Fresh off of the release of its fourth studio album, The Dream, and in the midst of tour, alt-J has continuously impressed audiences with its ear-catching songs and striking aesthetics.
“We’ve never had a set idea of what kind of music we wanted to make,” said keyboardist and vocalist Gus Unger-Hamilton in an interview with The Daily Californian. “There’s a lot of freedom there – nothing musically is off-limits.”
Such freedom is apparent throughout the band’s most recent record, which pulls inspiration from genres and topics wider-ranging than any other alt-J LP. Recorded in the band’s own studio, the LP’s production granted alt-J the ability to record its songs with an immediacy it had never before experienced.
“Writing and recording were more the same thing than they ever have been,” Unger-Hamilton said.
In a house-turned-studio, the band decorated its walls with posters of past tours, evoking both nostalgia and excitement for the future of the group. It also served as the birthplace for The Dream.
“(The studio) was also a little encouragement for us as well, kind of like a little gallery of what we’ve achieved over the last 10 years,” Unger-Hamilton explained. “It’s a nice feeling to go, ‘We’ve done well –– we can achieve a lot when we try hard.’ ”
As with almost any other work written during the pandemic, the record was shaped by the hardships and constraints brought on by COVID-19. The track “Get Better,” for instance, explores losing a loved one, and with lyrics such as “I’ll start the day with tiramisu/ Raise a spoon to frontline workers,” the pandemic’s effects are felt throughout the album’s entirety.
“I think we traveled a lot in the songs we were writing” Unger-Hamilton reflected, noting that lockdown restricted the band to the United Kingdom. “A lot of songs are set in America … sometimes going back in time, sometimes into unimagined futures. …We were very much stuck in one place geographically and wanted to go further in the songs we were writing and travel through them.”
The album is a combination of musical ideas old and new, with tracks such as “U&Me” and “Chicago” originating as sound checks from its previous LP Relaxer. Unger-Hamilton expressed his specific love for the track “Bane,” a dark listen about a soda-addict’s spiral into madness that has been in the works since 2011.
“It’s partly based on a dream that Joe (Newman) had where he was swimming in a pool while drinking it, and in the song, we’ve turned it into a swimming pool full of Coca-Cola” Unger-Hamilton said about “Bane” and bandmate Newman. “It’s also based on something our tour manager told us, about how he used to be so addicted to drinking fizzy drinks that he would wake up in the night, go to the fridge and drink one … to satisfy his body’s craving for sugar.”
Regardless of its lighthearted inspiration, however, “Bane” unfolds as a somewhat disturbing allegory for the horrors of addiction – a prime illustration of the band’s songwriting prowess.
alt-J’s musical mindset has focused on its songwriting talents from the days of An Awesome Wave — and for good reason. Yet, the band’s ethos has taken a massive shift when it comes to balancing their lives on and off of the stage.
“What’s changed is we’ve got lives outside the band now. Ten years ago our lives were the band – we were kind of married to each other in every way,” Unger-Hamilton said. “Now that Joe and I have families, it’s kind of nice to feel like we can step away from the band when we want to and not feel completely tied to it 24/7.”
Both Unger-Hamilton and Newman became fathers this past year, not only changing the band’s musical outlook, but also the way they tour. Traveling with their families, alt-J’s life on tour looks nothing like the stereotypical rock ‘n’ roll bachelor’s dream – it’s filled with diapers, family memories and the unavoidable dramatics that come along with stadium touring with two infants.
“It’s been great; it’s had its challenges,” Unger-Hamilton explained. “We’ve got two babies on the tour bus. Luckily, we have a separate tour bus with our families. … But nonetheless, trying to get babies to sleep on a tour bus system is interesting, to say the least.”
As the band’s budget has expanded, so have its live theatrics, making alt-J’s show unmissable. Pairing its near-perfect musicality with the stunning visuals mentioned by Unger-Hamilton, alt-J’s performance style has not only evolved, but massively improved, making for an entertaining but nonetheless cerebral show.
“We’ve grown in confidence as musicians in that time,” Unger-Hamilton reflected on the past 10 years. “But we’ve also increased our light show and production to the point where it’s really the star of the show now.”
alt-J has a staying power that most bands could only dream of obtaining. Prioritizing its lighthearted and creative mindset, it is no wonder that the band has continuously produced some of the most intriguing music the alternative scene has had to offer post-2000. Both down to earth yet incredibly impressive in its work, alt-J has yet to lose its spark.