The drummer and electronic producer discusses sonic influences, the songwriting process, and touring with anxiety ahead of alt-J’s fourth album.
One of alternative music’s most exciting outfits, alt-J’s eclectic merging of acoustic folk, esoteric lyrics, and complex production has launched the three-piece into superstardom. With a fourth album set to release next month, we met with drummer Thom Sonny Green prior to the band’s next stint in the limelight.
The Glasgow Guardian
alt-J’s upcoming record, The Dream, features an incredibly diverse range of tracks sonically. With stripped back cuts like Get Better and more grandiose songs like Philadelphia, do you feel there is one particular sound you connect with the album or is the sheer variety part of the charm?
Thom Sonny Green
That’s a good question actually. There are so many little things I really love and have a connection to that are specific to this album in a way that’s not really happened before. It’s very personal and very detailed in terms of how we’ve approached it, just because we’ve had so much time in our own little bubble during the pandemic. It’s little things like the drums on Philadelphia, or the picture that Walk a Mile paints in my mind. It’s all very coherent and complete to me.
GG: You mentioned the personal connections on the album – how do you adapt your drumming style to match the darker semantic places that Joe [Newman, vocalist] takes the songs?
TSG: It’s often a case of stripping stuff back and actually really listening. I have to hold myself back and not go full force with the first thing that comes to mind – though it’s hard to say, cause each track is so different in terms of how I approach the rhythm and the drums. Often tracks will be started on Ableton and digitally programmed in as a kind of sketch, and the trouble is getting too attached to that original idea when that’s often all it was, an idea.
This album I wanted to use more acoustic instruments in terms of drums and percussion, because it’s easy to just start using samples and drum machines and before you know it the whole sound has changed. I wanted to do more of what we did on the first album, which was almost entirely live drums, and really pair it with the darkness and introspection that Joe had. It varies track to track, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to appreciate scaffolding things a bit more, rather than coming out like “I’m the drummer, here’s the drum part”.
GG: Did you find that change difficult, especially after you released your solo project High Anxiety and are now returning to a band that is not entirely your own vision?
TSG: Yeah, it can be tricky in that my style of production when I’m messing around at home is extremely experimental, and I don’t really make tracks that often. I kind of forced myself to put structure into the things I released, but I really like to just let things record and let it keep rolling and rolling. I might have a tendency when we’re writing together as a band to want to put that kind of stuff in, though I’m aware it wouldn’t work.
With Joe’s guitar, for example, I like to record it into my laptop onto Ableton and then I can manipulate the sound as a kind of experiment. It’s another sketch, and some of it might stay but we’ll likely re-record it based on that idea. But programming drums can become quite tedious, and I’ve realised that above all I’m a physical drummer. I had this about five or six years ago that I wanted to be a producer, and do these remixes and DJ, but now I’ve started seeing the whole picture rather than homing in on that particular sphere.
GG: You’ve brought up artists like Skrillex, Clams Casino, and even Death Grips as influences in terms of production on the rhythm side. Did you find them working their way into the writing of The Dream, or were they mainly relegated to the experimental areas?
TSG: I think it probably has. I think the reason I like Clams Casino is the rhythm and the pace of his work,I’m really drawn to that laid back hip-hop, almost grunge tempo of production. That sort of stoner side of things.
GG: Like sludge almost?
TSG: Yeah, exactly! Artists like Sleep or Bong Ripper or Electric Wizard I really love, and Clams Casino to me is the same tempo and that’s where I’m really drawn to. When we’re jamming together, which we don’t do that often, my tendency is to wait until I can find that sort of breakdown and I love it. But I also love bands like Radiohead, and Phil Selway with his crazy up-tempo playing.
GG: I can see that, especially with how adaptive Phil is to the eclectic range of sounds Radiohead dabble with on their different records.
TSG: Yeah, I have a lot of respect for Radiohead and how they’ve managed to stay honest. They seem to have a good relationship with each other and all their egos are in good places, which is hard to do. It’s really difficult sometimes if you have an idea that you firmly believe in that no one else sees. You think “well, my opinion must mean something”, but you have to remind yourself that the reason we’ve gotten this far is because it’s a democracy and the three of us are aware that you have to trust each other.
GG: How difficult did you find keeping up that sense of democracy during the pandemic?
TSG: At the beginning, everything is flowing really easily and we’re recording little demos. The initial stages are instinctual, and we have such a good dynamic that when I hear Joe’s guitar I know immediately what I’d like to do.
But once you start working with the producers, I find that phase harder because you’re handing stuff over a little bit. That trust has to be there, and I’m not that great at bringing stuff up, so if I’m feeling like I’m not liking the way something is going I find it difficult to say that. If you let that happen, it really snowballs and you end up resenting it, so I have to remind myself to just be honest about how I’m feeling. We know it’s coming from the best place because none of us have this agenda, no one’s doing this for any other reason than we want to make the best work that we can.
GG: Do you think you’ll find a similar experience next year with the world tour, especially given this is the first in several years?
TSG: Touring is a little bit easier, in the way that it’s all planned for. Our booking agents and tour managers schedule everything, and literally we just have to turn up. Well, we don’t even have to turn up, we get picked up…
There can be other things, other dynamics like meet and greets or dressing room politics where it can get a bit tricky. I’m quite private and try not to engage with too many people on tour that I don’t need to. I love meeting fans when I do, but I find the interaction beforehand very overwhelming, so I avoid certain situations. I feel bad sometimes, but I just don’t have whatever it is you need to be able to do it in that moment. The three of us have never been told that we have to do it, but we get told that “people are waiting after the show, and it’d be great if you went out”. In the end, though, you just have to be honest.
GG: Do you find that, say compared to after [debut album] The Awesome Wave, you’re in a place where you feel more comfortable drawing those boundaries and having confidence in them?
TSG: Yeah, I think over the last couple of years actually. We took a year off after touring Relaxer, and I did a lot of work on myself – I started therapy then, and I figured out a lot of stuff about myself. I suffered from really extreme anxiety and bouts of depression which I just lived with, and now I’ve worked through a lot of that and realised what it is that I need.
I used to be just generally scared of people and not knowing their intentions, especially on tour. And I would sometimes seek out that attention as well, but now I don’t need to because I actually have what I need in my own life. I’m in a nice place now where I feel that I can interact with people in a way that is beneficial to both me and them. The actual physical action of being with people is still difficult, and I love being on my own, but the trouble with touring is that if you spend too much time isolated you go mad. There’s only so much YouTube and room service you can consume before you lose it, and I’m hoping this next tour I’m going to be more open-minded about venturing out and socialising more.
GG: Your solo album High Anxiety was born out of your complex relationship with touring. Do you see yourself returning to that kind of experimental production, or was that tied to your emotions at the time?
TSG: High Anxiety was a great way for me to process what was going on in my head when we were touring. Having a laptop with a creative tool meant that I could zone into that, especially in smaller venues when you had less personal space, it let me focus and that album was the result.
I’ve still worked a lot since then, but I’m starting to accept that I don’t need that approval. I think with High Anxiety I wanted to prove myself in some way, and I don’t really have that now going into touring an album I’m so proud of with The Dream. It sounds like a weird thing to say, making an album because I wanted attention – it’s not the sole reason I did it, but it was part of it, and if I do another it might be for a different reason. I’d love to put another one together, and I wonder if I’d go into a studio with a producer next time in order to make a better album.
GG: Given High Anxiety was more a collection of vignettes, do you think working with a producer would streamline the album, or would it almost obscure your own intentions?
TSG: I think it would streamline it. I hope it would add a bit more clarity, because I hear things like the new James Blake album and it’s just so insanely good and I would love to be able to do that. Its stupid, but I get jealous of people when they release an album and I think “How have they done that?”. Then I get pissed off with myself and think I’m just going to stick everything on Soundcloud, which would be a waste of time because you need to promote stuff for people to be able to listen to it. If we put The Dream onto Soundcloud and never said anything, that’d be so much time gone.
GG: Part of the alt-J mythos, as it were, is the length of time between records that really allows the music to set in. Is it the same with the band, or are you as a group always looking towards the next project?
TSG: I think the time in between is a good thing. We write together very quickly, which might be surprising considering there’s been five years between Relaxer and The Dream, so people assume that we’ve spent five years making this. But we finished touring Relaxer in 2019 and then there was a pandemic and before that we had taken a year off, so its actually a pretty quick working process.
It’s intense though. It’s like a black hole you get sucked into and everyone goes a bit mad. You can’t sleep, and there were times when you’d be working on something all day, like Joe’s guitar on The Actor, where it’d just be that over and over again in the studio. I have synaesthesia, so this guitar lick got lodged in my mind as this quite imposing, intimidating structure. I’d go home and try to sleep but I couldn’t stop seeing and hearing it.
GG: How do you end up dealing with that?
I’ve found meditation and mindfulness work. Or even just really concentrating on something else, like watching TV or YouTube and really paying attention to the screen and filtering the rest out of my head. It can make me really anxious cause it gets really lodged in there, especially if the song itself starts changing and it gets at odds with the abstract form I have in my head. With Walk a Mile, I had this specific tunnel-like image in my head, but as the song progressed it would dilute and lose its colour which was disconcerting. When I was younger, I wasn’t aware that it was a thing, but maturing and recognising it has made me learn to appreciate it much more as a creative tool.