Interview: alt-J

Alternative Vision

The quirky indie folkers alt-j follow up their Mercury Music Prize with another awesome album. Gus Unger-Hamilton spoke with Jeff Hemmings
From the experimental harmonies of lead track ‘Intro’ to the gently contemplative ‘Arrival in Nara’, and from the rather insane ‘Every Other Freckle’ – which before its medieval folk interlude is a dark and moody r’n’b groover – to the folksy ‘Warm Foothills’, which features vocal contributions from Conor Oberst, Lianne La Havas, Sivu and Marika Hackman, alt-J look set to continue their remarkable upward trajectory.

There really is nothing else like it out there, and the amazing thing is that their music is both adventurous and experimental. Compared to alt-J, Radiohead are Rhiannon, such is the surface uncommerciality of the band. This is only further amplified by their unexpected detour down the raw and late ’60s out-there garage rock feel of ‘Left Hand Free’, complete with a nonsensical organ solo. “We wrote it very quickly, having a bit of a laugh”, says keyboardist and vocalist Gus Unger-Hamilton. “We realised it wasn’t going to sound like a normal alt-J track, but we weren’t too worried about that. We let it go in the direction it wanted to go, and had fun doing it.”

And then of course there’s recent single ‘Hunger of the Pine’ which features, of all things, a Miley Cyrus sample (‘I’m A Female Rebel’) for no discernible reason. Unless you knew that The Controversial One had used a bit of their ‘Fitzpleasure’ track on her, ahem, ‘Bangerz’ tour last year, for part of a bondage-themed video interlude, no less … and from there they developed an unlikely relationship with the former Disney star. alt-J drummer Thom Green remixed one of Cyrus’ songs, and Cyrus gifted Unger-Hamilton several Flaming Lips albums via iTunes. And, Cyrus apparently went to some lengths to get sample clearance for the ‘4×4’ snippet …

Joe wanted to start a band; he’d written a few songs…

A more organic album, and a little folkier than their debut and Mercury Music Prize winning An Awesome Wave, new album This Is All Yours had to be done without founder member and bassist Gwil Sainsbury who departed at the beginning of the year. But once again, they used the same producer and studio. “We like our producer, Charlie, and that’s where he works”, says Unger-Hamilton. “We didn’t feel the need to go shopping for an expensive studio when we have a perfectly good place at Charlie’s studio (Iguana Studios, Brixton).”

The band are much more than the sum of their parts despite their bassist leaving. “He wasn’t interested in being famous at all. Not that we’re interested in being famous, but he really hated signing autographs … fair enough, but it’s part of the job. We couldn’t afford to let it disrupt things,” Unger has said. Sainsbury’s roles were filled by the remaining members, and Green took a more active programming role including for the track ‘The Gospel of John Hurt’, which is about the infamous stomach exploding scene in the Alien film. “Normally, Joe (Newman) writes the lyrics and the basic ideas on the guitar, and then we work collaboratively as a group to get the song together. We write our parts, and then collaborate on the structure of the song and figure out how it’s going to go. But, it’s hard to describe the whole album. It’s moody, quite dark, and like the first album it’s quite emotional. If people enjoyed the first album they should enjoy this one!”

It’s been a remarkable journey for these Fine Art/English Lit students, who only decided to have a proper go at being a band once they graduated in 2010. “We met at Leeds University, through meeting in halls or on the Fine Art course. Joe wanted to start a band; he’d written a few songs, and he found us, and we became a band.

“We then graduated and we were at the stage when we thought it would be worth giving it one year of our lives, rather than go our separate ways. Gwil was in the band but he had taken a year out, and he’d fallen a year behind and wanted to finish his degree. Tom, Joe and I kinda got jobs to pay the rent, and during that year things started to take off; we got management, and then in 2011 we got a record deal.” If that didn’t happen, Unger-Hamilton might have developed a career out of his English Literature degree. “We were all doing Fine Art, except me. I enjoyed the modules in old Icelandic which I found really interesting. I do read a lot; being on tour gives me a lot of time to do that. I’m currently reading A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor. It’s about an 18 year man who in the 1930s decided to walk from Holland to Constantinople. It’s a travel book, with his general musings on life and art. It’s really good.” Does he harbour ambitions to be a lyricist too? “I do kind of, but right now it’s a latent thing that might well flourish in time. But I’m not worried that I’m not doing it. I like Joe’s lyrics, I’ve always thought he was a great lyricist.”

The band’s fortunes changed for ever when they signed with Infectious, a label started by industry legend Korda Marshall. “Korda came to meet us; we were very impressed with his vision. We thought he was a like-minded person who loves music and wasn’t in it for the money.”

His vision and the label’s muscle helped to turn alt-J into alt-indie heroes, a band who have quickly migrated from playing the likes of Concorde 2 less than two years ago to performing at Brighton Centre as part of their UK tour. “I remember going to see Skyfall when we played Brighton last”, says Unger-Hamilton. “But, it’s strange … we are not involved in booking the gigs, we are quite removed from that.

Touring, we do really enjoy it. Between making the albums it’s what we do. We had to rediscover ourselves in order to make this album.”

alt-J, Brighton Centre, Tuesday 23 September, 6.30pm, £22, 0844 847 1515,

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