Alt-J Interview

Posted on September 5, 2012

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written by Robert Pollard for High Voltage

Rarely has a debut album been met with as much fanfare as Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave. Critics have been falling over one another to trumpet the record, whilst tickets for their shows have been swallowed up by a growing loyal fanbase who are dedicated to their experimental and unique sound. It seems Alt-J have truly arrived.

Named after the Mac keyboard command for the ∆ / delta symbol, they were once known by the more straight forward moniker FILMS. The inevitable comparisons with Radiohead have been made but there is much more to this band. They are ploughing their own furrow, continuing the recent trend of indie bands from the UK who make interesting music.

Manchester is fortunate enough to be welcoming them twice over the coming months, at the Royal Northern College of Music in October, and then at the Academy in May next year for a special Now Wave gig that has already set pulses racing. Fresh from playing Reading and Leeds, we spoke to Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards, backing vocals) and got his thoughts on the band’s career to-date.

Hi Gus, how’s it all going?

It’s going really good, it’s great. We feel really lucky to have got to the stage we’ve got to right now. We’re feeling really positive, talking about plans for the future, it’s really nice. We’ve got some touring plans for next year, nothing momentous, but it’s gonna be really good.

So when you started out at Leeds Uni, were you doing open mic nights and the live circuit, or were you more a sort of bedroom/recording type of band?

Much more the second one. When we started we didn’t really want to play live, we just wanted to make tracks. That was all very well but as soon as you make tracks you like, you wanna play them to people. After about three months playing together we threw a party in the house some of us lived in and basically had a gig in our front room and invited everyone we knew, so there was about 50 people crammed into this living room. It was really great – arguably one of the best gigs we’ve ever had for sheer excitement that we felt and the response that we got and the surprise from our friends that we were doing quite interesting music. So that was how things started. We played around Leeds, here and there, but we didn’t really want to hit the gigging very hard, we just wanted to play now and then to get better at it. That’s how things got started. It was very much about guys, who were already friends, who had respect for each other in terms of the art each of us were making and also the general getting on together as mates, and just getting together to make songs.

That first gig sounds great.

I’m really glad we did it like that. It’s so much better than going and asking some pub to put us on their line up for ‘Thursday Night Rock’ or something. It was way better doing it this way.

How did you manage to make an impact if you weren’t gigging really hard?

We were putting tracks on MySpace and Facebook and we played a gig in London and the promoter who put on the night gave us a bit of help by sending our music to a few taste-makery sort of blogs and they were talking about us a bit. We were under a different name then called FILMS. Then a booking agent and a lawyer got in contact saying ‘do you wanna work together?’ We didn’t have management or anything but between the agent and the lawyer, and also a radio plugger who helped us out, they kind of introduced us to management and the rest is fairly boring.

You played at Reading and Leeds, how was that?

Absolutely great. I think the fact that it was the end of the summer made it really special. Leading up to it we’d had a great summer playing festivals and getting great responses from everywhere, from Sweden to Sicily. We were expecting Reading to be good, a lot of people had been tweeting about it for weeks, but when it came around we couldn’t believe the response we got. I’d never seen a crowd like it for any band, and I’m not saying that in an arrogant way, it was genuinely exciting to see the excitement that these young fans had. And that’s the best thing about my job seeing stuff like that, people really getting into it and Leeds was similar.

Your album was wonderfully well received. it must be great to be revered for the art that you’re creating.

It’s lovely that people like the record. We would have been happy with the record even if it had gone under the radar or people just hadn’t got it. That would have been fair enough. But it’s nice to have it approved by the general media and the public. It’s just rewarding and reassuring to be, like, ‘OK, we like our music but it’s pretty cool that others do to’.

What’s your favourite track off the album?

It changes all the time. I think right now it’s either Bloodflood or Taro.

Taro is fabulous. It references Robert Capa in that right?

Yeah, it’s about Robert Capa’s relationship with Gerda Taro. It’s just a very moving story about her premature death being run over by a tank, and his fairly premature death 15 or 20 years later. We definitely feel like we’re part of some sort of folk music and one of the reasons for that is we like to tell stories about people. Robert Capa is kind of like a folk hero – a hero of the people. A man who did a job, and died doing a job because it was what he loved and it was a noble pursuit. So Taro for us is an example of what’s folky about our music, it tells a story.

Who are you listening to at the minute? Which bands?

Right now I’m really liking Jeff the Brotherhood. They’re really good, they’re like a two-piece from Nashville. They’re brothers playing guitar and drums. It’s kind of like garage rock. They’re excellent. I was lucky enough to watch them play at Leeds and I loved it. We played on the same bill as them a few months ago at a gig and they were so good. I completely forgot about them but then heard them on a jukebox and was reminded how good they are. Who else….Django Django, I’m really liking their album. We all listen to quite a lot of music while we’re on tour, it keeps us going and it’s good to know what else is out there at the moment.

It seems that the UK is producing indie bands that are interesting now. I was speaking to Jamie from Bombay Bicycle Club when I was at Leeds Festival and he said the same, that the likes of them, Wild Beasts, Foals, and now yourselves are representative of a more interesting approach to indie – a rejection of the guitar bands like the Kaiser Chiefs that we were all so bored by for years. Do you agree?

A lot of people, and I certainly count myself as one of them, felt quite disgusted at where indie ended up. By ’07 it was just shit and I felt embarrassed to label myself as someone who liked indie music. I abandoned it completely and just started listening to electronica for  a year or two – just didn’t listen to any guitar music whatsoever. I was so completely put off by all these bands and it just seemed like any band that had an obvious indie-pop sound were getting on the radio. It wasn’t right. I think bands like Wild Beasts and Foals, the success they’re having now, is well deserved, and I imagine they see themselves as a reaction against that scene. I just think it’s great that now a band like ours can get played on Radio 1 whereas before, if we didn’t have lyrics about a kebab shop, we wouldn’t have had a look in. There were interesting indie bands around in the mid-noughties, I’m not saying for one minute that they were all shit, but I just think that, although it was incredible that British indie guitar music was so popular, I don’t think it was actually good for music.

How does the Alt-J creative process work? Do you write songs as a band or do individuals bring elements to the table and then you all embellish on the initial idea?

Joe is the principal songwriter, so he’ll work on a song on his own with an acoustic guitar and bring it to the rest of the band and we work on it together and all write our own parts and work collaboratively on the structure of the songs. We do also do ‘jamming’, which leads to really good stuff, but it’s mostly directed by Joe’s ideas. It’s great for us, I think Joe is one of the best songwriters ever and I’m really happy with the way things work. It’s a good dynamic.

The falsetto vocal approach runs right through your material, how did that come about?

Joe and I are really into a lot of traditional English and American folk music and harmonies and we like to produce that in the music that we’re making and make it part of our sound. The voice is an instrument like anything else and when we’re in the studio we do a lot of improvised stuff that we chop up and it makes an interesting mix I think. Then we have to figure out how we’re gonna reproduce it on stage with two singers. Actually, three because Gwill does a bit of backing vocals now.

The Tessallate video explores hip-hop imagery which I found interesting when juxtaposed with the song. I’m not sure I’ve seen that sort of combination before. Was there a purpose behind that?

No. The honest answer is it’s a pretty meaningless video. It’s not saying anything profound. It’s not asking you to make any connections in your head. It’s just a visually satisfying video for us. We wanted to make a classic LA hip-hop video, we thought that would be fun, we like videos like that. A lot of my favourite art I like on the basis that it pleases me aesthetically. People can make of the video what they like. We like making art, making a song, making a video, and not explaining it or giving it meaning. If you give something a meaning you automatically take away other meanings, which is a negative thing to do. To explain something is to explain it away. We don’t like to do that with anything that we do really. Sure, a song like Taro, I can tell you what it’s about because it’s very much about something. Generally you should leave it up to other people to understand your art. It’s personal and subjective.

Away from music, what other art forms inspire Alt-J?

Reading books. I think hanging out is the key to Alt-J. Talking, silly jokes, watching films – that is pretty much how we do it and long may it continue.

Joe always seems rather reluctant to label your music…

…I think we all are.

is labelling something you find frustrating?

I’m happy for other people to label the music if they find it helpful. I just genuinely don’t think there’s a point. If they want to make up genre names or tell us we’re a certain genre, go for it. I just don’t see why you need to do it. It’s so easy now to listen to music. Before, someone might have said ‘oh, there’s a really good band you should check out’ and someone else would say ‘what kind of music is it?’ because they wouldn’t want to actually go and buy and album without knowing what to expect, so it was useful to have some information on the outside of the packet. But these days you can go on Spotify really quickly or in two seconds bring up a YouTube video, so just make your own mind up. We live an age of easy try before you buy (and probably you won’t buy it anyway) so we shouldn’t have to make up genres.

How many acid tabs does it take to write an Alt-J track?

Only one of us as actually ever taken acid – I’ve never taken acid. So I’m gonna give you a boring answer an say none. Joe once took mushrooms and experienced quite a bad one, possibly some sort of ego death. It took him a little while to get over it but he then got way better at writing songs afterwards, it was quite amazing actually. So I think it takes one night on mushrooms to write any number of Alt-J tracks.

What’s your second favourite shape?

Probably the triangle. The triangle’s not my favourite. My favourite is probably a dodecahedron. 12 sides. I don’t fuck about.

If there was a General Election tomorrow, who’d get your vote?

I’d vote Labour. I genuinely think Ed Miliband is a solid guy. I voted Lib Dem in the last General Election – hate myself for it.

Yeah, you won’t make that mistake again!

I won’t make that mistake again. But yeah, I’d vote Labour.

An Awesome Wave is out now. Alt-J play two shows at the Royal Northern College of Music on 27th October which are sold out, but they return to Manchester on Thursday 9th May.

Alt-J – Web

Alt-J – 9th May @ Manchester Academy – Ticket link

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Posted in: Interviews, Music