BIG INTERVIEW alt-J: ‘We like to give our listeners some variation’

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Some music acts live and die by their image. Quirky indie-rock trio alt-J on the other hand are much happier to let the music and their videos do the talking.

In fact, it’s been a deliberate choice for the three-piece to keep themselves out of it. And as the stunning videos released to accompany the tracks from the recently released third album Relaxer attest, it’s not been a bad decision.

With a Mercury Prize and Ivor Novello Award for their debut, An Awesome Wave, they’ve racked up 2m album sales and more than 1bn streams of their songs to date,

As keyboardist and vocalist Gus Unger-Hamilton says: ‘It’s definitely a conscious policy of ours not to be in videos.

‘I think at first it was because we didn’t find the idea of miming along to a song while other things go on – that standard indie-rock video – particularly interesting.

‘We don’t feel like we’re good actors, or particularly good-looking, so why don’t we take the chance to make some interesting short films?

‘I think now we’ve realised that choice has helped us keep our anonymity in our daily lives, we don’t want to become famous people. It’s perfect right now to be in a well-known band, but not a well-known person in Sainsbury’s or the pub, and it would be nice to keep it that way.’

With a sleek nine tracks clocking in at just under 39 minutes, Relaxer picks up where previous album This Is All Yours left off. With its skittering rhythms and Joe Newman’s distinctive vocals, there’s still no-one out there who sounds quite like them.

Speaking with The Guide on its week of release, Gus says: ‘It’s exciting to have new music out there, and a great feeling to have something fresh for people to listen to, people seem to be enjoying it, so we couldn’t be happier.

‘It’s a nice mix, we like to give our listeners some variation and not make an album where it all sounds the same, that’s quite important for us.’

The cover of alt-J's new album, Relaxer

The cover of alt-J's new album, Relaxer

Following the end of touring This Is All Yours in December 2015, the band took some time off to pursue other interests, which included opening a pop-up restaurant for Gus.

‘It was just to do whatever we wanted to and not be in the band for a few months. By the time we got back into the studio in August last year we had quite a few ideas that we’d sketched out on tour stored up and a few things that had come up in those months of doing our own thing and so we had quite a lot of material to work on which was a nice feeling.’

One of the more curious moments, in an album packed with them, is a radically reworked version of the folk standard House of The Rising Sun.

‘We don’t really see House of The Rising Sun as a cover,’ explains Gus. ‘It’s an old folk song and we’ve done a version of that folk song, much as The Animals did or whoever else.

It’s nice to have friendships that you can turn into a musical collaboration

Gus Unger-Hamilton

‘It’s a reimagining, and we’ve done that folk thing of taking a song, playing around with it, making it our own and then passing it on to the next person.’

They also roped in Wolf Alice frontwoman Ellie Rowsell and solo artist Marika Hackman to sing on lead single 3WW and the haunting Last Year, respectively.

‘Ellie we’ve known for a few years. Wolf Alice supported us on tour early on, and they happened to be writing in a studio in Shoreditch around the corner from where we were recording. We knew we wanted a female vocalist on 3WW, so we thought let’s see if Ellie’s around and if she fancies doing it, seeing as we know her and we like her voice. So it kind of made sense.

‘Marika did some vocals for us on the second album on the track Warm Foothills, so when there was a role for a female vocalist we felt that she would do a good job. We know her because Charlie (Andrew – producer on all three alt-j albums) also produced her record. It’s nice to have friendships that you can turn into a musical collaboration.

‘Both of those songs are strong narrative songs, like short films almost, and in both those cases, Ellie and Marika are playing female roles in the script, if you like, rather than just adding a new sound.’

For the album’s cover art they’ve used a screenshot from a cult 1998 Playstation game, LSD, created by the Japanese artist Osamu Sato.

The band came across the image by chance online, but it has ended up in another collaboration where Sato has created a related game which can be played on the band’s website.

‘We really liked the image without any context, then we did some research and found out more about it and the game, and thought even more that it was pretty cool, so we decided to use it for the whole visual palette of the album and the campaign. We had to contact him and he was very obliging. Thankfully we came to an arrangement like grown-ups and it’s reassuring when these things can happen sometimes.’

The band’s manager Stephen Taverner recently gave an interview with the industry bible, Music Week, in which he said the band could one day be Glastonbury headliners – they headlined The Other Stage at this year’s festival.

‘All that kind of speculation is very flattering, but we take it for what it is, which is speculation and encouragement. It’s nice to hear those things, but we don’t let them go to our heads or cloud our aims as a band – which should always remain to make the best music we can, and to enjoy working together. And so far we’re doing a good job with that, I think.’

For now though, with the album out, alt-J are about to head out on a short ‘seaside’ tour of England.

‘We wanted to do some more unusual places and not to just do the standard cities tour. We thought it would be a fun way to round off a summer of festivals. Hopefully we’ll come back and do a more comprehensive tour next year.

‘It’s going to be cool.’

* alt-J play at the Brighton Centre on Monday, September 4. Doors 6.30pm. Support comes from Blaenavon. Tickets from £33.45. Go to