Interview: Alt-J

At first glance, Relaxer is a struggle to digest. Consisting of only eight tracks with artwork that looks like it’s been botched together on Microsoft Paint, it barely fits the conventional album format – but then again, Alt-J don’t seem to do things the normal way…

So far from the trio’s third album they’ve released a glitchy video game inspired by Sony Playstation’s ‘LSD’ alongside lead single ‘3WW’, plus a short film about a wood mouse, narrated by Iggy Pop, for follow-up track ‘In Cold Blood’. “We always treat the videos as an opportunity to make a short film. We’re not interested in miming to the song in the video,” Gus Unger-Hamilton (keys and vocals) tells Exposed. Though they’ve always been labelled as one of the quirkier bands to form after the noughties, you’d be hard-pressed to find them miming and busting out routine dance moves, OK GO style. Instead, they’re a closer fit to one of their most cited inspirations, Radiohead. Relaxer’s short tracklist has the same number of songs as the mega-band’s eighth studio album The King of Limbs; an unlikely coincidence one might say. The trend at the moment seems to be about puffing out albums to their full potential, turning what was once a concise collection of carefully selected tracks into full-on playlists. In the past few months Drake and Gorillaz have released albums that together total almost fifty songs – and even though Alt-J now have the fan power behind them, it’s not something that’s crossed their mind. “If someone recommends me a book and it’s nine-hundred pages long I’m probably not gonna read it, and similarly I don’t feel the need to put twenty tracks on the album. I think eight really well-written tracks that fill you up is better than a long tracklisting.”

The good news is that the handful of tracks are some of their boldest to date. ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ sounds like a darker, more bonkers Talking Heads number, ‘Adeline’ unravels like the soundtrack to an epic Coen Brothers film and ‘Deadcrush’ pulsates with a bravado of thick hip-hop beats. Upon asking if they could throw a featured rapper into the mix, Gus seems interested but doesn’t quite let on as much as he may know. It’s a similar tone taken when there’s mention of the album’s plethora of strings being recreated on stage. “It’s something that we are looking into. Obviously it’s quite a hard thing to do for every show but hopefully for some big shows we’ll be getting some extra musicians to play with us. We will do it when we can.” You get the sense there’s a few surprises to come from the band’s live sets this summer, but you can be certain that two guest features likely to pop up are Marika Hackman, who returns to lend vocals in ‘Last Year’, and Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell from album opener ‘3WW’. “Both those songs have strong narratives and they’re almost like films with characters. In both those cases they’re playing the roles of female characters, so it made sense to get women to sing those lines.”

Wolf Alice, who Gus calls their “little siblings”, received similar levels of hysteria around their debut album as Alt-J did when the then four-piece scooped the Mercury Prize for An Awesome Wave. “It’s amazing at the time. You have to kind of move on from it.” The band not only moved on, but at a frightening pace, touring for the next three years; the only break coming when they nipped into the studio to record second album This Is All Yours in 2014. This time around they took a few months off before putting together Relaxer, recording it at various spots across London with Charlie Andrew, producer of their previous records. “We knew we wanted to play festivals in 2017 so that meant we had to get the album out early summer. It was quite intimidating to have that deadline but we knew that we could do it.”

“I would find it hard to imagine a situation in which we wrote and recorded a load of songs and found they just don’t fit onto an album together. I think we’ve established ourselves as a band with a large breadth of sound – even our first album went all over the place, from chamber pop to indie to folk.”

With three albums now to their name and headlining modestly-sized UK events such as Boardmasters and Blue Dot Festival this summer, it’s only a matter of time until bigger event organisers come knocking. And how fitting it would be for the triangle enthusiasts to be elevated onto the greatest podium of all: the Pyramid Stage. “It’s amazing to be talked about as future Glastonbury headliners. I don’t think we’re there yet but we love that festival. Maybe on our fourth album we could possibly be in a position to step up to that plate. It’s nice to look at your catalogue of songs and choose those that you’re fully confident in playing live. We used to have to play the entire first album and pad it out with B-sides and covers just to get the set up to an hour, which was pretty tough. After that it becomes easier to play solid bangers and not think, ‘Oh god, here comes that really quiet deep cut that nobody really likes!’”

One set-filler that springs to mind was an unlikely mash-up of Kylie Minogue and Dr Dre played at Latitude in 2013, but also one which isn’t remembered so fondly by the band themselves. “It’s lovely to be able to ditch things like that,” Gus says, chuckling. “When you’ve toured songs enough you get to know which aren’t working as well as others. My fiancée for example was like, ‘Yeah, Bloodflood, Pt. II is a good song but people tend to be talking during it a lot’, and we don’t know that sort of stuff because we’re on stage.” It’s best to turn to family and friends for critical feedback on new material, he claims. “They’re doing quick little interviews in the audience, making little polls!” With an album that feels like a 50/50 split between delicate unfurling strings and bombastic percussion with nonsensical lyrical riddles, you do wonder which way Alt-J’s live show will swing once Relxer has bedded itself into the family. One of its first roll-outs will be at London’s O2 Arena as part of the venue’s 10th Anniversary celebrations. “Trying to play really quiet songs at a big show is really hard so you do find yourself defaulting to the big, loud songs. If we were doing a sort of Alt-J prom with a seated audience who were all there, really paying attention, then it would be awesome to play the more delicate songs.”

In 2012, when touring much more intimate rooms such as The Harley, they remain a name many locals fondly say played in Sheffield before making it. Although modest, Gus seems well aware their next stop in the city will be far away from The Harley’s sticky floorboards but still recalls their Tramlines set there. “It’s a really cool venue. We’ll happily pop by (to The Harley) for a drink after wherever we play. We’ll do shots at the bar after the gig,” he says before laughing disgustedly at my suggestion that he should go to West Street Live to sample a Chuck Norris shot – two inches of vodka and chilli powder. It seems that no flaming Sambuca, vodka or chilli shot is enough to suffice Alt-J’s post-show tipple. Just like their music, their choice of drink seems to lend itself to more left-field options available. “I like picklebacks,” he says trying to one-up me in the least-desirable drinks department. “You have a shot of whiskey and then a shot of pickle juice – literally the stuff that’s in a jar of gherkins as a chaser – and it’s amazing. Go to a Morrisons, get yourself a bottle of whisky and a jar of gherkins and go nuts.” Forget the VIP bars at festivals and awards ceremonies, if Alt-J need a fix, you’ll find them in the pickles and condiments aisle at your local supermarket.

ALT-J’s latest album Relaxer is released 2 June

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