Known for their effervescent-come-psychedelic soundscapes and blissful stylings, Alt-J have been taking the indie world by storm over the last decade and a half.
With their fourth studio album due out early next month, I shared a phone call, with the then-isolating Gus to discuss The Dream LP and creating safe spaces at concerts.
How have you been doing in the last few weeks? What have you been up to?
I’ve had Coronavirus, which has been quite boring. But I’m feeling a lot better now. So hoping to come out of isolation quite soon, which is good.
Oh, are you still isolated now?
Yeah, I’m just at home. I’m living in a sort of garden office. So I’ve been living out there to try and not give my wife and child COVID.
So you’ve just been living in a little man cave in the garden for the past week?
Exactly! It will be nice to re-enter my house at some point. Other than that, it’s been good. We’ve been in rehearsals for the band, which has been fun, like learning all the new songs and getting ready for the tour next year. So, it feels good to be getting the getting the engine running on the band again.
Amazing! The Dream is set for release Feb 11th. Are you excited for that to come out?
Very excited. We finished it back in June. So yeah, I just really can’t wait for everyone to hear it. To be honest, it’s been so long I need to keep reminding myself that people have only had two singles from it.
Are you planning on releasing any more singles from it?
Oh, no, there’ll be another single. Just after the new year, we’re going to release ‘Hard Drive Gold’ as a single. I think that’ll be the last one before the album comes out.
In terms of your music in general, it spans across quite a lot of genres. Like you’ve got your alternative electronica and then there’s like some almost dance-fused cuts in there. Is there any particular genre that you’d slot the band into? Or do you not like being pinned down?
I think we try to avoid kind of being too pigeon-holed just because we’ve got this far, without ever feeling like we needed to. We know that we broadly fit into the indie corner, as it were, but I think within that we’re able to kind of like, you know, try our hand at lots of different things. And I think ultimately, our fan base has always liked the fact that we try different things and are quite experimental. So in that sense, I think we’ve got this freedom to sort of do what we want musically, and having Joe as the lead singer, which is quite a unique voice. I think ultimately if we make a song, you know, musically sounds a bit like house music and then another one that sounds more like post-punk but Joe’s singing on both of them it’s still has a sort of that sort of voice that ties it all together.
What else can you tell us about The Dream? What does the album mean to you?
I think it’s a very personal album, you know, it’s the first time we’ve ever recorded we’ve ever had our own studio to write and recording. That was a really nice thing. And we sort of like we tried to get lots of our friends and family and wives and partners, and stuff involved in the recording process doing little kind of vocal samples. And that makes that feel like a very, very personal album and hopefully, that comes across to listeners as well.
In your songs you have quite a lot of hidden vocal accompaniments like you had Ellie Rowsell on ‘Relaxer’. Are there any more surprise features on this record?
Like features in the same way that no and say that we found that we tried to use more people – we’ve got like, my mom and Joe’s mom doing little sort of like vocal samples on ‘Hard Drive Gold’ – we just want to make it more personal really.
Oh, that’s so sweet that you got people you know actually getting involved with your music as well, especially with the lead single ‘U&Me’ – that is very much a song about togetherness and friendship and having everyone you love around you. Is that a theme that you think carries on throughout the album then?
I think that song in particular, felt like an important one – that was the first one we released from the album, it felt like an optimistic song to kind of kickstart the recording process and also felt like a good kind of optimistic message to give people when we were returning as the band, and particularly given what the world’s gone through in the last two years. We just wanted to kind of just try and say to people, like, you know, “good times, they’ll come back eventually“, and we’ll be back in a field with our arms around each other, you know, singing and dancing and having a good time.
Is that the reason you chose it to be the lead single, like an optimistic beacon of hope to open up the world back to Alt-J?
I would say so – we released it towards the end of summer, and it was literally about going to a festival. So yeah, it felt like a good thing too, and optimistic note to return to music.
So in terms of the album as a whole, are the any themes that are veined throughout it, like the togetherness and friendship?
Well, we’ve always ended up seeming to reference water quite a lot in our lyrics. And again, in this in this song, there’s mentions of swimming pools and like drowning and swimming. I’m not sure why that seems to preoccupy Joe, so much as a lyricist. But I think, again, it’s the sort of love and loss are our kind of bread and butter. Lyrically, I would say, and thinking about death, and thinking about losing people and stuff is something that’s always on our minds. I suppose it’s just about trying to do that in a way that doesn’t that doesn’t feel completely hopeless.
Is it mainly Joe that writes the lyrics? What does the writing process look like?
Yeah. I would say generally, the music comes before the lyrics.
When was the album written and recorded?
We started recording, in summer 2020 of the first lockdown. And we finished recording this summer.
So you’ve gone through being out of lockdown to going back in it again, and coming out again. How did that affect the recording process?
I think in a way, it actually was quite beneficial. Because we had a bit more time – more songs were being written and it took the pressure off us timewise. It’s just, you know, ultimately, it’ll be done when it’s done. And the whole world is kind of like being thrown into a bit of, you know, no one really knows what to expect at the moment. So, you know, no one’s going to be tapping their watch saying, “it’s about time for an Alt-J release”. It’s just like going well, f*ck knows what’s going on? Yeah, it was nice, to have that slight feeling of being able to just pause time.
With previous records, have you felt that kind of pressure to get something new out as soon as possible?
I think with our third album, we committed ourselves to reach a really tight deadline to sort of record the album. And ultimately, I think that was to its detriment, you know, we had to rush and we were not as many songs on there as we would have liked, but we just pretty much run out of time. And that was not a nice feeling. I think we kind of said to ourselves after that, that we would never work like that again. And so I think the release of The Dream is a product of that product, basically.
So you’ve recently released ‘Get Better’ – what’s the story behind that track?
It’s song which was written very much during the pandemic and sort of about a man losing his partner to an illness. And, you know, lyrically, it does kind of make references to the pandemic, and talking about frontline workers. The more we talked about this song in interviews, I think the more we realised how much it was a product of a pandemic and the lockdowns and stuff and the things we didn’t realise, at first quite how, at the time it affected us and to the point where we actually wrote a song about it. And that’s a new thing for us, because normally, none of our songs really deal with like, shall we say, Current Affairs, but I think the momentousness or the pandemic definitely, is such that it did end up, you know, having a song written about it.
I think it’s quite strange to think about as well that if the pandemic didn’t happen, that song probably never would have existed, and the album could have looked so much different.
That’s very true. I like thinking that.
So you how did you find lockdown, then creatively, you said you did like quite a lot of writing and recording?
Yeah, I mean, you know, I think it was just good to have that breathing space. Actually, went into the studio in January 2020, and then had a few weeks in there of writing, then we had to go into lockdown for a few months, then we came back and started recording. So that was kind of like quite a good way to work. And then we sort of recorded for a few weeks, or months. And then then we had another lockdown. What was it I can’t remember, I think we carried on recording, and writing until Christmas? And then there was another whole big lockdown wasn’t there beginning of next year. Then Joe had a baby, then we kind of got back into the studio in like, April, and kind of finished out and then but I think having those break just mentioned every time he came back to the studio, he felt like quite revived and quite restored. And that was a nice feeling. Being in the studio can be pretty draining, you know, it’s not always the most creative process or the most creative time really, quite often. It’s a lot of doing nothing and waiting for your turn to do something. And also being in this environment, this like, quiet, windowless environment that can be physically quite airless, but also, you know, quite emotionally kind of cramped as well. So actually, having the enforced break by the pandemic was, I think, really good. It meant that we, we didn’t get too much.
What was it like working with Charlie Andrew on the album?
We’ve worked with him since 2009. So it’s always been great working with Charlie, you know, he’s a member of the band, basically. He’s just somebody who really gets what kind of sound we want to make. He’s really curious and inquisitive, musically. He’s always up to try new things, if we say we want to try something like an opera singer, or, you know, a children’s choir or something, he makes it happen straightaway. He’s got lots of contacts and all different kinds of musical worlds. And, you know, he just likes to make recording as creative a process as possible. And that’s a really nice thing.
Is there a favourite track on the album of yours that you’ve recorded?
I think it might be the first track – it’s such a journey and it starts off with this kind of like weird, medieval kind of, sort of long intro, strange times maturing and sort of segues into you know, a kind of a bit of a trip-hop track, and suddenly has this big kind of like chorus that sounds a bit like Queen or something. It’s so varied. And so it’s almost like a microcosm of the whole album in one song. So I think that’s my favourite.
You mentioned as well that you’re heading out on tour next year, is there anything you’re most excited about with being back on the road again?
I think it’s gonna be reconnecting with our fans, you know, when touring, our fans get to see us also, and we get to see them, you know, and I don’t just mean like, seeing them from the stage – meet and greets, and we get to chat them after gigs. And we get to remember, like, there are lots of people out there who love our music. And that’s a really nice thing. I think it’ll be really lovely to just to sort of speak a little bit see our fans again, you know, ones that I know, personally, and just more generally, as a group of people.
Is there anything you don’t like about touring?
I always put on weight. It’s not the healthiest of lifestyles, I would say – eating quite badly drinking too much. And, you know, that kind of thing. But other than that, I like, I like it a lot.
I think you’ve just described the life of a uni student.
But when you’re at uni, you’ve got this very fast metabolism, you know, I definitely didn’t put on any weight when I was a student and suddenly 25 and realise that eating pizza every night and drinking like a beer was actually not great for the figure.
Since the COVID 19 pandemic is kind of like slowed down a bit in gigs are back on, people out clubbing again, there has been like quite a rise in the amount of spiking and sexual assaults at gigs. Do you think it’s quite important for bands to ensure a safe space for their fans?
Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I think it’s important for gigs to be a safe space. I mean, I don’t know exactly what bands could do to to ensure that but I would certainly like to educate myself about that more. Yeah. I mean, it’s very frightening thing, absolutely. And something that I hoped would never happen to one of our gigs. I mean, I would definitely like to do everything to think that we’re doing everything we can to prevent it.
It can be very hard to see what’s going on, particularly past the first few rows. And I suppose, you don’t know who’s with whom, or what constitutes unwanted, you know, touching and stuff, or contact to you. You know, I can’t say for certain, whether that guy who’s, got his arm around that girl is her boyfriend, or whether he’s just some creepy stranger? Yeah. I suppose one thing that one could do, I suppose is, you know, if there are venues, which are consistently failing to provide a safe environment, it’s boycott those venues as an artist. And, if I found out that we were playing at a venue, which, you know, had a really bad history of sexual assault, and they’re not providing a safe environment for women to go to gigs – I would like to think that we would not play at that venue. And, you know, if your readers want to get in touch with me and tell me a place where I can read about this stuff or, or anything that like that, I’d be extremely interested to read about it, I would love to do what we can to join that fight.
I know that there have been a few boycotting events at the University of Manchester, where the students have just like gone together, got on protests, or boycotted all the clubs in Manchester.
Was this to do with the injections?
Yeah, that’s happened a few times in the city.
I read about that in the paper was shocking, shocking, Jesus Christ, like, really horrible. Ultimately, if the clubs are not going to, you know, instruct their security to properly charge people and properly weed out these, you know, horrible individuals who are doing this kind of thing – then we should just say ‘we’re not going to your clubs until this is sorted’. Because, ultimately, you’re voting with the feet and with your pounds, and that sort of thing, sadly, is what makes them listen a lot of the time.
Yeah, definitely. It is really nice to hear as a female that, if you heard of a venue that weren’t particularly, in allegiance with women who don’t want to get sexually assaulted, that you would not play that venue?
Oh, well, I hope they would. And certainly, you know, as I said, I am not very well educated on the specifics of where we shouldn’t be playing. But yeah, very open to being educated on that and doing what we can.
We went on a bit of a tangent there! Are there any plans in the works for a fifth record? Because I know it’s been a five-year wait!
I’m sure it will happen. But you know, I think that right now, we’re just enjoying basking in the afterglow of making this last record. And, you know, we’ve written some new songs already that are not on this album. And so it will happen, and I’m sure it’s going to be even better than this.
With that in mind, what do you think 2022 holds for Alt-J?
Yeah, I mean, lots of touring, and lots of touring, basically, which is exciting. I’m very excited about getting back out on the road.