Interview: Alt-J (∆)

Photo: Tom Porter

It has been confirmed; Gus Unger-Hamilton can make a cracking cup of tea.

Aside from his beverage making talents, Gus is more so renowned for being a quarter of the Mercury Award winning band, Alt-J (∆) who have rocketed off the ground with their debut album, An Awesome Wave.

They have been one of the biggest bands in 2013 worldwide, yet they retain the nature and humility of a local city group. Instead of spending their university life like most students, predominately getting drunk and clearing up from the night before, ∆ spent their undergrad fairly withdrawn, cultivating and critiquing their music.

We met with Gus at the Bristol leg of the UK tour to talk about possible collaboration exclusives, the hipster association and sex.

How did the band form?

I met Joe in halls whilst at Leeds University and Joe (vocals/guitar) knew Gwil (guitar/bassist) and Thom (drums) on his Fine Art course. I was studying English Literature and Joe introduced us all to each other and we made really good friends in the first year. Joe had written a few songs and he wanted to start a band so he identified which of his friends at uni could play instruments and then just asked, ‘shall we be a band?’ It was literally, that simple.

Many people associate the ∆ symbol with being alternative and ‘hipster’. At university, and even now, did you have to battle with the cool factor? 

Well, at university, we weren’t actually called Alt-J, we were called Films. So, no one really knew about us, we just kept to ourselves and played a few gigs. People think we are complete hipsters and whatever. But I think that once they see us or meet us they realise that we are quite normal and boring as people. So, being cool isn’t too much of an issue but we try and come across as unlike that as possible.

Do you think that your university degrees had an influence on the band?

I think it’s given us a critical approach to what we do, and a certain kind of academic rigor in our approach to song writing and general creativeness. We spend a long time crafting our songs, we don’t just bash them out and I think that’s to do with how we’ve been taught to work. We scrutinise every element of the song in a critical way and that’s probably something to do with the degrees we did.

Many of the songs on the album are directly related to books and films too.

Yeah, I don’t know if that’s so much to do with our degrees, but more of our interests. If you look at the film and book references, they aren’t really high brow. They’re not low brow but they are popular references; it’s not Marcel Proust.

What would you say is the best backdrop to listen to your debut album, An Awesome Wave?

I really like the idea of people listening to it whilst just doing everyday stuff, like getting the train or doing an essay; I can relate to that. People tweet us about going on long drives and listening to the album the whole time, which is really nice as it’s unpretentious and real. That, or sex probably.


Photo: Tom Porter

Photo: Tom Porter

What were your original plans after university?

I don’t really know! I think after we graduated, Gwil was a year behind us because he had a year abroad, so Joe and I got jobs in Leeds and gave the band a year. We just wanted to see what was going to happen.

The song Taro references Robert Capa and Gerda Taro. How did this influence come around?

We were living in Cambridge together and we had this book of different photographs taken by Life magazine, and in there, there was a short section about Robert Capa and Joe was incredibly inspired by the story; who wouldn’t be, it’s a brilliant story. We lived in this house and we had no TV or internet. We just had loads of books and sat around reading a lot. It was quite nice, but boring. I think it broadened our minds a lot. To try and get on the internet, we used to have to go to the library in town to use the computers for an hour a day. We used to all go in together and go on the computers for an hour, realised it had run out then go home and read books again.

I bet you’re sick to death of people asking you about the genre of the band. Critics and listeners find it hard to place it in a category. I was wondering how important do you think it is that there is a genre at all?

I don’t think it is very important. Particularly now it has become very easy to listen to music free online. If someone says ‘I like a band’, and they reply ‘what type of music is it?’, before they go and buy the album they can go online and listen to the music right there. I think that has eradicated the need to label types of music.

What was the first tune you learnt to play on the keyboard?

Photo: Tom Porter

Photo: Tom Porter

I was brought up with classical training on piano so it wasn’t really the same thing. I do remember teaching myself a lot of the Kings of Leon first album on guitar and that was the first album that inspired me to love guitar music. That album was a big deal for me.

How do the logistics of the songs work? Do you construct music before lyrics or vice versa?

Usually, music comes first; a lot of jamming goes on and Joe has a book where he writes down lyrics in varying degrees of completion. Sometimes they are just odd fragments that are stitched together. So usually it is the music; it can vary from an idea from one of us or Joe writing some chords that he put together and we work on it as a group and craft it into a finished song.

You say that as a band you never really went out and kept to yourself. Do any bands have an influence on your music?

Yes, we did keep to ourselves and we never talked about what bands we wanted to sound like because there really weren’t any. Immediately, at our first practice together, we found this click which nobody could really explain, but when we played together, music just came freely and we found the sound really quickly. We said lets never talk about it and hope that it doesn’t go away.

The band’s music takes a great deal of influence from movies. Are there any films that you are excited to see this year?

The Great Gatsby…is that going to be good? We wrote the soundtrack to Bruce Goodison’s, Leave To Remain. It’s about asylum seekers in London who are trying to find their way and that film is to be released later this year. It is going to be great.

If you could be any film character, who would you be?

Good question. I always thought that I’d be ducky from Pretty in Pink. He just has a great outlook on life and a great wardrobe.

Have you heard through the grapevine of any other artists or celebrities that love ∆’s music?

We do hear occasionally that musicians or other creative people are fans of our music. Pedro Almodóvar (Bad Education, All About My Mother) said that our album was his favourite album of the year, which was pretty exciting. A couple of days ago, Benedict Cumberbatch said he was a fan. Musicians wise, I can’t really think of anyone really amazing, but I’m sure we’ve had people comment and we’re like ‘shit, they’re fans!’. We’ve had some offers to collaborate with people like Danny Brown, which was really exciting for us and we might try and pick something out with him. Harry Styles said he was a fan. That was interesting – he got us a lot of followers. So thanks, Harry!

∆ : Gus's artists interpretation of the band's music.

∆ : Gus’s artists interpretation of the band’s music.

Has it been difficult to conquer America?

It’s going really well so far. I think ultimately, there are always a few British artists each year that are accepted by America. We’ve had a really good time with it over there and great support from radios and we are playing bigger venues over there than we are here, which is crazy. It’s difficult in that touring America is a struggle, it’s a huge country and you have to go there for months at a time. We got back from two months there and it was exhausting but it’s worth it because we can see that things are taking off there.

Have you heard of any crazy rumours about the band?

Nothing that I can think of that’s really crazy. The illuminati one is on-going.

Maybe we should start a rumour?!

Go for it!

Photography by Tom Porter.

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