In The Middle with alt-J
The Gryphon chats to alt-J’s Gus Unger-Hamilton about going from St Mark’s residences and Ash Grove to headlining this year’s Latitude Festival.
alt-J aren’t a band that you can easily visualise chowing down on a greasy all-day breakfast from Poppina’s – but that was once their everyday lives. Made up of four Leeds graduates, Gus Unger-Hamilton, the band’s keyboardist, studied English Literature whilst his bandmates all studied Fine Art, you might think the band will have forgotten about their alma mater after winning the Mercury award and headlining festivals all over the world, but Unger-Hamilton still has a soft spot for his old halls of residence.
“I went back to St. Mark’s in August, they’ve pulled it down and rebuilt it which was actually quite sad. Not only have things changed since we lived in Leeds but they’ve literally demolished the place we lived.” It was at St. Mark’s that Unger-Hamilton met Joe Newman and started the band with Newman’s course mates Thom Green and Gwil Sainsbury. Their sound, he says, “came out of who we were as people. It helped that Leeds is quite a forward thinking, diverse university. We started the band properly in second year and practised at Joe and Gwil’s house and we had to be quiet then because Gwil’s neighbour… liked to not be disturbed, let’s say”.
So if it wasn’t for an arsey neighbour, Alt-J might be a very different band without their signature hushed harmonies and intricate instrumentation. As it was, since their formation in an Ash Grove bedroom, “[Their song-writing] hasn’t really changed hugely except Thom on the second album used Ableton rather than relying solely on traditional drums”.
alt-J are a band very intent on creating art and when asked whether this comes from their study of the arts, Unger-Hamilton sees its influence in the “high standards [we have] when it comes to what we create”. With high-standards are at the forefront of their creative process, experimenting constantly with different sounds, from bhangra to medieval folk music, becomes essential.
“It keeps you interested. We need to be interested in this project, you can’t just be doing it for the success or for any other reason except that you find this an interesting way to spend your time. By trying out new and interesting things we’re making things that fascinate us and excites us. It comes partly when we’re writing but also comes in the studio because we have the time and the resources to muck about with.” Inexhaustible experimentation and merciless high-standards paid off for Unger-Hamilton and the band struck gold with their 2012 Mercury Award win for debut album An Awesome Wave, shooting the band to an unprecedented level of popularity.
“It certainly felt pretty fucking cool to win the Mercury prize – that was a dream come true. Really the only dream we ever had as a band was to win the Mercury. We weren’t like ‘One day we want to play the Hollywood Bowl or one day I really want to be on Jonathan Ross’, winning the Mercury prize was the most important thing to us.” The Mercury win coming only a year after graduating from Leeds did shock him slightly though. “It was quite weird to win so early on but at the same time it felt like a culmination of a few years of hard work. There’s a lot of people who’ve heard of us from the Mercury but for us it was like ‘wow this is amazing, we’ve been doing the band for about four years so this is… really nice.” He laughs modestly.
Winning the Mercury might have been their aim but they’re not far off being headliners of the world’s biggest festivals. After headlining Latitude this summer, Melvin Benn, the man behind both Latitude and Reading and Leeds, has tipped them to be future Glastonbury headliners. This runs off Unger-Hamilton like water off a duck’s back, his focus entirely on making music. “It was never about being festival headliners at all, but that would be an exciting prospect for us of course, we’re really about making great music and recording.”
On being asked whether the arena tour they’re currently embarking on, playing Leeds First Direct Arena on the 6th December, is preparing them for potential festival headline slots in the future, Unger-Hamilton gives a nuanced and mature response. “From a business point of view yes. Festival bookers look at us selling out gigs like the O2 in London in January and give us festival billings accordingly. However, the reason we’re doing the gigs is we need to go and play for our fans. The business side is just a by-product.”
With such great expectations looming over the band after their debut album and festival slots, you would forgive the band for feeling the pressure when coming to record their second album This is All Yours. “We didn’t feel pressure as such just excited. I think we knew as well that we were going to make a good album. Put it this way, if we were going to release a second album it was going to have to be good otherwise we wouldn’t release it. We knew that we had a good group of fans who like our music, and our music is fundamentally quite weird, so we knew our fans would like it even if it was bizarre in places.”
And weird it is. If you’re looking for overt, populist songs you’ll probably be left confounded in places by This is All Yours. Where some artists would insert a saccharine tale of heartbreak, alt-J explore Nara – a Japanese city with a huge population of deer that are sacred to the people living there. “It was a nice idea to write a song about. Living a life that’s not run by other people, not trying to appease other people.”
If anything sums up alt-J it’s an inability to be “run by other people”, they will experiment, they will listen to only their own judgements, and they will take over the world on solely their terms.