Thom Sonny Green’s debut solo record, High Anxiety manages to come across as simultaneously esoteric and unassuming. Receiving a toy drum kit at 3 years old, this early gift instilled in Thom a desire to play and create and his lack of formal education subsequently allowing him an idiosyncratic and distinctive style. However, unlike the raw physicality of alt-J performances, Thom explores a more cerebral side with this project demonstrating his complete artistry as songwriter, producer, and visual artist.
The debut record released in the summer of 2016 illustrates diverse influences from Clams Casino, The Deftones, Arca and Radiohead. High Anxiety pulsates with powerful mechanics and tender consideration that are reflected in the video art. Each track is accompanied by a video co-created and directed by Nichola Farnan and Thom Sonny Green reflecting the sentiment and allowing the audience to be absorbed in Thom’s world.
This assault on the senses is a creed for Thom, and his live shows are as important as the record. For Thom, art and music are what explains the world and gives it meaning. The drive to create himself into existence gives the record an honest, considered and human feel making it superficially accessible and simultaneously deep. The project was released on Thom’s personally curated label, Sudden, in partnership with Infectious Music UK and Canvasback. Sudden aims to do much more than retain creative control for Thom but allow others to create and contribute to his artistic endeavours.
Recently, the post-punk duo Lea Porcelain self-released their debut LP, Hymns to the Night. The people behind the project, Julien Bracht and Markus Nikolaus, sat down with alt-J’s Thom Sonny Green to discuss their creative process, early musical memories, and the changing shape of the way people find and connect to music. —Amy Rose Spiegel, Editor-in-Chief, Talkhouse Music
Thom Sonny Green: What is your earliest memory of being interested in making music?
Julien Bracht: I played drums. That was my hobby and my instrument, but [when] I was 15, I started to produce music, and then I really got into it.
TSG: Do you remember showing it to people for the first time?
JB: Yeah, to my parents and my brother. They were really supportive from the first second. Then I moved from Spain to Frankfurt, and I had this very tasteful techno house scene around me. I was very inspired by all these clubs and DJs. In audio engineering school, I met this one guy who was also doing techno. He had really good taste and really good records, so we always listened to music together, and we also made some music together. You?
TSG: When I was about nine, I knew music was for me. When [I was] a kid, I didn’t try and rationalize it; I just felt good when I listened to it. I went to church every Sunday with my dad, and there was a kid there who was maybe three years older than me. He knew that I was interested in the drums—I didn’t own drums, and I never really played, but I had this weird obsession with it, and he knew that, and he played drums. He made me this cassette tape, and I listened to it constantly. That sparked my interest and made me really love music, and then I started to think about it more. I was focusing on the rhythms and things on the drums. It had Michael Jackson on there. I hope my dad still has it somewhere.
JB: That was my first CD: Michael Jackson, singing “They Don’t Care About Us.” I think I was seven.
TSG: Wow, yeah. Some people like music, but some people don’t. Think about it.
Markus Nikolaus: Some people just put on the shittiest radio station in the car and let it happen. I’m thinking about my mom—she doesn’t care. It’s a different kind of taste, like how some people really don’t care what they eat or how they dress. She doesn’t care about music. Maybe Robbie Williams and Taylor Swift, but she doesn’t even really know them by name. She bought Adele’s album three times because it was in the shop everywhere, and she gave it to everyone. I wonder what is going on in her mind when she thinks about music, versus what’s going on in our minds, because it must be completely different.
TSG: I do wonder, for example, why we need it—not even appreciating music, but the need to make it. Creativity is in the way you dress and even in the way you eat—the way you walk down the street is creative. I’m aware of myself a lot, and I feel like those kinds of people may be aren’t as introspective, and that they are more extroverted, so maybe they operate by immediate information—they don’t think too much. Sometimes I envy those people. I’d love to be able to not think for five minutes. But it’s funny—there is a definite difference. I’ve got a friend from university who doesn’t like music. She openly admits that she doesn’t need it.
JB: Music is the strongest emotion-maker.
TSG: That’s why I listen to so much music—I’m always looking for that thing to make me just stop what I’m doing. Recently, I started listening to Benjamin Clementine. He’s a performer—the way he looks and everything. His style of playing is very passive. I’ve run into many that said he used to go around with sauce pans and just hit these sauce pans, and he was a drummer, really. Then put him on piano, in a passive way, and he’s hitting the keys as a drummer would. I mean, some of the melodies, like “I Won’t Complain” and “Cornerstone” from the first album, are just incredibly beautiful, and the lyrics. That piano melody…it’s starstruck, but it really speaks to me in a way that most things don’t. It’s colorful, and it makes me feel alive, and I need that. That’s one of the reasons I make music, because hearing that kind of thing makes me want to do the same thing. That’s where it comes from. I want to be able to do that myself, and the possibilities for music are infinite. That’s really appealing, because most things aren’t. A lot of day-to- day things can be mundane, and with music, it’s endless, and it’s so abstract and simple, as well. You can create something with three notes and speak to somebody with that. It’s very addictive when you think you’ve done it. I don’t know if I’ve ever done it.
JB: Most of the time, it’s also the most simple note combination—it hits you, and you’re just like, OK, wow! I have these three notes sitting here; I don’t need 16 in a row to complicate stuff.
TSG: That’s also why I think popular music is popular. Take Ed Sheeran, for example. That track “Shape of You,” I can’t listen to, because there’s something about that’s too simple—a bit too clean. It’s funny that there’s people that will listen to that a hundred times a day, but then you play them Radiohead and it’s poor and depressing. We can’t really argue because it’s their taste, you know? There’s nothing wrong with that. Doing what we do, in interviews and things like that, people want you to slag something off so that they can write about it. It’s tricky, because you can’t tell people what to listen to, but I do think there’s some music that’s better than others.
JB: Radio tells people what to listen to. Germany’s getting smaller and smaller, that’s why I sometimes really like radio, because it’s surprising, each song. Spotify playlists are kind of new—before, you went to the record shop and you heard the music you put on the vinyl player. Then, you didn’t have this surprise.
TSG: Do you think it’s a good thing that Spotify is making music so readily available now? Do you think it opens you up to more? Or do you think there’s something about going to a record shop, say if your favorite band releases a new album and you’ve not heard it, you might have heard one single on the radio, and you buy it, take it home, and listen to it all the way through? You can still listen to albums all the way through on Spotify, but I don’t know if my attention span is limited now because every Friday you can get every album that comes out that day. I wonder if I’m listening to less, or I’m not listening as hard.
JB: Spotify playlists are also the new radio. You put your mood in, or you say “office playlist,” there are playlists for when the weather is shitty, and you listen, but you don’t give a shit which music it is—who the artists are who worked on this particular song for days or weeks. People don’t really realize what’s behind the creation of one song, I think. They [think] they have these producers, then there’s a singer coming into the studio who records a vocal in an hour, then they have this new hit.
People have so many things coming into their minds. The same is happening with music. We can hear every new song in the world, with one click. But, like always in the world, you have these yin and yang. I think there will be more people realizing that it was really nice to put on a vinyl and just concentrate on listening to albums for one hour.
There will always be people who really appreciate and listen to a whole vinyl through (or CD in the car). They will always be there, and even more and more if Amazon and Spotify are getting bigger and bigger. It’s like with the supermarkets and malls: Since all these super malls in Germany came up, there was this counter movement, where people say, OK, I’ll only go to local shops. I want to have a personal relation with my seller.
TSG: Yeah—also with going to live music.
JB: That’s the only thing which Spotify won’t change…I think. I could imagine the concerts when you guys play like, say, an arena, and you have 10,000 people in front of you—I think in 10, or maybe even in three or five years, you’re going to have, like, 20,000 more sitting at home with glasses, having bought the ticket for half of the price.
TSG: I think people try and do that all the time. People try to develop apps and things like that, and a few haven’t worked. With live shows, for me, it’s never changed. I still go to as many as I ever have and I don’t think the internet or anything has affected it. I wonder if music being more accessible to people—I wonder if more people actually go to live shows in the moment, if they’ve had more exposure to it. You can actually buy tickets through Spotify, as well.
MN: That’s a really good thing. It alerts people when they listen to us, for example, that we’re playing in London, when, before, they would probably not know us.
TSG: Sharing music is a good thing with Spotify and SoundCloud, as well. It’s a very good way of sharing. Before the internet, you’d go to music live, and if you wanted to play something for someone you’d invite them around, and you’d sit and listen to it. I don’t think I’ve ever done that.
JB: When I was six, my mom took me to one record shop, a really cute one, classic, with the one music note. I had 15 dollars a month—it was always for one album per week. I always went there and asked the seller what new stuff arrived. Then he gave me something, and I didn’t even listen to it in the shop. I just took it home. Sometimes it was really shitty compilations for teens, but sometimes it was Michael Jackson.
TSG: Yeah. I love doing mixes. I have my CD trays at home, and I have various ways of inputting the music. I’ve got an old laptop and then I like tuning into the radio and stuff like that. I’ve been having fun doing that in the moment, because I quite like making mixes and giving them to people. It’s a really nice gift. I try and stick to a theme, but often I don’t. I’m going to start putting them on the cassette and giving them out, because I know a lot of people don’t have tape players, so I actually quite like the idea that I’ll make something and give it to them and they never listen to it. I quite like the thought that it’ll be on their bookshelf for years and then they’ll look at it again and be like, Oh, yeah, maybe I’ll listen to it. But it’s nice when I hear things I’d love for somebody else to hear, as well.
I do love that, with Spotify on your phone, you can just tweet it. I know that a few of my Twitter followers do listen to a lot of what I post. It literally takes three seconds to show them, as well. I like DJing, but I don’t do it because I found I couldn’t play what I wanted to play. Usually it would be because it would be billed under “Alt-J,” or it would be “Thom Sonny Green Alt-J,” people would expect a certain genre, and I don’t listen to indie. A lot of what I have to play, I never listen to, so I felt awkward because I was getting booked for these DJ sets and getting paid well when I shouldn’t have been, you know? Just because I was in the band, I was given this special treatment, and I didn’t earn it. I felt really out of place when DJs were performing. That was their job, and they didn’t get paid a fraction of what I was getting paid. It was messed up. I became quite put off by the whole thing, but I do miss it. It’s nice being able to share music in some way, even if it’s not playing live. The good thing about music is it’s never going to get old. You know people talk about you know everything’s being done. I don’t think so. I don’t think it has all been done. Even if it had, that doesn’t mean that it’s ever going to get old anyway. We’re not going to listen to all the music and get bored of it. For me, playing live, like playing the drums live, will never, ever, ever get old.
JB: I think it’s in your genes, and then there’s everything from the caveman age to big drums. Rhythm is so old and it has existed since we’ve been on earth. It’s the reinterpretation of something old combined with something new. I don’t think we know all of it or having a rebirth.
TSG: It’s just as important as control. It’s mathematical as well—the ability to be able to play complex things in time and hold it together, with different velocities, ways of hitting one drum, and ways of using the sticks. I love being able to perform for people and for them to then feel something from it . I understand it more than I understand most things. Drums are so physical it’s like I’m almost playing at people. I’m creating this wall of sound moving throughout the building and, like you said, rhythm is so intuitive—it affects people. Even people that have no rhythm. A beat does something comforting. Even animals can appreciate rhythm. It goes way beyond just a drum hit. Your heartbeat is in a rhythm. It’s control and order for me, which I like about it, and, at the same time, you can improvise. I find it so relaxing, like meditating.
With Alt-J, we just write music because we want to write music, and we’re lucky that we get to do it. We do it for ourselves still, but I feel like it is a job, as well. Touring is a business. I love playing live more than anything, but the rest of it—the traveling, being around people all the time, and having to perform offstage and having to be this person—I’m finding it harder this time. I miss home more. I get tired more. I’m not the kind of person that could can all the time, but, I don’t want to just sit in my hotel room on my own all the time so I have to find a balance. But, I look forward to [playing] every day.