alt-J Talk Chasing Excitement And Magic On A Confident New Album

May 30, 2017
Originally published on May 30, 2017 5:21 pm

alt-J has risen to music stardom while playfully disregarding many rules of popular music. Over its past two albums, An Awesome Wave and This is All Yours, the British trio has displayed a taste for the unpredictable and unconventional. And now, the forthcoming album Relaxer features two different songs that include counting in Japanese, a cover of a classic folk song with a veritable orchestra of classical guitarists and hardly any tracks under five minutes in length.

"We enjoy luxuriating in the kind of sounds that we're making," says keyboardist and vocalist Gus Unger-Hamilton, noting that the band's producer is the one who trims the sprawling tracks created in the studio. Unger-Hamilton and Newman joined NPR's Ari Shapiro to discuss the creative decisions behind Relaxer and how the band has changed since its inception. Hear the interview at the audio link and read on for an edited excerpt of that conversation.

Ari Shapiro: I hope it doesn't sound rude, but I think one of my favorite tracks on this album is actually your cover of "House of the Rising Sun."

Joe Newman: No, I think that's great. We are a folk band and we've taken a very old folk song and we've kind of reimagined it.

There are lyrics I've never heard before and I didn't know if they were lyrics from an early version of the song that I just wasn't familiar with, or if you'd written them yourself. But this line, "Like a bird flying over a forest fire, my father feels the heat beneath his wings." That just stopped me dead.

Gus Unger-Hamilton: That's original, original stuff. Joe wrote a second verse for it, and the first verse of our version is based on Woody Guthrie's version. And then there's the chorus which we wrote, and the second verse. So it's more original material than cover really, this song.

Is it at all scary? To take a classic that is as old and beloved as this, and just tear it apart and do what you want to it and rewrite it, and yet keep the title and keep the framework?

Unger-Hamilton: I think it's something we'd only have the confidence to do, being on our third album. I think if we'd done this on our first album we'd have felt like we were, you know, out of line.

Newman: And I think we live by the rule that if it excites us, we should be moving forward.

What was it about this song that pulled you in in the first place?

Newman: The Animals' version, I think, is the one I grew up listening to.

Unger-Hamilton: This is the famous version from the 60s that people are familiar with.

Newman: Yeah, exactly. That's probably my first living memory of rock 'n' roll. And it's always stayed with me.

Unger-Hamilton: I heard the song being sung as a folk song by my family, so I didn't know any of the versions — The Animals' version, or anything. It was just this song that was around in my family. So I feel like I've always known it, I think.

And so when you take these two memories and relationships that each of you has to the song, and filter it through your own talent and aesthetic, how do you create what we're listening to now?

Unger-Hamilton: [Laughs.] I don't know. I think that in alt-J, we feel like we can try anything. So in this song for example, the guitar is actually played by 20 different classical guitarists, all in one room playing at the same time.

What?! Oh, my God. What did you want by having 20 classical guitar players, rather than one, or five, or just using a computer to make one sound like 20?

Unger-Hamilton: I think when you do something like this, if you can do it properly, you should. And who knows, there might even be some extra magic to it, and actually I think there was. There was this almost kind of John Cage-y kind of — you're not just hearing the guitar riffs, you're hearing the sound of the room, you're hearing 20 different people's fingers creaking on the neck. And you're listening to everything, and that's what you get from doing it properly and not just layering up one person 20 times.

I was really aware of those fingers squeaking on the neck of the guitar. It's almost like a percussion instrument in the arrangement.

Newman: Yeah. It's true.

You met as university students when you were teenagers 10 years ago. And the song "Hit Me Like That Snare" has the lyric, "We are dangerous teenagers." Which you're not anymore! How do you think age has changed your music?

Unger-Hamilton: I think it always comes back to confidence with us. I think that when we started at university we were fresh-faced and full of ideas. And we've tried to keep that spirit, but we also got better at our instruments, we also learned new instruments, and I think the experimental side of it has become a bigger thing.

Newman: I think there's a lot to be said about getting to know people before you ever see yourself going down those creative ventures with those people. You need to find out if you're on the same wavelength, recommend things to each other. We went through that process. That really helped us establish a chemistry. Essentially our attitude is if you like what we've done, then you'll like what we're about to show you.

The band has been a critical and commercial success, even though you consistently defy so many of the pressures of the music industry and break so many of the rules for pop music. Do you think that means there are unexplored paths for musicians to be successful or do you think it just means that alt-J is a unicorn?

Newman: I don't think we see it as defying the rules and regulations set by the music industry. I think we're just lucky we can do what we do and have people around us who believe in what we do.

Unger-Hamilton: I also think that people's capacity and appetite for challenging music is underappreciated by most of the industry. And I think that somehow despite that, there's this view that people can't take anything too out there. But we're pleased to be hopefully disproving that.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the British band alt-J released their debut album five years ago, they won a bunch of music awards.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREEZEBLOCKS")

ALT-J: (Singing) Do you know where the wild things go? They go along to take your honey - la, la, la, la.

SHAPIRO: By the time their second album came out, alt-J was playing stadium shows to adoring audiences. Now, they have their third album, "Relaxer," and somehow they have managed to build this popular and critical success while breaking many of the rules of popular music. First of all, alt-J doesn't just stick to one genre. For example, two songs on this album include counting in Japanese. And here is what those clips sound like back to back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALT-J SONG)

ALT-J: (Singing in Japanese).

(SOUNDBITE OF ALT-J SONG)

ALT-J: (Singing in Japanese).

SHAPIRO: And the band breaks the rules of pop music in other ways, too. Like a perfect pop song is generally three and a half minutes. On this album, most of the songs run longer than five.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALT-J SONG, "3WW")

SHAPIRO: Two of the band's members recently came into the studio to talk about how they make this music. I asked Gus Unger-Hamilton and Joe Newman about the first track on the album, "Three Worn Words." It starts with almost a minute of this ominous guitar, bass and percussion line.

JOE NEWMAN: I think we always saw this as an introduction, that there was a scene you had to walk through to then get to the first kind of vocal bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "3WW")

ALT-J: (Singing) There was a wayward lad, stepped out one morning.

GUS UNGER-HAMILTON: So this is Gus. These are some lyrics that I wrote two or three years ago. I love English folk music, and it's kind of inspired by that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "3WW")

ALT-J: (Singing) Neon, neon, neon.

UNGER-HAMILTON: And now it's Joe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "3WW")

ALT-J: (Singing) A blue neon lamp in a midnight country field.

NEWMAN: This is me. Yeah. I was...

UNGER-HAMILTON: We're just passing the mic around.

NEWMAN: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Why?

UNGER-HAMILTON: Only got one mic.

(LAUGHTER)

NEWMAN: I think as we're developing as a band and as friends, we start realizing that we're all good at coming up with ideas.

SHAPIRO: So if act one is this ominous feeling and act two is this almost folk music vocal, then this comes in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "3WW")

ALT-J: (Singing) Oh, these three worn words, oh, that we whisper like the rubbing hands of tourists in Verona. I just want to love you in my own language.

SHAPIRO: What's going on?

UNGER-HAMILTON: I identified it as being quite Beatles-y (ph).

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

NEWMAN: It kind of punches you out of this lullaby state that you may find yourself in after the first two minutes of the song.

SHAPIRO: I could imagine a different band or a producer for a band saying, guys, you've got four great songs here. Make each one of them a song.

UNGER-HAMILTON: (Laughter).

NEWMAN: Yeah.

UNGER-HAMILTON: I think producers have always known that we are a band who like to jump around in our songs, and we enjoy luxuriating in the kind of sounds that we're making, I think. And our producer's quite good at kind of cutting them down. And, you know, often when we go in there, sort of 10 minutes long and then he makes them closer to five. So really you're hearing usually an edited version of what we've come up with.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALT-J SONG, "HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN")

SHAPIRO: I hope it doesn't sound rude, but I think that one of my favorite tracks on this album is actually your cover of "House Of The Rising Sun."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN")

ALT-J: (Singing) There is a house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun.

NEWMAN: We've taken a very old folk song, and we've kind of reimagined it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN")

ALT-J: (Singing) Like a bird flying over forest fire, my father feels the heat beneath his wings.

SHAPIRO: There are lyrics that I've never heard before, and I didn't know if they were lyrics from an early version of the song that I just wasn't familiar with or if you'd written them yourself. But, like, this line - like a bird flying over a forest fire, my father feels the heat beneath his wings - I - that just stopped me dead.

UNGER-HAMILTON: That's original, original stuff.

NEWMAN: Yeah.

UNGER-HAMILTON: Joe, you know, wrote a second verse for it. And the first verse of our version is based on Woody Guthrie's version. And then there's the chorus, which we wrote, and the second verse. And so it's more original material than cover really, this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN")

ALT-J: (Singing) Happy, happy, happy, happy, fun day, day.

SHAPIRO: Is it at all scary to take a classic that is as old and beloved as this and just tear it apart and do what you want to it and rewrite it, and yet keep the title and keep the framework?

UNGER-HAMILTON: I think it's something that we would only have the confidence to do being on our third album. I think we'd done this on our first album, we would have felt like we were, you know, out of line.

NEWMAN: And I think we live by the rule - this is Joe - that if it excites us, then we should be moving forward.

UNGER-HAMILTON: So in this song, for example, the guitar is actually played by 20 different classical guitarists...

SHAPIRO: What?

UNGER-HAMILTON: ...All in one room playing at the same time.

SHAPIRO: Oh, my God.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALT-J SONG, "HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN")

SHAPIRO: What did you want by having 20 classical guitar players rather than one or five or just using a computer to make one sound like 20?

UNGER-HAMILTON: When you do something like this, if you can do it properly, you should. And who knows? There might even be some extra magic to it. And actually I think there was to this kind of like - you're not just hearing the guitarists. You're hearing the sound of the room. You're hearing 20 different people's, you know, fingers creaking on the neck. And you're listening to everything, and that's what you get from doing it properly, not just, you know, layering up one person 20 times.

SHAPIRO: I was really aware of those fingers squeaking on the neck of the guitar.

NEWMAN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: It's almost like a percussion instrument in the arrangement.

UNGER-HAMILTON: Exactly.

NEWMAN: That's true, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALT-J SONG, "HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN")

SHAPIRO: The band has been a critical and commercial success, even though you consistently defy so many of the pressures of the music industry and break so many of the rules for pop music. Do you think that means that there are unexplored paths for musicians to be successful, or do you think it just means that alt-J is a unicorn?

NEWMAN: I don't think we see it as defying the rules and regulations set by the music industry. I think we're just lucky that we can do what we do and have people around us that believe in what we do.

UNGER-HAMILTON: I also think that people's capacity and appetite for challenging music is underappreciated by most of the industry. And I think that somehow despite that, there's this view that people can't take anything too out there. But we're pleased to be hopefully disproving that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN COLD BLOOD")

ALT-J: (Singing) Zero, one, one, one, zero, zero, one, one, crying zeroes and I'm hearing one, one, ones.

SHAPIRO: Gus Unger-Hamilton and Joe Newman of the band alt-J, thank you so much for joining us.

UNGER-HAMILTON: Thanks for having us.

NEWMAN: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: The new album is called "Relaxer."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN COLD BLOOD")

ALT-J: (Singing) Hair the way the sun really wants it to be, whiskey soda, please, your G&T is empty, chairs, inflatables have sunk to the bottom, pool, summer, summer, pool, pool, summer, kiss me. Callie, let's dive, dive down. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.