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Interview: alt-J's Gus Unger-Hamilton on their new album, 'Relaxer'.

Interview: alt-J's Gus Unger-Hamilton on their new album, 'Relaxer'.

After touring had ended for their second album, ‘This Is All Yours’, alt-J found themselves taking breaks from their typical musical process of going back into writing and recording straight away - instead each of them exploring their own interests outside music. The break evidently worked, with their third just-released album ‘Relaxer’ taking them back to their roots, while at the same time showcasing a level of growth.

Album highlight ‘Deadcrush’ is testament to that - with its hip-hop inspired beats, something that would never have been heard on their first album.

While in Australia doing promo ahead of the release of the new album, we caught up with Gus Unger-Hamilton via phone-call, where we discussed his band nickname, his food endeavours, and more…

COUP DE MAIN: You were last in NZ all the way back in 2013 for Laneway Festival, and you’re returning later this year to play two shows (Auckland and Wellington)! Are you excited to come back to New Zealand again?
ALT-J - GUS UNGER-HAMILTON: Yeah, I can’t wait! We really are, it’s a real shame we didn’t make it there on the last album, but we can’t wait to come back.

CDM: Is there anything in New Zealand that you’re hoping to do?
GUS: I think it’d be lovely to try and see a bit of the country. Obviously cities are amazing, but I mean, I think New Zealand is very famous for its beautiful landscapes, so if we have some time to hire a car and go check that out, that’d be incredible.

CDM: If you were to describe an alt-J show to New Zealanders in one sentence, what would you say?
GUS: I would say, 'Three guys trying their best and playing their songs reasonably competently.'

 

@unrealaltj are so excited about coming back to new zealand they sent us some ... and love advice??

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CDM: I actually saw you guys play London's O2 Arena in 2015, and the whole production of the show was so cool. Have you been working on the production for this new tour yet?
GUS: We have actually, we’re designing a bespoke sort of thing we’re going to be touring with, it’s something that’s really never been seen before according to our manager, so it’s gonna be really exciting.

CDM: I hope it makes its way to New Zealand, because sometimes it’s hard to bring things down here…
GUS: Yeah, I know! Fingers crossed, what can I say?

CDM: After listening to ‘Relaxer’, I can’t stop thinking about all the strings on it - a 30-piece string section which was recorded at Abbey Road. It’s so cool. What was that recording experience like?
GUS: It was really special. I mean, getting to be somewhere as historic as Abbey Road and not just be there to have a look, but to be there and work is a really, really unique feeling. You kind of feel like, "Hmmm… we might have made it," which is kind of amazing. It was really special.

CDM: When recording the album, were you considering how to bring it to life in a live setting?
GUS: We never really think about that, no. We always try to say to ourselves, “Let’s not limit ourselves by thinking about how we are going to do it live.” Fundamentally we focus on the track, the finished recorded track that’s the most important thing for us, and the live aspect will always come later and will always be figured out one way or the other.

CDM: Are you going to bring string-players on tour, or do most of it programmed?
GUS: We’re not sure, I think it might be some programming. I think we’ll have string-players maybe sometimes, but there’s not any plans to have them full-time on tour.

CDM: I just watched the Tiny Desk session and the string-players in that were amazing.
GUS: Really good! It was a friend of mine, probably my oldest friend actually, we went to junior school together - Will - who did the arrangements for it and he did an amazing job and the players were great, so it came out really well.

CDM: Is there a song from the new album that you’re most excited about playing live?
GUS: Yeah, I’m excited about playing ‘Deadcrush’ live, it’s a slightly new kind of sound for us - almost kind of like hip-hop, but obviously without the rap.

CDM: Maybe you could make the rap happen…
GUS: I know! It might happen, spontaneously, if I’m really connecting. So I’m excited to play that one live, we’ve been rehearsing it and it’s been sounding really, really good. It’s very basic, there’s very little to the song but it’s got a good groove, so I can’t wait for that one.

CDM: “I just want to love you in my own language,” you guys sing on ‘3WW’. Do you think that the expression of love is more than just those three words which society has kinda conditioned us to?
GUS: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s what the song is exploring really. I certainly think that it’s a difficult phrase, ‘I love you’, and saying you love people, because as philosophers have told us there is more than one kind of love, there are multiple kinds of love, and somehow we really only seem to have one word for it, certainly in this language, so it’s tricky and definitely there is more to it then just the words.

CDM: ‘Pleader’ takes lyrical cues from the novel ‘How Green Was My Valley’ - were there any other books that you guys were reading that helped inspire parts of the record?
GUS: That is a really good question. So the lyrics that I wrote for ‘3WW’ beginning was inspired by a book, ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’, by Laurie Lee which is about a-- I don’t know if you’ve read it-- it’s a true story about a young man who when he was a teenager, he started to walk from his home in Britain to Spain. It’s a really amazing book, he just takes his violin and kind of just goes on an adventure, so that was one. I think there are multiple kind of book references in the songs but I’m drawing a bit of a blank on that one right now.

CDM: That can be your homework.
GUS: Thank you.

CDM: There have been countless covers of ‘The House Of The Rising Sun’ over the years - but yours has a completely unique feel to it. What was it about that song that made you decide to include it on the album?
GUS: It’s an interesting one. I think we don’t really see it as a cover so much as sort of us doing a version of a folk song, which is what the song is. It’s only now on our third album that we have the confidence to include a song like ‘The House Of The Rising Sun’. I think it’s a classic song that so many people cover or do versions of. It’s quite ballsy, I think, because it’s been done so many times. It was really just Joe playing with his guitar chords and just kind of found himself singing the words over the top but with his own melody. It’s been knocked around in the band since probably before the second album, maybe even on the tour of the first album, but we never really worked on it properly. This time I think we were like, “Right, let’s do it, it’s good.” We had the idea of putting 20 classical guitarists playing the guitar riffs on it which was really cool, so it became quite a piece of work.

CDM: The album is just eight-tracks long - which kind of does the reverse of what a lot of artists are doing at the moment, there’s a growing trend of longer-length albums, with shorter songs (i.e. The Weeknd). Was the length a conscious decision for you?
GUS: It was not a conscious decision but I think we felt very comfortable with it being eight tracks. There were 14 tracks on our last album which was maybe a little bit long and I think we basically felt that these were the eight best songs we had. They average out to be about five minutes long so the album is still a 40-minute album, so I just think we thought, “You know what? Fuck it this is cool.” Actually, I think we gave the album a retro look with its sleeve using sort of an old 70s font and putting the track-listing on the cover, and somehow that eight songs, four songs a side, sort of felt kind of old-fashioned but also kind of classic. I’m not saying the album is a classic, of course, but it just felt cool. I mean, I don’t want an album with 20 tracks on it. My favourite band-- like James Blake, his third album was really really long, and when I looked at it I didn’t think, "Oh yippee more James Blake music for me!”, I kind of thought, “Crikey, how am I gonna get to know this album?” I’m a fan of shorter albums, even things I enjoy - a film, a book, a live set by a band. I think, I never want it to be longer, I just want it to be good.

CDM: Each song has so many different elements to it - is there a moment in the alt-J music-making process when you know a song is complete? How do you decide?
GUS: It’s certainly not complete until it’s recorded for us, that’s a big thing. I think once we get in the studio we trust our producer Charlie [Andrew] a lot to kind of tell us when a song is done. He’s quite good at going, “Oh this needs something,” or like, “Hmmm nope, that’s good, we’ve got enough in there now.” I think it’s the recording process that tells us when a song is finished.

CDM: The album features vocals from Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell, as well as Marika Hackman. What made you decide to work with both of them?
GUS: Obviously, we’re all men in a band. Joe and I take care of the vocals and sometimes you want to have a female voice in the same way that you might want a violin or a certain keyboard - it’s a different sound. In both cases actually, it was not just the sound but also lyrically it was calling for female vocals because there were parts of the songs in a woman’s voice so it made sense to use a woman singing it. So basically, they’re just friends of ours from being in the band. Wolf Alice and Marika have both supported us on tour at different stages so we’ve become mates, Charlie also produces Marika’s albums so he’s got a good connection to her. So when we were in the studio, you’re kind of thinking, “What people do we know?” Because that’ll be easy, rather than going let’s try and get...

CDM: Beyoncé!
GUS: Beyoncé, yeah! <laughs> So it was just a nice kind of London thing. It’s easy because everyone lives there, it’s easy to get someone to come down to the studio that day and lay down some sweet pipes.

CDM: Do you have a favourite song of Marika’s?
GUS: I think she’s amazing. I actually really enjoyed her Christmas EP which came out late last year, it’s called ‘Wonderland’. Yeah, that was really good. I don’t think it got huge amounts of press, I think she just put it out herself and recorded it herself, but it was really nice I really liked it.

CDM: Fellow British band Glass Animals recently tweeted praising your new music - I think you both recorded some of your albums in Paul Epworth’s Church studio too! There seems to be a really cool community of British bands supporting other bands - are there any other British artists that you’re loving at the moment?
GUS: Yeah I very much enjoyed the debut album from Loyle Carner who is a British rapper, I don’t know if you’ve heard of him. I’ll go with him for now.

CDM: Two members of Glass Animals used to do choral singing too - just as you did. I find it quite interesting, the idea of choral singers continuing with music, but contemporary music - totally different to the type of music that they would have been performing in choirs. Do you think that your choral background informs the sound of alt-J at all, harmony-wise for instance?
GUS: Yeah I definitely think so. Joe’s voice is a huge part of alt-J, but also our singing together, our singing in harmony is kind of like me basically singing like a grown-up choir boy, and he sings like James Taylor or something like that. The combination of those two things is quite interesting and I think is a cool part of our sound. Certainly I’m the only one in the band with much of a theoretical or formal musical training and so it’s quite useful sometimes to know about chords and harmonies and stuff to get to where you want to be, rather than to use guess-work and instinct all the time.
 
CD: We’ve seen online that your fans have given you the nickname of ‘Hamildad’, named after a photo of you golfing appeared online. If you were to give nicknames to Thom and Joe, what would they be?
GUS: <laughs> On tour, Joe’s nickname is Lunch because he looks like a TV presenter from the UK called Adrian Chiles who used to present a show called ‘Working Lunch’ in the 90s and that’s his actual nickname which not a lot of fans know. Thom… I think Thom gets called Trench quite a lot, because he once had some foot problems, but he may not relish me telling you that. Gosh, I don’t know, he likes chess a lot so maybe… Rook.

CDM: Last time we spoke to you, you showed us your pre-show tradition of clasping your hands together and making loud gargling sounds - you explained that it gets you loose and relaxed and is good for your voice. Is this something that you still do pre-show?
GUS: Yes! <laughs> It’s funny you mention that actually because I completely forgot about that until the other day when we were about to play like a little show in LA, like a radio show. I did it, it stopped for a bit, but I think that we’re gonna bring it back because it is good fun.

CDM: During returning home after touring 'This Is All Yours', you became involved in a pop-up restaurant, which evolved into Dandy Café. Was it important to you to do something other than music during this period?
GUS: Yeah, I think it was certainly cool to have something going on outside the band, and that it was not music. It was also good, I was working there cooking three days a week so that was nice to keep me busy because my fiancé says, if I’m off tour I’ll call her at work three times a day like, “What do you want?” And I’m like, “I’m just calling!” It was nice for her for me to be busy and not sort of just ringing her up bored, so it was really cool.

CDM: I’ve seen on your Twitter that you often share food recommendations and recipes that you’ve tried. If ‘Relaxer’ was a meal, what would it be?
GUS: Ooohhh, I think it would be a bento box of different types of sushi - I think it’s an album that is eight well-constructed pieces of music or sushi that are very different but very lovingly prepared and could be eaten or listened to in order, and should ideally be eaten in one sitting and with great attention to flavour.

CDM: Maybe your real nickname should be ‘Hamilchef’?
GUS: Hamilchef! There you go! <laughs>

Alt-J's new album 'Relaxer' is out now - click here to purchase.

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