Interview: Alt-J

It was only recently that I caught the Alt-J bug. I’ve had countless friends recommend them to me but just never found the time to listen to them until last month. The journey since then has been a quick one, in part because I knew I was scheduled to speak to them, but I like to think that the main reason was that I couldn’t help but return to their music. Usually, I don’t go into interviews with as much hunger as I had while my phone was ringing but I was truly in the Goldie Locks period of my intrigue in the band and I’m glad to say the 22-minute conversation that followed with founding member and self-proclaimed “Janitor” (we’ll get to that later) Gus Unger-Hamilton was as fruitful as I could have asked for, especially in the lead up to their upcoming album, The Dream. “The reception to the singles so far has been really good. We’ve put out three songs now, two more up tempo, fun ones and one very melancholic, reflective, acoustic one. The two radio friendly ones have done well on the radio and the one in the middle was more for the fans really. It’s just lovely to put new music out again, it’s always a good feeling at the start of an album cycle when you’ve got new stuff to talk about.” 

My thoughts on their upcoming album should be out alongside this piece or near enough that it wouldn’t be spoiling anything to say that, for my money, it is Alt-J’s best work. In an industry that can be hard to notice creative highs and lows I wondered how Gus was feeling that the band were going through a purple patch; “To be honest, I definitely think we knew we were on to something good with this album. It wasn’t just the fact we thought the songs were good but we just had loads of songs which had never really happened to us before. We really felt like we had almost too many songs, we actually did cut two or three songs from the album when it came to it because for one reason or another, we had to trim it down a bit. It does feel like a strong collection. It’s just nice to know that regardless of what’s going on in the world and regardless of the fact that we’re not the hot new thing that we were ten years ago I still feel that we’re making the best music we’ve ever made and that is its own reward.”

Alt-J have always kept sides of ambiguity to their lyrics, it’s what makes them a band that fans love to revisit, but with the release of their latest single, Hard Drive Gold, they released alongside it a quite in-depth explanation as to the meaning behind it. I wondered to what end Gus holds dear this musical ambiguity; “Obviously this song has got its own narrative, it’s about something that’s in the news, Cryptocurrency, but I think even in the post we said how ironically you interpret the song is up to you. Obviously, the chorus of the song ‘don’t be afraid to make money boy’ it’s obviously very tongue and cheek, if you interpret that literally it sounds sort of Thatcherite… Which we’re not! Sometimes explaining what a song is about can be a bit of a drag, you just wanna say ‘look I dunno just you figure out what its about’, of course there’s also definite truth in the fact that the creator of a piece of work doesn’t have a final say in what it’s about. Interpretation is as much in the eye, or ear, of the receiver as it is in the creator.”

At this point I have to be honest; it wasn’t until very recently that I discovered the band had formed in Leeds. One would almost be forgiven to forget they came from this country at all. Their sound seems to transcend borders and their lyrical content is hardly Chas and Dave hyper localism. To me it seemed that where the band had come from has never really been a part of their identity but I was interested to see what Gus’ view on this was; “Well, when we all met, three of us were doing fine art one of us was doing English literature and the fine art course was very theory based so there was lots of cultural criticism and that sort of thing they so I would say we’re very much a product of that. I would say we’re not a product of Leeds as a city, we’re a product of Leeds university, definitely. It’s funny, when you hear about a new band the first thing you’d ask is where are they from as if that is incredibly important but somehow it is important, somehow, I can’t hear about a band without someone telling me where they’re from. It’s like I need to know that information before I can judge them which is sort of crazy. I don’t know why that is really, I suppose over the course of musical history there have been these ‘scenes’ that have been very much set in cities, whether that’s Detroit, Liverpool or New York. Sometimes I feel a bit embarrassed to lean into the fact that we’re a band from Leeds. Anyone can hear my accent and tell I’m not from Leeds and I don’t want to try and claim some sort of Yorkshire heritage that I don’t have.”

The elephant in the corner of every room over the last two years was becoming harder to avoid, especially because the introspective feel of the upcoming album couldn’t me consider the effect that COVID and locking down had on the writing and recording process; “It did affect it yeah; we took 2019 off so in January 2020 we came back to the studio ready to work and then within a few weeks we were back at home just on the sofa. But I’m sure you remember what it was like, the whole world just kind of pressed paused in 2020. Everything was postponed, nothing was expected, so in a way it was just sort of nice for our album deadline to met away. We didn’t really work during lockdown so it made us enjoy the process more, I think. We would come in for a few weeks and then have to leave for a bit. I think it was a much healthier way to work and one that I think we will try to replicate. We wrote and recorded the album in our studio so there wasn’t really a clear delineation between the writing and the recording, from start to finish the process was probably about 18 months, usually it would be 6.”

After so long together it’s interesting that it took a pandemic for them to discover a fresh new way to create an album that they will be returning to, but being a band that has operated for over a decade comes with much more interesting perspective than this. I wondered to what extent Gus found himself comparing the band from where they are now to separate points they have been at earlier on stages of their career; “Yeah, I mean lots changed in ten years. I think when you’re a young band lots of cool stuff happens that you take for granted. We used to get loads of trainers, every couple of weeks we’d come in and our management would be like ‘oh Nike and Adidas have sent you more trainers’ and we’d just say oh cool we’ll. Just see if there’s any good ones, maybe take ones we didn’t like and give them to our friends or even just leave them there sometimes. Now we haven’t been sent trainers for years, what happened to all the free trainers?! Now obviously I assume Wet Leg are probably drowning in free trainers or another new cool band and that’s fine, that’s the way of the world. They probably think Alt-J can buy their own trainers now, which they can!”

Leading on from this I couldn’t help but wonder if they ever reflect on their discography in the same way; “I think on the third album we committed ourselves to a very unrealistic timeline to record in and we had some things going on in the band at the time that made it difficult so it was a short album, only 8 tracks on it. That was essentially because we ran out of time so that’s a regret of all of ours, that we got talked into this deadline that we shouldn’t have done. Had we spent a few more months on that album I think it would’ve been longer and better, but that’s just how it goes, it still got nominated for a mercury prize and for some people it’s their favourite Alt-J album. It just goes to show you should never judge your back catalogue too harshly because many people love what you think is not so good. I’m not saying I don’t think that albums good but I think various things contributed to it not being as good as it could have been.”

A couple of weeks before the interview I, like many others, had watched the Lin Manuel Miranda directorial debut Tick, Tick… Boom and fell in love with it. That being said it was the last thing I thought I would be comparing to an upcoming Alt-J release but the way in which turning 30 as a creative was tackled in the film and the maturity that was present on the album I thought it only right to ask if Gus was aware of this being a factor in the record;  “Yeah, we’ve got older, Joe and I have got kids now, it is a more mature album and I think it is more reflective as a result. I haven’t seen Tick, Tick… Boom, I hadn’t actually heard of it but it looks really good, I’ve just googled it now, I’ll be checking that out. It’s a strange one because what we do is sort of a young person’s game really, especially if you are using words like popstar. I think because the 60’s were so long ago now you have bands like the rolling stones who are still touring and are in their 80’s which is… cool, but on some fundamental level quite wrong. Pop music should be for young people by young people and we’re not young people anymore. But I guess there’s no reason we should stop and there’s no reason the rolling stones should stop if they still enjoy it and we certainly do. Especially writing music, the creative process is still a big thrill for us. Back in 2012 we were writing for ourselves, we almost felt like our songs were messages in bottles that we were chucking into the sea, not knowing if anyone was going to read them. Nowadays I don’t know how you would write for a specific audience in terms of age unless it’s through references to certain things like TikTok and… I dunno stocks and shares for the older listener. I suppose we have done a song about Bitcoin! I think we just try to stick to that artistic principle to write music that we find interesting. We’re our own test market.”

After so long now since being able to go on tour, even for an artist that has be operating for so long, I had to wander how important it was to Gus to be able to present the new album to a live audience; “Very. There were songs that we were writing and recording in the studio that I couldn’t wait to play live. There’s a song called Losing My Mind and its one of my favourites. I play bass in it and its very simple, only four notes, almost Wolf Alicey sort of post-punk. It’s actually my wife’s least favourite track when she heard it, she said she didn’t get it but I told her she needs to hear it live because I think it’ll make sense. Because we’re in a privileged position where we can play big venues and big slots at festivals to big crowds it is cool to be in studio and think ‘God this is gonna sound great when we’re on that mainstage at that festival at night and there’s 50,000 people there.’ Yeah, it’s exciting.”

I always find it interesting how excited artists that have been around for so long still find so much importance in playing live, but would Gus still have places on his bucket list; “I don’t know… I mean, we’ve played on every continent except Antarctica so there you go. I don’t know if that’s to grandiose. In terms of cities, I’ve loved playing, I think when we first went to Israel, it blew us away because we didn’t know we had any fans there. It was for our second album and we played two sold out nights in a venue that held 12,500, so to play to 25,000 over two nights and it be our own gig was mind blowing because that’s bigger numbers that we’ve ever done anywhere. It’s a place that I didn’t even know held many gigs like ours in the first place really. That was one I’ll always remember.”

As we approached the end of our time together something had dawned on me, though, of course, Gus had been sharing his own views, I hadn’t taken anytime to explore him as an individual or even considered if he gives any thought to his role as an individual within the greater band; “I’ve always enjoyed having the role as the organiser, the fixer. For this album, because we had our own studio, I had to do mundane tasks like taking metre readings and sweeping up leaves, Joe jokingly started calling me the janitor which I quite liked actually. To sort of be this unsung hero that if you want to get anything done you need to get the janitor on board. Yeah, I’m happy to be the janitor of the band.”

Photo Credit: Rosie Matheson