Maxim Meyer-Horn

21 Jul

Interview: We Talked to alt-J Before Their Celebrated Show at Rock Werchter

Alt-J has been at the top of the bill at the biggest festivals for years and descended on Belgian festival Rock Werchter a few weeks ago. In a crowded tent, they presented their latest album, ‘The Dream’, with which they celebrated their big return after a long break and showed that they can still reinvent themselves. We spoke with Joe Newman and Gus Unger-Hamilton just before their celebrated show.

It’s not your first time performing at Rock Werchter. Does it feel like coming home?

Gus: It’s true. It’s really nice to be back.

Joe: We recognized the journey to the festival as well, and we have some favorite houses on the road.

You’re finally able to perform at festivals again. Is it still special for you to play at festivals even after so many years of performing?

Gus: It’s different doing festivals because you have to compete for people’s attention.

Joe: You don’t have a captive audience, and they’re free to leave anytime, so we’re trying to keep them with us.

Gus: Tonight’s show is just an hour, so that’s a shorter set. We’re playing our greatest hits, so that’s going to be fun, and then we’ll watch Metallica.

Do you prepare each show because some songs work better in different settings, or is it a fixed setlist?

Gus: Generally, we keep the same setlist, and we normally don’t change it too much. But we are very excited because our album went to number one in Belgium. We’re very grateful because it’s our first Belgian show since that happened, so we’re going to show the fans our gratitude.

After so many years, we can imagine there’s some kind of routine in being an artist. What do you do to keep it interesting and fun?

Joe: Once you’re in a routine, you’re going through a repeated pattern. How we get out of feeling complacency is by taking advantage of where we are and actually getting out to see local sites. It’s a boring answer, but it’s quite effective.

Gus: We’re also taking time off because that makes your desire bigger to come back with music rather than forcing ourselves to work all the time. When we finish an album tour, we never go straight back into the studio and write the next album.

What did you want to try on The Dream that you haven’t tried before?

Joe: We never really set out an agenda but for me, playing guitar was at the forefront of the excitement in writing this new album. Often, I’ve seen my guitar more as a tool, whereas on The Dream, there’s more of a potential for it to have its own voice, and I’ve learned to do that more than I did before. Obviously, I’m not a John Mayer, but I really do enjoy playing guitar now. During the pandemic, I had more time to reflect on the things that I love, and I’ve been playing guitar for twenty years. It made me reevaluate what I enjoy about playing guitar, and I did that. You can hear that in parts of the album.

Have you learned something else during the pandemic about alt-J that helped you create the new album?

Gus: It was a good opportunity to miss what we do. We took 2019 as a year off because we were totally burned out three albums in. We were not enjoying it as much as we used to and found touring hard. One year away from touring became three years away from touring, so we really wanted to get back on stage after that. It was a “be careful what you wish for” moment because we’re really happy to be back on tour. We’re having the best time and are enjoying playing our songs.

alt-J will be touring their new album ‘The Dream’. Tickets for their Australian and European tour later this year are already available. 

Pictures by Robin Joris Dullers

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