Alt-J: ‘I felt like we’d been incredibly lucky’

Looking relaxed amid a roomful of musical instruments, Alt-J singer and guitarist Joe Newman is reflecting on his evolution as a lyricist.

Alt-J. Picture: George Muncey
Alt-J. Picture: George Muncey

Having reached Album No 4, 15 years on from forming the band with fellow students from the University of Leeds, Newman has branched out from basing his songs on other people’s stories to exploring his own hinterland of ideas.

“I think it was quite an organic process going from writing about other people’s work to talking about things (closer to home),” he says over Zoom. “You’re marrying a number of different things: you’re talking about things that have moved you which is other people’s art, you’re talking about personal experiences, you’re talking about things you’ve overheard and also your imagination.

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“Largely my imagination has played more of a role in sculpting things out of nothing, and I think with this album I’ve led with that way of writing more so than directly taking from other people’s hard work.”

The four years between new album The Dream and its predecessor Relaxer might suggest a slow gestation, but having been on a cycle of writing, recording and touring ever since they signed to Infectious Records at the end of 2011, Newman and fellow bandmates Thom Sonny Green and Gus Unger-Hamilton had always planned to take at least a year off in 2019 to recharge their batteries.

“We didn’t recuperate enough to go into the third album with a good body of work so that was probably why it was quite a short album, when we finished that album cycle on Relaxer I think we were creatively quite depleted,” the 34-year-old singer says. “We needed to fall back in love with our instruments and playing music together, so actually it was really important (to take a break).

“I think we’d just been flogging ourselves and not creating our best work. I think you have to be happy and you have to be ready to write, rather than feel unprepared, especially when there is so much on the line. It’s your legacy, so you need time to get it right.”

While on the band’s hiatus Newman and his partner Darcy Wallace welcomed a baby daughter. “It’s been this relentless joy, I kind of look on life before her with wonderment but also disbelief and curiosity,” he says. “I just don’t know who I was and what I was doing without Viola in my life. In terms of percentages I’ve had her for a very limited time of the whole of my life, but it’s almost like it had been leading to this and now I’m living my life.

Alt-J. Picture: Rosie Matheson

“It’s been wonderful and magical, but it’s been equally amazing watching Darcy be a mother. I didn’t think it would be so moving, but watching her breastfeeding her and talking to her, she’s so naturally gifted and loving.”

Taking time off also gave Newman chance for “a lot of self-reflection” on the previous 12 years. “I always revisit our work, I like to listen to our music because it helps me accurately understand the lay of the land moving forward,” he says. “I think it’s really important to revisit work that you’re proud of and remind yourself why you’re proud of that and actually focus on those details because it does pave the way for your future work.

“I felt like we’d been incredibly lucky, we’ve had a lot of wonderful support and we have a unique chemistry. Our rise into the music industry was quick and it was all we knew, the success we had we could compare it to nothing else, it just seemed like that was what was meant to happen but winning the Mercury Award and an Ivor Novello for our first album and countless awards in other countries and playing sold-out shows around the world, there was a normality to it that now when I look back I think was extremely unusual experience. It’s rare for anyone to have that level of success any more and to be appreciated internationally is bizarre. That’s one of the things I’ve been bowled over by: our ascension.”

The most obvious example of Newman’s more transparent style of writing on the new album is Get Better, which refers to carers and the pandemic. He says he felt the need to confront the present day. “If only for myself as a writer, I felt that it was important for me,” he says. “During the more intense times of lockdown Darcy was pregnant and we were just glued to the six o’clock news. They would lead the headlines with a reminder of the increasing death toll of our country from people dying of Covid and oddly you were mesmerised by it because you were in such an unusual time but you were experiencing it and you were being reminded of it every day.

“I had some vignettes that I had written about the process of going through losing someone and I had loads of little writings that I’d catalogued in my sketchbook and I was reading them as I was exposed to this level of loss and grieving that we were going through and seeing how brave everyone within the NHS had been, they’d sacrificed so much, and (the song) just happened, it wasn’t like a bandwagon thing. If I hadn’t included the frontline worker line in the song it was really a faceless grieving process, it wasn’t underpinned to a specific time, but I wanted to honour the sacrifice in a sense and give it that authenticity.”

Newman has a fascination with true crime podcasts and he admits he is drawn to musing on life’s fragility. “I don’t know how common it is, maybe it’s a thing for songwriters,” he says. “When you’re writing music you’re telling a story and there are lessons to be learnt from those stories. Often you’re trying to protect people so talking about someone’s demise is almost like a fable. It’s a way of connecting with people, it’s maybe a way of confessing your own fears about things that is cathartic to you, it’s also fascinating, the darker side of society. Living in a civilised world where you’re protected most of the time but there are gaps and there are blindspots and there are predators that take advantage of those blindspots. Often it’s just being in the wrong place at the wrong time and it’s this serendipitous dread that I sometimes spent time thinking about. It doesn’t overwhelm me, but I do think about it. Those true crime podcasts maybe scratch that itch.”

References to American culture abound in The Dream. Newman feels Alt-J, who have sold more than two million albums, making them one of Britain’s biggest musical exports of recent times, have been more readily accepted in the US than the UK.

“I think you’re not burdened by your success in terms of how people treat you in the US, your success is a good thing, where in the UK the audience that you reach, if it’s a big audience, then determines the quality of what you do,” he says. “I think that’s something we feel has happened in the UK in the past, I think more critically than anything else. Some people think we’re American and I haven’t really figured that one out. We have this long-held export of British rock ’n’ roll that’s come from blues and bluegrass, this cross-pollination of two very important cultural moments in different periods of modern history. I think we’re a product of a number of different movements and now we are reinvesting a new era for the last 30 years of modern music back in that kind of figure of eight between Britain and America, so I think UK bands hold quite an important significance for American youth.”

The apocryphal pole-vaulting video for the single Hard Drive Gold was co-directed by Newman and his partner Wallace. “I had an idea, which was wouldn’t it be amazing to watch a pole-vaulter vault just before a nuclear missile hit Earth,” the singer explains. “Then I was talking to my brother-in-law about it and he said, ‘Have you watched Threads?’ I knew about it, it was huge, but I’d never watched it so I did and it was probably one of the most chilling and harrowing films I’ve ever watched, it’s so well done. The realism is so poignant it’s almost surreal and I wanted that kind of look. I also watched pole-vaulting a lot in the Olympics.”

The Dream is out on Friday February 11. Alt-J play at O2 Academy Leeds on May 9.