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ALT-J Characters & Journeys

alt-J Pic: Gabriel Green
alt-J Pic: Gabriel Green

“We’re not a band that feels very comfortable rocking out, but it’s nice that people are loving it.”

alt-J return to Perth for a show at HBF Stadium on Friday, May 15. LAUREN GILL reports.

When most of the Leeds University campus had retreated home for winter break in 2008, Gus Unger-Hamilton, Gwil Sainsbury , Thom Green and Joe Newman invited what was left of their friends to hear what they’d been working on.

It was their first gig together. They played six songs they’d written over the past three months in the living room of a student house, as their friends listened, sipping wine as the English winter rattled outside.

They really fucking loved it and we were like, ‘Shit, this is such a rush’,” keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton – the one who was recently criticised by Noel Gallagher for having a moustache – fervently remembers, speaking from his London home.

“We weren’t ambitious to get signed or anything, we just enjoyed it. Then, by the time we finished university, we’d been doing it so much that we actually got quite good,” he says. “We never considered the band a joking activity, just fucking around, so in that sense, we were pleased when people caught onto it. We were like, ‘Okay, it’s nice that other people like it too’.

“I don’t want to say that we were expecting it because we weren’t, but I think we always thought our music was good.”

They were right.

Since releasing their Mercury-Prize-winning debut album, An Awesome Wave, in 2012, alt-J have been riding a jet stream of success indie bands that formed in the hollows of residence halls could only dream of. The album went platinum in the UK and gold in Australia, reaping the band ‘next Radiohead’ hosannas and propelling them into a string of sold-out world tours, while simultaneously making the triangle the hipster’s Wu-Tang.

Last September, the band released its follow-up, This Is All Yours. The album was recorded sans bassist Gwil Sainsbury, who left the band after growing disenchanted with its rising fame. In the early stages of the writing, the guys holed up in a London space that was half-apartment studio, half-messy room, remembers Unger-Hamilton.

“We couldn’t make too much noise because it wasn’t soundproofed, so we went in there and wrote, messed around and enjoyed each other’s company.

Like its predecessor, the album is swathed in lush, character-driven tracks. But while alt-J have a knack for whistle-as-you-work choruses and simmering instrumentation, it’s the lyrics that lie at the base of it all.

“I think the cinematic sound comes from the lyrics,” explains Unger-Hamilton. “The songs tell stories and aren’t nebulous songs about feelings. We have a few songs that are a bit more wishy-washy, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but the majority are about the characters, the demise of the characters and the journey they go on.”

This type of lyricism shines early in the album on the vast Nara, a song that Unger-Hamilton considers a high point. Lyrics like, ‘Love is the warmest colour/Unpin your butterflies, Russia/To be a deer in Nara’, separate forceful chants of ‘Hallelujah’, as bells and piano crescendo to a heavy peak.

“I think it’s the most biggish song on the album and we’re very, very proud of the lyrics. It’s a very alt-J song from where I’m standing.”

Another track, Every Other Freckle, Unger-Hamilton calls equally as poppy as early single, Left Hand Free but much more interesting. “We’ve got a weird medieval breakdown in the middle and lyrically it’s a lot funnier.”

‘I’m gonna bed into you like a cat beds into a beanbag/Turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet’, Newman sings as Ramonesy chants of ‘Hey’ back quite possibly the coolest flute solo since Jethro Tull.

But like most bands trying to follow a hit debut, alt-J have also had to deal with their fair share of comments section critics. The album’s first two singles, Hunger Of The Pine and Left Hand Free, spawned a flurry of accusations that the band had abandoned their indie sound in favour of more radio-friendly tunes.

The latter, a sulphurous piece of riff rock better suited to southern rock night at the saloon than a club full of 20-somethings in Dr Martens and skinny jeans, was never actually written with the intention of being released.

“It’s a controversial song for us in a sense,” Unger-Hamilton says. We wrote it when we were fucking around. We were enjoying being in the studio and I think we may have been high and smoked some weed. Joe had been playing this guitar riff for years and he was always playing it to make us laugh, because it’s this funny, cheesy riff. Within 20 minutes we had hashed out the song. We were cracking up because it was so cheesy.”

Their American label, Atlantic Records, didn’t find anything funny about it, pinpointing it as the album’s first big single.

“We were like, ‘Oh fuck’, because it wasn’t a serious song. There were other songs that we were prouder of, but in the end, I think we stopped being pissed off about it.”

Even now, Unger-Hamilton says he still feels uncomfortable playing Left Hand Free, characterising it as an “un-alt-J” song.

“We’re not a band that feels very comfortable rocking out, but it’s nice that people are loving it.”

The song came on the back of lead single, Hunger Of The Pine, which features a sample from Miley Cyrus’ song, 4×4. The collaboration materialised after drummer, Thom Green, created a remix of the track, transforming the line, ‘I’m a female rebel’, from a 14-year-old girl’s Instagram tagline into a seething portrait of despair.

“It’s not about it being Miley Cyrus. It’s a great line, it’s really powerful. If you’ve heard the original song, 4×4, it’s a very poppy, berating song. But once you take it out of context, it becomes quite haunting and quite tortured and works with the lyrics.”

It’s the type of song where layers will benefit from the mammoth speakers of the huge venues that alt-J are now playing. While they may be lacking in the obvious Springsteen-esque arena rock sensibilities, Unger-Hamilton says he’s been told that some of their songs make more sense on a larger platform. A couple of weeks ago, they sold out the most famous arena in the world, New York City’s Madison Square Garden. They’ll continue this streak when they hit our shores in May, playing arenas around the country.

“It’s quite amazing achievement for us to being doing this on our second album,” Unger-Hamilton says excitedly. “It’s incredible and I think we never really thought our music would be the kind of music that would be played at arenas like that. The second album has a lot of big, big songs on it with big sounds.”

While their upcoming tour will mark alt-J’s third trip to Australia in just a year, Unger-Hamilton says the fans Down Under make the journey well worth it.

“It’s probably my favourite country to play in and I think that goes for all of us. The fans in Australia are the best fans we have. I’m not just saying that, it’s true,” he declares. “They love the music and they’re not afraid to go crazy. It makes it brilliant fun to play.”

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