Mercury Prize-winning trio Alt-J return with fourth album The Dream, a record of sublimely enigmatic stories in which the Englishmen further their percussive explorations into texture, harmony, time and space. We put some questions to Gus Unger-Hamilton (keys/vocals).
You’ve said that first single U&ME was written during soundchecks around the globe, and that “it gathered momentum on it’s own”, according to [vocalist] Joe [Newman]. Did it start out as a ‘study’, to test attack or pedal functions or other things pertinent to a soundcheck, before evolving?
I wouldn’t say that, exactly. Basically when we are on tour, as strange as it sounds, you don’t really have easy access to your instruments as they’re either in the lorry or set up on stage. So soundcheck is the only time of day when you can play them (other than the gig). This means it’s often a good time to work on new ideas. Sometimes these are things we all know and work on gradually, or sometimes they’re just spontaneous songs that write themselves. U&ME was the latter.
Its clip is also the first time y’all have been in a video together. Is Joe’s burst eye-vessel real, or a sliver of CGI?
We will leave the viewer to guess… Although I will say that we worked with my brother, the director Prosper Unger-Hamilton, who has a Masters in animation from the Royal College of Art… so maybe that’s a clue.
Who did you enlist to accompany the main melodic line on Walk a Mile – is it a bona fide barbershop quartet?
In a way, yes! I was in a barbershop group at school, so I enlisted two of my friends from that, George Eddy and Will Gardner. Will also arranged all the strings for the album.
Is the song Bane titled this way because your adoration for Cola-Cola is a love/hate blight on your existence?
Partly. The song actually used to have some lyrics in it about the character Bane breaking Batman’s back, but they got cut in the end. However, the title remained. That actually happens more than you’d think.
This track moves through many different skins: sudden choir with piano chords, juddering vocals, loping breakbeat, harmonium section, the fizzling effects. Is it a very conscious process you go through to decide that these elements belong stitched together (and that by contrast, something like Delta is supposed to live on its own as a short acapella)?
When you’re recording a song in the studio, or even writing one, it often feels like you’re more of a midwife than a creator – you’re there to guide and deliver, but ultimately the song comes out in the form it wants to. So you don’t sit down and say, ‘OK, this song’s going to sound like this, then this, then this’ – you follow where it seems to want to go, and try to do it justice through your performance and studio trickery.
Get Better is definitely responsible for more than a few listener tears. When you first heard it, apparently you had a “big, big cry” yourself. Do songs from the band’s previous albums still move you in this way?
Maybe not in their recorded form, but it can still be very moving to see how an audience responds to them at a gig. A spontaneous ‘lighters/camera torches up’ moment in a big venue is really special, particularly for us who have the best view!
The rising build in Chicago is one of the more unnerving things we’ve ever heard; as opposed to creating art that makes you cry, is it a challenge to create moments that are genuinely frightening to yourselves?
I don’t think we’ve ever genuinely frightened ourselves in the studio, I have to say… but it was fun on that track to experiment with a clubbier sound.
At the end of the beautiful Philadelphia we can hear someone singing the last lines of the Yankee Doodle nursery rhyme. Where did this snippet come from?
It’s actually the chime of an ice cream van that passes our studio every day. We wrote and recorded the whole album in the same place, so we wanted to ground the album in the area by including a few field recordings like that. There’s also the sound of a crow in a tree outside the studio on Happier When You’re Gone.
We’ve seen lots of internet discussion around interpretation of the album cover cover art – and looking at Joel Wyllie’s other work has only deepened the rabbithole. How did you meet him, or come to know his art?
Joe grew up with him as a family friend, and so we as a band have known him more or less as long as we’ve known Joe. He’s incredibly talented, and a lovely bloke into the bargain.
The Dream by alt-J is out Feb 11 via Liberation.
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