It’s been 11 years since Joe Newman, Thom Sonny Green, and Gus Unger-Hamilton formed alt-J in the halls of the University of Leeds in West Yorkshire, England, and six since the trio released its debut, An Awesome Wave. Since then the band — known for creating a unique, earworm-y collage of sounds that include enchanting keyboard-driven melodies, dynamic tempo shifts, rock sensibilities, and often-indecipherable lyrics — has garnered a large, devoted following and played to audiences worldwide. Its sophomore record, This Is All Yours, went straight to number one in the U.K. following its fall 2014 release. In 2017, the band released its third studio album, Relaxer, which was shortlisted for that year’s Mercury Prize, an award given to the best record from the United Kingdom and Ireland.
I recently spoke by phone with Unger-Hamilton, who was walking the streets of London before heading to the U.S. leg of alt-J’s tour, which includes a stop at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Monday, April 16. “We’re going to be touring until like October,” he said of their relentless schedule. “So yeah, the rest of this year mostly. But that’s all right. We enjoy it. Getting to travel around with your mates around the world playing gigs — it’s a great journey we’re on. We’re loving every minute.” The following is an edited version of our conversation, which focused mainly on the making of Relaxer.
I read that several songs on Relaxer were composed in the studio on the fly. How did that process work? In the case of “Hit Me Like That Snare,” we had all of our gear all set up, which isn’t something we often do in the studio, actually. Usually we’re very track by track, layer by layer, but in this case we … were going to try and do something else, then while we were standing around, Joe started playing this guitar riff. I think it’s something he’s had for a while, but I think he kind of played it faster than he played it before, like double the speed. It completely changed the character of it. And Thom and I immediately locked into it. And Charlie [Andrew], our producer, luckily just pretty much hit record straight away …. We’re all really feeling it. And then Joe went home and very quickly wrote the lyrics for it. And rather than record it again from scratch, we managed to use that original jam … [which] is the basis for the final track …. That was quite an exhilarating way to write a song.
The lyrics of “Pleader” are taken from a famous English book, How Green Was My Valley. How did that come about? It’s a book that Joe and I both read during our time off before we started work on the third album. I think we’ve always felt like quite a folky band …. Joe and I are quite into classical music, and particularly jazz bar and that kind of fine detail …. And then we’ve always been a band that has taken inspiration from books and things like that. So in that way it’s kind of classical based on a very weird and quite original piece of music, I think.
Was it daunting taking “The House of the Rising Sun,” which is such a famous song, and making it your own? I don’t think that we felt that we were playing with something that shouldn’t be played with. I think we felt very much within our rights to it, being that The Animals didn’t write the song. Nobody knows really who wrote the song. So it’s anyone’s for the taking, really. I think we felt that, “Oh, our third album, we have the maturity to tackle such a well-known song.” If we had done that on our first album, I think it wouldn’t have been the same thing, but I think now we’ve got to a level of maturity where we can have a go at such a famous folk song and not be some young upstart.
What does “3WW” stand for? It stands for “Three Worn Words.” In the chorus, it goes, “Oh, these three worn words.” So it’s actually a reference to the phrase, “I love you.” And how it’s a bit of a tired-out phrase that doesn’t really do the job that it needs to do necessarily. … When we were in the studio, we had a whiteboard where we were basically plotting the progress of the album, and I, in the shorthand, wrote, “3WW.” And then we were like, it’s actually way cooler when it’s written like that. It’s different, and we felt sort of like it’s “World War III” backward.
When you went into the studio, did you have things you wanted to tick off your list for this album, or was it, “Let’s just go in there and see how it feels?” I think we basically went in and just went, “Let’s see what happens.” But I think we do always like to make [our albums] varied in terms of the style of the songs. None of our albums has been consistent all the way through in terms of the style or genre. … I doubt we’ll ever make an album that is 10 songs all in the same style.
I saw you last year at Outside Lands, and I was so far back in the crowd I could barely see the stage. That was a pretty bonkers crowd out actually. That was huge. I think that was the biggest crowd we played last year, maybe the second. I couldn’t see the back of that crowd at all. I was trying to figure out where it stopped, and I couldn’t see. And that’s unusual.
That’s quite a testament to your popularity. Well, yeah, it’s reassuring, you know? You get to your third album, and you don’t take it for granted that people want to keep coming and seeing us again and again. So that was a real boost. To say, “Something’s still working here,” which is nice.
Alt-J plays with opening act Børns Monday, April 16, 7 p.m., at the S.B. Bowl (1122 N. Milpas St.). Call (805) 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com.