Alt-J: Shortcut to success

Keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton on the English indie quartet’s measured approach to music-making, their Mercury Prize victory and their secret love of cheesy pop


W hen yo u’re hot, you’re hot. Right now, Alt-J keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton is hot in both the physical and metaphorical sense. He is in southern California’s Coachella Valley with his band, Alt-J, to play at the world-famous festival of the same name, their first appearance at the event. The sun is shining, the temperature is rising, and the English quartet have rolled into town on the back of a sold-out US tour. Life is good.

Life was good last year, too, when their debut album, An Awesome Wave , was the record that everybody with a penchant for offbeat indie was talking about. An exceptionally quirky, multi-layered album that combined experimental asides with dense lyrics, laced with literary allusions, and alternative pop music, it topped many end-of-year polls and won the coveted Mercury Prize, beating albums by the infinitely more commercially viable Plan B, Ben Howard and Michael Kiwanuka in the process. It also earned them two Ivor Novello Award nominations for songwriting, announced just days after we speak

Not bad for a band who, as the articulate Unger-Hamilton admits, “didn’t take it seriously” until they graduated from Leeds University in 2010.

“We weren’t really looking for any kind of success,” he admits. “We wanted to finish our degrees, and it was just a bit of a side project, really. We enjoyed doing the band in our spare time and it felt like maybe we were achieving something just for its own sake; writing songs was just something that we found satisfying and quite fulfilling. It was only really in 2010 when we graduated that we started thinking about it as a more serious career prospect. Before that, we didn’t have a record deal and we weren’t looking for a record deal, so there was no real need to make an album. It was just about writing songs and playing together.”

He claims that since forming six years ago, their sound has changed in gradual increments, but the process of recording An Awesome Wave was a big learning experience.

“I think when we were starting the band, we were a bit gauche; we were always trying to use lots of samples that were very clever, like bits of poetry and old adverts and stuff like that,” he recalls with a chuckle. “We were just experimenting, but we toned that down a little bit, I suppose, by the time we’d finished the album. I think our sound evolved gradually.

“Our producer [Charlie Andrew] was really good at making our songs sound like songs, basically. We don’t really understand very well the concept of verses and choruses and things like that – we just tend to write stuff. He was very good at saying ‘Oh, maybe you should repeat this and turn it into more of a chorus’.”

The foursome’s ear-catching blend of sounds may seem like the studied product of a formula designed to appeal to hipsters (a notion not fully dispelled by their promo shots), but there is a depth to their songs that dispels any notion of “flavour of the week” status. Their musical melange, says Unger-Hamilton, is a combination of four very distinct tastes.

“Each one of us listens to very different kinds of music,” he explains. “I think we also never had any preconceptions about what kind of band we wanted to start – we just kind of got together because we were really good friends and we’d formed good bonds in our first year of university. But there was never any sense of ‘Who should we sound like? Who do we all like? Let’s find some common ground’. It was really just – and I hate the word ‘jamming’ – but it was just jamming. We didn’t really listen to any music together, and we didn’t get involved in the local music scene, really, at all. And I think that shelter actually probably helped us forge a sound that some people find unique.”

Perhaps most surprisingly, lead singer and main songwriter Joe Newman has confessed to being obsessed with the Spice Girls as a kid.

“He was,” laughs Unger-Hamilton. “And just last night, Joe and I had a really long drive from LA to Coachella – it was about six hours, with traffic – and we listened to the whole of Christina Aguilera’s 2002 album, Stripped , which he revealed that he listened to a lot when he was a teenager. So that explains quite a lot to me. Then in first year, he did mushrooms and had a really bad time – but ever since then, he’s been really good at writing songs. I don’t know what happened, really, but he came back from a period at home and had suddenly written some really good songs!”

The keyboardist’s own musical education was slightly more traditional. Having a professional harpsichordist father, Unger-Hamilton played piano from a young age before, in his teens, graduating to an obsession with guitar bands of the mid-noughties. Despite his father’s profession, however, a career in music was not initially on the agenda. He studied English Literature at Leeds, while his bandmates pursued degrees in Fine Art at the same time. Their academic backgrounds – and let’s face it, the fact that they’re named for a keyboard shortcut for a Greek alphabet letter – have led many people to dismiss Alt-J as highbrow indie snobs, but Unger-Hamilton says that that label doesn’t bother them.

“I’m OK with it. I mean, I think it’s quite clear that we’re not in the Kasabian, football-band sort of mold, which is fine,” he says. “I think our background gives us a certain kind of practical approach to everything that we do, which I find quite helpful. I’d like to think that the fact that we did our degrees, and did a lot of studying, and focused on a lot of critical stuff – as you do in Fine Art and English Literature – it does show a little bit in the music, maybe.”

The Mercury Prize proves an unavoidable subject during our conversation, but how much of a difference did such an award actually mean to Alt-J, who released their album on independent label Infectious Music? Sure, sales were boosted by a reported 10,000 units, and the album was shunted back up the charts following their victory – but Unger-Hamilton is dubious about the long-term benefits.

“Without sounding big-headed, things were already going really well before the Mercury Prize; if you looked at the graph of Alt-J’s success, it was steadily rising,” he says. “And yeah, it continued to rise after the Mercury, but I’m not sure how much the steepness of the graph changed. It’s more that it’s something we get asked about. We get asked to reflect on it a lot, and we never really know what to say. I mean, I don’t know how many people actually know about the Mercury Prize – it’s not exactly the BRIT Awards and it hasn’t made us a household name, or anything. But obviously people in music know about it . . . so it’s difficult to say.”

Nor did it make much of a difference to their personal finances; the money went straight back into the band, he says, continuing their sensible approach to music-making. Overall, it seems that Alt-J are exceedinglysensible about most things. Instead of rushing back into the studio to capitalise on the success of An Awesome Wave , they accepted an offer to compose the soundtrack to Bruce Goodison’s film Leave to Remain , set for release in 2014.

“It’s great, because there’s no pressure to craft things into actual songs; you can just come up with these big lush soundscapes, and no one tells you to cut it down to three and a half minutes,” he laughs, referring to his earlier thoughts about the band’s inexperience with verse-chorus-verse structuring. “I’m not gonna lie – it’s obviously not been as much work as making an album, so we had the time to do it amidst all of the touring. And it’s been nice to cut our teeth in the soundtrack world, and see where we go from here, really.”

The rest of the year will proceed in similarly level-headed fashion: some studio time during the summer to demo new tracks, followed by more touring, then some time off around October and an eventual return to the studio to begin work on album number two at the end of the year. No amount of poking and prodding unearths any wild touring stories or tales of rock’n’roll excess in the Alt-J camp. Even their Coachella rider is pretty bog-standard.

“I wish I could help you out, I’m sorry, but I really don’t think there are,” he laughs. “We have a lovely crew who tour with us, and we just all get along really well. We just chill out and hang out. Our usual rider has anchovies – I think I requested them a long time ago, and then I became vegetarian, so we never use them. Avocados, lots of gin – we’re all big fans of gin. Pretty normal stuff. Socks, as well. Clean socks are always good to have on the rider.”

Perhaps it’s their scholastic backgrounds that have led Alt-J to be so judicious in the face of the fame and fortune landing on their doorstep. Or maybe they’re just a group of nice lads who happen to make especially interesting music.

“If we were just sitting around in London being in Alt-J, and going out and getting photographed and recognised, we’d probably be absolute dicks – but the fact that we’ve been on tour so much has been really good for us, I think,” he chuckles. “It gives us a good work ethic. But it can feel weird at times. Sometimes you find yourself doing incredibly cool stuff, and you realise ‘Shit – this is my job!’.

“Or you’ll be at some music festival somewhere in the world, and you’ll be hanging out, swimming and having cocktails and generally being, like, ‘This is pretty fucking cool’. But the next day, you could be in some dire dressing room in, I dunno, Tulsa, and be really depressed. It’s weird, but it’s interesting. There’s never a dull moment, put it that way.”