Isabella Ambrosio sits down to talk to Thom Green of alt-J’s music influences, his beginnings as a musician, and alt-J’s newest release, ‘The Dream’.
alt-J was formed nearly 15 years ago, in 2007 by current members, Joe Newman, the lead vocalist and guitarist, Thom Sonny Green, the dummer, Gus Unger-Hamilton, the vocalist and keyboards, and past member, Gwilym Sainsbury, the bassist and guitarist. The members met at college in 2007, where the three current members studied Fine Art. After graduation, they released their debut album in May 2012, and the album went on to win the 2012 British Mercury Prize and won Album of the Year at the Ivor Novello Awards. Off their first record ‘An Awesome Wave’, a song titled ‘Fitzpleasure’, became a worldwide hit. The drop at the 26 second mark broke out on social media and is distinctive to this day.
I’ve been listening to alt-J since their debut album. Their second release ‘This Is All Yours’ was practically the soundtrack of my second year in secondary school. So, it was an absolute pleasure and honour to be asked to interview their drummer, Thom Green. I’m always nervous before interviews, no matter how many times I do them, and this was no different.
But, Thom Green appeared on my screen with tired eyes and a friendly tight-lipped smile. It was about ten in the morning when the interview happened. He looked comfortable in a green and red knit jumper. I started the interview by asking if he minded if I recorded it, and when he agreed, the creepiest voice from Zoom let us know recording was in progress. We acknowledged how weird it was and shared a laugh before I started asking my questions.
“I don’t even realise to what extent rhythm is part of me. I tap a lot, with my hands and feet, I’ve always got some kind of rhythm in my head”
“How are you doing though?
“I’m good, I’m good, thanks. I’m a bit tired, for some reason, I don’t know why, I just think it’s one of those days where you wake up, and you can’t see anything and your brain is gone.” We both chuckled and agreed that it’s the worst when that happens. The sense of normality was quite refreshing.
“So, I wanted to start off and ask you about your musical influences. Because I was looking around and I couldn’t really find anything about it.”
“I grew up listening to a lot of heavy music. I really like metal and grunge. I think the first band that I really loved was Nirvana when I was a teenager. I was in my first band when I was like 12 or 13 and we played Nirvana covers, as well as Marilyn Manson and Korn, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, bands like that. And when I got older, it got a bit heavier, and I started listening to black metal and death metal, bands like Meshuggah, The Red Chord, Pantera… I just really loved metal… But I also loved blink-182, Less than Jake, and pop-punk bands. I learned how to play drums by copying all those drummers, in particular, a drummer called Abe Cunningham from the Deftones. He’s a really, really interesting drummer because of his timings and him using ‘ghost notes’ and I learned how to play from copying him. And then I went to university and I discovered Radiohead. I think ‘In Rainbows’ came out the year we started university. And that took me on a completely different trajectory in terms of influence.”
“I went down this path that had opened my mind, and in university, you’re with people who are influencing you and you’re around music all the time… And that’s where I met Joe [Newman] and we both liked similar music. Portico Quartet was another one that we liked and then I started listening to more electronic music such as Aphex Twin. Once the album came out, I started producing myself. So, I got into artists like beat makers and an artist called Clams Casino. It had a really big influence on me. And an artist called Arekar, he really influenced my music production and the way I approach producing electronic music. I didn’t know what he was doing, I didn’t know how he was doing it. It was really interesting. And now, one of my biggest influences, Mica Levi, they made a soundtrack for a film called ‘Under the Skin’... they made my favourite album of 2020, ‘Shades’. They kind of just make guitar music… very grunge-y yet pop-y. It’s very stripped back and beautifully written and beautifully recorded. They’re very prolific, they’re in a lot of different projects. They live in London, so whenever they do something, I go and see them… I like all kinds of things, I have a playlist on Spotify that I update regularly, and whatever I like, I put in there…”
“So, you mentioned your early love for grunge and metal, but how did you get into music and why did you get into music? Was it family, siblings, friends…?”
He sighs, “It’s hard to tell because I’ve always been interested in drums, in playing and feeling rhythm, which has been something that’s been really important to me. I think it’s a comfort thing, I find rhythm very comforting in many ways. The rhythm of my daily routine is really important and the way that I hold myself. I don’t even realise to what extent rhythm is part of me. I tap a lot, with my hands and feet, I’ve always got some kind of rhythm in my head. It’s all a part of the same thing. And once I discovered drums were a thing, I was pretty young, I was like six or seven. I wasn’t playing them, but I discovered that you could hit things and it felt good. And in primary school, they let me use a drum kit there. Secondary school, they’d let me use the drums after school, and I learned to play then, just by hitting the drums… It was never a decision to be a musician, I never thought to myself that this is what I wanted to do as a career, I just did it because it felt good and I enjoyed doing it…”
“to be honest, if there wasn’t a pandemic, the album would’ve been out last year”
“What is your goal for the upcoming release? Like what message do you want communicated in the record?”
“Well, there’s no overall concept. Each track we take on it’s own and the process for each track is important. We’ve never really sat and thought about what’s the concept, or the message. I think it comes down to each individual track. But, we’ve definitely arranged tracks in a way that makes sense and it forms an album that you can listen to all the way through. The album came out of a pandemic, which did have an influence. We didn’t write anything about the pandemic in particular. But, I think when we look back on it, it does represent a certain period in our lives… It’s been ten years since ‘An Awesome Wave’ came out and we’re not in our youths, well, we’re still relatively young I’d like to think,” he chuckles nervously to himself, “But, we’re not kids, and both of my bandmates have kids, babies. And we’re different now, we reflect more on things and we take time on things and you can hear that in the album. It’s more mature and there is more space.”
“It’s been about five years since your last release.”
“Well, we usually tour when the album comes out. We toured until the end of 2018 and we took a year off. We didn't plan on taking a whole year off, but we needed a break, and it ended up being a year. And then, at the end of that year, we started recording and then, the pandemic, and it kept going. And to be honest, if there wasn’t a pandemic, the album would’ve been out last year.”
Green and I chatted a bit longer about the album itself, but I’d like to leave the discovery up to the listener and not to spoil anything. The maturity is evident in alt-J’s newest release, ‘The Dream’. The topics of their tracks range from getting trashed at festivals, to depictions of grief and the psyche of a serial killer. Green was right about there being no concept, but each track has its purpose and it’s own message that it communicates. It’s a beautifully produced album and scratches that alt-J itch that only they know how to do.