The Mic managed to land themselves a one-off exclusive interview with Alt-J shortly after their Mercury Prize victory. We spoke with Gus Unger-Hamilton (keys) about how it feels to have become so iconic in such a short space of time.
How are you guys feeling after your Mercury Prize win?
We’re feeling really good, it’s been so exciting.
Who would you have been most happy to lost to?
I would have been pretty happy if The Maccabees had won. They’ve been one of my favourite bands since I was a teenager so to win on their third album would have been fair enough. They’ve had three really good albums and I respect them for that, but Radiohead have never won the Mercury either, it’s a funny prize.
Do you think the Award will help or hinder you?
I think it’s going to help us in that it’s going to mean that we have people who are keen to hear what we put out next without us having to worry about being forgotten about. I think we’re now in quite a lucky position where no matter how long it takes us there will be an audience for our second album which is really nice.
Has it been strange becoming so popular so quickly?
It is quite strange, selling out this UK tour for next year is mad because they’re all big venues. But it doesn’t feel to us like it’s gone really quickly because we’ve been doing it one day at a time. It’s a bit like watching a child grow, if you only saw your nephew once a year you’d be like ‘Christ you’ve grown’ but he’s not going to look at himself in the mirror every day and think ‘oh my god I’ve grown so quickly’. It’s a bit like that.
With a production time of a few years for An Awesome Wave it’s taken you quite a while to get here hasn’t it?
Yeah I guess. It wasn’t because we were trying and failing though it was just because we weren’t really trying. We were at university, happy to be studying, writing songs and having fun with what we were doing. We weren’t trying to break out for years; once we were ready it all went quite smoothly for us.
Have you had any thoughts about a second album yet? Do you think it will take you as long as the first?
Probably not quite but we’re not ruling anything out.
Do you know what direction you might take it in?
We’ve got some songs that we’re writing for it. It’s not sounding that different from this album, there’s no new sound because I don’t think this album really had a sound. It’s just songs that we’re writing as a group that just somehow happen to have this indefinable stamp of Alt-J on them.
Do you find what everyone else is saying about your music strange?
Yeah it is strange because we never intended our music to be spoken about in those terms, we didn’t expect that. It’s lovely.
You’ve structured your first album quite rigidly with the ‘Intro’ and ‘Interludes’, why did you decide to do that?
We wanted the album to be listened to as one piece, not just as a collection of songs. So we curated it in the same way as when you curate an exhibition you don’t just stick a load of paintings in a room or a series of rooms, you put them in a certain order and they’re supposed to be viewed in a certain context, whether it’s chronological or stylistic. In the same way we wanted the album to be a curated object that should be listened to from start to finish.
If you were creating a musical exhibition what albums would you position either side of yours?
(Laughs) I’d start off with ‘Little Golden Book’ by Princess Chelsea which is a really good album, then I’d enjoy our album and then I’d finish with the first self-titled album by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.
That sounds like a good session to us. Would you be able to tell us a bit more about one of our favourite tracks, ‘Something Good’?
It’s difficult, I can try. It’s about this girl at university that Joe Newman (guitar/vocals) kind of liked (coughs) sorry I’ve got this really annoying cough, I’m going to have some orangina. Ah, I love orangina. So Joe liked her and there was this awkward thing where her friends had told Joe that she had seen pictures of him and sort of fancied him and he was immediately like ‘ah great’, I like her as well. Then every time they saw each other it was super awkward and nothing happened really in the end and she went off him. By the time he finally got around to trying to move things up a gear she was like ‘nah mate’. So he decided to write a song about going out and distracting yourself from something that’s on your mind by having fun doing something else.
Linked to Spanish bull fighting?
Yeah I don’t really get that. I think the lyrics were written quite quickly for some parts of that song and I don’t completely understand it. But it doesn’t have to completely make sense, there’s still a meaning behind the song.
You were originally called Films and ‘Matilda’ was inspired by the film Leon right? What has been Alt-J’s favourite film this year?
Good question. We went to see Skyfall a few days ago, that was pretty good (laughs). What else have we all enjoyed? It’s not a new film but we watched this documentary called Helvetica when we were living together which we all really liked it. We watched it once and then again the next week.
If you were going to write a James Bond theme tune what do you think you would write?
Well you have to be given the name of the film don’t you I suppose. It was quite funny though we did actually talk about how one of our songs would be a really good James Bond theme tune. A new song that we’re working on but I don’t know if the timing’s going to be right to be honest (laughs).
You have just written a song for David O’Russel’s new film Silver Linings Playbook haven’t you? How did you come about doing that?
David got in touch with our label and asked ‘would Alt-J like to write a song for my new film? because he was a fan of our music and we’re equally a fan of his films, especially I Heart Huckabee’s, Three Kings and The Fighter, so we were like ‘hell yeah’. We had this song ‘Buffalo’ that we’d been working on for a while and had a recording of that we weren’t that happy with so we went back to the studio, played with it some more and asked Mountain Man, one of our favourite bands, to contribute some guest vocals. And now it’s come out sounding really cool.
Did you know anything about the scene which it was going to be used in or the plot of the film before you adapted ‘Buffalo’?
We went to David’s office in Hollywood and they showed us some possible places where it might be used but I don’t think it ended up getting used in those places at all. Apparently one of the studio bosses wasn’t that keen about using it in a certain scene but Bradley Cooper was really passionate that it should be used there. Hearing that was quite cool.
Speaking of songs which aren’t on your album, how did you come across the remix of Kylie ‘Slow’ and Dr. Dre ‘Still Dre’ which you play in your live set?
That’s an interesting one. At our first ever gig in the front room of our student house at Leeds we decided to open with an instrumental cover of ‘Still Dre’. I can’t remember why that was, I think somebody in the ‘audience’ suggested it. So we did that and then didn’t ever play it again, until a few months ago we were in London off to get lunch or something and I was thinking about it and in some weird way it came into my head that it would work well with the vocals from ‘Slow’, which is one of mine and Joe’s favourite Kylie Minogue songs. So I was like ‘hey guys I reckon we could do a really good mash up of ‘Still Dre’ and ‘Slow’’. We’d been looking to do a cover for a while because we wanted to introduce some new stuff into the set and because once you’re a band of a certain level you get asked to do covers quite a lot. You’ll go to a radio station and they’ll say we need you to do a cover, you have to do it, everyone does it; so we thought we’d better have something up our sleeve. We didn’t have much time to work on it until we went on the America tour and used a day off to go to a studio in San Francisco just for that song. Then we started playing it from then on at every gig and now we’re pleased with how cool it’s sounding.
Have you got any tracks that represent this successful year for you?
That’s a good question. I’ve been listening to a lot of Haim and playing a lot of them to everyone else; to some mixed responses. I think Joe’s feeling it, I’m not sure about Gwil Sainsbury (guitarist/bassist) and Thom Green (drums) but I’m really liking it. They supported us in Paris a few days ago and they’re really good. Stealing Sheep as well, who supported us on a UK tour and we’ve been listening to a lot of their music ever since.
Have you built a good relationship with all of your support acts then?
We had a serious relationship with Cave Painting and Stealing Sheep. We toured with a band called JBM in America and they were really great as well. They’ve been our big three support bands. When you’re on tour with people you don’t have to have a relationship with them because you travel separately, have separate dressing rooms and so on. But we toured with Ghostpoet last February and that was great because he was really welcoming and always hung out with us. We had a really good time with him and having experienced that we’re always very keen to do the same with our support bands. They’re normally stuck in some tiny dressing room with a case of Carlsberg and a few bottles of water and we get a cornucopia of dips and amazing food we’re not going to drink and eat ourselves so we always get them to come and help us.
Do you have any Alt-J secrets you can reveal to The Mic?
Let me think… We’re kinda boring. Joe is an exceptionally inconsiderate sleeper, he snores loudly, sleeps on his back and will spread onto your bed if your beds are next to each other. He’s a great guy apart from that.
Do you try not to share a room with him then?
(Laughs) there’s reasons why I like to share with Joe. We like to share clothes with each other and he’s always got lots of nice things like moisturisers to use which is good.
Is he the Mum of Alt-J?
I think I’m the most organised on the tour, but I don’t know if everybody would agree with that. Thom is definitely the least organised but we love him all the same. We recently found out that, although we knew he had a serious peanut allergy, he hadn’t had an epi-pen for years. So we were like ‘right, we’re going to have to get you an epi-pen’, which we did in America so it was really expensive. Then the night before last we were going out for dinner with the label to an Indonesian restaurant in Holland and I asked him ‘Thom, you’ve got your epi-pen right?’ and he was like ‘no’ and I said ‘fucking brilliant mate, but don’t worry we brought it for you!’
If you haven’t already had a listen to Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave you have been missing out. We can’t wait to see them in their already sold out gig at Rock City on the 13th May. Let’s just hope Thom doesn’t have any nut problems before then.
By Cara McGoogan