If you ask Joe Newman, vocalist, and co-founder of the popular band alt-J, about the origins of the band’s new record, the dream, which comes out on Friday (February 11th), will tell you that it all started, basically, the day he got his first guitar. While, to some, this answer may seem cheeky or even inconsistent, to Newman, it’s totally correct. For him, the songwriting process is not something that starts in the morning on a certain day and ends that night. Alternatively, for an artist, a song may begin 20 years or more before it can be recorded. Or a part of it may begin a year, a little more in another, and even a third part after a few years. In this way, songwriting, like healing, is not linear. It’s like putting together a bouquet.
“You start with things that excite you,” Newman says. “A lot of this stuff spans over the past ten years. Run [the new album’s opening track] The first guitar part “Bane” was written in 2011, the base part was written in 2013, then more decorative parts were written around 2015. Then it was lyrically designed in 2020″.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Newman says Variant J has been thrown into an episode. At first, it was “too problematic” for the band – or at least it seemed to be. But after the members delved deeper, they realized that time was a “blessing in disguise.” A huge pause button has been pushed in the industry and the rest of the world. Ultimately, this allowed alt-J to experiment, experiment, and manipulate different parts of the songs.
“Which means songwriters could do what they naturally do—and nobody was looking in their direction,” Newman says. “I still came to my studio in the garden. I’d spend hours looking for something, and that’s exactly how I write.” But I didn’t have a deadline.”
As a result, there are songs on the new LP that wouldn’t have existed had it not been for the shutdown. Songs like uplifting “The Actor,” “Powders,” or hypnotic “Philadelphia.” Newman says there was a point when the album itself was about to expire. But thanks to his extra time, he was able to turn a single, undistorted idea into one of the album’s songs. The extra time relieved stress.
“I compared it to a car packed for vacation,” he says. “The album’s finished, the car was full. And I said, ‘I have something else, I think I can put it on top of the car?’ I just don’t think if we didn’t have the time, I don’t think we’d be that comfortable.”
As a professional artist, it is almost impossible to feel relaxed. Oftentimes, deadlines and requests pile up making it hard to breathe. But for Neumann, it was important to feel that free space again. It’s also part of the way he got started in music, early on when he was young. Some of his first musical memories came as a boy at home. When he was a kid, a big moment happened when Newman’s dad installed hi-fi speakers throughout their house. You can hear the music in the kitchen and, perhaps most importantly, in the front room. It was there that Newman saw his father reclining, considering his favorite things.
He says, “I think it was unusual to listen to music anywhere other than the kitchen, and I think I listened to it in more detail. That’s when I fell in love with James Taylor, Eric Clapton, The Beatles, and Joni Mitchell.”
Soon, Newman was accustomed to looking at the acoustic guitars his father had attached to the wall in the house. He became curious about himself and began choosing them to play. Soon he began writing his own songs. He took a few lessons, and became obsessed with writing. He says he found a deep sense of calm when he played, the music providing space to get away from everything else and do so in a productive way. Other passions, such as watching movies, did not present this in the same way to Newman. Later, while in college in the UK, he met his future alt-J bandmates.
“We met as friends, and slowly drew our interest in music from each other, more specifically that we played instruments,” Newman recalls.
At first, Newman was reticent about singing in front of people. But when he showed his songs to his colleagues, they supported and encouraged him. Each of the new band members played music as they grew up, and now is the time to share and combine their talents. Soon, they got a house together (with half a dozen roommates) and the new alt-J buddies would go upstairs upstairs and make music as quietly as possible without disturbing their roommates. They were using bathrobes to muffle the sound of drums, and they were giving up cymbals completely. Play Newman Vocal.
“We also played quietly,” he says, “because we had the feeling we were up to something and didn’t want to reveal anything yet.” He also says he knew his roommates were “editing course papers and we didn’t want to get to the point where there was some kind of rebellion where we were brought into the kitchen and told we couldn’t work out anymore.”
In the end, the band had success – and mainly. The group’s 2012 song, “Breezeblocks,” was ubiquitous in the early 2000s. It opened countless doors for the group, including touring the US and Australia not long after the band’s formation. And while alt-J has had a great deal of success since then, replicating a viral tune is difficult for anyone.
“It’s like the physics of an airplane taking off,” Neumann says. “You can’t understand it, you don’t really understand it. It just happens. You just have to not think about it too much until you have time to create nostalgia.”
Looking to the future, Newman and alt-J have a great new album on their hands that will likely open and re-open a lot of doors. Furthermore, the band has a major North American tour scheduled for 2022. Newman adds that live performances are critical to the band. When you see the “Faces that keep you in business” group. Neumann and his colleagues do not take this lightly. And it’s the music that provides these spaces, for both audiences and Newman and alt-J. It is this love that makes the songs, albums and tours so rich.
“Music to me means I can stop working,” Newman says. “I can get away, get away from the realities of this world, the injustice, the harsh side of the world. I have a deep sense of calm when listening to something I’m engaged in or when I’m playing my instrument. I’m in a corner of my consciousness, and it is safe. For me, this is not like any other experience.”
Image courtesy of Big Trouble