Interview

Alt-J: ‘Trump has left an America that wants a more extreme version of government’

The British alt-rockers have become massive in America, but who are Alt-J behind the abstract videos and stadium shows? As they release new album ‘The Dream’, they get the pints in with Mark Beaumont to discuss politics, partying and how to tour with a high-risk drummer in a pandemic

<p>Alt-J: ‘In America it was like a mad holiday where you were more famous’</p>

Alt-J: ‘In America it was like a mad holiday where you were more famous’

With a maniacal grin, Joe Newman is describing how he’d most enjoy killing the poor. “We’ve talked about this,” chuckles the hirsute singer of futuristic pop titans Alt-J, blowing the band’s butter-wouldn’t-melt image clean out of the water. “I’d say to them ‘come to this spot’ and you’d bring a cash prize. They’d turn up and I’d watch them get garrotted by one of my henchmen, and then I’d hold the money as they…”

His keyboard foil, Gus Unger-Hamilton, chokes on his Guinness. “Jesus, this interview is descending into bad places!” As is customary when a couple of “dads out at lunchtime” are fast approaching pint four, talk has turned to the question of whether, when Alt-J inevitably become so rich they can no longer feel anything, they’ll turn into the sort of people who’d gamble on desperate insolvents playing deadly games of survival for their entertainment.

“YES!” says Unger-Hamilton, leaning into the microphone. “That’s what we’re working towards,” Newman agrees, having clearly taken entirely the wrong moral message from Squid Game, “that’s why we release our albums, to get to that point where we’re above the law.”

What level of rich would you have to reach to feel nothing for humanity anymore? Unger-Hamilton doesn’t pause: “Sheeran.”

Their neon-pink boiler suits left at home, there’s little outward sign of Alt-J’s sadistic underside when we first meet, at an upmarket Islington pub adjacent to their new studio. This unassuming Leeds Uni-via-Cambridge alt-rock band might be arena-level festival headliners with a Mercury Prize and a number one album to their name (for 2012’s million-selling debut album An Awesome Wave and 2014’s follow-up This is All Yours, respectively). They may have ridden the infectiously quirky, modernist tones of “Breezeblocks”, “Left Hand Free” and “Every Other Freckle” to significant Stateside success, ticking Madison Square Garden off the bucket list. But, in the UK at least, Alt-J are the ultimate blend-in rock stars. Men you’d scuttle past without ever guessing the wild stories they could tell, like a killer on the street.

Newman – he of the hypnotic python vocals – sports a Grizzly Adams look, his psychedelic green hippie cords hidden beneath the table. Unger-Hamilton, with his rounded spectacles, clipped English and look of the huntsman, could (though a card-carrying Labour supporter) pass as the cool indie black sheep of the Rees-Mogg dynasty. Tattooed drummer Thom Sonny Green is the most traditionally rock of the trio, though we speak later on Zoom – he’s considered “extremely vulnerable”, currently on immunosuppressant medication following a kidney transplant resulting from a genetic disorder and already hospitalised by the virus for a week last summer. From the look of him, you’d imagine there’s a Sheffield screamcore band somewhere missing a gaunt, enigmatic singer.

But like their music – innovative, intricate cyber grooves that set the tone for the laptop age, finding power in space and intimacy and warmth in the machines – Alt-J’s unobtrusive demeanours hide mischievous depths. As we small talk about Green’s determination to tour regardless of the risk, the band’s excitement at finally releasing their pandemic-delayed fourth album The Dream, Boris Johnson’s “f***ing appalling” pandemic strategy and the “toxic” Partygate scandal, a devilish humour emerges. “It’s like Al Capone, isn’t it?” Unger-Hamilton says of Boris’s downfall. “Didn’t he eventually get nailed for tax? Sometimes it’s not your biggest crimes that get you.” Joe grins: “Hopefully he’ll get syphilis.”

We begin, as boozy lunches do, with pint one: toasting the glory days. “It was Gatsby-esque,” Unger-Hamilton says of partying at Robert Pattinson’s house in LA as they first broke America in 2012. “He had an incredible collection of vintage guitars, which he let us play, very drunk. He was like, ‘This is from 1919 and it cost 50 grand.’ I’m like, ‘Give it here’…That was the one bite of the apple that could have become addictive.”

With This is All Yours going top five in the US two years later, Alt-J started to live a double life: “indie big” in the UK where they can headline a festival such as Latitude but “retain our anonymity”, and yet talk of the town in New York or LA. “It is what I imagined fame to be like,” says Newman. “Every other gig is like ‘this restaurant wants you to come’, and they put on this big meal for you,” Unger-Hamilton adds. “There’s this after-party organised at this bar, free drinks with private rooms and everything you want and don’t need. But I think it’s healthy that that was happening on the other side of the Atlantic and we all remained here. Having that success in America meant that we didn’t walk around feeling like really famous musicians every day of our lives. When we came home it was almost like we went back to normal life. When we were in America it was like a mad holiday where you were more famous.”

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They’ve considered moving to the US “because we’re like ‘imagine this full-time’”, but Newman can’t see Alt-J becoming a Sunset Strip sort of band: “I ruled out motorbikes at a very early age.” What do they think of the state of America right now? “It’s like replacing volatile with boring,” Newman argues. “It’s a lot more deflating after Trump’s left, because he was a walking catastrophe that was lauded by half the population…You could not be more transfixed by a figure in this time.” “Biden was almost like, let’s just go back to governing how we used to, nothing crazy, a safe pair of hands on the tiller,” says Unger-Hamilton. “Actually, I think Trump has left an America that wants a more extreme version of government than that.”

Joe Newman, Gwil Sainsbury, Thom Green and Gus Unger-Hamilton of Alt-J after winning the 2012 Mercury Prize

Leaping from album to tour and back again without much downtime, right up to 2017’s rich, quasi-orchestral third album Relaxer, took its toll on Alt-J. “We were very weary,” says Newman. “Tired, fatigued…depleted creatively.” They describe Relaxer as “rushed”, the band of 2017 “burnt out” and “frayed at the edges” and their 2018 tour a tough ride. “We were ready to finish touring sooner than the tour finished,” Newman admits.

Green in particular. He enjoyed the rush of early “party all the time” tours, but his chaotic personal life and mental health issues began to make touring a torment. “I went into a black hole,” he admits. “I was struggling just being around people.” His problems were rooted in a childhood defence mechanism to shut people out and isolate himself whenever he felt unable to express his feelings or opinions. “I put it on the other person and decide that they’re not listening, they don’t want to listen to me or they don’t care. It’s this feedback loop of negativity in my mind… the resentment just builds and builds and builds. At the end of it, I wasn’t sure if I was gonna be able to continue, full stop.”

There were a couple of days where I couldn’t tell if I was awake or if I was asleep. It was terrifying

Thom Green

Sleep-deprived and introspective, Green would find himself feeling “paralysed” in hotel rooms, and unable to communicate with his bandmates at hotel lobby calls, in the van or even onstage. “I played shows where I’m just completely cut off from everyone in the room, the audience, my bandmates, I’m just completely in my own head,” he says. “It got to the point on one tour around 2015 or ’16 where I went so far into myself I developed depersonalisation and detachment kind of stuff. At the peak of it was a couple of days where I couldn’t tell if I was awake or if I was asleep. It was terrifying.”

A sabbatical was called. Alt-J spent 2019 starting therapy and taking acting classes (Green); getting married, learning Irish fiddle and looking into manufacturing condiments called “Gus-tard” (Unger-Hamilton); and getting so wasted at the Australian festival which inspired comeback single “U&ME” that they ended up buying rounds of kimonos (Newman).

“You were sending me these videos of yourself at this festival,” Unger-Hamilton teases him. “You were – can I say ‘off your nut’? – and talking about how you bought a round of kimonos for everyone. A round. He got a round in.”

“There was a kimono seller at the festival, it was her lucky day,” Newman grins, shamefaced, adding: “It was this debauched period of time that imbued this sense of what normal used to be.” (Which is to say, not very normal at all).

Pint two: getting hypnagogic. Alt-J are politely bemused at my suggestion that The Dream is the ultimate thematic embrace of their often somnolent and surreal music but, between the ghostly operatic segments and otherworldly grooves, plenty of strange visions emerge. “Chicago” is about the sensation of fainting. “Once it happened to me with Grouplove, a band from America,” Newman confesses. “I fainted after smoking some weed… I kept smoking and literally just folded like a chair.” The shapeshifting “Bane”, meanwhile, revisits a dream Newman had about swimming in Coca-Cola.

Analysis? “Probably trying to keep your head above water in America,” posits Unger-Hamilton, “worried about sinking out of sight.” “Maybe engulfed by the pleasures of the world around you,” says Newman. Drowning in commercialism? “Yeah, yeah,” says Unger-Hamilton, plumbing unconscious depths. “S***.”

Alt-J performing at Panorama music festival in 2017

Inevitably, reality does invade the album. “Get Better” is Newman’s fictional memory of losing a partner to Covid which, perhaps due to Green’s vulnerabilities, brought his bandmates to tears. And “Hard Drive Gold” is their tribute to all the teenage crypto bros with their hearts set on a Bitcoin lambo, inspired by a “curious” Green, who ventured into the controversial WallStreetBets Reddit just in time to luck into the 2020 GameStop boom.

“It really blew up and I was like, ‘This is quite a lot of money’,” he recalls. “I started to panic because I was just like, ‘I have to sell this at the right time’. I started to sell it before it reached the peak and then I just deleted the app because I couldn’t deal with the stress anymore.” Now he invests a little each week into Bitcoin and Ethereum, and appreciates how a generation locked out of home ownership and deluged with debt would naturally gravitate to crypto’s promises of easy overnight wealth. “There is a lot of hope to it,” he says. “[In] the NFT world, people are making artwork and selling it for millions of dollars. A lot of people are immediately offended by the idea because they don’t understand it. It’s an image, how could you possibly own something that I can just screenshot? But if somebody’s willing to pay for something then why not sell it to them?”

Are Alt-J the perfect band to break the metaverse? “Yeah,” Green says, “why not do it as a piece of performance art or something? Fundamentally, though, I think the metaverse and Mark Zuckerberg and people want to be able to control the whole of humanity forever. And this sounds like maybe the first step into our consciousness being the commodity and our bodies just being the plant pot for it.”

By pint three, we’re drowning in the dark stuff. From a fictionalised story of an actor-turned-dealer selling John Belushi the speedball that killed him at LA’s Chateau Marmont in 1982 (“The Actor”) to a trip inside the mind of a killer (“Losing My Mind”), The Dream features more death and murder than a misty night in Midsomer. It’s the result of Newman’s obsession with true crime podcast My Favourite Murder. “I find it fascinating how detached we are from that side of the human condition,” he explains. “You go to Epping Forest and there are bodies buried, and you just walk past it. You turn on the news and something awful has happened but you’re so disconnected from it because there are divides between you and what you’re watching.”

I find it fascinating how detached we are from that side of the human condition

Joe Newman

It’s the ordinariness of the average killer that fascinates him. “How many convicted or non-convicted murderers have I walked past in the last month? And they look like people you just don’t expect. You think they’re going to have this comic book villainous aesthetic, but actually they’re greying old men hunched over in an anorak staring at the pavement as they walk past you. They’re the people that live unexceptional lives but then they decide to commit an atrocity, and you’ll never know.”

As a teenager, Newman had his own brush with real-life homicide when a friend’s sister was murdered. “It’s something that you’ll never forget, finding out,” he says, “It’s like a bomb’s gone off. You can’t really comprehend it. You just know that something’s been snatched out from under everyone, and there’s nothing in this world that can make you feel any better. They can’t tell you that it’s gonna be OK.” Having a child has brought home the sense of vulnerability and fragility the experience left him with. “I think I’m only realising now how it’s affected me. As time’s developed, I’ve realised that it’s a trauma that [I] haven’t really processed.”

The interview descends. Into a discussion on the nature of “pure evil”. Our inherent selfishness in the face of climate catastrophe (Newman: “Someone showed me the flood map of Britain in 10 or 15 years’ time and the first thing I did was, ‘Oh no, we’re OK’. That is what the problem is”). Fantasy Squid Game. As I depart, I feel duty bound to leave these couple of dads going through until dinner on a high. I press them to acknowledge their significant impact on the space and textures of modern pop.

“We invented SoundCloud rap,” Unger-Hamilton grins, eyeing pint four: living the dream. “That’s your quote.”

‘The Dream’ is out on 11 February

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