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alt-J Talk Chasing Excitement And Magic On A Confident New Album

alt-J's new album, <em>Relaxer</em>, is out June 2.
Mads Perch
Courtesy of the artist
alt-J's new album, Relaxer, is out June 2.

alt-J has risen to music stardom while playfully disregarding many rules of popular music. Over its past two albums, An Awesome Wave and This is All Yours, the British trio has displayed a taste for the unpredictable and unconventional. And now, the forthcoming album Relaxer features two different songs that include counting in Japanese, a cover of a classic folk song with a veritable orchestra of classical guitarists and hardly any tracks under five minutes in length.

"We enjoy luxuriating in the kind of sounds that we're making," says keyboardist and vocalist Gus Unger-Hamilton, noting that the band's producer is the one who trims the sprawling tracks created in the studio. Unger-Hamilton and Newman joined NPR's Ari Shapiro to discuss the creative decisions behind Relaxer and how the band has changed since its inception. Hear the interview at the audio link and read on for an edited excerpt of that conversation.

Ari Shapiro: I hope it doesn't sound rude, but I think one of my favorite tracks on this album is actually your cover of "House of the Rising Sun."

Joe Newman: No, I think that's great. We are a folk band and we've taken a very old folk song and we've kind of reimagined it.

There are lyrics I've never heard before and I didn't know if they were lyrics from an early version of the song that I just wasn't familiar with, or if you'd written them yourself. But this line, "Like a bird flying over a forest fire, my father feels the heat beneath his wings." That just stopped me dead.

Gus Unger-Hamilton: That's original, original stuff. Joe wrote a second verse for it, and the first verse of our version is based on Woody Guthrie's version. And then there's the chorus which we wrote, and the second verse. So it's more original material than cover really, this song.

Is it at all scary? To take a classic that is as old and beloved as this, and just tear it apart and do what you want to it and rewrite it, and yet keep the title and keep the framework?

Unger-Hamilton: I think it's something we'd only have the confidence to do, being on our third album. I think if we'd done this on our first album we'd have felt like we were, you know, out of line.

Newman: And I think we live by the rule that if it excites us, we should be moving forward.

What was it about this song that pulled you in in the first place?

Newman: The Animals' version, I think, is the one I grew up listening to.

Unger-Hamilton: This is the famous version from the 60s that people are familiar with.

Newman: Yeah, exactly. That's probably my first living memory of rock 'n' roll. And it's always stayed with me.

Unger-Hamilton: I heard the song being sung as a folk song by my family, so I didn't know any of the versions — The Animals' version, or anything. It was just this song that was around in my family. So I feel like I've always known it, I think.

And so when you take these two memories and relationships that each of you has to the song, and filter it through your own talent and aesthetic, how do you create what we're listening to now?

Unger-Hamilton: [ Laughs.] I don't know. I think that in alt-J, we feel like we can try anything. So in this song for example, the guitar is actually played by 20 different classical guitarists, all in one room playing at the same time.

What?! Oh, my God. What did you want by having 20 classical guitar players, rather than one, or five, or just using a computer to make one sound like 20?

Unger-Hamilton: I think when you do something like this, if you can do it properly, you should. And who knows, there might even be some extra magic to it, and actually I think there was. There was this almost kind of John Cage-y kind of — you're not just hearing the guitar riffs, you're hearing the sound of the room, you're hearing 20 different people's fingers creaking on the neck. And you're listening to everything, and that's what you get from doing it properly and not just layering up one person 20 times.

I was really aware of those fingers squeaking on the neck of the guitar. It's almost like a percussion instrument in the arrangement.

Newman: Yeah. It's true.

You met as university students when you were teenagers 10 years ago. And the song "Hit Me Like That Snare" has the lyric, "We are dangerous teenagers." Which you're not anymore! How do you think age has changed your music?

Unger-Hamilton: I think it always comes back to confidence with us. I think that when we started at university we were fresh-faced and full of ideas. And we've tried to keep that spirit, but we also got better at our instruments, we also learned new instruments, and I think the experimental side of it has become a bigger thing.

Newman: I think there's a lot to be said about getting to know people before you ever see yourself going down those creative ventures with those people. You need to find out if you're on the same wavelength, recommend things to each other. We went through that process. That really helped us establish a chemistry. Essentially our attitude is if you like what we've done, then you'll like what we're about to show you.

The band has been a critical and commercial success, even though you consistently defy so many of the pressures of the music industry and break so many of the rules for pop music. Do you think that means there are unexplored paths for musicians to be successful or do you think it just means that alt-J is a unicorn?

Newman: I don't think we see it as defying the rules and regulations set by the music industry. I think we're just lucky we can do what we do and have people around us who believe in what we do.

Unger-Hamilton: I also think that people's capacity and appetite for challenging music is underappreciated by most of the industry. And I think that somehow despite that, there's this view that people can't take anything too out there. But we're pleased to be hopefully disproving that.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Christina Cala is a producer for Code Switch. Before that, she was at the TED Radio Hour where she piloted two new episode formats — the curator chat and the long interview. She's also reported on a movement to preserve African American cultural sites in Birmingham and followed youth climate activists in New York City.