Originally published in The Edge
Released at the start of this month, alt-J’s third album RELAXER is their most concise and eccentric to date. It ranges from intricate orchestral recordings at the iconic Abbey Road Studios to gritty pop-conscious basslines and structures paired with compelling tales of typically eccentric natures. To understand the process behind the record and its presentation, we sat down with keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton to pick his mind about hair products, touring and musical greenery, and the underappreciation of the bassoon, as demonstrated on maudlin album track ‘Last Year.’
So, RELAXER. Where did the title come from? It goes from being very soothing at one end to quite aggressive and in-your-face, like ‘In Cold Blood’ and ‘3WW’ in particular at the beginning.
Essentially we quite often make decisions in the band based on stuff that we think sounds cool or looks cool. I mean, it sounds really silly but the word RELAXER – it was Thom [Green] who has his own solo project producing electronic music – he made a track called ‘Relaxer.’ We were like “that’s a cool word, did you make up that word?” He sort of said yes. We actually looked it up and it turns out that it is a word – it’s quite a niche word from the world of hairdressing. It’s a product that makes curly hair straight, so then it made its way into the lyrics of a song called ‘Deadcrush’ on the album and then it ends up not being there but by that point we were like “relaxer, what a sweet word. We like that. That could be a really good album name.” I think we felt that the first two albums had got quite long names – An Awesome Wave, This Is All Yours – that seemed to represent more what those albums were, which was longer, more deep albums with more of a journey with twists and turns and ups and downs. I think we felt this album with its only eight tracks being punchier, more direct, more muscular, that more of an impactful name was fitting and RELAXER we really liked.
So was that a very conscious decision early on to keep the tracklist concise and just have eight tracks in the end?
It wasn’t that we were like “let’s make an eight track album” but I think we just knew from the get-go that that was probably how it was going to end up, you know. I don’t know why that was.
You’ve got the names of every single track on the cover of the album, which I can’t think of anyone doing particularly very often. Was there any particular motivation?
Yeah, it was kind of like a retro thing to do. I think you’ll see it with bands and artists from the ’60s and ’70s. I don’t know – it was my idea. I just thought I’ve been listening to a lot of older music this year – like The Beatles and stuff – and looking at their LPs on vinyl. I just thought it’s so cool to put the tracklisting on the front. Why doesn’t anybody do that anymore? I love text and type and fonts and all that kind of thing. It just felt like a cool way to showcase the look we’d given the album. Basically, we’ve also never put the album name on the front of the album before – with our first albums, we’ve always kept it to a single abstract image with no text – and we thought this time it could be interesting to put RELAXER on there and see how it looks. We liked it, and we thought why don’t we just go the whole hog and put the tracklisting on too? So, yeah.
You mentioned the whole look of the album, and I really like the imagery you’ve used. Is it from a PlayStation 1 game?
Yes, exactly: it’s called LSD: Dream Emulator.
What happens in this game? What effect has it had on you?
We didn’t grow up playing the game – we found the image first with no context really and then we worked backwards from there. You walk around a trippy world and that’s really all you do – there’s no levels or objectives or challenges, it’s just an open-world kind of thing. The more we thought about it, the more we liked to think about the album like that, as being a space that you can walk around and open different doors and enter new worlds through each track. So, rather than it being a journey where you can control, I think that with RELAXER we feel that it’s an album where it could be listened to more or less in any order and that each song is a different world with quite a strong narrative and defined sense of place. ‘3WW’ is this long song about a night on the north-east coast of England where a young guy goes out and has an adventure in a field with two girls that he meets. ‘In Cold Blood’ is like a pool party and somebody gets stabbed there. ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ is where you’re obviously in some sort of New Orleans, maybe, in the early 20th century in the gambling dens and that kind of thing. ‘Pleader’ is set in Wales in the 19th century in a mining village. We realises that we were writing all these songs that were very much unique little worlds and it felt like the artwork suited that.
‘Pleader’ is probably my favourite track on the album – this afternoon, I was listening to it in my kitchen and missed the bus having a little waltz. How many people were in the recording of that? It’s very expansive instrumentation.
If I had to do the maths in my head I would say over 50, probably. At least 50. There’s three band members obviously, then we had a 30-piece string orchestra playing on it. We went up to Ely, which is the city where I’m from, and we recorded the boys’ choir in Ely Cathedral. There were 12 of them. On the second and third verses you can hear them. Then we had the organist and we had somebody come in and play some dulcimer, so we must be getting close to 50 there. It’s a big piece of work and I think it was certainly hard to get everything mixed and balanced right so you could appreciate all of it and it didn’t fell overwhelming. I think we managed to achieve it.
On ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ you had 20 classical guitarists?
Yes, that’s right. It was an idea that Joe [Newman] had. We often like to layer things up a lot when we’re recording – do multiple recordings of it and put it all together, double or triple-track things to give them chorus sounds. I don’t know how much you know about recording but it’s a technique you can try to do – but with this one it was kind of like how about rather than just playing it on guitar how about we get loads of classical guitarists and get them to play it all together at once and see if that changes things. The number 20 was chosen quite arbitrarily, really – I think Joe in an email was like I’m thinking like 20 and he was half-expecting someone from the management or label to come back and be like “uh yeah, ok, well how about we go with 5” but you know it was like “right, he said 20 so it’s got to be 20” so we got pretty much every classical guitarist in London to come to this one studio and it was really nice. It did sound incredible being in a room with them all playing like that – it was a really awesome thing to witness. It was just before Christmas and they were saying that none of them had ever experienced being in a room with that many other classical guitarists so they all went out on a big Christmas pub crawl together because it was such an incredible occasion that they were all in the same room. That was really nice.
Another thing on instrumentation: in ‘Last Year,’ is that a bassoon solo? Why did you have that, especially after the whole sombre journey throughout the year in the first half?
Yes it is, well spotted! So much to say – yeah, I love the bassoon. I’m an oboist myself but my brother plays bassoon so we’re a double-reed family. It’s kind of almost like a joke instrument, isn’t it? It’s almost like a punchline of instruments.
“The farting bedpost.”
Yes, exactly. Even the name itself sounds funny: bassoon, you know, has the comic ring to it. Charlie [Andrew], our producer – his sister plays the bassoon and she was around doing some flute stuff and I think she brought her bassoon in as well. We were like ‘why don’t you try it on this?’ Certainly it has a kind of haunting, melancholic sound to it when it’s played in a certain way. It just works on ‘Last Year’ – it sounds a bit like ’70s Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush era and that French horn solo on ‘After The Gold Rush’ that I really love. It reminds me of that – I’m glad you like that bit, it’s one of my favourite moments on the album.
You’ve got the female vocalist on ‘Last Year’ as well just before it. Who is that?
That is Marika Hackman. She’s a mate of ours, also produced by Charlie, and she’s toured with us and done some singing on the second album too, so she’s one of our go-to female vocalists when we want to add that colour to a song.
On that touring note, obviously you’ve not played many of the tracks out live so far. How much of the new stuff are you going to work in?
Once we start touring in our own right next month we’re going to be aiming to play most of the new album because there’s only eight songs – we’ll probably try to play five of them I would have thought to start with because it’s always nice playing new stuff but we’re not unaware of the fact that people like our first two albums a lot as well. Nobody enjoys going to see an artist when they don’t play the hits. You want to play some old stuff and have a good atmosphere at a gig, so I think we’ll be doing some of the new ones and lots of the old ones.
Within three weeks or so you will have done the O2 Arena and Glastonbury. How differently do you see and prepare for those?
That is true, actually. Interesting question: with festivals and things you have to be aware that you are just another person on a lineup, particularly with Glastonbury. I think that Glastonbury is the only festival in the world that no artist on the planet is bigger than. Not even the Stones are bigger than Glastonbury. Glastonbury is always the headliner. That’ll be a really great show but we won’t be able to make it as much our gig as we will at The O2. With The O2, we’re going to try and incorporate some extra musicians to come and play and that kind of thing. We’ll certainly prepare for them differently but we love doing headline shows and we love doing festivals. They’re both different but have good things about them that we like.
You last played The O2 in January 2015 at the end of the tour after you’d done the European leg. Is it nice to be going in there with pretty much the very first show after the album release?
Yes, it’s nerve-wracking because ideally you’d be in mid-season form when you’re doing those big shows. We do have some European warm-up shows before The O2 to get ourselves into form, but it’s a big statement to come back with and we’re just looking forward to be playing again. I’d be happy doing Shepherd’s Bush or whatever – it’s been so long since we’ve done a gig that I’m just looking forward to everything about it from the catering to the printed-out times on the wall and the smell of the venue and everything. I can’t wait to be back.
Do you have any new rider requests this time around?
No, I need to start thinking about that. The older you get the more you’re like ‘maybe we should have more vegetables on the rider,’ but I think that remains to be sorted out for now.
On the new album, I really like how it starts and ends with you singing. It took me by surprise a bit.
Oh yeah, I hadn’t thought about it like that. That’s true.
They’re both these very elaborate, quite delicate tracks as well.
Yes, they’re two longer, more almost pieces of classical music really.
Are you looking forward to emphasising your vocal performance in the live show this time around?
Yeah, it’s nerve-wracking for sure. I’ve done lots of singing on stage before but almost always doing harmonies with Joe, so singing by myself in those small moments is going to be interesting. It’s nice to see the band evolve a little bit – we’re all trying out new things in the band as regards our roles and what we play here and there, so it’s really cool. It’s really nice. I’m excited to do more of it in the future.
Your lyrics are always quite abstract and you really need to peek into them to understand fully what’s going on, and I read in Q that ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ is about a sex hotel.
Yep. It is. He’s imagining some kind of sex party going on, I suppose, but with a witty, tongue-in-cheek eye. He’s very much like an observer thinking it’s all quite funny, really. There’s the thing about Radiohead: “A Moon Shaped Pool plays in a velvet cell / Green neon sign reads welcome to hell / Leather slings fall like oxygen masks / But going down fuck my life in half.” I think it was almost he couldn’t believe what he was writing as he was writing it but ‘fuck it, I’m enjoying this.’ It’s funny. It’s different. Why not?
Do any other tracks have these very distinct situations that they’re imagining?
I suppose ‘Pleader’ would be one of those because it’s based on the book How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn, which is a classic early/mid-20th century literature about the decline of a Welsh mining village and how life changed for them. The words are maybe not as literal as ‘Hit Me Like That Snare,’ but if you look at those lyrics it’s all about how important singing was to those communities, going to church and hearing the choir and loving your country and loving the Queen and this kind of Britain or Wales that no longer exists and maybe never even did. Who knows? It’s very much set in a certain time and place.