Music interview: Alt-J on their new album Relaxer

Alt-J have just released their third album, Relaxer.
Alt-J have just released their third album, Relaxer.
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For a band who have enjoyed considerable highs since leaving the University of Leeds, Alt-J could be forgiven for sounding rather jaunty by the time they reached Album Number Three.

Yet despite a Mercury Prize and an Ivor Novello Award for their debut record An Awesome Wave, topping the UK charts with its follow-up This Is All Yours and combined sales of more than two million the trio sound more aware than ever of their sense of mortality on their latest record, Relaxer.

“I think that’s just Alt-J,” says keyboard player Gus Unger-Hamilton. “All our albums are quite concerned with doom and death and loss and endings.”

After touring the world with This Is All Yours, the band – who also include Joe Newman on vocals and guitar and Thom Sonny Green on drums – decided to take a break. Unger-Hamilton feels they came back refreshed and ready to push on creatively.

“The break was really good for us. We needed some time off after touring the first two albums. We hadn’t really stopped between Album One and Album Two.

“In terms of whether that’s linked to the ambitiousness of the album I’m not sure. I certainly think on this album we’re trying more and more things that we haven’t tried on the first two records. The confidence we have as a band probably just keeps on growing, really.

Alt-J formed while they were university students in Leeds.

Alt-J formed while they were university students in Leeds.

“I think we feel increasingly able to try things out and try things on our fans because I think we’ve realised that our fans are quite accepting, quite open-minded, curious people who clearly like to be challenged a bit and that’s just an exciting prospect for us, really.”

One noticeable feature of Relaxer is the sense of space in the songs. Unger-Hamilton feels it’s an important component of the way they like to work.

“I think this was the album where the arrangements were the most important,” he says. “We used a lot of strings and things like that.

“Space is something that we’ve always been kind of hot on. On the first album we realised that taking things away was as good as adding things, really.

I think we feel increasingly able to try things out and try things on our fans because I think we’ve realised that our fans are quite accepting, quite open-minded, curious people who clearly like to be challenged a bit.

Gus Unger-Hamilton

“I think we’ve had our way of recording and arranging songs almost vindicated by the first two albums’ success. We’ve realised that spaciousness is something that our fans really appreciate.”

The lead single 3WW features a guest vocal from Ellie Rowsell of the band Wolf Alice. “We share the same management and they supported us on the second album tour so we got to know Ellie,” explains Unger-Hamilton. “We’re fans of their music, we love her voice and so when it came to thinking ‘Female vocals would sound really good on this track’ you think ‘Who do we know, first of all?’ and Ellie came to mind.

“It also turned out that they were in a writing studio round the corner from where we were recording so it was really easy to set up. It was one of those nice kind of things where we texted her and said, ‘Hey, do you want to come down and try it?’ She did and it went really well.”

The video for the album’s second single, In Cold Blood, has narration by US rock legend Iggy Pop. “I wish I had a good story about this but I really don’t unfortunately,” confesses Unger-Hamilton. “I think it was the director [Casper Balslev] who had some connection to him.

“Unfortunately there’s not some amazing story about us getting drunk in the Sunset Marquee and we plied him with whisky – I wish there were.”

Nonetheless Alt-J are confirmed fans of the former Stooges frontman. “On this record there’s that song Hit Me Like That Snare where we deliberately tried to sound Stooges-y. We had no idea that we’d get Iggy to do the video for us, but it was really cool.”

Another standout track on the album is an adaptation of the folk-blues standard House of the Rising Sun, a song once taken to the top of the UK charts 50 years ago by The Animals. “It’s a song that we all grew up with in various forms,” says Unger-Hamilton. “The Animals’ version everybody knows. It’s a song that my family used to sing as a folk song. It’s a song with origins that nobody can be too sure of.

“Essentially Joe had some guitar chords that he was playing around with and he found himself going ‘There is a house...’ and we said ‘This could be interesting with a new melody’. We felt that we’d adapted it to the point that it was almost an original Alt-J song. The second verse is all ours, the new chorus, a different melody, extra chords. We’ve always said that we’re kind of a folk band and it felt nice to tackle a really well known folk song on our third album to give a little nod to where we come from.”

At points on the record the harmonies seem reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel, Unger-Hamilton concedes: “I think the harmonies on this album are a bit less medieval and a bit more like Sixties and Seventies folk, maybe a bit of Beatles in there as well. I guess we’re just evolving.”

Elsewhere are traces of Sixties psychedelia and garage rock as well as the power pop of Big Star. “Lovely stuff, I just got into them last year,” enthuses the keyboard player.

“We all listen to different things and we all had very different musical upbringings. I was more classical and folk and Joe was more Americana folk and Thom grew up listening to heavy metal and grunge so we’ve all brought different things to the table.”

Having launched the album with a show at the O2 Arena in London, Alt-J play at Glastonbury on Saturday. “That’s going to be amazing,” says Unger-Hamilton. “It’s our third time there. I don’t think I’m allowed to say what our slot is but it’s a good slot. We love playing there.”

They will also be at the Blue Dot Festival at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire on July 9. In September the band embark on a coastal tour of the UK. Among the first shows announced is Blackpool Empress Ballroom on September 9. “That’s going to be interesting,” says Unger-Hamilton. “We’re not going to be doing any cities; it’s seaside towns. I think next year we’ll definitely be back in Leeds, for sure. It’s somewhere we love going back to and playing.”

Laura Viers at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds. Picture: Gary Brightbart

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