Flip/reverse: alt-J

Interview Flip/reverse: alt-J

Handing out the keys to third album ‘Relaxer’, alt-J have roped in a host of hip hop’s great and good to whittle their work into something new.

“I don’t do remixes, but if I did I’d just turn them into really banging club versions. Put a donk on everything,” muses alt-J keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton. “So I like the bravery of people who don’t do that and turn them into these whispery, hushed things. It makes for an album that ebbs and flows nicely rather than… “ “… you pounding your meat,” interjects vocalist Joe Newman as his bandmate fist pumps the air and the pair burst into spluttering laughter. If the band (completed by drummer Thom Sonny Green, who’s absent as we congregate in the garden of a sunny Dalston coffee shop) aren’t necessarily famous for being laugh-a-minute jokesters, then today they’re taking a good punt at belying their cerebral reputation. Maybe it’s because our topic – the band’s forthcoming release ‘Reduxer’, a guest-laden reworking of last year’s Mercury-nominated third LP ‘Relaxer’ – is one that enables them to turn the lens outwards rather than in. Maybe it’s because, after a short upcoming tour in October, they’re actually allowing themselves a decent bit of time off. Heck, maybe it’s just because it’s nice weather. But the pair, supping on teas and wisecracking throughout, are on prime form.

They should be, too. Featuring guest vocals from a cast of hip-hop’s more leftfield players (from Danny Brown to Little Simz, Paigey Cakey and more) nestled within remixes from the likes of Twin Shadow, Rejjie Snow and a host of alternative European rap stars, ‘Reduxer’ (a natty pun on the original, playing on the idea of a redux, or bringing something back) takes the intricate ideas of the trio’s original and pulls them apart, reimagining them in unexpected and pleasantly surprising new ways. “We were just like, do your thing. It was carte blanche [for everyone]. Do your own story,” explains Joe of the experience. “We’re precious during the recording process, but once it’s been recorded and catalogued with our name on it then we’re like, do whatever you like. We’ve released the stems of things to fans for a remix competition previously and I’m actually quite jealous of their vision for it sometimes. I still listen to some of them ‘til this day, regrettably sometimes. Tearfully…”

Though all three class themselves as hip-hop fans anyway, the idea for the record properly came during the writing of ‘Relaxer’ track ‘Deadcrush’, whose beats seemed to naturally lend themselves to the genre. From there, the band put together a hit list of realistic potential collaborators (“Maybe I’m making judgement calls, but I’m guessing Lil’ Pump or the late XXXTentacion probably wouldn’t have known who we were,” concedes Joe) and the album slowly began to take shape with the impetus of including a diverse array of artists from across the board. “We’re very proud of [this record] being global, international, men and women, black and white,” notes Joe. “The tagline for this is globalist hip hop.” “I don’t actually know what globalist means. I think it means, ‘with a desire for power’,” cuts in Gus. “When Vice reviewed our first album they gave us an unhappy face and called it ‘globalist pop’. We were like… sick. We’ll take that.”

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“The tagline for this is globalist hip hop.”

Joe Newman

If it seems like a simple concept (the album, not the global domination, that is), then it’s also one that people might not expect from an ‘indie’ band such as alt-J, and one that shows a modern and unblinkered approach to genre boundaries. “The point I keep coming back to is that music fans are a lot more open now to different genres of music and I think a lot of fans of ours are also hip-hop fans and that’s not weird,” notes Gus. “I’ve done a lot of interviews about this album with places around the world now and most people who can’t seem to get their heads around it are people over 40. Like, ‘So… are you a hip-hop band now?’” he jokes, adopting a faux-perplexed tone, “whereas most of our fans are like: Yeah. LIT. Or some other young person’s word that I can’t use properly.”

They’ll be able to test this theory out later this month, on their aforementioned UK jaunt – a short run of shows largely intended as a farewell to ‘Relaxer’, but which should also see the record’s new forms given something of an outing, too. “We’ve worked on some versions and I hope we’re gonna get one or two of the artists to come down on that tour,” Gus explains. “We’ve got green screen footage of [some of the] guys too, so I think we can create something visually and audibly cool live. It’s nice to give our fans a little present to say, here’s a little something to keep you going before dinner. Which’ll be about two years [away]. At best.”

‘Dinner’ in this setting means alt-J’s fourth record proper, which the band seem to be approaching at a fairly casual pace. But until then, ‘Reduxer’ is offering up a new side to this particular triangle that should leave the doors wide open for whatever the trio decide to turn their hands to next. Global conquering, or otherwise.

‘Reduxer’ is out now via Infectious.

As featured in the October 2018 issue of DIY, out now at stockists across the UK. Alternatively, read below, get a copy sent to your door, or subscribe for a full year.

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