Unusual folk: alt-j plays it smart

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alt-j performs at the Pavilion on November 1. Photo: Gabriel Green alt-j performs at the Pavilion on November 1. Photo: Gabriel Green

It might come as a surprise to learn that alt-J members conceive of themselves as a folk band. After all, the U.K. trio’s synths, patterns and rhythms don’t conjure the same aesthetic as an acoustic guitar-wielding troubadour. The experimental art-rock does, however, evoke its own brand of folklore. Take “Adeline,” a track from the group’s June release, Relaxer. According to a Tweet from the band, the song is about a Tasmanian devil who falls in love with a woman as he watches her swim. Across three acclaimed albums, Joe Newman (lead vocals/guitar), Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards/vocals) and Thom Green (drums) have spun tales that are hushed and atmospheric, or forces to be reckoned with, but never straightforward.

“The fact that we make quote weird, left-field music, but have quite a lot of fans, makes us feel quite free to do what we want because I think people seem to like us for being a bit unusual as a band,” says Unger-Hamilton.

alt-J often relies on literary or cultural references to formulate its mythologies. The debut album, An Awesome Wave, took home the 2012 Mercury Prize awarded for the best U.K. album of the year. The title comes from a line in Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, American Psycho, while its single, “Breezeblocks” draws from Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Where The Wild Things Are. Elsewhere, the track “Matilda” is based on the 1994 movie Leon: The Professional, featuring Natalie Portman as the character Mathilda. Wrought with layers of instrumentation, vocals, and lyrical meaning, some songs can take the group years to complete.

“Often, there’ll be an idea, it might be a bit of a guitar that Joe has had for a long time or it might be, you know, some sort of  jam that we’ve done together that someone’s recorded on their phone, and we go, ‘That’s really great,’ we think that at some point we’re gonna use that for something,” Unger-Hamilton explains. “But then also, songs like ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ and ‘Left Hand Free,’  were written much more spontaneously, really. But then even so, in those places, I think there’s always ideas in there that are really, really old.”

Newman, Unger-Hamilton and Green all met as sophomores at Leeds University in 2007. Newman was studying Civil Engineering, Unger-Hamilton was studying French and Green had taken up medicine. Their friendship led them to form a band.

“When we were finishing University, you know, it was like the height of the financial crisis. There was this general mood going around that there were no graduate jobs,” says Unger-Hamilton. “And we were like, this is actually a good time to carry on doing something we think is really good and we seemed to have just as much chance making it as a band as we would pursuing a more conventional graduate career, I suppose.”

Nearly a decade later, the indie darlings propel ever forward on a third album, Relaxer, drawing just as much on numeric meaning as literature. Earlier this year, alt-j teased the record’s opening track with a video titled “00110011 01110111 01110111,” which is the binary code for 3WW, the song’s actual title. The same code later appears in the lyrics to “In Cold Blood,” which takes its title from the Truman Capote work of the same name. Sonically, the group charted new territory with a session at the historic Abbey Road Studios, where they recorded alongside the lush brass and string sections that accent six of the album’s eight tracks. They even tried their hand at a traditional folk song, “House of the Rising Sun,” albeit adding an original second verse. It wouldn’t be an alt-J song without a fabled twist.

“I think that if we do have a a formula, it’s essentially that we just really enjoy the chemistry that we have when we get together and the fact that we don’t set any limits on what we do musically, that’s our formula,” Unger-Hamilton says. “So, in that sense, we’ve always stuck to that formula of just seeing what happens, let the music take the lead and let’s see how each song turns out.”

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