Alt-J: from days of hunger to Hunger of the Pine
The Leeds band have so far enjoyed success without the crushing fame - but now that they're on Miley Cyrus's rader they can kiss all that goodbye . . .
Alt-J: “We get to go home after touring to live completely normal lives, and then go back on tour to play at being rock stars. It’s incredible, and we’re hoping that’ll continue for a long time,”
Sudden success doesn’t always translate into sudden rushes of blood to the head – not if you’re a member of Alt-J, anyway. It seems that the remaining three original members of the Leeds band (Thom Green, Gus Unger-Hamilton and Joe Newman – co-founding member Gwil Sainsbury left the fold in January) are as grounded as they were when they were students together at Leeds University several years ago.
“It was very much a hobby at the start,” says Unger-Hamilton, Alt-J’s keyboard player.
“We didn’t think we had any chance of making it as a band. That said, we took it very, very seriously. I suppose, back then, just wanting to write and record the best music we could was a high-minded endeavour.”
It isn’t often you hear a phrase like “high-minded endeavour”. We recall that John Peel once described such a mindset as the “arrogance of the partially educated”.
Unger-Hamilton laughs down the line all the way from New York, where Alt-J are ensconced for a lengthy burst of promotional activities. “Peel was, er, partially right, but in our defence we were all new to university. In your first year, you restyle yourself as a cerebral character, don’t you?”
After graduating from Leeds, the four friends moved to Cambridge, claimed jobseeker’s allowance, and rehearsed for two years, honing their sound from oddly oblique to beautifully accessible. Early ambitions comprised writing and recording songs, uploading them on to MySpace, and getting family and friends to listen to them.
“And for them to say they liked them. For us, that was the pinnacle back then,” says Unger-Hamilton. “Our sights were set pretty low, but that outlook, that level of appreciation, seemed quite reasonable to us.”
Throughout this period, the Alt-J mantra was to focus on the music more than anything else, and to try to make the songs as good as possible. “That’s what we’re about. It’s what we’ve always been about.”
Whatever the mantra, whatever the modus operandi, there’s little doubt that a shift in the band dynamic occurred two years ago when – to the band’s own shock as much as anyone else’s – they won the Barclaycard Mercury Prize for their debut album, An Awesome Wave. Despite the rise in profile and increased album sales, the band, it seems, haven’t really changed that much.
“We all remember that we started on a zero budget, and we have a low threshold for dick-ish behaviour in the band. If someone is behaving like a pampered rock star that doesn’t fly too well with the other members.”
Low-flying dichotomy Only right and proper, but beware of low-flying dichotomy! With success comes attention, money, new friends (we’ll get to Miley Cyrus later) and a farewell to those early character-building days of room-sharing in B&Bs. That’s all changed, surely?
“Yes, it has,” says Unger-Hamilton, who is talking from a room in New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel, grandiose home to art works by, among others, Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and Jean-Michel Basquiat. “But I pine slightly for the old days of touring in a van, of sharing rooms. It was miserable in many ways, as a lot of the time we just didn’t have the money to eat – we’d have to wait until we got to the venue for sandwiches and biscuits. That isn’t the case anymore, obviously.”
What about the threat of compromise, when bands achieve a certain level of popularity, and people outside the inner circle (and, indeed, some people inside it) start suggesting doing certain things to maximise popularity? Has that impinged much on Alt-J’s activities?
“We’ve had to learn to play the game up to a point,” Unger-Hamilton answers pragmatically. “You can’t do everything or look at everything you’re asked to do from a purely philosophical point of view. Are we sacrificing our precious sense of integrity in a slight way? Possibly, but we’re all aware of when to draw the line.”
Drawing the line is right. Alt-J’s latest single, Hunger of the Pine (the first from the new album) features a propulsive rhythm underpinned by a repurposing of a line from Miley Cyrus’s 4x4. She’s a newfound, admiring mate of the band, apparently, but Unger-Hamilton isn’t too forthcoming. He claims, wearily, that he’s been asked the “Miley Cyrus question” 50 times in the past week.
Frankly, we don’t wish to be number 51, so we change tack – Alt-J have struck the mother lode, haven’t they? They’re an indie band enjoying success without the crushing fame, and they’re an act, noted one pop-cultural commentator, “so anonymous that it’s possible to forget what they look like even while staring at a photograph of them”.
What could be better than being in a famous band without having to worry about being recognised, Unger-Hamilton ponders rhetorically. “We get to go home after touring to live completely normal lives, and then go back on tour to play at being rock stars. It’s incredible, and we’re hoping that’ll continue for a long time.”
Which it might, but – oh, feck it, number 51 we’ll be, and damn the consequences – what about Miley Cyrus? Surely by association there’ll be some level of mainstream crossover?
“We’re not good-looking enough for Miley Cyrus fans to be interested in us,” says Unger-Hamilton. “Are we?”
Alt-J play Dublin’s 3Arena on Sept 27th. New album This is All Yours is released on September 19th