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An Alternative Slant: Interview with Alt-J

An Alternative Slant: Interview with Alt-J

1 September 2017 |

Since their sonic arrival in 2011, Alt-J have defied expectation at almost every turn. Now, following the release of their third studio album 'Relaxer' (to favourable reviews), the three-piece are making their move for mainstream dominance – and will be bringing their idiosyncratic experimental brand of music art to the Brighton Centre on September 4.

It’s been six years in the making, but the rise of Alt-J has been seemingly predetermined from the very start. Having announced their arrival as they collected the Mercury Prize in 2012 with a self-titled debut EP, the Leeds-based band continued to grace award ceremonies, clinching the much-coveted Ivor Novello award (for first studio album An Awesome Wave) a year later.
 
“Winning the Ivor Novello is always seen as a huge honour – it means you can make music that goes beyond a riff or a chord or percussion,” notes keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton. “It means there is a clear poetic and lyrical message that has a heart in it, and for that to be recognised is special.
 
“Of course, the best way for that to resonate is playing live, and all the awards in the world don’t replicate that feeling.”
 
Jump forward to 2017, and with the recent release of Relaxer, Alt-J are less an indie anomaly consigned to the fringes, and more a stellar example of how to combine art-electro experimentalism with mainstream success. In spite of the accolades already arriving for Relaxer, it’s not always been easy.
 
First there’s drummer Thom Green, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder that affects his kidneys and hearing. Then, in 2014, guitarist Gwil Sainsbury quit the band just before sophomore effort This Is All Yours went to the no.1 spot in the UK. The decision to continue without ‘silent leader’ Sainsbury aside, the band’s progression has been synonymous with a nagging sense that many in the music world consider them aloof.
 
“Aloof is a strong word,” laughs Gus. “I think we take we take our music seriously, but that’s down to the interest we have in producing something special. Is that pretentious? Or is that just caring about the art of what we do?
 
“I think you’d struggle to find a musician or a songwriter who wasn’t either on the extreme side of introverted or extroverted; that’s what guides us this way in the first place.”
 
Of course, Relaxer is but an extension of the band’s willingness to embrace their perceived haughtiness. Hidden amongst the strings and brass – recorded at Abbey Road no less – are a smattering of characteristically unusual elements to accompany the traditional guitar, bass, keyboards and percussion. On single In Cold Blood the beeping of a second-hand Casiotone can be heard, and further on in the album there are recordings from Ely Cathedral – a boys’ choir, the sound of visitors walking the flagstones, and the noise of the building’s cast iron heaters. Of course, transferring that sound to a live audience, as they will do during a short five-date tour, can be tricky.
 
“I think attempting to reproduce a studio sound in a live environment is a waste, and disingenuous too,” says frontman Joe Newman. “We want to do different things in each album, just as we want to do different things when playing live. It heightens the level of expectation and interest, and no two gigs are the same, so they shouldn’t sound it.”
 
The September 4 gig at the Brighton Centre sees the band supported by Blaenavon, whose links include Arctic Monkeys and Bombay Bicycle Club, amongst others.
 
“The way we aim our live shows is that it’s an artistic showcase that goes beyond just us,” says Newman. “We want people to come along, have fun, enjoy the music, but see more than what they expect. We could do a 50-date tour but that’s not art, it’s greed.
 
“This way we feel we’re connecting and sharing an experience,” he continues, “and that’s really special to us.”
 
Alt-J play the Brighton Centre on Monday 4 September 2017. More information can be found here.

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