Alt-J can do the impossible, whether it’s turning their esoteric art pop into arena fodder or sneaking literary, filthily sexual lyrics onto radio playlists. Ahead of their headline performance Glastonbury’s Other Stage, Jonny Ensall gets hot under the collar with two members of the most wilfully pretentious – and surprisingly randy – band in Britain
How do you write about sex if you’re British? More specifically, if you’re the kind of pasty white Englishman who wouldn’t ordinarily be getting any unless you were in a successful rock band? It’s a question that Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker have wrestled with for years, and that Joe Newman is now hoping to answer. First, though, Alt-J’s guitarist and frontman needs to get to grips with an almond milk cappuccino.“Lovely stuff,” he chirrups, as a waiter appears and places a dainty cup on our table. The band have asked to meet NME in a private room at an exclusive London members’ club. “Look at
that china,” says keys player Gus Unger-Hamilton, approvingly.
Traditionally, British artists have dealt with the sex question in an awkward, self-deprecating way. But Newman’s lyrics have always been a little bolder. He’s unabashed when it comes to – for example -describing a woman being penetrated with a broom handle. “In your snatch fits pleasure, broom-shaped pleasure,” he sang on early Alt-J single ‘Fitzpleasure’, referencing a scene in the cult 1964 novel Last Exit To Brooklyn. Esoteric enough for you? How about this lyric from ‘Every Other Freckle’: “I’m gonna bed into you like a cat prance into a bean bag / Turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet”. Newman likes to mix the obviously filthy with the wilfully obscure.
And then there’s ‘3WW’, the opening track from the new album ‘Relaxer’, which tells of a young fellow in Yorkshire. “The smell of sex, good like burning wood / The wayward lad laid claim to two thirsty girls from Hornsea,” croons Joe. It’s all a bit ‘Chaucer Wrote A Porno’. But, like many of Alt-J’s weirder artistic choices, it works. “Our main drive is to sing about love in a way that hasn’t been expressed before,” says Joe, taking a sip of nutty coffee. “That involves reading books and watching films and having conversations and making each other laugh. And all those interactions help us to get closer to visiting an old subject in a new way.” So how is love treated differently on this album? “Well, with ‘3WW’, that’s the story of a young man who travels the country and spends a night with these girls by the campfire. And they send him a note saying, ‘We may have said last night that we loved you, but that’s not necessarily true… Love was just a way of getting us to our destination,’” he concludes. “In a way, it’s an anti-love song, filled with sex.”
And how autobiographical is it? Gus squirms a little at the question: “I think we’ve all said, ‘I love you’ without thinking about it, or without meaning it. Whether out of awkwardness or drunkenness.” Like when? “I remember I told a girl I was seeing at university that I loved her about a week after we met. And then instantly regretted it… It’s like, you grow up and you get given the nuclear codes to use the word ‘love’. And then you just deploy it left, right and centre, until you realise it’s not very sensible.”
“We’re very loveable guys,” he adds, jokingly. They are both loveable, as well as being plummy and eccentric. Gus’s eyebrows and moustache are so bushy they look fake – as if they’re attached to his thick black glasses. Joe wears an oversized baseball shirt. His hair is blond at the tips where a dye-job is still growing out. It would be tempting to call them geeky, but they maintain they’re not geeks in any true sense of the word. Just “organised and curious,” as Joe puts it. They met while at Leeds University in 2007, where Gus was studying English and Joe fine art.
“I’ve never had a girl I don’t know say ‘I love you’,” Joe says, but I think he’s lying. Alt-J are playing a sold-out show at London’s O2 Arena tonight (June 23). I bet some of the 20,000 fans in attendance wouldn’t hesitate to lick him like a crisp packet. Five years since they released their Mercury Prize-winning debut album, ‘An Awesome Wave’, Alt-J are not only one of Britain’s weirdest bands, they’re also among the country’s most successful. This weekend they’ll headline Glastonbury’s Other Stage. And with Relaxer’, they’ve created yet another lush work of eclectic genius. It’s by turns a subtle and bombastic record – not quite rock or pop – packed with big hooks, silky smooth guitar lines, tender vocal harmonies and so many musical and lyrical reference points it should come with footnotes.
“It’s the bit of the iceberg below the surface,” says Gus, explaining why Alt-J’s songs have layers of meaning. “It’s like when you’re making a garment. If you overlock the seams it’ll last longer, even though you don’t see that when you’re buying it. We’re shoring up the album to make it last.”
After a little bit of probing, Joe begins to explain more of the inspiration behind ‘3WW’. Several years ago, when the band were in LA, they hit it off with some American girls in the pool of their hotel. The next
day they were passed a note by the concierge: “The girls from the pool say hi”. That line appears in the song, almost verbatim. But it’s then overdubbed with a more recent recording the boys made of their current girlfriends saying ‘hi’ in the pool of London’s Shoreditch House. It’s a lot of effort to go to for five seconds of music, but Joe’s thrilled with the results. “I just think it’s the perfect moment,” he enthuses. “It’s everything aligned perfectly. It’s probably my favourite moment in any of our songs. I’m so proud.”
Here’s another impressive first for Joe: singing about being fisted. “It’s so un-Alt-J,” says Gus, of ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ – a sloppy, Cramps-esque ‘f**k you’ of a song, set in a sex club. “There’s a lot of swearing and talking about being fisted by your family.” Not literally, he hastens to add. “It’s about neo-conservatism,” Joe suggests. “About the family being the most important thing. And me being like: this is my family, in the sex club… It wasn’t directly referencing the political situation, with Brexit and Trump. But I think we were feeling a bit…”
“At a loss,” finishes Gus.“Both Gus and I come from quite middle-class backgrounds, raised under comfortable circumstances,” Joe continues. “We escape into our music because it’s fun, not because we hate our lives. But writing this song, I got a kick out of being hostile.”
In person they’re impeccably polite, but I also understand why Gus and Joe would want to let it all out occasionally. “I do think we take a lot of flak,” Gus considers. He recently opened a restaurant in Stoke Newington, east London, serving dishes such as ‘crumpets with Parmesan and courgette’. It’s called Dandy, of all things. It’s hard not to mention the ‘p’ word, but thankfully Gus brings it up before I do. “We make music that’s a little bit unusual and could be termed ‘pretentious’,” he says. “But what’s not pretentious about being in a band? You’ve decided for your job to be on stage and to sing and play an instrument. That’s by its very nature pretentious… if that’s the best word people can think of to insult us with, then I’m kind of happy to embrace it.”
There’s a third member of Alt-J, who isn’t here today. Drummer Thom Green suffers from Alport Syndrome, which causes hearing loss and kidney disease. He’s spoken before about the challenges he faces being in a massive, touring band. But, more than that, he just didn’t want to do this interview. “He can be quite quiet,” says Gus. “And he doesn’t like talking that much, really.” So, that’s that.
It does get us onto discussing Alt-J’s past, however, and the terrible interviews they’ve done previously. The one that stands out in Joe’s mind was a segment for German TV where he and Gus spent half an hour moulding Christmas biscuits into the shape of triangles, only to find that the cameraman hadn’t even been recording. “I lost my mind,” says Joe. “You’re touring extensively and you don’t realise how fragile you are. And it can be difficult. It can be hard. And we don’t talk about it too much, because only musicians understand the strains.” He checks himself a little. “But to be complaining about that job is something that wouldn’t go down well. Because I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”
Are they happy right now? “I often look at my life and think, I’m very, very, very happy,” says Gus. “There’s a lot to be said for not worrying about money. I’m not saying we’re rich, but we’re a lot better off than we were.” In the time before ‘An Awesome Wave’ came out, the band – then a four-piece – were living in a two-bed house in Cambridge and struggling. Gus remembers: “That was when I got really into smoking fags, because it was cheaperto smoke and not be hungry.”
“We’d go through our coat pockets,” Joe recalls. “We’d accumulate three pounds. Then the next day go through the same coats, hoping we’d find another three pounds. Because maybe you hadn’t checked that pocket in that coat, and… 50p!” He holds aloft an imaginary fifty pence piece. “And then you’d go out and buy a packet of biscuits, and that’d be all you eat for a day. So we have experienced that kind of lifestyle.”
To pass the time, the band invented a game that involved chucking around a half-empty bottle of water. They called it ‘Throwy’. Gus explains: “You stand in a loose circle, with a minimum of three or four players, and you have to move with the flow of the bottle. You don’t just catch it and decide who you’re going to throw it to next – it’s almost a Ouija board of catch, where the bottle just decides where it wants to go, and you have to move with it. As time has gone on we’ve developed sick moves, but the moves should never come before the flow of the bottle.”
“Although we don’t care, we do look like prats doing it,” says Joe. “It’s a lot of fun. And often, you’re required to get extremely high before playing.” There they go again: doing something weird and nerdy, and not caring one bit. They don’t get high that often any more, they tell me – that last little bit of immature rock excess is fading from the itinerary. This summer’s less about getting off their heads and more about getting off the tour bus. They’re planning day trips in the major cities of Europe and the US. I can picture them wandering through museums and galleries. Drinking expensive coffees. Throwing a water bottle to each other. Taking notes. Gathering all the source material for the next record. Being “curious and organised”, as Joe would say.