The Outer Limits: How prog are Alt-J?

Alt-J, L-R: Thom Sonny Green, Gus Unger-Hamilton, Joe Newman
Alt-J, L-R: Thom Sonny Green, Gus Unger-Hamilton, Joe Newman

You could just as easily write an article arguing for Alt-J’s folk credentials as you could their prog ones. In a way, the band – a three-piece since the 2014 departure of bassist Gwil Sainsbury – are a modern prog folk band, or a folk band with electronic (dance) tendencies: “Fairport Convention go to Fabric,” as this writer once dubbed them. Their music is simultaneously intimate (its folkier aspects) and immense (its prog-like grandeur), all with a cinematic ambience beautifully suited to syncs, of which Alt-J have had many over the years, from the movie Silver Linings Playbook to sitcom Scrotal Recall.

They’re certainly one of the proggier acts to win the coveted Mercury Prize, which they did in 2012 for their debut album An Awesome Wave. Their 2014 follow-up, This Is All Yours, reached No.1 in the UK and No.4 in America. It saw them playing Madison Square Garden – not bad for an outfit who have always flaunted their idiosyncrasies and are about as far from the enormodome rocker stereotype as it’s possible to get. Think an even more bookish Radiohead.

Their third and latest album, Relaxer, was almost going to be called Space Whales Nature’s Starships – pretty prog, right? – and its release was heralded by an article in the NME proclaiming that Alt-J were “Bringing Prog Back”. There are songs on the album involving the 30-piece string section of the London Metropolitan Orchestra, recorded at Abbey Road. One features the massed voices of the boys of Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, and another that didn’t necessarily require 20 classical guitarists but used them nonetheless.

Add to this hymnal/choral art rock with a propensity to twitch and fidget, plus an accompanying promotional website inspired by Japanese artist Osamu Sato and his cult 90s PlayStation game LSD: Dream Emulator, and you’ve got quite a prog concoction.

This Is All Yours: the band with their 2012 Mercury Prize

This Is All Yours: the band with their 2012 Mercury Prize (Image credit: Brian Rasic/Getty Images)

“Thom [Sonny Green, drums] is keen on following Twitter accounts that post random pictures and this person posted what looked like a cool, dark, digital painting, and it turned out to be from the game LSD: Dream Emulator,” explains Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards/vocals), panting a little as he paces through the park on the way to his home in Hackney, North London. “So we got in touch with the designer and asked if we could construct a game based on his game for the album launch and he said yes.

“We see this album as a sort of world you can explore,” he elucidates, “with different zones, like a computer game with a big map – over here are the dragons, here the sea, over there the woods. And you wander round and have different encounters with these different characters.”

That all sounds quite prog.

“I just realised as I was saying that,” Unger-Hamilton laughs, “that I was about to start talking about dwarves and elves!”

Is there, Prog wonders, a prog paradigm for Alt-J’s three albums? Is Relaxer their The Yes Album? (We want to say Relayer, but of course that won’t work.) The one where they cut loose and really become themselves?

“Maybe,” he says, indulgently. “This is us feeling more freedom to experiment. I’m not a great listener to canons of rock bands, with the exception of The Beatles – you never want to compare yourself to The Beatles because then it becomes the headline where you say [hubristic proclamation], ‘This is our Revolver!’ But I do feel we’re entering a phase where we can try a lot of things out.

“Maybe,” he considers, “it’s because people are talking a lot about Sgt Pepper right now. There was a thing on Radio 4 about A Day In The Life, how they got the three grand pianos to play the E major chord at the same time to get it loud enough, and I thought, ‘That’s kind of like us with the 20 classical guitarists.’ I’m not saying we’re like The Beatles and this is our Sgt Pepper, but it does feel as though we’re at the peak of our experimental powers right now.”

With tracks on Relaxer like In Cold Blood, which includes everything from brass band parts to 8-bit computer noise, there’s a definite air of why‑not‑ery about Alt-J.

“Why-not-ery and ‘let’s try things out’,” Unger-Hamilton says, arriving home. “Just essentially doing things maybe the hard way but finding a bit of magic.”

The keyboardist’s lack of knowledge about prog, he admits, “would embarrass me”. And yet, he adds, “I like the idea of us being talked about as a progressive rock band.”

If prog is wilful and wayward, and prone to quixotic fancy, Alt-J are prog. “I think so,” he agrees. “We’ve always seen ourselves as a bit prog – a bit weird, sort of fidgety, can’t concentrate for too long on one thing, have to keep moving…”

One of the songs on RelaxerHit Me Like That Snare – subverts preconceptions about Alt-J, and then some. It was born out of a conscious desire to make a track channelling The Stooges circa Search And Destroy and The Velvet Underground circa Sister Ray. It finds singer/guitarist Joe Newman, backed by Green and Unger-Hamilton, chant-shouting, ‘Fuck you! I’ll do! What I want to do…’ It almost serves as the album’s credo or mission statement.

“You could say that,” the keyboardist says. “It’s quite a headstrong album. It’s certainly not conforming to one particular type of music or approach. We knew that song would be seen as unusual for Alt-J, but we felt like we wanted something fun to sing. It was written not long after Trump got elected and not long after Brexit. We were feeling a bit Dada and ‘what the fuck do we do now?’ It was an anarchic reaction to ludicrous events that had no rational response.”

Making Awesome Waves: live at The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, California, on October 20, 2014

Making Awesome Waves: live at The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, California, on October 20, 2014 (Image credit: Paul R Giunta/FilmMagic/Getty)

On Hit Me Like That Snare, the band sing, ‘We are dangerous teenagers,’ while elsewhere there are references to ‘pairs of people tugging like hungry dogs,’ and invitations to ‘come closer, baby, slap me like that snare.’ Alt-J have form when it comes to wanton priapism, such as on the likes of Tessellate (‘Bite chunks out of me’) and Fitzpleasure (‘In your snatch fits pleasure, broom-shaped pleasure’) from An Awesome Wave.

“Our songs are about maths and sex,” they once joked. Maths, sex and love. 3WW, Relaxer’s opening number, addresses the devalued currency of the love song. And Deadcrush came out of a febrile conversation Alt-J were having about the deceased ‘celebrities’ they most fancied: Newman’s was 1920s photographer Lee Miller, while Unger-Hamilton’s was Anne Boleyn. Deadcrushes – is that a thing?

“It is now,” laughs Unger-Hamilton. “Joe made it up.”

Then there’s Last Year, a hushed requiem based on a dramatic monologue that charts someone’s month by month descent into depression and suicide following a break-up. Halfway through, the song literally becomes a death march as guest singer Marika Hackman plays the part of the deceased man’s lover, singing at his funeral.

“It’s creative writing,” he suggests. “We’ve all been broken up with, so this isn’t directly autobiographical. It’s very much a Joe song, with mainly guitar and vocals, and he felt bad that he was somehow exploiting something that hadn’t happened to him – i.e. mental illness and suicide. But you don’t need a doctor’s note to write a sad song. It’s poetic expression. When I sing ‘I’, it’s not always me.”

On the album’s radical reinterpretation of the traditional folk song The House Of The Rising Sun, 20 classical guitarists were drafted into Paul Epworth’s studio in Crouch End. Seeing all those gifted musicians “concentrating so hard” moved Unger-Hamilton almost to tears. Alt-J’s music is intricate, with a fastidious attention to detail, but you’re meant to be swept away by it, not just drily impressed.

“We’ve never been afraid to use the word ‘emotional’,” he says. “We’re talking about love and loss, albeit in a quirky sort of way.”

No Surprises: Radiohead are a big Alt-J inspiration

No Surprises: Radiohead are a big Alt-J inspiration

And yet there are listeners who hear in Newman’s near-comical falsetto and Alt-J’s random sounds and beats something preposterous and worthy of lampooning. In fact, in 2015 a parody video called “How to write an Alt-J song” became a viral sensation, with seven million YouTube views and counting. It showed two stoned dudes munching on rice cakes and constructing an Alt-J-ish tune: it comprised loops of hymnal gobbledegook based on the invocation, “Put it up my butt.”

The parodists stressed underneath the video that they meant “nothing mean-spirited towards Alt-J”, but it did hilariously mock their apparently nonsensical lyrics and almost wilfully oblique rhythms. It seemed to confirm Alt-J, who formed at Leeds University in 2007, as quintessential students, fiddling about in whimsical isolation at the opposite extreme of the authentic rock’n’roller.

“That’s not unfair,” Unger-Hamilton allows. “We talk about that a lot. People seem to want a personality to go along with music, and we don’t lack personality as a band, but there’s nothing particularly interesting about us. We’re not theatrical, divas or bad boys – we’re just quite average blokes. And we’re happy with that. But people get fixated: ‘Come on, there must be something behind the music!’ But there isn’t, really.”

Alt-J eschew debauchery because that’s not true to them. Rather their role models are Radiohead, for the way they comport themselves on and offstage, and for the way they’ve carved careers outside the band. Prog tells Unger-Hamilton about going on the road with Radiohead back in the 90s and witnessing first-hand their wild extracurricular activities: reading books by Noam Chomsky and playing chess.

“We’re not even that smart!” laughs the keyboardist, whose most extravagant hobby is collecting coins. “We get called ‘nerds’ and ‘boffins’, and it’s true we don’t smash up dressing rooms much. We’re probably more likely to be fiddling with our phones and drinking… quietly. We drink a lot of gin and tonic on tour. And ale.”

Whatever they’re doing, it’s evidently working: two million sales, Top 5 in the States, audiences of thousands everywhere from India to Israel… and fans including Yoko Ono, who follows them on Twitter; Miley Cyrus, who appeared on their last album; Woody Harrelson, who was on the guest list at their Madison Square Garden gig; and Tilda Swinton.

“These people aren’t just famous, they’re so good they’ll probably be remembered after they’re dead,” Unger-Hamilton marvels.

What about Alt-J: will they be remembered after they’re dead?

“Obviously you want your music to be,” he replies. “Nobody wouldn’t want their record to become a classic in years to come. Who knows? I think we will leave behind us, even if we finished now, three good albums that would deserve to be listened to by somebody, if not everybody, in 100 years.”

Relaxer is out now on Infectious. See for more information.

Your Shout

They’ve been called nerds and boffins. They write songs about maths. Which really does beg the question… how prog are Alt-J?

“I’d say art rock rather than prog. Their music is great, but I can’t stand the lead singer’s voice so I don’t listen to them often.” - Ethan Moldrich

“I would say they are an exploring band. And not repeating, but constantly reinventing themselves. Progressive, I don’t think so. A breath of fresh air, maybe. Their most recent effort does not grab me at all, but a song like Hunger Of The Pine is an evergreen for me and closest to prog, maybe…” - Herold Boertjens

“Interesting band but I don’t like the vocals too much (and their lyrics may be too abstract).” - Mark Michael

“What is this Alt-J? Alternative jazz? The alternative version of J-pop?” - Austin Kokel

“I’m afraid this is beyond my outer limits.” - Peter Brower

“Nope. Alt-J isn’t progressive in any form. Voyager from Australia just released Ghost Mile and I would say that pursers on heavy melodic prog and alt rock. But Alt-J? Nope.” - Justin Nelson

“Gentle Giant reimagined.” - Marc Hughes

“My 20-year-old daughter loves them. I’ve yet to give them an active listen, but they catch my ear whenever she’s playing her CD.” - Michael Kivinen

“They are a great band, very diverse in their music, covering a range of genres. They might be a Marmite band to a lot of people, you either love them or hate them! ” - Allyson Blue-Sky

“I remember catching them on the Jools Holland show and thinking that something more was going on there. There was a definite progressive sound in there. I started reading about them only to discover lots of reviews mentioning Alt-J and prog in the same sentence. Definitely a band of interest. ” - Paul Leader

“Were more interesting in the beginning imo. Think they have lost a bit of direction as they have tried to get more eclectic.” - Steve Kenny

“Check out the brilliant 3WW from their latest album. If that ain’t progressive, I’m a hedgehog called Albert!” - Leo ‘Albert’ Trimming

“There has been nothing prog since 1973, everything is either metal or pop. Although I am known for my extremist views and shouldn’t be taken seriously, back to the question at hand: who? (Probably pop metal.)” - Chris Bembridge

“As I wrote last time, stop being silly.” - Steven Harrison

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Paul Lester

Paul Lester is the editor of Record Collector. He began freelancing for Melody Maker in the late 80s, and was later made Features Editor. He was a member of the team that launched Uncut Magazine, where he became Deputy Editor. In 2006 he went freelance again and has written for The Guardian, The Times, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, Classic Rock, Q and the Jewish Chronicle. He has also written books on Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Bjork, The Verve, Gang Of Four, Wire, Lady Gaga, Robbie Williams, the Spice Girls, and Pink.