To mark the release of the new alt-J video, which is premiering today on WeTransfer, Rough Trade Editor Liv Siddall spoke to the band’s Joe Newman and Gus Unger-Hamilton about creative control, their latest album and Anne Boleyn.
Here’s a strange question for you – if you could go on a date with an historical figure, who would the lucky person be? This is a time-killing parlour game alt-J found themselves inventing and then playing, which lead to them writing their new single, Deadcrush. Who did they pick? Why, Sylvia Plath (Thom), Lee Miller (Joe) and of course… Anne Boleyn (Gus).
The song is a sexy, breathy, fast-paced paean to the concept of one’s “dead crush,” and can be found on the band’s latest album RELAXER. Despite its rather dark concept and sound, alt-J seem to find it all rather funny.
Especially Gus, the legend who chose Anne Boleyn. “Well, you know, I was watching Wolf Hall,” he admits. “It’s just a little fun concept: picking somebody who’s dead who you think; “Mmm, if he or she were alive today I wouldn’t mind taking them out for an ice cold beer and maybe a…steak?”
Somehow, for alt-J, this all seems to make sense. Formed in the UK city of Leeds back in 2007, they soon drew attention due to lead singer Joe’s peculiar vocal style – a timid and somehow pained wail that stood out among the ubiquitous laddish indie of the time.
This mixed with their mathematical, keyboard-heavy sound allowed them to fall into the rapidly growing “night bus music” genre: romantic, edgy and fitting to put on at a party at 4am. The alt-J sound is interesting – clever, even – which drew comparisons with Radiohead, much to their embarrassment.
A decade later, they have gone from being an underground sensation to winning the Mercury Prize in 2012 and racking up millions of album sales. RELAXER, released in June, is only their third album, and despite its singular subject matter, Deadcrush seems to be the song which has resonated most with fans (it’s currently the album’s most streamed track on Spotify).
The lyrics are deliciously creepy – wonderful if you’re into dark humour, and (bizarrely) historically informative. “Extraordinarily pretty teeth, beauty lingers out of reach, you’re my DC, oh Lee, Man Ray went cray cray over you, capturing but never captured, you’re my DC, oh Lee,” mumbles Joe in the first verse. And then later in the third: “Anna Bolina, maid of honour, not your sister, fearful temper, unknown artist, took your likeness, Henry Tudor left you lifeless.”
For the video, the band chose LA-based director Young Replicant, aka Alex Takacs – with whom they had previously collaborated on 3WW’s haunting Mexican funeral video – and choreographer Darcy Wallace.
“Darcy took the lyrics first and choreographed it after researching each character.,” Joe explains. “She looked at Lee Miller’s photos and the Tudor style and famed beheading of Anne Boleyn. She did her research and she came up with this beautiful, collaged choreography that we then took to Alex who worked out a story to go around the dancing.”
The result is a high-octane, sci-fi music video that crams a hell of a lot into five minutes. Terrifying wax-faced, androgynous women leap around a bunker under flickering lights, each movement and character representing facets of alt-J’s dead crushes.
Every now and again we are taken out of the scene to witness a magical spinning glass disc which appears to be projecting the alternate reality these characters reside within. “It’s a post-apocalyptic landscape and there’s a supercomputer that’s constantly functioning to hold the memories of what mankind once was,” Joe explains. “It does so by having these discs that have taken the culture of different people, and different moments, and and then they have these avatars that they project the mannerisms of particular historical figures onto.”
It all makes a bit of a change from other indie bands’ music videos which often feature edited footage of them playing a gig. But then, alt-J have never been content with that sort of thing.
The band are ex-art students, which helps when it comes to having a vision in terms of what they want or who they want to work with. “We don’t really go down the route of just a quirky video which maybe cuts to us playing the song with other things happening,” Gus admits. “It’s more that we want to make short films that stick in the mind and hopefully shock and absorb the viewer.”
Joe agrees. “We just don’t want to waste the viewers’ time by just showing us playing the song, when actually it’s an opportunity to collaborate with another artist, to give them a blank cheque and say, do what you’re good at and we won’t get in your way.”
You don’t hear the term “blank cheque” much in the music industry these days, particularly regarding videos or album artwork. Broadly speaking, standards have slipped somewhat in the last few years. The tiny Spotify and iTunes artwork box renders commissioning high-end designers to create intricate artwork sort of pointless, which leads to a spate of album covers which are literally just one bright colour to catch the eyes of potential downloaders.
Music videos have had an even worse time of it. Occasionally big labels splash out if they have an inkling that it may reach the click-hungry holy grail of going viral, but increasingly independent labels just don’t have the cash to warrant something that lives only online.
“We’re lucky enough to have a label that sees a good idea and leaves it alone and lets people get on with what they’re doing,” Joe says. “I think that’s brilliant, because it means our work isn’t spoiled by a decision that’s made by a committee of people. All the creative decisions are made by the band and we’re allowed to get on with it. It’s very rare that bands are given that amount of control in the music industry.”