With their debut album, Alt-J were catapulted from obscure, faceless promo photos to the height of public consciousness. With an album that was ambitious, wonderfully weird but still gloriously pop, the four-piece ticked all the boxes, got all the votes and ended up winning the Mercury Prize. Then, just a handful of days before they were due to return to the studio, one of them decided it was time to call it a day.
“He left two days before we were supposed to start in the studio,” the band’s Gus Unger-Hamilton explains, of the departure of bassist Gwil Sainsbury; but there’s no trace of a grudge in his voice. “That makes it sound like he really fucked us, which he didn’t. It was actually good that he left then because if he had left halfway through making the album, or halfway through touring, it would’ve been so messy. I think he saw his opportunity to leave and he was like, ‘I have to go now or go in two years’. Then, it was like, ‘Right, we’ve dealt with that so we better just do it and start work.’”
From that point onwards the band were spurred into action, but not unaffected. Whilst the split may well have been amicable, it caused the band to approach things with a certain air of caution. “I think that encouraged us to start work sooner and with more positive vibes circulating the rehearsal space,” continues frontman Joe Newman. “I think we all knew we had suffered quite a trauma, and that the band was fragile. We knew we all had to be on our best behaviour to try and get the best out of each other. We were kind of - without telling each other - stepping on eggshells. We didn’t want to upset anyone and we wanted to get good vibes going.”
“We weren’t being experimental for the sake of being experimental.”
— Joe Newman
Teaming back up with the producer behind ‘An Awesome Wave’, Charlie Andrew, the trio’s sophomore effort started life more as fragments and ideas than fully formed songs. They were unafraid of sewing together their own musical collage. “All of the tracks kinda derived from different times during the last three or four years,” offers Newman. “Some of the songs have been around even before the release of the first album, and others have been alive for a couple months. There’s a really broad mix of time periods going on, which is good because naturally they’re gonna sound different to each other. The recordings happened quite quickly but the ideas behind the songs had come about over the last few years.”
“It’s cool,” continues Unger-Hamilton, “because on this album, we’re seeing the fruition of a lot of ideas that have been around for a long time. It’s exciting to see ‘The Gospel Of John Hurt’ finally being a finished track, and ‘Bloodflood Pt. II’ was something we had batted about for a really long time. ‘Every Other Freckle’ was around before the first album too.”
Their approach to piecing together the puzzles of the last few years also gave them the freedom to explore their own smaller ambitions. “There were tiny little goals that were just ideas that I wanted to hear in recording,” says the frontman. “A goal you could say was, we’ve got a song called ‘Warm Foothills’, that uses five different people to sing the other verse. They each sing a word and you splice the words together so it’s a collage of different voices. That was something where I was like, ‘I’d like to hear that so how can we make that possible?’ We kinda worked at it for a while and it ended up working.”
It’s evident that experimentation wasn’t a dirty word when it came to the record either – take the subtle swooning nature of lead single ‘Hunger of the Pine’, sliced clean with its startling Miley Cyrus sample - but the trio knew their own boundaries. “We tried out lots of things,” offers Gus, before Joe finishes his sentence. “We weren’t being experimental for the sake of being experimental. We were just like, ‘I would like to hear this; can it happen, what do we need to do?’ It’s not an unreasonable amount of experimentation. Just the right amount.”
Taken from the July issue of DIY, out now. Alt-J’s new album ‘This Is All Yours’ will be released on 22nd September via Infectious Music.
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