As a project, alt-J’s fourth album The Dream was a more organic, relaxed process than you’d expect from a band who have enjoyed enormous commercial success since their 2012 debut An Awesome Wave. In fact, The Dream was consciously conceived in a way designed to mirror those early days popping round to each other’s houses to write songs and record demos. As keyboardist and vocalist Gus Unger-Hamilton explains: “We always try to get back to that magical feeling of when we were students, just practising around each other’s houses. Studios can be quite clinical, not the most creative spaces.” It was, he says, about avoiding that “submarine pressure cooker…where tempers can be frayed.” So, as you might expect from a band so in touch with their personal and musical roots, there is a real playfulness to The Dream, full of the whimsical sonic details that first attracted fans across the alternative scene.
However, The Dream also possesses an epic flavour, the origins of which, Gus tells me, perhaps lie in the lyrical content. “A lot of the songs on this album are about America. Nowhere is more epic than America, in terms of its global influence and its landscapes…the home of Hollywood and cinema.” With production frequently allowing vocals to stand alone in the mix, or incorporating an infectious gang vocal hook, alt-J’s signature bold sonic jumps are complemented by a particular confidence and joy. The rhythm session of first single Hard Drive Gold is a soul groove that breathes sunshine across the track, while the punchy drums on The Actor feel straight out of an 80s coming of age indie film.
Fans watched avidly as a series of cohesive videos for the new singles emerged on YouTube. U&ME and Hard Drive Gold both feature the running theme of a vast apocalyptic explosion, as experienced from a distance. In Hard Drive Gold a young woman dons her mother’s pink tracksuit and sprints to perform a single pole-vault, before a billowing mushroom cloud envelops her. The background of U&ME – a colourful VHS collage – is replete with apparent nuclear war closing in, while alt-J skateboard unconcerned in the foreground. I mention to Gus how I recently overheard two musicians speculating about the theme of apocalypse as a background event in a local studio.
“Joe loves watching public safety announcements on YouTube – ones from around the world over the last fifty years. There are some truly terrifying ones. [In the videos] there’s an unspecified event going on – whether it’s a war or a terror attack – but there’s a clear idea that the world is ending. The personal story with the background of ‘the event’ is quite a rich seam to dig. If you think about a book or film like The Road, it’s a very personal story about a man and his son, walking through America in the aftermath of something. In U&ME there’s the suggestion that we’ve sold ourselves to the devil in exchange for skateboarding skills. Are we dead? Are we zombies? With music videos you’ve got three minutes to show something. You could spend the music video explaining all the geopoloitical events that lead up to the war or the bomb going off…or you focus on how one woman chooses to spend her last five minutes on earth.”
alt-J seem aware of the place they hold in fans’ hearts, and are grateful for it. “We’ve always been given carte blanche by our fans to be a bit weird and try new things…when we do Q&As they ask really thoughtful and interesting questions.” So, while they don’t have to juggle expectations, how do they tread their own line of pop and experimentalism? “We’re always trying to keep ourselves interested in the studio. We’re also the product of having been art students at university. Luckily, we’re fortunate to have Joe who writes such good hooks to give the songs that pop. Don’t forget, pop music is good.”
Asked what he would change about the music industry, Gus lands on something worth remembering in the age of streaming. “I was talking to my wife and my brother last night, and we were listening to The Strokes’ third album…I bought this album when I was 17, and in some ways it was a departure from their first two albums. But because I paid for the album and it was £15 I thought, well, I’ve bought it now I’m not going to give it one spin and chuck it. So, because I listened to it so much it really grew on me, and I realise now what a great album it is. But had that album come out and I’d had Spotify, I’d have listened to it once and gone, ‘don’t know about this, I think the Strokes have lost it.’ I do feel that the financial investment made me give it its due. It would be nice to bring back that sense of investment. Because not all albums sound that good on a first listen, and I think we’re one of those bands. We would love people to listen to this album ten times before they made up their mind about it. But unfortunately that’s not going to happen, apart from in a small number of cases.”
A lot has changed for alt-J in the years since their early success, mostly by nature of that success. “When we started out, our aims as a band were getting signed by a small label, making an album and maybe getting played on late night radio. Obviously, then it was anything but that, and our first album was very successful. So I suppose there’s this pressure stemming from the fact that our band is now a business that we have to make successful.” They are also a sadly rare example of what an alternative band can achieve when given enough faith by the powers that be and allowed to plough their own furrow. Because of this, The Dream stands out as a beacon for reward without compromise. “We have this freedom to just be alt-J, which is an enormous privilege.”