Alt-J: ‘Feeling unsafe is something that’s quite foreign for men’

Alt-J frontman Joe Newman recently gave the band’s acclaimed 2012 debuut, An Awesome Wave, a nostalgic spin. “And I was like: ‘Fuck, I sound annoying!’” It has been nearly a decade since the group, then fresh out of Leeds University, flipped the indie script with a strange, eerie album that was at once deeply experimental and full of undeniable bangers.

Phenomenally successful and criss-crossed with Newman’s distinctive, mischievous falsetto, An Awesome Wave not only won the Mercury prize but helped them become one of the few British bands this century to break the United States, placing them alongside the rarified likes of Coldplay and Gorillaz. “Then I took a step back and thought: ‘That voice has done a lot for us,’” Newman says, of revisiting the band’s debut. “The songs are still great and maybe we do things differently now … but I do think my voice was annoying.”

Down a leafy side street in well-to-do Islington, noord Londen, there’s a hidden door in a wall. Disguised by a faux-brick front – if you weren’t looking for it you’d walk straight past – there is a cosy studio where Alt-J have been working on their eagerly awaited fourth album, The Dream. Now in their 30s – and with Newman and keyboard player Gus Unger-Hamilton having become fathers this year – maybe you’d expect something more soothing from a trio known for their unsettling take on the electronic anthem. Not likely.

In September they dropped the album’s first taster, the perky and summery track U&ME. But you’d be sorely mistaken if you were to assume the single was in any way representative of the rest of the record, which is set for release next February. The Dream is by turns a doomy, dramatic album, plugging deeper into the death-obsessed world where the band have been staging their elegant danse macabre since An Awesome Wave. The first album was named after a line in Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho and, as if to hammer the gloomy point home, it was stacked full of dark cultural references, from hitman movie Léon to the tragic Tralala, a character in Hubert Selby Jr’s 1964 boek, Last Exit to Brooklyn, who is raped and left for dead.

A sinister new track, Losing My Mind, sees them digging into the darkness again, via an off-kilter journey into the mind of a serial killer. It’s a preoccupation that Newman can trace back to a horrific experience in his early teens. “I try to avoid talking about it too much, but a friend of mine’s sister was murdered," hy sê. “It was really a horrible thing to go through as a group of friends, but I think I’ve always been kind of drawn to that in some kind of weird, traumatic way.”

Such a horrendous event might also explain Newman’s fascination with the popular true-crime podcast My Favorite Murder, in which American comedians Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark recount violent stories to 35 million listeners a month. It is overwhelmingly popular with a female audience, a fact that hasn’t bypassed Newman. “Feeling unsafe is something that’s quite foreign for men,” he admits, highlighting the show’s open and frank discussion of violence against women in a year when the topic has never been far from the headlines. “I think learning about these kind of things and being a fraternity of people that can gain ways of understanding how to protect yourself or stand up for yourself, I think it’s really empowering.”

Starting work on The Dream in January 2020, the band’s sessions were swiftly interrupted by the pandemic, which worked its way on to their most affecting ballad to date. Stripped of their usual technological flourishes, the acoustic Get Better – which will be the album’s second single – sees Newman recount the death of a partner, written to reflect “the true horrors of what Covid-19 could do”.

Both Unger-Hamilton and drummer Thom Sonny Green wept when Newman played them the song – which is full of such perfect, pinpoint details as keeping a late loved one’s uneaten jar of Nutella, and wanting to hear them flush the loo in the middle of the night – that it’s easy to think it is based on a lived experience. “I feel kind of shameful in a way, thats it’s not real emotion,” admits Newman. “I had this dilemma with a song on the last album, called Last Year. It’s such a sad song, but it’s purely fictitious. Then Gus said: ‘You don’t need a doctor’s note to write a sad song.’” Newman had been gathering details for Get Better for 10 jare, ten minste. “We experience a lot of harrowing things in our lives," hy sê. “They build up and you write about them in time, and you come up with ideas that fit those emotions and you put it all together.”

When The Dream comes out in 2022 it will have been five years since the last Alt-J album proper, 2017'S Relaxer – which scored them their second Mercury prize nomination – making this the group’s longest break between albums. The time off doesn’t seem to have done them any harm. Kicking back in their studio, they seem exceedingly chilled out, which they credit in part to the 12 months they took off from anything relating to the band in 2019. During Alt-J’s year of rest and relaxation, Unger-Hamilton attempted to devise a mysterious ketchup and mustard hybrid called “Gus-tard” (“It’s delicious but it turns out there are a lot of hoops you have to jump through to sell condiments,” he sighs), while Green fulfilled a long-held dream and studied acting, culminating with the plum role of Boris Trigorin in a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull at the Cockpit theatre in Marylebone, west London.

Egter, despite their huge successes, are they ever worried that people might forget about them if they disappear for too long? “I think about it every day,” says Green. “You do get nervous about it,” Newman adds. “But for me, there’s no greater or more profound sense of calm than playing my instrument. Even if people don’t want to listen to our music as much any more, it doesn’t matter.”

The Dream will be released in February. The single U&ME is out now.

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