Alt-J sind zurück. Jeder sich halb ernstnehmende Indie-Fan wird ganz schwach in den Knien wenn Indieclubs Breezeblocks spiel(t)en oder man in alten Playlisten über Songs wie Nara stolpert. Und jetzt sind sie endlich, endlich wieder mit neuer Musik zurück. Am 11. Februar kommt ihr viertes Album “The Dream” raus und aus sehr glücklichen Gründen durfte ich schon vor ein paar Monaten reinhören. Und puh, da kommt was auf euch zu.
Welterfolgreich aber trotzdem nie ganz Mainstream – die vier Engländer aus der Uni, die mit ihrem Debütalbum An Awesome Wave schon kleine Musikgeschichte geschrieben haben, sind sich selbst treugeblieben und haben es trotzdem geschafft, sich auf unerwartete Weise zu übertreffen. Rolling Stone hat das neue Album schon ein “masterpiece” getauft und auch ich bin verliebt wie vor zehn Jahren – ja, vielleicht sogar ein bisschen mehr.
Ich durfte aber nicht nur das neue Album auf Repeat hören bis es endlich rauskommt, sondern auch mit Thom, dem Drummer der Band sprechen. Ein Interview mit Alt-J… Ich versuch das gerade irgendwie der 17-jährigen Anna zu erklären, die den ganzen Tag mit einem “This is from Matildaa” – Ohrwurm rumrannte, und es ist schon ein bisschen absurd. Ich möchte keine Wandtapete zitieren, aber Träume werden manchmal halt doch wahr.
Ironischerweise war es aber nicht nur das coolste Interview, das ich je führen durfte, sondern auch das peinlichste. Mein Laptop hat mitten im Interview keinen Akku mehr gehabt und ganze zweieinhalb Minuten kann man auf der Interviewaufnahme nur fluchenden Geräusche hören, als ich über meine eigene Füße stolpernd das Ladekabel geholt und angesteckt hab. Ja, genau das ist passiert. Ich habe das einzige Alt-J Interview, was ich wahrscheinlich je führen durfte, abgebrochen, weil ich zu dumm war, meinen Laptop zu laden. Ihr wisst bestimmt auch, wie gut Stecker in die Dose gehen wenn man nervös ist… An dieser Stelle ein großes Danke an die liebe Label-Lady und an Thom, die geduldig gewartet haben. Das im Hinterkopf wissend (ihr könnt es meinetwegen auch direkt wieder vergessen), ist es trotzdem eins der interessantesten Interviews, die ich je geführt hab. Lest selbst für ein paar tiefe Einblicke in die faszinierende Soundwelt von Alt-J:
Thom von Alt-J im Interview
Anna: Hey Thom, so cool that this still worked out, even tho it’s on Zoom now. How are you?
Thom: I’m feeling good, thank you. I’m at home. I like being at home, it’s kind of cold and rainy outside, but I don’t mind. How are you?
Anna: I’m good, too. It’s actually sunny here today, so that’s nice. It’s been a while since you’ve been doing promo for an Alt-J album. I bet releasing a record now has to be so much different than the last times. How did it feel when you all got together again and decided “we’re gonna record a new album”?
Thom: Yeah, it was nice. We managed to wait until we felt like we were ready. Took some time off and we needed that. We ended up taking a year and then towards the end of that year, we started talking about music again and decided, well, January 2020 is probably a good time to get back together. And because we’d had that time at home, we were able to like, nurture ourselves and feel grounded. Going into it just felt really easy. I was a little bit nervous though, to be honest. It was a little bit like going back to school. You know, I’ve gotten used to just my routine at home. But once I realized that both Joe and Gus felt the same way, it was fine.
“We’re always just as open minded as possible.”
Anna: What was the process behind recording the album?
Thom: We usually, kind of take it easy to begin with and we play each other ideas. It’s really organic. I might hear what Joe has been writing on the guitar and respond on the drums, or pull up my laptop, start improvising something electronically. You kinda start to record basic things into the laptop and then you can see it take shape in the software we use, called Ableton. You can start to see it and formulate a structure. It’s like a drawing board. You can structure stuff quite easily. And then you build it and build it. Take it home and listen to it along. That’s a really nice thing to do because you get to process it at home and there’s no rush to it. It’s a system that we developed.
Anna: Was there a way you wanted to sound like on the new album?
Thom: We don’t really think in terms of like a genre or anything. We try not to. But we definitely have references. I listen to a lot music. For example, the opening track of the album Bane. The beginning reminded me of a Black Sabbath song I think it’s called “Planet Caravan”. It sounded similar, and I thought well, we can emphasize that. We like to do that sometime. We’ve got a lot of references because we all listen to different kinds of things. I think we’re always just as open minded as possible. And we never tried to be like, “well, that’s not very Alt-J, so we can’t do that”. That’s the last thing we want to do, we never want to be restricting ourselves like that.
“We would know if we made something that was terrible.”
Anna: That must be a challenging process when the whole world of music is watching. Do you ever feel the pressure or are you good in letting it not affect you?
Thom: You know, there is pressure, to be honest. It doesn’t necessarily come from anywhere in particular. We’re fortunate, like the record label that we work with know that, so they kind of leave us to it – and then they get the best out of us. But in terms of like the music scene and our kind of position on the back of the success that we’ve had in the past – I definitely want to continue that. And I obviously don’t want to get bad reviews or anything like that. But at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter? If we are happy with it, then the chances are other people will be, too. Because we’re music critics ourselves, I think for us, we would know if we made something that was terrible. I’d like to think so, anyway.
Right now, I’m not really thinking about it too much. I will be more aware of it when the album comes out. But I don’t read reviews either. I sometimes read interviews that we’ve done. But reading reviews is the worst thing you can do. Because either it’s amazing and then you’re like, “Oh, we’re incredible.”. And then you’re just like, “Well, let’s just keep doing that then“. Or it’s terrible. And it really hurts. You know, there are bad, bad reviews and it’s like, wow. They don’t know me. Why would they say that? It’s rare, but it has happened in the past where I was like, have I met this person, have I done something to them? So I just don’t pay attention to any of it. It’s like social media. You spend all day on Twitter, then you’re going to be an angry person.
“I’m really proud of what we did.”
Anna: I’m glad that you found a way to not let it affect you that much. If you had to pick one favourite song from the new album, from the top of your head, which one would it be?
Thom: I think it would be “Walk A Mile“. Yeah.
Thom: The way that I see it in my head, it’s very clear. And it makes a lot of sense, visually. When I picture it, it’s very coherent to me. Our parts are very well balanced in terms of like what we contribute. Works just wholly for me.
I’m very proud of what I did. Very proud of what Joe and Gus both did. I really like the production that we did. Sonically, for me, it’s very soothing to listen to. And it’s a journey, as well. Whenever I listen to it, I can’t do anything else. I have to give all of my attention to it. I think it kind of represents a certain change in us, which is maybe a more of a mature kind of sound, which wasn’t intentional, but I think it’s inevitable with just getting older and having the time that we’ve had, being more grounded in our home lives and things like that. Yeah. I’m very proud of it. I really hope that people get it on the album because, you know, it’s not a single, so..
Anna: Well, I really like it.
Thom: Oh, thanks (laughs). I’m glad.
Anna: Different question: If you had to pick one underrated song of the past albums, which one would that be?
Thom: Oh, that’s a good question. Well, I like “Nara Reprise” (Anmerk. der Red.: I’m assuming he means “Leaving Nara”). There’s something about it. At the time, I liked it and enjoyed it. But I think maybe enough time has passed that I have a different perspective on it now. And when I’m listening to it, I’m not picturing the three of us. It’s more of a subjective view of it now. There are a few tracks like that where I’m like, “wow, I can’t believe that we made that”. And I don’t remember it either. It happens quite a lot where I come across tracks of ours and I’m like, “how did that happen?” Must be weird for like older bands, they’ve been going for like 40 years, and they listened to like the early stuff and got no memory of writing these huge tracks.
Anna: We just talked about past songs, in many of these songs you can find pop culture quotes, such as in Matilda, Fitzpleasure, Taro with role models from film and literature. What references can we expect on The Dream?
Thom: So, the track “Bane” is about Coca-Cola. Just straight up, just about Coca-Cola (laughs). Just how addictive and delicious it is. It’s a story about somebody that we know who was having a sugar craving in the middle of the night. They were in a hotel room and just slept-walked to get a coke. It’s quite a funny story.
There are some references to true crime. Um, Joe’s a big fan of true crime podcasts. I really like true crime documentaries like lot of stuff on YouTube. In terms of like pop culture, I’m not entirely sure. Because I don’t write lyrics it’s hard for me to know exactly. Let me think –
*ahja hier kommt der peinliche Laptop-hat-kein-Akku-mehr-Moment*
Anna: Shit. Fuck fuck. Oh, my God.
*Ich kann immer noch nicht glauben, dass mir das passiert ist.*
nice label lady: Here she is.
Anna: I’m so sorry! My laptop didn’t tell me that it was about to die. I’m so sorry, but thank you for staying.
“What the first album was written with was just this very minimal set up.”
Anna: So, coming to a question a team colleague of mine had to you as a drummer: Why are you not using any cymbals (=Becken)? Is there a deeper ideology behind it, is it more a trademark now, what’s the story?
Thom: When we got together, we were at university and we didn’t have any room. We practiced together in a bedroom and I had room for a kick drum and the snare drum, but that was it. So I couldn’t use anything else. I had like a percussion shaker and I would use like the rim of the snare drum.
What the first album was written with was just this very minimal set up. And then I kind of stuck like that. As time went on I got more room and whatever, and we started exploring more sounds and things, but I didn’t use it. I just didn’t bother. But I also quite like the fact that it gives you more discipline. Like you’re forced to do other things, which I think is a good thing to do with any kind of creative pursuit. If you create a set of restrictions, you’re forced to go down a path that you would might not choose. Traditionally, drummers use the hi-hat and the ride cymbal and then you’re probably going to sound like everyone else.
I actually do use cymbals in terms of like samples. So a lot of drums that I write like, I program them using samples, like 808 samples and things like that, and I use cymbals then. Just not live. I’m not opposed to cymbals, it’s just for us, well cymbals are so fucking loud. You know, like in a practice room, if the drummer is just bashing the cymbals, you can’t hear anything else. “Cymbals eat guitars”, like that bandname? It’s true. Just complete wash out everything else.
“I just love to create sounds and manipulate them.”
Anna: Besides being a drummer, you are also a producer of electronic music. You already mentioned it a bit, but what role does your approach to electronic music play in the sound of the band? What are your influences?
Thom: When we’re writing, I have my laptop and I use plugins and a couple of synthesizers that I like, just like small portable ones. I just love to create sounds and to manipulate them. All of the stuff that I make at home right now, for example, they’re not tracks, they’re just like these sounds. And they develop.
So that’s kind of what I do with the band. I often feel quite intuitive in terms of what might be needed texturally. Let’s say, Joe’s guitar that was recorded and we’ve got a drum track, maybe Gus’ vocal, and I feel like you need something that’s got a bit more like middle range to it. And then you think about a track visually. Well, what could you add? I go through my sounds and plugins, and just try to find something that suits. It’s just problem solving which is something that I love doing.
One of my biggest influences production wise was Clams Casino. He’s an American producer who produces for a lot of hip hop artists and puts out his own stuff. It’s these quite minimal sounding beats, which really inspired me to create beats. People like Aphex Twin. Just in terms of their output and ethos and how prolific they are. The fact that you can tell that they’ve made these sounds because they like them and they’re not trying to be anything other than themselves. Anybody like that I really love.
The album Thom from Alt-J would bring to an lonely island
Anna: That brings me to my last question: What would be the one album you would bring to a lonely island with you? Mine is “An Awesome Wave“.
Thom: Oh, wow. Really?
Anna: Yeah. It’s just a really wholesome album. This is why I was thinking I could pitch that question back to you.
Thom: It’s a good question. I think it would be my favourite album of all time, it’s called “Let England Shake“ by PJ Harvey, came out, I think, 2011. For me, it’s the perfect album, every single track is just so, so good. The very top tier kind of songwriting production, so refined. There’s nothing on it I don’t like. It’s very emotional, as well, like the subject matter is very loaded and the way that she sings, she’s really giving everything. And I listen to it all the time. It’s funny because I don’t think I ever had a favourite album. I always kind of struggled to, you know, I could say “In Rainbows” by Radiohead is one of my favourite albums. Or Linkin Park, like “Hybrid Theory” is like one of my favourite albums. But I think “Let England Shake” I would put that at the very top.
Anna: Well, I definitely have to check it out then. Sounds like a great album.
Thom: I’d recommend it, especially with this kind of weather. I often listen to it at home if I’ve got nothing to do. I’ll get into bed and I will listen to it in private (laughs). And just lay there and just kind of – (zones off)
Anna: That’s how you do it. Well, thank you for sharing your stories.
In einer Woche ist hier das Album verlinkt, bis dahin hört nochmal die aktuelle Single “Hard Drive Gold“:
*on an unrelated note, Thom’s Stimme klingt ein bisschen wie die von Benedict Cumberbatch und i may or may have not developed a crush on the audio note from this interview
Fotocredit: George Muncay