasons, both Gus and I have a verse in it that we wrote ourselves. It was a song that came through a jam all the way back from 2014 when we were working on This Is All Yours. I listened to it a lot through that tour of the second album and I always knew that something special was going to happen. We worked on it in the studio and then we got there. It's a good song, I think. 

ESQ: Speaking of Deadcrush, how did your inspiration for that song come about? Did you guys just sit around one night talking about dead people you fancied?

JN: Quite often we do talk about dead people. Death fascinates us as human beings. I actually just sent a text being like "who's your deadcrush?" – someone who's no longer living who you have a crush on – and Gus said Ann Boleyn and Thom said Sylvia Plath. That's kind of where it all started.  

ESQ: There is definitely a different tone and feel to Relaxer as compared to previous albums. How did you guys decide that you wanted to take a different approach?

GUH: I would say we didn't decide whether to take a different approach. We don't say we want to make an album that's darker or happier, and I suppose it just came out that way. I would argue that Relaxer has a really broad spectrum to it, from up tempo to harsher and perhaps melancholy. It seems to be viewed broadly speaking as a dark album, and I could probably fight that.

ESQ: Why did you guys decide to cover House of the Rising Sun? Was it hard to pick a part such a loved classic and turn it into something completely new and original?

JN: I think what attracted us to that song is that it's been within us for such a long time. It's one of the first songs I've ever listened to as a kid and understood rock music and the sort of music my father listened to. I think it's been laying dormant inside me for a long time. I heard these guitar chords and I started singing some of the verses of House of the Rising Sun to the guitar chords and they kind of worked in a really interesting way. I think we just wanted to explore it initially and then, it stuck. So, we decided to put it on the record. They're very different songs. I wouldn't even say it's a cover.

GUH: Yeah, it's more of a version in the sense that House of the Rising Sun is a very old folk song that's hundreds of years old. The version by The Animals – they didn't write that song. 

JN: Yeah, it's a folk song. And with all good folk songs, it's always retold from different generations.

ESQ: Part of what I enjoy about your guys' music is the fact that it's sort of like a puzzle – I usually have to look the lyrics up and read about all the historical or pop-cultural references made. Do the lyrics usually come about naturally in a spur of the moment type thing, or do you guys take some time to really think about them?

JN: I think we always end up writing the same sort of stuff – love and lost, exploring relationships, and the demise of things around us. That's the things that are very common subjects to talk about in a lot of songwriting in popular music the last 60 years. I think we're no different. 

GUH: That said, I think sometimes lyrics are more informed by the music in the sense that maybe Joe and I just sing some words over the top of something and then base the lyrics on how those words sound, like in Deadcrush. It has lyrics that sort of make sense, but they are largely based on using the voice to sing sounds or even just say something you want to say. 

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ESQ: A lot of publications and people have different names for the music you guys put out. Some have called it "intellectual indie", whilst others have called it "hipster" or "alternative." How would you guys describe your music?

JN: I think on a very basic level, I would just say we're a guitar band. And I feel quite comfortable in that compartmentalising of our music. The rest is really subjective I think – it's hard to really say what we are without ruining what we are.

GUH: I like to think of our music as experimental. I don't think we're being different for the sake of being different. I do think when we are writing a song, we are often experimenting. I'm quite proud of that. 

ESQ: Have you been to Malaysia before this?

GUH: Don't think we have. But we have been to Indonesia, the Philippines. 

JN: Yeah, we've been to Southeast Asia before. Never Malaysia though.

ESQ: Have you guys tried durian yet?

GUH: No, but I want to tomorrow. I went to a market last night and there were a lot of stalls with durian and it seemed to be a buzzing trade. 

ESQ: What other performances were you looking forward to watching here at GVF?

JN: Lorde – it's going to be good. 

GUH: Nick Murphy – I love. And of course, I'll be enjoying Joe's performance when I'm on stage. I'll be looking at him. 


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