Alt-J: Alternative Approach

Music Features Alt-J
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The haunting, atmospheric crooning of the new album This Is All Yours by Leeds, England’s indie titans, Alt-J, boasts cathartic moments cut up with quirky crescendos, unexpected turns and drunkenly smitten lyrics. Departing stylistically from the band’s 2012 pop-centered debut, An Awesome Wave, the band’s main focus on this album was pushing boundaries and feeling comfortable in their own musical skin.

While the three primary band members Thom Green (drums), Gus Unger Hamilton (keyboards) and Joe Newman (vocals, guitar, bass) knew that they were taking a risk in dabbling in such abstract territory, after selling over a million copies of their debut, winning the revered British Mercury Prize and becoming a co-headlining lock on the festival circuit, the band of late-20-somethings figured it was a calculated risk worth taking.

“If this was our first album, we wouldn’t have been successful with it because it’s not as easy of a listen as Awesome Wave. The fact that the first album was what it was and that we gained success from it allowed us to do this,” Green explains from his hotel room in New Orleans. “I think it’s a little bit more confident-sounding, which comes from us being more confident in experimenting. It’s more polished from the production standpoint, and I feel that the tracks themselves are a bit darker in a way that’s less poppy than what we’ve written before.”

And while the album does carry dark undertones throughout its course, there is a strong presence of folk influence that surfaces from the acoustic guitar plucking and twangy singing of Newman on songs like “Warm Foothills” and “Choice Kingdom.” This serves as a sharp contrast to the electronic side of their sound that comes from the synth work of Unger-Hamilton and the trip-hop, downtempo drumming of Green, which is prominent on tracks like “Nara” and “Bloodflood pt II.”

But on the whole, the album is a melodic work of alternative experimentation that follows in the footsteps of fellow British bands such as Radiohead and early Coldplay, who are two outfits that are frequently mentioned in the conversation of Alt-J, primarily the former. But the comparisons stop at the unapologetically poppy nature of England’s latest overnight sensations, who are sharply mindful of their musical choices and public reception.

“We paced ourselves for this album and jumped between writing in London for six months and then going into the studio to finish the songs and handle the recording. We split it up like that so we could make sure that we were aware about how the album was going so we wouldn’t just go in and lose our ear for the songs. A lot of times bands can get too caught up in the process to notice the outcome,” Green says. “It wasn’t a struggle. It was actually quite enjoyable, but it was a lot of work. We’re perfectionists with this stuff, so we like to make sure things sound as we think they should.”

Another big change on this album came from the departure of founding member Gwil Sainsbury early in 2014. The bassist/guitarist became increasingly dissatisfied with the lifestyle after gaining immense fame and having to confront the perils of constant touring and meeting the merciless music industry face-to-face. But because the stalwarts have been longtime friends and bandmates, there were no hard feelings on his departure, and the remaining members supported his decision to leave.

“[Our process] isn’t much different without Gwil, oddly enough. We’re lucky that we can write easily and because of that, it didn’t make much difference in that regard. It’s not like we lost just a bass player, it was more that we lost our friend from the lineup,” Green says. “We all write a lot of the music, so the tracks are still coming and we’re not missing anything from our sound. We just kind of started getting older and it started wearing on him, so he stepped away and we moved on. We’re still very close friends.”

Another factor that makes the sound of Alt-J unique lies in Green’s drum set-up itself. Though it might not be obvious to the average listener at first, the 29-year old drummer opts not to use any cymbals or hi-hats whatsoever, which stems from his humble beginnings with the band who met at the University of Leeds and were forced to rehearse in cramped spaces with severe noise limitations.

“I think it adds a good balance to the songs and the drums cut through a bit more without cymbals. It sounds less produced, though a lot of people think that the beats are programmed and not a live drummer because of it,” he says. “A lot of people are surprised once they realize it by seeing us live. I’m very proud of the way I play in this band and I’m aware of how it sounds. I think the drums are one of the biggest parts of our music.”

This Is All Yours has already been met with impressive sales and immediate acclaim since its September release, which comes as no surprise. One thing that has come as a surprise, however, is the band’s relationship with pop star Miley Cyrus, who emerged as an adamant fan of the band, voicing her praise for their music publically. And while most bands would shrug off an unexpected admirer in the form of an infamous starlet such as Miley, Alt-J did the unexpected and sampled her vocals for the track “Hunger Of The Pine.” Naturally, they decided to take the unlikely route, which seems to be the norm for this ensemble.

“No matter how famous a person is or how much eye candy they are, they’re still just people. We’re really open to everyone and when you start shutting people out, that’s never good. As far as Miley, she’s a good girl and we like her a lot and I value her opinion. Some people think it’s odd that we embrace her—or anyone—being a fan, but we’re okay with all of it.”