We’ve all heard of the dreaded second album hex – the ‘sophomore slump’, as it’s often referred to – in which the quality of an artist’s second record plummets. But there’s also a third album tradition, in which bands freak out and fling themselves in another musical direction completely, fearful they’ve become slaves to their own cliché. Alt-J’s Thom Green (drums, electronics) says the art-rock trio were aware of the custom, but it didn’t affect their focus.
“I think I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t any [pressure] at all,” the Leeds native tells us. “We were always pretty good at focusing, not getting caught up in that kind of thing. But being compared to certain bands… we just want to do the best we can and push the boundaries a little bit, and be calm about things.”
Measured words from a measured man, whose composure comes through in the incredibly reflective arrangements of alt-J’s new album, aptly titled RELAXER. Second single In Cold Blood displays Green’s fascinating approach to rhythm, as the variations in beat go from sinewy syncopated half-time, to a rolling snare build, to sharp accents that match the brass melody. “I listen to drummers a lot,” Green explains. “I listen to bands that have interesting percussion, and I always want to make my own mark, have my own signature kind of style – whatever that is. That track, there’s lots of layered percussion, especially the end: it starts on the double cow bell and then it’s double strokes, and then to cross over to the bongos at the same time… that’s really difficult. I like that. If it was easy, it would be really boring.”
He’s talking about live performance specifically, but tracks often present a challenge when it comes to that stage of the album cycle, because their complexity happens in the magic of the studio with revered producer (and honourary fourth bandmember) Charlie Andrew. “Hunger Of The Pine on the second album, for example: there’s a programmed beat and it’s really difficult to play live because it wasn’t played live originally,” Green says. “But I quite like that. You can discover a lot of different ways of playing. I love playing live – that’s why I tour.”
Green’s also in charge of samples: the tiny crackling sound in 3WW is an actual campfire, and the line “The girls from the pool say ‘Hi’” is spoken by the three boys’ real life girlfriends; in Hit Me Like That Snare, a Japanese woman counts from one to ten (spot the strange cross-reference in the gorgeous Last Year) and then Green loops a sliver of her speech into a tripping paradiddle pattern.
The most atmospheric samples are field recordings which slide in during epic hymnal closer Cathedral, which was recorded in Cambridgeshire’s magnificent Ely Cathedral, and utilises its Boys’ Choir. “We recorded around the cathedral, air vents and things,” Green says, adding that the gravel crunch at the track’s beginning is frontman Joe Newman walking across the building’s grounds. “It was kind of an easy decision to go to the cathedral; Gus contacted his old music teacher, who’s still there teaching the choir.” None of the guys are card-carrying believers, but Green says there’s something about ecclesiastic music which inspires them. “We all appreciate hymns, really,” he says. “Joe and Gus [Unger-Hamilton, keyboards] are very much into folk songs, and their harmonies. And it was about time we did that – recorded a choir.”
RELAXER is out June 2 via Liberation.