Alt-J: “It Might Sound Ridiculous But We’re Just Normal People”

It’s easy to forget that English ‘intelligent’ rock band alt-J are still relative newcomers to the world stage. It was only in 2012 they blew most everybody away with their pearler of a debut album An Awesome Wave, featuring catchy yet provocative singles Tessellate and Breezeblocks.

Recognition and awards soon followed as did the dehumanising spotlight that casts shadows across people and fixes its bright focus on the product. The university friends turned rockstars were now fair game to be admired and criticised with rarely a second thought spared as to how any of it might affect the four lads from Leeds.

For co-founding member and former bassist Gwil Sainsbury the attention of success and rigours of touring weren’t worth the payoff, amicably leaving alt-J in at the start of 2014. Sainsbury’s ex-bandmates Joe Newman, Gus Unger-Hamilton, and Thom Green continued on as a trio to write and record the band’s recently released second album This Is All Yours.

This Is All Yours sees alt-J, for the most part, hunker down for a more sweeping, pensive release. The result earned them praise in their homeland, with NME awarding the record 8 out 10, scorn in The States in the form a ruthless critique by tastemakers Pitchfork, and seemingly only served to increase the band’s fan appeal.

Having just passed through Australia for a two-show run ahead of three festival appearances over New Year’s, drummer Green candidly chatted with Music Feeds about fans, critics, and the band alike feeling out the new material, maintaining control of Alt-j direction, and reminding us all that behind the hoopla are just three “normal people”.

Music Feeds: How was the show at The Forum in Melbourne?

Thom Green: It was good, thanks. It went really well. We had a good time and it was a good crowd. It was very cool.

MF: How are you finding the catchier numbers, particularly from An Awesome Wave, are mixing in with the more atmospheric, contemplative new album?

TG: I think it’s working. We’ve worked very hard on the setlist so it works. We have a mix of some new and old tracks and they complement each other quite well, I hope. I mean, obviously I don’t get to hear it from an audience’s perspective. I think the newer tracks they have a lot of atmosphere, actually. When we were writing a few of them, we realised they were probably going to work quite well live.

MF: Have you been surprised at which songs from the first record and This Is All Yours do complement each other or, perhaps, don’t complement each other?

TG: I don’t know. Like I said, I’m still kind of an outsider, really. I’m assuming that everything is working based on the feedback, which is good. The tracks themselves they’re all quite individual unique tracks so they could work, maybe, in any order.

MF: Alt-J is playing just two shows in Australia before coming back for three festivals over New Year’s. Are you using these headlining gigs as a feeling-out process for the new material or are they fully polished sets?

TG: It’s a bit of both. We don’t plan on changing it drastically but we are open to ideas from each other. There are a couple of tracks which we still want to add to the set, which we realise now we want to. When we rehearsed for this tour back in London we had a set list planned and we only had so much time and there were only so many tracks we could learn so we did that.

Now that we can play those well enough live we might start thinking about others. It depends, as well — we have a really good lighting engineer and he started using a lot of screens and video, which he can change. Not easily, but with a bit of notice we could figure stuff out.

It’s nice to know we can do that, actually, because we don’t to just play the same thing for the next eighteen months that would be pointless. We want to improvise a little bit but right now we’re taking it show-by-show because we’re still finding out feet, really, with the new live stuff. We haven’t played for quite a while, we want to play it safe at the moment, I suppose.

MF: Are you finding any difference in the crowd reaction touring behind This Is All Yours? Are there any fans licking the inside of empty chip packets?

TG: (chuckles) That always gets a good cheer, actually, when Joe [Newman] sings that. It’s a pretty spicy moment. Left Hand Free gets a really good response because it’s such a lively track. The people that usually come, they like listening to the more down tempo, atmospheric tracks, which there’s quite a lot of.

Also we have the bigger tracks like Gospel Of John Hurt, Every Other Freckle, Breezeblocks, it’s a good balance. We were worried it might be a bit weird but people seem to respond pretty well, I think. We have really amazing fans, basically.

Watch: alt-J – Left Hand Free

MF: Given the success of An Awesome Wave were you expecting some backlash, this time around, from people responding in a negative manner to your popularity? You guys had some choice comments for Pitchfork recently.

TG: Kind of. We knew that obviously everyone is entitled to their opinion. We write the music that we want to write and if people like it, then that’s amazing, if they don’t then that’s their opinion and that’s fine as well. We don’t expect people to like it.

Obviously being in the position we are now we get reviewed a lot and we end up seeing those reviews. It is hard to ignore but it also doesn’t really affect us. We make sure it doesn’t. Luckily, we don’t rely on reviews from magazines.

I’d like to think we’ve done a lot groundwork so that we have fans who appreciate the music and that’s what we try to think about when we’re writing. We’re not really thinking about how is this going to get judged by the industry.

And the Pitchfork thing I don’t know where that comes from. I don’t know if we’ve done something to offend them personally. It’s like the music actually offends them, which is just absurd.

MF: Alt-J has a reputation for being a band of nice guys. It’s hard to think what you might have done to offend them.

TG: Well, that’s the thing (laughs). I think the only thing that we could have done is they just don’t like the fact that we’re nice guys or they [don’t] like that fact that we’re doing quite well without Pitchfork [or] without relying on people like Pitchfork. It’s almost like they don’t understand why we’ve had the success without blogs. It’s not the nicest thing to read but, luckily, like I said, it doesn’t really matter. You’ve just got to ignore it and laugh at it I suppose.

MF: You make a positive choice to follow a dream and get into music, which just so happens to be in the public arena where you have to deal with being judged. Is that a strange thing to come to terms with and is it something you’ve found easier to deal with as the band has progressed?

TG: It is pretty weird. We quite quickly belonged to people, essentially. We had a record label, and things like that, all over the world. We liked the fact that we were becoming successful and have managed to keep control in terms of the music. We approve pretty much everything, the three of us now, any kind of TV thing, it’s always been very important, like artwork.

Everything to do with the albums we have control over, which I think helps because, personally, I don’t particularly like the attention. You play a show and then, you know, in 15 minutes the dressing room’s going to be full of people. I don’t particularly like that. It’s just not in my nature. I socially like it; it’s just a bit much. So that’s quite hard for me to deal with.

I’d like to think we would be making music anyway and sometimes that’s a bit hard to think that people are looking over our shoulder. I don’t know, it’s very hard because I do like a lot of it obviously. Like I said, I do like success. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. We appreciate what it’s done for us.

I never imagined I’d be in the position I am. I was never interested in school, that kind of thing, so I also thought I don’t know what I’m going to end up doing. I am living the dream. I’m making music with my best friends. I’m touring. It’s opened a lot of doors and I’m really aware of that.

Anybody, as a human being, would find certain things difficult. You can’t really deny it. I’m glad that we’re aware about it because otherwise I’d just go off the rails if I just ignored it. I’d lose my mind.

We’re lucky we have a good a team of people and good crew and we look after each other. We keep each other very level-headed. We understand each others’ different ways.

MF: Is it an odd paradox, then, that you’re more comfortable in front of thousands or people onstage than you are in a crowded dressing room?

TG: Exactly. The smaller the show the harder it is because it’s a lot more personal. Even though on a big scale the individuals are there, it’s still quite a personal experience for them, it’s easier for us onstage because you can’t really see people that well (chuckles).

It is really weird when you catch someone’s eye and they’re looking at you. It might sound ridiculous but we’re just normal people, and I think we’re quite humble. It’s a weird thing to be playing onstage, and people have heard the album, they love the music and they’re looking at me knowing I was a part of that. And I’m looking back at them thinking, “I can’t really relate.” It’s surreal.

Watch: alt-J – Every Other Freckle

MF: Let’s talk about the idea behind the promotional app for This Is All Yours [the band released songs from the album via an app which could only be accessed in specific locations]. Where did the idea come from?

TG: That came from somebody at our label in the UK. I can’t remember who it is but there was an artist who did a bench where you could go to that one bench and listen to their music. It might have actually been a town; they did for a famous artist that lived there or something like that.

We liked the idea of putting out the music before its release. We wanted to do it in an interesting way… It was an amazing idea because we could pick anywhere in the world and then people could set up their own [locations].

We got some amazing feedback, people sending me tweets of photos of where they were. People went to a lot of effort! People would drive quite a while to get to the nearest location.

We played a TV show, Jools Holland, in the UK recently and there was a band called Jungle who were on the show. We hadn’t met Jungle before and in the UK they’re quite a big new band and there’s a lot of hype. We were almost a bit intimidated because we were like, “Oh, we’re just alt-J. We’re the boring normal band and they’re really cool.”

Then we actually met them after and they said, “Oh, yeah, we got the app and listened to the album,” which was incredible. I really like their music and it was like, “Wow, fucking hell! Jungle did that? I really didn’t see that coming.”

So it was a success, the app, and we’re thinking of holding onto it and using it for other stuff in future like exclusive content.

MF: Say someone was going to listen for the first time to Pusher, or another track from This Is All Yours. What would you suggest is the ideal setting?

TG: I’m from Harrogate in the north of England, near Leeds. There’s a lot of countryside and hills, farms and things. I quite miss that kind of environment. I remember listening to a lot of music in that setting. I remember listening to PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake on a moor in Yorkshire.

So I’d say somewhere like that, somewhere very natural and green, a lot of atmosphere and weather, as well. It was crap weather but it made it better almost, like it was more of an experience, I suppose.

I also like listening to music when I’m travelling or if I’m on the train. I just fall asleep it’s so relaxing. Looking out the window and listening to music it’s like you’re in your own soundtrack. It’s cool.

MF: The songs from This Is All Yours were focused on in an individual manner, not considering the album as a whole. But when the record was completed, did you notice a common thread in your parts that made you realise you were working towards something, or working through something, the entire time?

TG: That’s a good question. That hasn’t occurred to me, that I’m aware of. Like you said, it was done track-by-track and then at the end we figured out an order. We’ve always said it isn’t a concept album — it is what it is. So I’m not sure. I don’t think so.

I think we were pretty much concentrating on avoiding any kind of grand plan. We just wanted to write honestly because we wanted to be careful that we weren’t accused of trying to be too clever, which has already happened. That could be a danger because we get labelled as being an ‘intelligent’ band. That is great, it’s not a bad thing to be labeled as, but it could go too far if we actually think about that while we’re writing.

MF: Well, you know, Pitchfork doesn’t like nice guys in intelligent bands.

TG: No, they don’t, do they?

Alt J will return to Australia for Fall Festival ’14/’15, Southbound ’15, and Field Day ’15. This Is All Yours is out now.

Watch: alt-J – Hunger Of The Pine

Must Read