Alt-j are a band who are impossible to put in a box – with the release of their third album Relaxer we were met with a brand new offering, challenging genres and the preconceptions we had in our heads. The 40-min rollercoaster is perfectly poised, symmetrically adroit, and brave. Whether you class the group as art-electro, math folk, or hymnal-rock there is one thing for certain…the band deliver a muscular sound of cutting edge innovation pumped by a melodically bleeding heart.
On the brink of New Zealand shows, we spoke with Alt-j’s drummer Thom Green. As the 30-minute conversation unfolded Tom revealed the progressive nature of the record, hip hop production, his personal a battle with anxiety, and their unhinged similarities with the topical ‘mumble rap.’
3WW is super progressive musically, what journey did you guys go on with that track?
We toured the second album for quite a while, it was a long cycle. After that we took a break to go back to London in January 2016 to go away from the band for 6-months. In that time we each did our own thing, I continued working a lot at home developing my own production – the band then started coming over to mine and we recorded a bit more. We experimented quite a lot, it wasn’t a time where in our heads we were writing the third album. We were just messing around, so it was a good period for experimenting with different things. We started putting cello effects on guitars, using synthetic strings – building rough experiments to take to a writing room in August. We always write one track at a time, we don’t think of the whole album, it’s about what is going on in that moment. The album shaped itself on its own really. We weren’t trying to be experimental and use certain gear to do that, we did have more tools this time though. We went to Abbey Road, and recorded in a cathedral – but we weren’t actively thinking to make it more or less progressive. There’s no point in aiming for a sound or a genre, you’ll be disappointed.
You said in early interviews you’re from a metal background. Do you think metal doesn’t get the respect it deserves, and why?
I do, there are a lot of awards that metal doesn’t get a look in. The Mercury Prize in the UK has never had a metal band win – I don’t think they’re even nominated. Bring Me the Horizon for example should have been nominated, and it wasn’t. I doubt that this year there will be any attention to the metal crowd. It’s one of the strongest scenes I’ve ever come across, it’s so loyal and [the] people work extremely hard. Metal musicians, like you said, are insane – not many people can do that. On the other side, metal bands and fans survive, but it might take away from it being such a strong culture. I definitely think there should be more recognition though…
Since we last spoke how is your journey on hip-hop music production going?
It’s going well actually! At the moment I’m compiling a library of my loops to potentially give to other people and hopefully get some collaborations going. I listen to Metro Boomin’ heaps at the moment and he has it down so clean, and it’s really hard to do. It’s annoying cos it sounds so simple, but to actually do that is not easy. I do a lot of work on tour though, probably more than I do at home. There’s no distractions cos I’m in my hotel room or on a plane, so I’m working a lot at the moment. I’ve been in studio with Clams Casino a couple times now, but I find it difficult working with MC’s. I’m not that good at networking, and if I meet people on tour I’m not that good at arranging things. That’s why it’s good I’m able to give my library to other people to pass on…
Your press release compared Newman’s voice to ‘a nasal punk whine.’ Obviously you would have followed the online conversations about ‘mumble rap’. I feel Alt-J are the indie version of that. Is the melody being more memorable than the actual lyrics intentional?
Totally, Joe’s lyrics are often quite hard to understand. We could pretty much write any kind of instrumental, and Joe’s voice would be immediately recognizable. It’s one of the most useful things we have, and he is really aware of it. Sometimes he finds lyrics that rhyme, but they may not make much sense. It’s never pointed out, people aren’t saying it makes no sense. It works because of the sound of his voice, and it’s gotten better as we’ve gone. When we started it was quite effected, but he’s realized that his natural voice is unique enough to use as an instrument. I don’t particularly go for lyrics often when I listen to music, so we’re lucky in that Joe’s lead singer is an instrument in its own right. On the track ‘Hit Me Like that Snare’ his voice is slightly effected, but the lyrics are complete nonsense really. We get a lot of different interpretations from fans too, a lot of the time they’re completely off but it’s often as interesting as the real lyrics. It stems a lot of different ideas…I even do it with music and when I hear the actual lyrics I think ‘oh fuck I preferred my own interpretation.’
Now I’m really into the album name ‘Space Whales Nature’s Starships,’ why did that not make the cut?
Haha I know, it nearly did. The great thing about it is that it’s so stupid that you can’t bash it. It’s tricky when you’re coming up with an album name, you think that it needs to be super meaningful cos it’s our third album. You end up thinking about it too much…and it’s so stupid that we could totally get away with that as a name. The artwork would have been amazing, but when the name Relaxer came out we went for the subtle less-weighty word. We aren’t gonna throw ‘Space Whales Nature’s Starships’ away though, we may use it one day.
Tell us about the part ‘High Anxiety’ had to play in your journey too.
During the last album I got into production a lot more, and was doing heaps more writing. I find I need to work all the time, I can’t not work whether its music or painting or photography. It’s necessary to me, it helps me get a lot out – a lot of stuff I do wouldn’t work with the band. The album came to life as it was a lot of music that was my own thing. It was good to be able to separate it and not force it on the band.
We got personal in our last interview too, but is anxiety something that is pretty real to you? I’d imagine the scene and setting you’re a part of every day is pretty overwhelming sometimes.
Yeah, it is – I’ve suffered from anxiety for the last ten years. It’s something I can’t really explain, and it’s super common. You find out from dealing with it that a lot of people struggle in that space. Touring and being in that lifestyle you really need to look after yourself – I don’t drink at all because whilst touring it doesn’t work. It’s one day at a time, it’s difficult, but knowing that tomorrow is gonna feel great is totally worth it.
We heard about a rumored 30-piece string section recorded at Abbey Road?
That was crazy, it was something we’ve wanted to do for a while. I’ve always liked the idea of a live orchestra but it hasn’t been possible cos its fucking expensive. The logistics of it are also tough…our producer Charlie’s wife is a violinist and she was able to write the sheet music for the orchestra. She went in there and smashed it, as we didn’t have much time. The orchestra had their music and were rehearsed, and Abbey Road is a legendary place. The biggest reason we went was because it had a big enough room…space to get them all in there. It’s come out really well, and you can definitely tell its live. It was a real spectacle…
Do you switch off once the master is done, like do you disappear offline when you drop a record?
I don’t involve myself in everything, and I do kind of take a step back. When a video comes out I look for the feedback, but I do like to let things be a surprise. When we announce tours and things I don’t look at ticket sales I’d just rather let it be what it is.
Tell us about the Israel experience – 24,000 in two days? A rite of passage to freedom?
That was crazy. We knew were going there, and were in the middle of a big tour. But, I take one day at a time, I’m not thinking about where we’re gonna be. I knew we were going to Israel, and we took an overnight flight. I had no idea that It was that big, I expected 2-3000 people. We went to soundcheck, and it was just ridiculous. It was an outdoor stadium they had built especially for it. The show sold out in 20mins apparently, and we were there for 4 days. They really invested a lot of time into showing us around, we had amazing food and saw great locals DJ’ing vinyl mixing Aphex Twin etc. Playing those shows were unbelievable, they knew every lyric. The lighters came out…it was mind blowing.
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