alt-J’s Ten Year Waking Dream

Does anyone remember, as a kid, dreaming of a breath-taking location and then waking up trying to convince yourself that the place really does exist? Listening to alt-J’s new record “The Dream”, I get the sense that lyricist Joe Newman can relate to this type of dream, as he sings: “losing my ability to fathom awake and not awake.”

In the ten years following alt-J’s rise to stardom, after winning the Mercury Prize for their debut LP “An Awesome Wave” in 2012, the dramatic shift in lifestyle surely felt like a waking dream for the men who began their musical careers as ordinary fellows who only dreamed of calling music a career. That being said, their commercial success is not what makes Newman and his co-composers Gus Unger-Hamilton and Thom Green such fascinating individuals. What captivates me about these gentlemen is the way they have stayed true to what makes them unique, overcoming every Hollywood-sized stumbling block that has come their way, while letting their hater’s words land as mere coal in the steam engine of the ‘delta’ locomotive we know as alt-J. Mac users, that’s your cue! ∆ ∆ ∆

When asked by Under the Radar’s Matt Fink in a 2014 interview what it was like to win the 2012 Mercury Prize for the best UK album, lead singer Joe Newman exclaimed: “Winning it was like, ‘Holy shit!’ Essentially, if I could have asked for one thing for us to achieve as a band, it was to win a Mercury Prize.” What seemed like a dream-come-true for 3/4 members was actually an uncomfortable nightmare situation for Gwil Sainsbury. Gwil was actually the very first person to encourage Joe to start sharing his personal songwriting skills on guitar—years before an awesome wave of international recognition came to wash their lives into world renown.

During the band’s first US tour in September of 2012, however, Gwil began to doubt whether being in a world-renowned band was a lifestyle he could tolerate. Gus, Thom and Joe couldn’t believe that Sainsbury would want out of the world’s hottest indie band. But before their tour was completed, alt-J was reduced to three points where two lines meet (a little lyrical reference for you die-hards). What’s interesting though, is instead of derailing the band, losing one of the founding members actually empowered the remaining three, instilling a sense of true ownership within their project. Their label didn’t own them, nor did their manager; they were in charge, and if they wanted to go on as a three-piece, then nothing could stop them.

Back in 2012, I was the foreman of a landscaping crew, and we listened to Calgary’s alternative station X92.9 whenever we drove between jobsites. I remember hearing the show host introducing a new release by saying: “Up next is a band making waves in the UK. I found this song very, very strange at first, but I think I love it” and he hit play on “Breezeblocks”, which sunk it’s teeth into my ears instantly. And the more I listened to their music, the more I revered alt-J as musical gods among men. It became clear to me, based on their wacky creative style, that they were making music for themselves—because it makes them happy. Nothing else mattered. Two years of binge-listening “An Awesome Wave” later, I vividly remember my feverish anticipation of their impending sophomore release (the LP for the people): “This Is All Yours”.

When I first listened to their second album in 2014, I knew right away that these guys were here to stay. I bought floor tickets to their first ever Calgary show. My brother and I were more excited than anyone I knew to witness the most authentic indie song-writing of our era from the front row at the Corral (their booking agent’s venue of choice). What we started to realize about this building—which was built in 1950 for ice hockey and rodeo—is that the atmosphere in this old barn was quite underwhelming (especially for a band currently on a world tour). Another factor which undoubtedly impacted the setting for Newman, Unger-Hamilton, and Green, is the average demographic of the people attending; because it was an all-ages venue, there seemed to be an inordinate amount of teenage girls fighting for the front row of the floor section. 

I know it was a distraction for the alt-J boys, because it sure was distracting for me, breaking up fights between spoiled first-world teens who were only there to get the best Snapchat video of “Breezeblocks”. What the audience lacked was a mutually attentive appreciation for the intricate tessellations of alt-J’s music. When it came time to perform “Hunger of the Pine” (the first single off of “This Is All Yours”), the band began swirling the intense buildup leading to the first instrumental drop. But, to our dismay, Newman couldn’t find his vocal timing within the song, and missed his cue not once, not twice, but three times before eventually giving up and letting the band drop the beat without him.

As Canadians are known for, we graciously applauded Joe all-the-while, but I could tell he was a little bummed out that he wasn’t able to cleanly deliver one of the coolest parts of their new album to us live. To be completely honest, after this show, I spent some time doubting why this had been my favourite artist for the previous two years. “If they can’t bring the heat live”, I thought, “how can I possibly love them more than Canadian bands like Royal Canoe or Wintersleep, who have consistently brought breath-taking performances to Calgary’s stages and left everything out on the floor?” In my preparation for writing this article, however, I came to realize what makes alt-J a truly genuine and magnificent band.

I read about the extremely negative review alt-J received from Pitchfork a number of weeks after their debut album was released in 2012. When asked by journalist Matt Fink how they initially reacted to the review, there was a mixture of disdain, amusement and shock in their responses. Drummer Thom Green was the most fiery of the three, stating that he wishes to not be associated with Pitchfork at all moving forward. Interestingly enough, though, Joe and Gus found it to be primarily amusing the way Pitchfork’s writer Laura Snapes genuinely seemed to hate them as people. It wasn’t just about the music, she was making personal attacks on the band members.

After reading about this encounter with a testy critic, it dawned on me that massive obstacles can present themselves to any artist on any level, and alt-J was no exception. But did alt-J start making music differently after that Pitchfork review? Did they cave under the pressure to make more accessible music? Hell nah; their next album literally contained the lyrics: “Fuck you, I’ll do what I wanna do” (Hit Me Like That Snare, RELAXER, 2017).

Ultimately, what makes alt-J such an iconic group is the way they refuse to back down on their cavalier approach to composing, keeping the joy of music as the focal point. I think the key for realizing our true potential as the new generation of creatives is accepting that our uniqueness alone is worth celebrating, and no amount of rejection can take away from that celebration.

What you’re about to hear on alt-J’s new record is unapologetic and authentic as fuck; one hundred percent mask off. And that’s just what we need, isn’t it? The compositions carry with them a lost soul passion, marking a return to form for Newman, Unger-Hamilton and Green. The contrasts in emotion resemble a night in which your mind slips between peaceful dreams and nightmares.

“Am I cold? Am I falling?” beckons Newman in “Philadelphia”. His state of confusion reminds me of those dreams you can’t wake up from, where you’re so lost in it, you forget you have a consciousness conjuring the images around you. Getting lost in a dream might be a good way to describe the band’s past ten years touring the world. Maybe we are living in their dream, or they in ours. Only one thing can be certain, and that is music’s ability to transport us from one state to another. Stream alt-J’s “The Dream” before bed tonight, and maybe I’ll meet you in between the waves.

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