George Muncey

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alt-J Come Into Their Own On Fourth Album ‘The Dream’

Rolling Stone Australia speaks to alt-J keyboard player Gus Unger-Hamilton ahead of the band’s September 2022 Australia and New Zealand Tour.

The members of alt-J are now in their 30s. Keyboard player Gus Unger-Hamilton is married with a child; guitarist and vocalist Joe Newman is also a new father, while drummer Thom Sonny Green lives with his pet dog in a leafy area of north London. 

Things have changed a lot since the band’s early days jamming between lectures at the University of Leeds. But on The Dream, alt-J’s fourth album, the trio’s creative synergy is as fertile as ever.

The Dream comes four and a half years after alt-J’s third album, Relaxer, and close to ten years after the band’s breakthrough debut, An Awesome Wave. The band members took a year off following the global tour behind Relaxer, regrouping in January 2020 to begin work on The Dream

The album sessions lasted 18 months and withstood multiple COVID interruptions. Though, while the pandemic kept them from their primary source of income—i.e. touring—Unger-Hamilton believes the global slowdown largely benefitted the record. 

“The lockdowns meant that we had quite a healthy work-life balance,” he says, speaking to Rolling Stone Australia from the east London home he shares with his wife, April. “Taking a year and a half in the studio to write and record was fantastic.”

Trite as it might sound, alt-J do sound refreshed on The Dream. The three members brought a renewed enthusiasm to the writing sessions, a contrast to the fraught sessions that gave rise to Relaxer. “That was a rushed and quite stressful time in the studio,” says Unger-Hamilton. 

Outside of taking time to recover their enthusiasm, the band didn’t make any significant changes to their working method for The Dream. They again teamed up with producer Charlie Andrew—the producer of An Awesome Wave, This Is All Yours and Relaxer—and recorded in London, the city where they all live.

“We’ve always been a band that worked quite instinctively,” says Unger-Hamilton. “Even going back to our first band practices in Leeds when we were students in 2008, it was like sitting down and seeing what happened.”

alt-J have produced a handful of indie hits over the past decade, including 2012’s “Breezeblocks” and 2014’s “Left Hand Free”. But hit-making has never been the band’s primary concern. Even more so than its predecessors, The Dream shows that alt-J view their albums as playgrounds for stylistic exploration. 

The band switches from the summer afternoon guitar pop of lead single “U&ME” to the bluesy spiritualism of “Walk a Mile”. “Philadelphia” merges a melodic palette snatched from The Beatles (by way of Elliott Smith) with intermittent operatic flourishes courtesy of vocalist Christie Valeriano. The droning, krautrock understatement of “Losing My Mind” makes it a late-album highlight.

“We’re always excited to try new things in the studio and let songs go where they want to go,” says Unger-Hamilton. “That’s always been important to us—never to limit ourselves to one particular sound or genre.”

The album’s second single, “Get Better”, is the saddest alt-J song on record. It’s composed of seven patiently constructed verses that convey the memories and reflections of someone whose partner dies following a protracted struggle with terminal illness. 

Newman’s confidential vocals and acoustic guitar playing occupy the spotlight throughout the track. A trombone enters for the bridge and Unger-Hamilton adds a bit of organ, but the band refrains from cranking the volume, allowing lyrics such as, “I still pretend you’re only out of sight,” to hit with sobering gravity.

“It had a very powerful effect on me the first time I heard it,” says Unger-Hamilton of “Get Better”. “For weeks and weeks it was hard to listen to.”

The events described in “Get Better” are fictional—Newman’s partner did not die after a long battle with disease. But the song’s general outline will resonate with many listeners, particularly in the UK, who’ve lost loved ones as a result of COVID-19.

“I think it’s a testament to Joe’s songwriting ability that he can write a song like that without any direct personal experience to draw on,” says Unger-Hamilton. “But it is a product of the times we’ve been living through. Watching the news and seeing a nightly death toll of people in the thousands every night for a sustained period of time has had a powerful effect on everybody.”

If “Get Better” qualifies as a topical song, then so too does “Hard Drive Gold”; although “Hard Drive Gold” is as comical as “Get Better” is devastating. “Hard Drive Gold”’s central lyric—“Don’t be afraid to make, to make money, boy”—refers to the song’s 15 year old protagonist, a high schooler who fantasises of becoming a millionaire trading crypto currency.

While neither song attempts any sort of sloganeering, the political resonance is not merely incidental—“Get Better” includes a passing reference to the UK’s underfunded national healthcare system, the NHS, and “Hard Drive Gold” conflates neoliberalism with “scum”. In this respect, the two songs are outliers in the alt-J catalogue.

“On the whole we’ve tried to steer clear of [politics],” says Unger-Hamilton. “Not because it didn’t interest us or because or we were scared, but we found that writing more kind of Romanesque songs set in an imaginary world worked better for us.”

Elsewhere on the record, Newman’s lyrics grapple with Coca-Cola addiction (“Bane”), an abusive relationship (“Happier When You’re Gone”) and the hapless exploits of a Los Angeles cocaine dealer circa-1982 (“The Actor”).

With all the genre-switching and thematic curiosities, it’s a wonder The Dream doesn’t come off a bit scattered. But the band establishes cohesion through a combination of Newman’s resonant vocal croon and Andrew’s spacious production.

The whole record has a vintage, dusty warmth, even during the more conspicuously modern genre excursions. The sonic effect was achieved by running just about everything—including vocals, drums, keyboards and guitars—through a 1960s Vox AC30 guitar amp. “That helps it sound like you’re listening to all these songs in the same space,” says Unger-Hamilton. 

“It’s funny,” he adds, reflecting on the band’s customary genre roving, “I don’t know why it works. And I think for some people it definitely doesn’t work, and that’s fine—we’ve always put a few people’s backs up as a band and that’s never going to change.”

alt-J
THE DREAM TOUR AUSTRALIA & NEW ZEALAND
SEPTEMBER 2022
Presented by Frontier Touring, triple j (AU), NZME and Coup De Main (NZ)

GENERAL PUBLIC ON SALE
Begins: Friday 18 February (12noon local time)

ALL SHOWS LICENSED ALL AGES

Saturday 17 September
Spark Arena | Auckland, NZ
Licensed All Ages
On sale: Friday 18 February (12noon local time)
ticketmaster.co.nz

Tuesday 20 September
Riverstage | Brisbane, QLD
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On sale: Friday 18 February (12noon local time)
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Thursday 22 September
Margaret Court Arena | Melbourne, VIC
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On sale: Friday 18 February (12noon local time)
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Saturday 24 September
Hordern Pavilion | Sydney, NSW
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On sale: Friday 18 February (12noon local time)
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Tuesday 27 September
Adelaide Entertainment Centre Theatre | Adelaide, SA
Licensed All Ages
On sale: Friday 18 February (12noon local time)
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Thursday 29 September
HBF Stadium, Perth, WA
Licensed All Ages
On sale: Friday 18 February (12noon local time)
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