Art-electro, math-folk, hymnal-rock, call it what you will. However you interpret the sound of alt-J, none of it is entirely wrong and all of it is completely inventive, unsettling and powerful. After the release of their debut album “An Awesome Wave” back in 2012, the Leeds trio were quickly recognised for messing with traditional pop sounds in the best way possible to create music that does not settle for a particular sound.
Today, alt-J are one of the biggest British bands of the 21st century. Their just-released third album “Relaxer” invites the listener to interpret each melody, lyric, manipulation of strings, beat and chant any way they see fit.
We chat to one third of alt-J, vocalist Gus Unger-Hamilton, about “Relaxer” and how a Tasmanian Devil inspired the lyrics on one of the tracks.
After taking time off after touring your previous albums back-to-back, how did the three of you decide it was time to begin working on your third record?
We knew we wanted to put out an album in 2017, so once we’d had a few months off, it felt like a good idea to get together and see what ideas we all had. As much as we needed a rest after touring two albums back-to-back, we were all keen to get back to work sooner than we thought.
When working on “Relaxer”, did you have a particular direction or idea for the sound of the album?
Not especially. We in alt-J have always enjoyed the freedom of not settling on one particular sound. But I do think we made an effort to make this album more diverse than either of our first two.
How did you come to decide that you would include a reinterpretation of the classic tune, “The House of the Rising Sun” on “Relaxer”?
It was really a case of Joe figuring out some nice guitar chords and finding himself singing the well-known words to the song over them, with a new melody. Once he’d shown this to the rest of us, we all thought it would be a cool song to do a version of. Although it’s such a classic, no one has done a version of it in a while.
How did the Tassie Devil come to inspire the tune “Adeline”?
The song was written when we were on tour – in Tasmania, naturally. It’s a beautiful part of the world, and quite inspiring to write about. The idea of an animal being in love with a human from afar is also quite a beguiling one.
The first track on the album, “3WW” features mesmerising vocals from Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell. Did you always have her in mind for the vocals when creating the song?
No, but we always knew those lines should be sung by a female singer. We often see our songs like short films, with roles for different actors. When we were thinking about who to “cast” as the girls from the pool in “3WW”, however, we quickly thought of Ellie – we know Wolf Alice from having toured together, and Ellie has an amazing voice.
“Hit Me Like That Snare” demands attention the minute it plays. Was there anything in particular that inspired this track?
This track really came about as the result of an unexpected studio jam. Joe had a guitar riff he’d written then forgotten about, and started playing it. Thom and I very quickly responded to it, and the song was written in no time. It had a kind of punk feeling, so we decided to embrace this when we recorded it, listening to The Stooges and “Sister Ray”-era Velvet Underground before doing vocal takes.
How do you think your sound has evolved from your previous records?
I don’t think we have a particular sound. However, I do feel that on this record, we were particularly into the idea of offering listeners things they hadn’t heard before. Also, I think that as we mature as a band, we are becoming more confident with experimentation.
What can audiences expect to experience at an alt-J show?
Good songs, great lights, average looks.
What is your favourite thing about touring down under?
The crowds, the food and days off at the beach.
Alt-J will return to the Riverstage on December 10, supported by Warpaint. Get tickets here
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