Interview: Alt-J, an escape from normal.
Last December, before Alt-J broke from touring for Christmas holidays, the band agreed to participate in an escape room game during their time in Auckland, New Zealand - not a particularly normal piece of press, but then again, they’re not really a normal band, in any sense of the word.
Having catapulted into the spotlight with their debut album ‘An Awesome Wave’, Alt-J have become synonymous with the bizarre, their harmonies unlike anything else in music. Their songs inhabit an otherworldly, cinematic universe, drawing inspiration from the weird and wonderful work of authors such as Bret Easton Ellis and Maurice Sendak, as well as Luc Besson's film 'Léon: The Professional'. Once reinterpreted by the band and shared through that unique alt-J lens, these influences can be seen in a whole new light.
So it's on a sunny December afternoon, that I find myself ‘locked’ in a dark room for an hour with two members of the band, armed only with torches and some limited skills of observation. Initiated into the task with a number of very strict rules and regulations, I hand lead vocalist Joe Newman and keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton legal waivers to sign - “In case we die?!” jokes Unger-Hamilton - before being briefed by a Games Master that picking locks is strictly prohibited. “That’s all in my past,” Unger-Hamilton solemnly promises.
Newman and Unger-Hamilton bound into the bach-themed escape room, eager to befuddle their way through the experience, while their fellow bandmate and drummer, Thom Sonny Green, prefers to relax outside in the Summer sun until the band’s full photoshoot later on in the afternoon. Currently in the middle of an entirely sold-out Australian and New Zealand tour, Newman and Unger-Hamilton excitedly inform us that it’s their first ever try at an escape room, but their bright-eyed and bushy-tailed enthusiasm takes a beating almost immediately.
Not even two minutes into the game, and the pair receive their first reprimand via walkie-talkie (our only form of communication with the outside world) after they try to move furniture to uncover clues more quickly. Dial-a-friend assistance, i.e. calling the Games Master via walkie-talkie, becomes a reoccurring trend of the hour.
While hammering on a glockenspiel to unlock a numerical code dictated by the pitch of the note, the duo pick a fight with the dictated correct response - not what they perceived the melodic interval to be. After initially getting the combination wrong twice, the band grow mildly annoyed with themselves - you’d think this would have been their forté after all, but not even perfect pitch can help them.
After successfully solving more and more clues, Newman and Unger-Hamilton figure out how to best work as a team, alternating and excelling at different aspects of the game, much like they do with their roles in the band. “I needed to do something clever after you did,” Unger-Hamilton jokes with Newman once he solves a particularly difficult clue, but they share in everything - the excitement and thrill of advancing in the game, the self-deprecation of their puzzle-solving talents, and eventually, the final escape.
When I, and the band, eventually emerge one hour later (“with no help at all!” they decree with an air of sarcasm), they declare it definitely worth their while, before a full table of catering distracts them.
They’re overwhelmed by the quantity of food and beverages that we present them with, so much so that they choose to pose with several food items in their polaroid photos. Unger-Hamilton is particularly excited about a newly launched wine-in-a-can product - “Where have you been all my life?” - and a timely Christmas cake that he tells us will be shared with the band’s crew during dinner at the show that evening.
Gus Unger-Hamilton measures in as the tallest member of Alt-J, and also the most enthusiastic, in all senses of the word. From exclaiming with delight after biting into a custard donut, to delightedly explaining his obsession with drain covers, not even a near-concussion can slow him down. After hitting his head on a corner of a shelf that juts out in the escape room, he promises me it was all “worth it.” He’s thoughtful at the same time - at a crucial part in the escape room, he lets me put together the final part of a puzzle, “because they’ll be the most fun!” and makes sure I can see every part of the process along the way. The full-time musician made time between Alt-J albums to explore something new, opening a pop-up restaurant (now the permanent Dandy Café in London), and his love of food is not just in the making of it, but in the indulging of it too - he informs us that he’s the fastest eater in East London, as a form of apology and explanation for why he inhales his custard donut so very, very quickly.
The film buff of the band, Joe Newman, is the happy-go-lucky spirit of Alt-J, his crooning voice (described by Unger-Hamilton as something like James Taylor) forever echoed by fans singing along at their live show. As a lead vocalist for one of the biggest headline bands on the planet today, you’d forgive him for having any form of diva demand - you hear stories of M&Ms being separated by colour, specific flavours of candles for dressing-rooms - but the most demanding thing I notice all day is Newman politely requesting room temperature water instead of refrigerated water, and for some help spelling ‘height’ and ‘panini’ when working on captioning his polaroids and self-portrait. He’s extremely delighted to discover his very own box of vegan cookies, with his name labelled on them, taking pleasure in the little things.
The softest spoken of the trio, Thom Sonny Green, seldom appears at band interviews, instead preferring to explore - he tells me about walking around Auckland’s Viaduct when he returns later in the day for the photoshoot. When not drumming in Alt-J, Green has countless other creative endeavours, from releasing his own solo ambient electronic album ‘High Anxiety’ last year - a nod to his own struggles with mental health - to painting, with his artwork gracing the ‘This Is All Yours’ album cover. He’s quietly thrilled when I mention my admiration for his paintings, which have featured in the past in exhibitions alongside fellow British bands Gengahr (whose Hugh Schulte also paints for their albums), Slaves, Bombay Bicycle Club, and more. Aside from that, follow Green on any form of social media and you’ll discover his love of memes, interesting facts (did you know that Crazy Frog has more monthly Spotify plays than Death Grips?), and anything you want to know about gaming.
The three-piece perform live as true equals, the stage split into three, with each member in line with one another, no one member in front of the other. It’s this camaraderie both on and off-stage that gives the band its life-force, and has propelled them further and further with each album release.
It’s been no secret since their inception that triangles are Alt-J’s favourite shape. In ‘Tesselate’ they proclaim those exact words, and their name stems from the computer keys which form the delta symbol. But beyond it being their favourite shape, the triangle is an apt comparison for the band as they exist today - with Unger-Hamilton, Sonny-Green and Newman working as a trio, each bringing their own talents to the table.
Aside from managing to escape from a physical room when in New Zealand, the band have managed to do the very same in their music, breaking free from the norms across each of their three albums to date. Conforming to a standard would have been an easy progression for Alt-J, especially after the success of ‘An Awesome Wave’ saw them awarded the prestigious Mercury Prize in 2012, however their ‘This Is All Yours’ follow-up several years later affirmed their status as outsiders - in the best possible way.
Who else can write a song detailing an experience in a sex hotel, where your safe words are reciting one to ten in Japanese? Or a song about crushing on historical figures from the past? And who else can write sensual metaphor about crisp packets in one song, and retelling a chapter of ‘Last Exit To Brooklyn’ in stunningly harmonic song-form?
Only Alt-J can.
A month after we meet Alt-J, I’m in the midst of discussing their success with Wolf Alice’s Joel Amey who surmises it well, explaining that: “They're like a beacon for how 'weird' can translate to mass saturation - sticking to your guns and just doing your thing and being the weirdos, and people are still well up for that, you know?"
And that very beacon is reaching more and more people with everything Alt-J do. With 4.7 million monthly listeners on Spotify, an upcoming headline slot at Latitude Festival (alongside The Killers and Solange), a sound that spawned a viral ‘How to write an Alt-J song’ video, a live album and concert film from their performance at the iconic Red Rocks venue, the Grammy and Brit Award nominees’ beacon is becoming more like wildfire, spreading its flames far and wide. In the filthy and raucous ‘Relaxer’ song ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’, Joe Newman closes by singing on repeat, “Fuck you, I'll do what I want to do,” a mantra which has clearly worked for the band thus far, and will likely continue to do so.
We spoke with Alt-J’s Gus Unger-Hamilton and Joe Newman while in New Zealand about their album ‘Relaxer’, the album format, and more…
COUP DE MAIN: So back on ‘Nara’ on ‘This Is All Yours’ you sung that, “love is the warmest color,” and now on ‘Relaxer’ you contemplate love again in songs like ‘3WW’. What is it about love that inspires your songwriting so much?
GUS UNGER-HAMILTON: I don’t think it’s unique to us, is it? In a way we’re trying to find new ways to write about classic things like love.
JOE NEWMAN: It’s kind of what unites us and it’s what creates the desire to mate. I think it’s a marketing tool and we’ve been led to believe that’s what we have to ascribe to, and I think we probably reinforce that way of thinking - that it’s the ultimate feeling. I think it’s something we’ve all experienced, deep feelings of passion for people. I think we like to talk about love because it’s something we all feel, and all strive for.
CDM: Do you think that love is the strongest human emotion? And if not, what do you think is?
GUS: I mean, I think that in terms of what motivates people, I don’t know. If you look at human progress, probably the strongest human emotion is selfishness, I would say. But maybe love is a part of that. I think as humans, it’s looking pretty much like we’ve fucked up the planet irrevocably through our own selfishness and greed and desire for power, and things like that. You could link all of those things through love, self-love, so I don’t know. Sorry, that’s a very negative answer. <laughs> Yes, love is definitely the strongest emotion!
CDM: It’s all good, you’re being a realist.
GUS: I’m just dropping truth bombs.
JOE: It doesn’t have to be that love is the strongest emotion, it’s just emotions are all very strong - like anger, and fear, they’re equally powerful under different situations. I don’t think there’s one ultimate.
CDM: How do you go about composing your harmonies in the band?
GUS: In terms of the harmonies, we enjoy singing together a lot. When we’re writing a song, we’ll sort of see what sounds good when we’re singing it live, and then we get in the studio and we try out more stuff, maybe layer it up with more and more harmonies in a way that you couldn’t do with just two people. We’re quite influenced by Renaissance and Medieval kind of harmonies, there’s a lot of fifths and stuff like that in our music, so that’s quite cool.
MY FAVOURITE THING ABOUT GUS IS…
MY FAVOURITE THING ABOUT JOE IS…
MY FAVOURITE THING ABOUT THOM IS…
CDM: Gus, you studied English at university. Which particular facet of English was it?
GUS: I read a lot of books, and plays, and poetry. I wrote essays about them and went to lectures about them. Just generally lived the classic student lifestyle, I suppose you could say. We were doing the band a lot in our spare time, but we were all pretty into our studies too.
CDM: What’s your history in music theory, and learning music?
GUS: In terms of doing the band, I suppose it was quite helpful to have one person there who had more of a theoretical knowledge of music sometimes, just to sort of work on songs if we couldn’t figure out what was going wrong with a song, maybe from a theory point of view to see if that helped. But I wasn’t studying music at university, obviously.
CDM: Did you study music pre-University?
GUS: It was. I was a music scholar at school.
CDM: And you played oboe?
GUS: I did, yeah. I love the oboe.
CDM: I used to play it too.
GUS: Oh, nice. A much misunderstood instrument, I think.
CDM: Definitely, agreed. I love the bassoon part in ‘Last Year’.
GUS: My brother played the bassoon, and I played the oboe. I actually had a dream about oboes last night. I just remembered some girl was playing the oboe, and I was going to ask her what kind of reeds she used. <laughs>
CDM: The ‘Relaxer’ online game was made by Osamu Sato, inspired by his 1998 Playstation game, ‘LSD’. Is it a game that you guys were familiar with?
JOE: No, it was a still that Thom found online, and we really liked it. So we decided to make it our album cover.
CDM: Have you since played the game?
JOE: No. <laughs> I haven’t. We met him in Japan, actually, when we were just there. And I was reminded by how little I know of his work, other than that picture that we used for the cover. The picture just made sense.
CDM: You guys wrote ‘Adeline’ while on tour with the last record - is writing on tour something you guys do often, or do you prefer to write in a whole other environment?
JOE: I think with writing, as long as you have a guitar with you, you never plan to set a spot where you’re gonna write. It often just comes, that may be on tour, or that may be at home. Most of the time it’s at home because you’ve got so much time. I think there’s a routine [on tour] that means it can wipe your creative urges a little bit, and they often are replenished when you are at home. So often writing happens at home, more than on tour, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t happen on tour.
CDM: You’ve said that each song on the album kind of has its own sense of narrative and world. During the writing process for the album, were you aware of these distinct worlds that each song was living in, or was it more retrospective?
GUS: I think that our songs are always quite strongly imaginative, and quite visual. Once we finished the album I realised that each one of them was almost at the edge of a very different specific setting, a different country, or a different world, or a different time, and that was a cool way to look at the album, almost as a video game where you can select your level and go play in that bit.
CDM: Joe, as the film aficionado of alt-J, what are your top five favourite films of all-time?
JOE: I should really start writing-- sometimes I have moments of inspiration where I actually remember what my favourite films are.
CDM: Do you have a notebook where you write the films you watch in?
CDM: I feel like that would be a good idea.
JOE: You’re right. I don’t actually know. Some films like I suppose ‘Good Will Hunting’ would be up there, [but] they’re not my favourites. Okay, fuck it. ‘Good Will Hunting’, ‘La Haine’, it’s a French film from the ‘90s, ‘The Warriors’, ‘Léon: The Professional’ was the first one that I got really into. I really like ‘Brokeback Mountain’. Is that four or five? ‘Amores Perros’. Those are the films off the top of my head - today, they’re my favourite films. Tomorrow, it could be completely different, it doesn’t work for me like that [with] best films. There are films that make me feel a whole heap of different things.
CDM: Is directing / working in film something that you’d ever be interested in?
JOE: Yeah, I love being on music video shoots. I’ve spent time on about three or four videos that I’ve been involved in on-set, just being there and watching people do their thing. I love the camaraderie and the essential teamwork that’s needed to create a good production. Everyone’s really nice, and desperate to do justice to the song, so I’d love to be involved in things like that in the future more closely. I think film is probably my favourite artistic medium, so I think maybe in the future I’d like to get involved in that more.
CDM: You guys are traditionalists in terms of the sense of an ‘album’, and having released your first ever album back in 2012, what do you think the major changes in the music industry have been, and how have they impacted on this traditionalised sense of an ‘album’?
GUS: I think the biggest thing is with playlists now, they are ruling the world, it has definitely changed since 2012. It would’ve been a thing back then, but now I think Spotify playlists are so, so important. It’s probably not necessarily good news for the album, because that’s all about individual tracks being selected for these huge playlists with millions of subscribers. That said, I think that oddly it does lure some people back to the album, people know what albums are, and they know where to find them, and I hope that if they hear one of our songs in the big playlist, they then go, ‘Oh, I might check out the album too.’ Even back in 2012 people were talking about the album being dead, and making an album just to sell tickets - that’s probably still the case, but we’re happy doing what we’re doing.
CDM: I interviewed Oliver from The xx recently who was telling me about how it's kinda hard spending so much time on the design and packaging of an album, when so much of it now is consumed via an MP3, or Spotify - where the album cover is so tiny, and doesn’t get appreciated. Is this something you guys are aware of when designing art / putting in thought for the accompanying art for your music?
JOE: I still think the visual is attached to the album and still strongly bonded to the album. We still sell vinyls, they’re being sold more than CDs these days. So every time people think of ‘Relaxer’ they probably think of the album artwork.
GUS: We did have some pushback from our label on the artwork for online, didn’t we? They wanted us to do a different sleeve. They were like, ‘You can have that for the CD and for the vinyl, but we need something more colourful, it’s not going to look good on a screen.’ We were kind of like, ‘That’s not really-- the tail shouldn’t be wagging the dog. This is the artwork for the album, if you want to put it on Spotify, great, but we’re not going to change the artwork just to get more clicks.’
MY FAVOURITE SONG ON 'RELAXER' IS...
CDM: 'Relaxer' is your first album with no 'Intro' or any interlude-type tracks. Was having the straightforward eight songs important for the narrative of this album?
JOE: I think we were just writing songs, and up until the point where our producer, and people around us like management and label were like, ‘Okay, we’ve got to start thinking about what this album looks like.’ We then realised that maybe we didn’t want to do the past formatted way that we had traditionally done the last two. Actually, it starts with ‘3WW’ which you could argue that there is an intro, it’s just connected to the song.
CDM: On the phone earlier this year, Gus, we talked about the pop-up restaurant which you started. Do you think it's important to have interests outside of the band in order for the band to have a long-term existence?
GUS: Yeah, I do think so. We need to have something. If the band is everything - work, social life, whatever, everything like that - it probably can get a bit too much. So I think it’s good to have things going on outside of the band.
CDM: How is the restaurant going?
GUS: It’s good, I’ve taken more of a backseat now. When I was more actively involved it was a lot of fun.
CDM: Gus, what’s your favourite city that you’ve visited, food-wise?
GUS: Probably New York or Melbourne. They’re really great places to eat. However, I did have some exceptionally nice food last night here in Auckland. I went to Coco’s Cantina.
CDM: Did you get the polenta chips?
GUS: Yes, we did. They were super. They were really, really good.
CDM: And have you found any interesting drain covers since you’ve been in New Zealand?
GUS: Oohhh, I haven’t yet. I haven’t had a walk around yet. I’m hoping to add to my apparently well-known collection on Instagram.
CDM: Your fans just told us that you really love them.
GUS: I do, I absolutely do. I love practical design - a nice design in mundane situations, I think that’s pretty much peak human achievement.
CDM: Maybe if you ever decide to do anything else you can become a drain cover designer.
GUS: Someone’s got to do it.
Alt-J’s album ‘Relaxer’ is out now - click here to purchase.
Alt-J were shot on location at Escapade NZ - after escaping from one of the rooms - click here for more information.
Watch the ‘Pleader’ music video below…