“I’m discovering who I am as a guitarist” Alt-J’s Joe Newman on embracing his instrument, and why The Dream is going to be their most interesting guitar record yet
Alt-J’s Joe Newman can remember vividly the first time he set eyes on Fender’s Acoustasonic Telecaster. Fender’s bold fusing of electric and acoustic forms within the outline of its first solidbody electric has been a huge success over the last few years, but its had to overcome a fair bit of ingrained prejudice to get there, and Newman was one of the ones who had to be won over.
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“I think it’s one of those things, isn’t it with Fender,” the Mercury-winning guitarist tells us from his home, various Telecasters positioned in easy reach. “Leo Fender created these cultural phenomenons in the Telecaster and Stratocaster, so any new looking Fender is just quite a jarring thing to see. So with the Acoustasonic at first I was like, ‘Oh I don’t like this guitar. I just don’t like the look of it. Don’t like it!’ But then I started playing it, and it’s just beautiful.”
Newman has spend the last few weeks with the new Acoustasonic Player Tele leading up to Alt-J performing their first live show since 2018 at Fender’s new Artist Showroom in London. It was a chance for the Mercury Prize-winners to test out new material from their hotly anticipated new album, The Dream for the first time, but also for Newman to get to grips with the Acoustasonic in a live setting.
“We’ve jumped from acoustic to electric quite a lot, so this guitar is just a lovely blend of the kind of directions that I’ve always kind of been drawn to,” he explains. “I would like to try it out in the studio because it’s just so versatile. I’ve heard from other artists and producers who were also a little put off by the appearance at first, but then when they started playing it, it became all they wanted to play with!”
Certainly the familiar outline helps – Newman has long been a disciple of Leo Fender’s most rugged design, having graduated from finding his feet with borrowed instruments from his guitarist dad to a Mexican Tele that became the bedrock of much of Alt-J’s early recordings.
“I feel like for me, it all goes back to the idea that originally I was using the guitar as a tool,” he explains of his affinity for Fender’s single-cut solidbody. “I felt like a Tele was a guitar where we could work together to write songs. Whereas I always thought the Stratocaster was like if you’re a virtuoso – it’s sort of like you’re showing off! With a Tele I just felt more comfortable. I came from an acoustic background, so especially the ones with the big baseball bat necks, I just felt at home on a Tele. I suppose it was just less ostentatious – a ‘I can stay in the shadows and just keep working’ kind of thing. It was the first guitar that my dad gave me, and I was just immediately quite attached to it.”
Seeing the guitar as a tool for songwriting sums up much of Newman’s approach to the instrument in the years since the band broke through with their Mercury Prize and Ivor Novello-winning debut album, An Awesome Wave in 2012. Newman was clearly a talented exponent of the instrument, but by his own admission he never really embraced the instrument in the way many of us do – until something changed.
“I always felt more comfortable seeing myself as a songwriter rather than a guitarist,” he admits. “But I think in lockdown, I reevaluated my relationship with my instrument. And I went crazy, and I just started buying all these guitars! And then I started l going and watching all these YouTubers, like Norman’s Rare Guitars, and just watch Michael Lemmo play. Then I was watching all of the Fender back catalogue on YouTube, and also there’s this guy called Rhett Schull, and this guitar shop in Seattle called Emerald City Guitars.
“And because the nature of YouTube is that you’re selling yourself, but you’re also selling the thing that you’re passionate about, I got exposed to so much excitement about guitars, but also real in-depth knowledge, and I just got really into it!”
Enthusiasm and passion is infectious for any creative person, but this trip down the guitar rabbithole had an unexpected impact on how he would approach the writing for The Dream/, with his instrument front and centre.
“I think that helped me look at my guitar in a different way,” he affirms. “I’ve spent years playing the guitar, but I’ve not really delved into writing on the guitar as a guitarist. So this album sees me doing more of that than the previous ones – there’s more interesting guitar licks overall, and there’s a lot more opportunity for solos. And the writing I’m doing now post-The Dream, is becoming very heavily about the guitar. I’m really enjoying that, and I’m discovering who I am as not just a songwriter, but maybe as a guitarist. And I want to do a lot more learning.”
It probably won’t have escaped your notice that Newman admitted to going on something of a guitar shopping spree recently, and the evidence of it can be seen on stands and on the wall behind him – but pride of place is given to a very special 2012 Custom Shop 1967 Telecaster in Antique white.
“This is my Yuriy Shishkov Masterbuilt Telecaster,” Newman enthuses as he cradles the instrument, its twin gold humbuckers and block inlays setting it apart from your usual Tele. “It’s almost like a Les Paul Custom if it were a Fender. It’s got a beautiful neck and honestly it’s the most attractive guitar I have. I keep trying to find a song for it, because I’ve written a few songs recently and it’s just not right. But I will find a song for it! Anyone that doesn’t play guitar, I’ll show them this, and they’ll understand the beauty of a guitar!
“I’ve also got this Offset Tele, which was made by Fender Japan. I think this is made from the same wood they make table tennis bats from! But because of that, it doesn’t feel as heavy strapped on. I’ve got one song that I’m writing on this that I’m really excited about.”
It’s notable that Newman seems to heavily associate a guitar with the songs that he’s written on them, and we wonder if that association continues through the recording and performing process.
“I think what happens is, when you first start writing a song on a particular guitar, you feel loyal to the guitar, because it has helped you find the song,” he explains. “So I find it hard to go somewhere else – almost like you’re cheating! So I’ve remained loyal to my guitars and the songs that they want me to play on them!”
While he’s clearly a Tele man first and foremost, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for other guitars in his heart, and one in particular.
“The guitar I’ve been playing the most at the moment, is a 1962 ES-330 with a single pickup,” he reveals. “When you first play it, it almost feels like you’re playing a toy? It’s so light and the neck feels like it’s made from plastic, almost, but it’s great y’know? Norman from Norman’s Rare Guitars always going on about how loves 330s because you can just play them when you’re hanging out on the sofa, and he’s right! “
The most unique guitar in his collection however is old – much older than even his 330… much older than most guitars that still exist.
“I’ve got this really, really old parlour guitar – it’s nearly 200 years old,” he explains holding up the ancient looking small-bodied instrument with oversized white binding. “They think it’s a Guiot guitar, who was this master builder from the 1800s. He worked in England for a while, and this has all the hallmarks of his work, but it doesn’t have it doesn’t have the maker’s mark, so that’s why it’s not worth a lot more money! But I’ve been playing it a lot, and it’s beautiful.”
Box of rock
Given Joe’s recent dive into the wonderful world of online guitar culture, we wonder if he’s also taken an interest in the obsession that seemingly unites all guitar influencers – pedals.
“I’m not a pedal guy,” he responds definitively, instead he gets his tone from one very specific source. “We have one amp that we’ve recorded everything on in the band,” he continues. “It’s an old Vox AC30, which I think was once owned by David Gilmour. Clive Langer had it, and now our producer Charlie Andrew, is the steward of it.
“Essentially the sound of Alt-J is tremolo, so we have used some pedals here and there. But the cool thing about this album is everything has been reamped through that amp. Drums, piano, synths, guitar, vocals – everything’s gone through the amp, which really creates a very strong patina across the whole album.
“In terms of pedals, I like Earthquaker Devices, I watched their YouTube channel a lot where they get all the producers to go through their junk. I watch that a lot and it always makes me think, ‘Fuck I need to get into pedals!’ But I think I can only get into one mad, spontaneous instrument obsession at a time, and I’m still with guitars at the moment. I’ve got a pedalboard that was made for me by my guitar tech, and I haven’t used it!”
There are signs, however, that his ambivalence to pedals might be starting to crack, albeit just a little…
“Actually there’s this pedal that was made for me, and I am actually using this,” he chuckles. “His name’s Clem West, and he lives in France, and he designed it himself. It’s got like eight different modes – there’s a kaleidoscope, and a fuckin’ bit crusher, pitchy reverb, all that sort of stuff. So I’ve been using that, but I’ve only used one thing! It’s the pitchy reverb. That’s where I started, and I haven’t left it because it’s very similar to the things that I feel comfortable on anyway!”
Alt-J’s Joe Newman. Image: Fender
Alt-J have never really fit in with the stereotype of what a successful musician should be – much to the chagrin of some in the press who have bemoaned the normalness of the band when set against the headline-chasing pomp and bravado of the traditional ‘rock star’ archetype.
Now, in an era where self-promotion and attention-getting is regarded as an essential part of the modern musician’s toolkit, Newman and his bandmates Thom Sonny Green and Gus Unger-Hamilton feel all the more incongruous. But it’s a fact that doesn’t seem to phase Joe in the slightest.
“It’s funny, we’ve only ever really been in our own bubble,” he reflects. “We never competed with other bands, we’ve never really been part of the wider circuit of music. We’ve never really socialised with bands that much. I think if we were part of a movement, where we were drawn to the vibe or the atmosphere of a particular style that was probably reactionary to something, then we would be probably more performative and more rebellious. But I think we’ve just always been on the outskirts doing what we’re doing. We don’t compete with other eras in terms of reputation, and obviously we do like to have a good time… we just don’t go on about it!”
Find out more about the Acoustasonic Player Jazzmaster at fender.com.
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