Interview Music

A Conversation with Alt-J’s Thom Sonny Green.

From left to right: Joe Newman, Gus Unger-Hamilton & Thom Sonny Green. Courtesy of George Muncey.

Words by Rowan Davies.

 I wanted to start by saying welcome back! How does it feel to be back with a brand-new album?

It feels uh, yeah it feels good. At the moment we’re still doing everything at home you know, and we haven’t played yet so we’re promoting everything mostly on Zoom. We did rehearsals about a month ago for the tour. I’m pretty keen to play just so we can actually get some live feedback for the new album, and once the album’s out then we’ll get more feedback. And the singles have been good it’s always- well it’s kinda frustrating I just want everyone to hear the album and the singles are like… they don’t represent the whole album. It’s funny because they do and they don’t. They give a taste of what it’s like but we don’t write the singles, we write the album. We considered the whole album when making it, and I’m just really looking forward to it coming out.

I think it’s appropriate to say that the new album ‘The Dream’ is very much a pandemic album, and I was wondering- drawing from your own experience- what was it like coming back to something that you love doing after all the stress we’ve been put under?

Well to be honest we started at the beginning of 2020 just before the pandemic kinda came along. We started hearing about it when we were writing and it was going pretty smoothly. We took a little break before that after we toured just because we’d been touring constantly since the first album. We needed to be at home and we needed a break. So, we took a break which ended up being a year, so we were ready to go back and start writing and we were excited about it. It was going really well and we started to hear about this virus, and before we knew it, we were like ‘we’ve got to stay at home’ which was rough, but we managed to get it done throughout 2020 and a little into 2021. So, the process was during the worst of it, I mean obviously right now it’s going insane again, it’s still affecting things and we have a two-month US tour coming up and we just don’t know how it’s going to go. Hopefully it will go great and we’re gonna do everything we can and right now it’s all doable. But once we get going a week or so into the tour, I think we’ll start to feel a little bit better about it cause it’s so hard to say that it’s all going to be normal, because it’s not. It’s surreal.    

I can only imagine what it’s like to experience this, particularly as an artist as well. Do you think it put a strain on your creativity?

I think so yeah, particularly in 2020 I found it really hard. I usually like to do various things; I do a lot of painting when I’m at home and I wouldn’t call it a studio but I have a lot of music equipment at home, and I just couldn’t be bothered. I really couldn’t find inspiration, especially painting. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it and I think to begin with I kind of thought we have all this time so I’ll come up with all these projects but it just didn’t work like that. There’s the pressure and the stress and stuff. It was just too much. It’s hard to say anything specific because we had taken a break. We knew we had to do it at some point. It might sound weird but for us to work together we have to be in the right frame of mind and we there has to be a lot of space around what we’re doing- not physical space but in terms of our lives we have to feel ready, and we don’t meet up and just start jamming, we block out time to write and it’s quite serious and routined. The process isn’t that serious, it’s just we can’t dip in and out of it like other people. On tour we don’t write much unless we figure something out. The process is mentally challenging and draining, so once we realised we were ready to go back in and take it easy, that’s what we did. Often what we find is that it’s easier than we think and things go quite smoothly. Once that happens, we inspire each other. Our success is due to the fact that our chemistry is so good, we rarely find it hard to respond to each other musically. I don’t find it hard to respond on the drums.

It works out more in your favour then I guess because you guys met at Leeds University didn’t you, so the band was started then?

Well, we met in 2007 when we all started. I met Joe on the first day we both studied Fine Art together. The first seminar we had he was the first person there I was the second person there, and we were both early. It was quite awkward but we started chatting about artists that we liked- we both really liked David Shrigley. It was funny because we both realised we were just trying to make each other laugh to break the ice a bit. You know you just kinda joke around and sometimes you meet someone and you can just tell they have a similar sense of humour and you’re able to risk saying certain things.

You let down that wall don’t you, you definitely do.

Exactly yeah. We were friends for about a year and Joe lived in the same halls as Gus, that’s how I met him. They’d already got together a couple of times then they asked me if I wanted to come over and hang out, so I went over and we started playing. I just took my snare drum, that’s all I had then we started doing it all the time. And we weren’t really thinking about it. We started writing music and messing around, I didn’t even know what writing really was, we were just making stuff up and recording it on our phones. I think I was the only person there who had an iPhone at the time and this was 2008. We were rehearsing and practicing every night then we started playing a couple of pubs in Leeds, in our living room, and then a promoter saw us playing and he asked us if we wanted him to promote us and get us shows, so we said yes. Loads of managers started to hear about us and were driving up to Leeds and the same with record labels. It was crazy- at one point there were two weeks where we met major labels from London. They all just started to fight for us, it was really odd!

It sounds like it was a hectic week but I guess it all paid off, look at where you guys are now.

We were lucky we were sensible and we didn’t sign just everything away. We waited for the right deal and the right people; we did everything while thinking about longevity. We could’ve signed to a major label for a huge advance but we would’ve owed them everything and wouldn’t have gotten to where we are now. It took me years to understand the business of it all.

I listened to the new album and I think as a body of work it works really well and I had a good time listening. I like it when artists use spoken word elements, particularly in the opening song ‘Bane’ and in the closing track ‘Powders’. Are those samples of your own writing or are they examples of references from film, TV, books, etc.?

Um, I don’t think we used anything directly from any films, I think we just recorded them ourselves. The beginning of ‘Bane’ is our front of house sound engineer for our tour, Lance. He recorded that in the US and sent it over to us. And in ‘Powders’ there’s me and my girlfriend on the recording, Joe’s mum is in ‘Get Better’, Gus’ mum is in ‘Hard Drive Gold’, Gus’ wife is in ‘The Actor’ singing. We had ideas for samples, well we do use samples but there’s no vocal samples because it’s just such a nightmare getting clearance. I think Joe had an idea for something it was a clip from ‘Good Will Hunting’ or something, and we were just like ‘can we please not’, because we’ll either have to give them like 90% of the royalties for the track which we don’t want to do, or they just won’t give it us. I get it, and sometimes it’s worth pursuing if it’s really important to the track but that’s where all the balance comes in between the three of us.

 It’s a very personal album then if you have all of these people on there that are very close to you. Are there any personal favourites of yours that people haven’t had the chance to listen to yet?  

I absolutely love ‘Philadelphia’ at the moment. It’s different to anything we’ve done but it’s still recognisably us, I can’t figure out why. We didn’t know where it was going and I was struggling with the general sound of things it wasn’t doing it for me and it was starting to annoy me to be honest. We went back into lockdown during the process and I took it home without any drums or percussion on it. I was messing around with it at home and I put in a few textural things. It added another colour to it.

With creating the album comes touring. You’ve had the opportunity to perform at Reading and Glastonbury; so, what would be your dream gig?

That’s a really good question. Headlining Glastonbury would be pretty special, I don’t think it gets much better than that. There are various festivals to headline that would be amazing like Coachella’s main stage, but I think doing Glastonbury would be pretty good. We’re doing Madison Square Garden soon which I think is my favourite venue to play, we did it once before and it was insane. I just love New York. It’s a huge, historic venue and the way it’s designed is pretty cool. I like Brixton Academy too, it just sounds so good and it’s kinda the perfect size.

Just one more question; is there anyone you would absolutely jump at the chance to collaborate with?

There’s an artist called Mica Levi and they’re in a band called Micachu and The Shapes. They make soundtracks, they did one for a film called ‘Under the Skin’. They’re just immensely talented and they come from a classically trained background. Everything that they do is authentic and everything points to the music as well. The music is the voice and the personality, it’s one of those things where if they called me and asked me to work with them, I’m not sure if I actually could because I’m not sure the music will do what I think it could, there’s such a pedestal there. It would take me a while to relax and be myself. Saying that, the way they come across is extremely down-to-earth which is one of the reasons I like them so much.     

Alt-J’s new album ‘The Dream’ is out February 11th.