alt-J Flies Like a Jet Engine on New LP ‘The Dream’

If you ask Joe Newman, vocalist, and co-founder of the popular band alt-J, about the genesis of the band’s new record, The Dream, which is out Friday (February 11), he’ll tell you it all began, essentially, the day he got his first guitar. While, to some, that answer may seem cheeky or even flip, for Newman, it’s completely true. For him, the process of writing songs isn’t something that begins in the morning on a given day and concludes that night. Instead, for the artist, a song may begin 20 years or more before it’s set to record. Or a bit of it may start one year, another bit on another, and even a third chunk some years later. In this way, songwriting, like healing, is not linear. It’s more like assembling a bouquet.

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“You start with things that are exciting you,” Newman says. “A lot of those things span the last 10 years. On [the new album’s opening track] ‘Bane’ the first guitar part was written in 2011, the core part was written in 2013 and then there were more decorative bits written around 2015. Then it was lyrically structured in 2020.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Newman says alt-J was thrown for a loop. At first, it was “highly problematic,” for the band—or, at least, it seemed that way. But after the members dug in, they realized the time was a “blessing in disguise.” A huge pause button had been pushed on the industry, and the rest of the world. In the end, this allowed alt-J to muse, experiment, and mess around with various bits of songs.

“Which meant,” Newman says, “Songwriters could do what they do normally—and no one was looking in their direction. I still came to my studio in the garden. I’d spend hours searching for something, which is just how I write. But I just didn’t have a deadline.”

As a result, there are songs on the new LP that would not have been there had it not been for lockdown. Songs like the euphoric “The Actor,” or thoughtful “Powders” or the hypnotic “Philadelphia.” Newman says that there was a point when the album itself was near completion. But thanks to the extra time he had, he was able to turn one unformed idea into one of the album’s hits. The extra time took the pressure off.

“I compared it to the car packed for holiday,” he says. “The album was done, the car was packed. And I was like, ‘I got one more thing, think I can fit it on top of the car?’ I just don’t think had we not had the time, I don’t think we would have been that relaxed.”

As a professional artist, it can feel almost impossible to feel relaxed. Oftentimes, deadlines and requests pile in and it makes it hard to breathe. But for Newman, it was important to feel that bit of free space again. It’s also part of how he started in music, early on as a youngster. Some of his first musical memories came when he was a boy at home. As a kid, a major moment occurred when Newman’s father installed hi-fi speakers throughout their home. You could hear music in the kitchen and, perhaps more importantly, in the front room. It was there Newman saw his father reclined, taking in his favorites.

“I think because it was so unusual listening to music anywhere other than the kitchen,” he says, “that I think I listened to it in greater detail. That’s when I fell in love with James Taylor, Eric Clapton, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell.”

Not long after, Newman used to eye the acoustic guitars his father had on the wall at home. He became curious himself and started picking them up to play. Soon, he began writing his own songs. He took some lessons, became obsessed with writing. He says he found a deep sense of calm when he played, music provided a space to be away from everything else and to do so in a productive fashion. Other passions, like watching films, didn’t provide this in the same way for Newman. Later, while at college in the U.K., he met his future alt-J bandmates.

“We met as friends,” Newman remembers, “and we slowly pulled from one another an interest in music and more specifically that we played instruments.”

At first, Newman was reticent to sing in front of people. But when he showed his songs to his ‘mates, they supported and encouraged him. Each of the new band members had played music growing up, now it was time to share and meld their talents. Soon, they got a house together (with half a dozen other roommates) and the new alt-J ‘mates would climb to the top attic floor and make music as quietly as they could without disrupting their roommates. They’d use bathrobes to mute the drums, they’d forego cymbals altogether. Newman played acoustic.

“We also played quietly,” he says, “because we had a sense we were onto something and we didn’t want to reveal anything yet.” He also says he knew the roommates were “doing course papers and we didn’t want to get to the point where there was some kind of revolt where we were brought to the kitchen and told we can’t rehearse anymore.”

Eventually, the band earned success—and majorly so. The group’s 2012 song, “Breezeblocks,” was everywhere in the early 2010s. It opened up myriad doors for the group, including touring the U.S. and Australia not long after the band formed. And while alt-J has had a great deal of success since then, replicating a viral tune is tough for anyone.

“It’s like the physics of a plane taking off,” Newman says. “You can’t understand it, you don’t really get it. It just happens. You just have to not think about it so much until you have time to create nostalgia out of something.”

Looking ahead, Newman and alt-J have a fantastic new album on their hands that will likely open and re-open plenty of doors. Atop that, the group has a big North American tour set for 2022. And playing live is critical for the band, Newman says. It’s when the group gets to see “the faces that keep you in business.” Newman and company don’t take this lightly. And it’s music that provides these spaces, both for the audiences and for Newman and alt-J. It’s this love that makes the songs, albums, and tours so rich.

“Music for me,” Newman says, “means I can shut off. I can turn off, turn away from the realities of this world, the injustices, the cruel side of the world. I have a profound sense of calm when listening to something I’m engaged with or when I’m playing my instrument. I’m in a corner of my consciousness, which is safe. For me, that’s like no other experience.”

Photo courtesy Big Hassle

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