Hunger for the big time – the alt-J interview

Alt-J - New 1There’s a real buzz about alt-J at present, with a band that met barely seven years ago set to release their second album, after major success with their debut.

But keyboard player/vocalist Gus Unger-Hamilton seems fairly level-headed about the experience.

Despite a Mercury Prize win in 2012, alt-J remain fairly unrecognisable to the general public. That said, more of us have heard them than we might realise.

In fact, two of their songs will be familiar to anyone who’s switched on BBC 2 this past year or so, and as well as being used for the channel’s idents, there have been several plays on TV series, films and commercials.

If word hasn’t reached you yet, it will soon, and there are plenty out there in the know, judging by the fact that they recently sold all 10,000 tickets for September 24’s London’s Alexandra Palace appearance in just 10 minutes.

Furthermore, debut LP An Awesome Wave was BBC Radio 6’s album of the year in 2012, with tracks like Breezeblocks, Fitzpleasure and Tessellate – the latter also covered by Ellie Goulding – widely aired.

A tour with Wild Beasts and several festivals helped increase their profile, that success not just confined to this nation, with major interest across Europe, America and Australia.

A momentous year ended with UK and US headline tours, the international dates continuing in 2013.

And while this year opened with guitar/bass player Gwil Sainsbury leaving, the remaining trio quickly adapted, with their second album set to follow next month.

Now, the band – formed at Leeds University in 2007 – are set to push on again, the release of This Is All Yours tied in with an eight-date UK tour – including two nights at Manchester Apollo – then 21 shows in North America.

Mercury Win: alt-J, then a four-piece, after success with debut album An Awesome Wave

Mercury Win: alt-J, then a four-piece, after success with debut album An Awesome Wave

The Mercury Prize is sometimes perceived as an albatross, with much-vaunted acts seemingly stalling after trumpeted arrivals, as discussed on these very pages recently with another winner, Damon Gough, of Badly Drawn boy fame.

But Gus – joined in alt-J by Joe Newman (guitar/lead vocals) and Thom Green (drums) – doesn’t see it like that.

“I think it’s too early to tell. Lots of successful bands won it, such as Arctic Monkeys. And I know it was just a really nice thing to happen for us. We’re not too concerned about how it affects our career. It was more something that we were really excited about at the time.”

But it’s the new album that’s on his mind at present, with the band eager to get out there and showcase it live.

“We just can’t wait for it to be out now, having finished it at the end of May. It feels like a long time ago, especially as we haven’t been out on tour in the meantime.”

Is the first single from the LP, Hunger of the Pines, a good example of what’s we’re in for?

“I don’t think it sounds like much else on the album, but it’s a good indication of the fact that we’ve matured as a band.

“Maybe our third album will sound more like that. But we thought it had to be the first thing we put out, because it was so new to us.

“We wanted something that would make people sit up and pay attention – making a statement about coming back with a new album.”

Video Still: From the Hunger of the Pines promo

Video Still: From the Hunger of the Pines promo

I have to ask – not least as my eldest daughter is something of an obsessive in that respect – is there a Hunger Games link to the single, what with the title, accompanying video with the arrow attack and the lyric. Might you be featured on either of the coming two films?

“Interesting! I hadn’t really thought about that. I haven’t actually read or watched any Hunger Games books or films, other than a couple of trailers. I think it might more be a coincidence.

“We just like that kind of imagery, of death and violence mixed with a romantic idea of it. It’s more half a metaphor for whatever you want and half the literal idea of some guy being shot with loads of arrows!”

Is there a theme running through the album? There seem to be three songs about the Japanese city of Nara for example.

“That’s more a triptych of songs – Arrival in Nara, Nara and Leaving Nara. We were going to put them back-to-back, but the last piece sounded more of a reprise, one which worked nicely at the end.

“There’s not an intentional theme, but the strongest idea is of journeying to far-away lands, invented places or real places like Nara.

“I suppose it’s about travel and being in unfamiliar spaces, but I think we only realised that once we’d finished the album.”

cover_largeThere’s a more rootsy feel on another track already getting airplay, Left Hand Free, like Alabama Shakes meets Beck. Is that more indicative of where you’re at?

“Again, I don’t think that’s a song that sounds very much like the rest of the album. It was a song we wrote very quickly, just having fun.

“None of us expected to write a song like that. The fact it didn’t sound like us didn’t worry us though. We knew it was a good song, one we wanted our fans to hear.

“We quite like to mess around with people’s perceptions and expectations!

“But it’s funny that the album doesn’t sound much like the only songs most people have heard.”

I find you hard to categorise, which might not be a bad thing. You’ve been labelled experimental, electronic or art rock, even folk-infected dub-pop. Fair descriptions?

“We don’t really like any of those. Someone recently called us post-hip-hop, which we all quite liked – like hop-hop without the rapping!

“In an age in which we have an ease in finding new bands, you don’t have to convince people to buy an album without having heard it all.

“You can listen to a whole album on Spotify or wherever before making your mind up.

“The need to put bands in pigeon-holes has diminished, as you no longer have to go into a record shop and go through the indie section or whatever to find new music.”

Perhaps it’s just us writers that struggle to categorise you …

“I think it might be, yeah.”

Mercury Past: Gomez

Mercury Past: Gomez

The closest band I can equate you to is Southport’s Gomez. Were they an influence?

“I can honestly say they weren’t, and I’m pretty sure that’s the case with Thom and Joe too. But we’ve heard that before, so that’s interesting. Maybe I should check them out.

“Am I right in thinking they won the Mercury Prize too?”

They did, in 1999 with debut Bring It On, something I’d forgotten until Gus mentioned it.

So which influences did you share when you started the band at Leeds University?

“It’s been said many times, but I think Radiohead are probably one of the only bands all three of us really like.

Major Influence: Radiohead

Major Influence: Radiohead

“They’re a band whose career we watched very closely. If we emulate anybody’s career path, it would probably be Radiohead.”

You seem ideally suited for extra exposure through incidental music and film and TV soundtracks, not least the BBC 2 link – to the point where there will be many people out there saying ‘Ah, did they do that?’

“Yes! We were on the BBC 2 ident a whole year, and although I was on tour much of that time, when I came home, I put on the telly and heard our music.

“I reckon everyone in the country must have heard our music by now – yet the man in the street and so many people still haven’t heard of us!”

Are you still amazed by the public reaction to An Awesome Wave? I believe it’s sold a million copies and been streamed 200 million times on Spotify alone.

“It’s kind of mental really, with an incredible reaction. On one hand we’re kind of amazed, on the other we think, ‘well, we did work pretty hard’.

“We’re just very grateful, and hope people like our new album too.”

download (6)Not a bad result for a bunch of lads who only met while at university seven years ago.

“I know …. exactly!”

I understand your sound’s largely attributable to your days living in student halls.

“Definitely, it was partly down to the fact that we couldn’t make too much noise and partly down to the restrictions in place because of the instruments we had.

“Joe didn’t have an electric guitar, just an acoustic that belonged to his dad, while I had some basic secondary school keyboard, and Tom couldn’t use a full drum kit because of the noise.

“So we developed this quiet, intricate sound where you had to strain to not miss anything. We were musically whispering, so to speak.

“Now we like to make more noise with some of our songs, but I think that approach to song-writing will always be with us.”

After uni came a move to Cambridge, closer to Gus’ family base in Ely, with a spell on the dole while honing the alt-J sound.

“I went to sixth form in Cambridge and knew it pretty well. We wanted to be nearer to London, because by that stage we had a manager, a booking agent and a lawyer all based there, and had to go down quite a lot.

“Leeds was a long way off, not least when we couldn’t afford a train so had to get a coach.

“We thought about Brighton, but picked Cambridge because we perceived it as somewhere which didn’t really have much of a music scene.

“We also thought it would be good for us to get our heads down and work hard. And it proved to be a really good place to be for that year.”

Four Play: The original alt-J line-up

Four Play: The original alt-J line-up

It certainly did, leading in time to a deal with Infectious Records, and that major breakthrough.

Now they’re a three-piece, following Gwil’s departure. What was the story there?

“Gwil wasn’t very happy with the lifestyle of being in a band. He didn’t really like going on tour and didn’t particularly enjoy being part of the music industry.

“He was quite cynical about everything – fair enough, but I think sometimes you just have to suspend that cynicism, be more diplomatic.

“You also want to keep your fans happy by giving them what they want. If that involves big shows, so be it.

“It wasn’t that much of a surprise really. We knew he felt like that for a while. But we didn’t really find it a hard transition into a three-piece.

“Our roles in the bands aren’t too strictly defined. It wasn’t like a string quartet losing a cellist. We found we could cover all the bases just through the three of us.”

I take it you salvaged your friendship accordingly?

“Absolutely. If he’d stayed in the band things would have deteriorated, but luckily he left at a point where we were all still really good friends.

“In fact, we all saw him last week. We hung out, and it was nice.”

Alt-J - New 2Are you disappointed you’re only doing eight UK dates next month?

“It’s a bit of a shame we’re not doing more, but we don’t really have any say, unfortunately. Unless we throw our toys out of the pram and insist on more!

“We’re just one puppet on the string, and it all has to be choreographed. But there will definitely be a more extensive tour next year.”

I guess that added to the buzz about you, as seen with the Alexandra Palace sell-out. Did that seem unreal to you?

“It did really. I was really pleased, not least as it’s our first London headline show in a year and a half and we hadn’t put any UK tickets on sale in that time.

“It was gratifying to know we still had eager fans waiting to buy tickets the minute they were announced.”

Is there a big secret to building that profile and fan-base? Not many bands can do that.

“If there is, I don’t think we know it! I don’t know how it’s happened, but we’re extremely grateful.

“When we knew the ‘Ally Pally’ tickets were going on sale I was waiting to be told it wasn’t going well and we might have to scale back, do Brixton Academy again instead.”

Alt-J - New 3A big North American tour follows, and you’ve already got in a lot of world travel. It’s a good way to see the world.

“It is, although it’s a funny way to see the world. You go to some places and don’t really see a thing other than the dressing room, the stage and a hotel.

“But we tend to do a lot of exploring and touristy stuff when we want to – getting days off built in when we want them.

“It’s amazing really, I’ve been to almost all the states in America. And I must admit I probably never would have gone to Australia if I hadn’t gone there on tour, yet now I’ve been a few times and love it.”

For tour details of alt-J, release dates and their forthcoming tour, head here

 

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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2 Responses to Hunger for the big time – the alt-J interview

  1. Pingback: alt-J – This Is All Yours | writewyattuk

  2. Pingback: To the power of 3WW – back in touch with Alt-J’s Gus Unger-Hamilton | writewyattuk

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