De­spite suc­cess, Alt-J’s world is de­void of the usual hys­te­ria of life in a band, writes Will Hodgkin­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - Alt-J

As­trange thing hap­pened when the lat­est al­bum by Alt-J came out last month. Re­laxer was hailed as a hazy, ar­rest­ing, original blend of al­ter­na­tive rock, Bri­tish folk and fu­tur­is­tic elec­tron­ics. It was a com­mer­cial and crit­i­cal tri­umph, hit­ting the top 10 and help­ing the Bri­tish band, which won the Mer­cury prize in 2012 for its de­but An Awe­some Wave, sell out Lon­don’s O2 Arena.

Yet on a trip to the Rough Trade record shop in east Lon­don with my daugh­ter on the day of the re­lease, we spot­ted the three mem­bers of Alt-J sit­ting be­hind a desk, wait­ing pa­tiently for some­one — any­one — to come and get their copy of the al­bum signed.

“It was rather low-key,” Joe New­man, the band’s lead vo­cal­ist and gui­tarist, says. He stares at one of the ta­bles out­side Dandy, the New­ing­ton Green restau­rant part-owned by key­boardist Gus Unger-Hamil­ton, where I am talk­ing to the pair a week af­ter the sign­ing. “I think we were mak­ing an at­tempt to be com­pet­i­tive,” he says, and to help get their al­bum into the charts that week. “But we had al­ready signed 2000 copies and most of the Lon­don fans had one. It was er … er … yes. But then I was wear­ing very short shorts, so maybe it was for the best.”

The lack of hys­te­ria around the sign­ing fits Alt-J’s world. As suc­cess­ful as the band is, you would be hard pressed to recog­nise its mem­bers if they walked down your street. Bryan Ferry de­rided them as a “cel­e­bra­tion of nor­mal­ity”, and al­though Mi­ley Cyrus popped up on their 2014 sin­gle Hunger of the Pine, they do not op­er­ate in a celebrity world. Their head­line spot on Glas­ton­bury’s Other Stage was a tri­umph, but the set’s danc­ing sign-lan­guage in­ter­preter got more at­ten­tion than the mu­si­cians.

In­dus­try ru­mour has it Alt-J lives up to the rock ’n’ roll life­style more than ap­pear­ances sug­gest, but you wouldn’t guess it from lis­ten­ing to its mu­sic or talk­ing to the band: Pleader, a beau­ti­ful piece of pas­toral clas­si­cism from the new al­bum, is closer to Vaughan Wil­liams than Rolling Stones; the sin­gle 3WW (“Three Worn Words”) sounds like an old English bal­lad; and New­man, Unger-Hamil­ton and drum­mer Thom Sonny Green seem like the kind of stu­dious young men like­lier to at­tend a neu­ro­science con­fer­ence than wake up on a tour bus with cig­a­rette butts stuck to their fore­heads.

“I went to univer­sity for the pur­pose of find­ing people who I had a mu­si­cal con­nec­tion with,” New­man — who stud­ied fine art along­side Green at Leeds Univer­sity, while UngerHamil­ton stud­ied English there — coun­ters when I sug­gest they don’t seem like typ­i­cal mu­si­cians. “I had a vi­sion. There are times when I had to push people.”

“Some­times phys­i­cally,” Unger-Hamil­ton con­firms. “Once I cried off band prac­tice be­cause the fam­ily dog was ill and I was re­ally up­set. Joe took me to one side and said, ‘ Mate, we’re not mess­ing around here …’ ”

As it turned out, they weren’t. In 2008 Alt-J played its first con­cert in the front room of New­man and for­mer gui­tarist-bassist Gwil Sains­bury’s stu­dent house, and knew that they had some­thing. Four years of slog­ging around Britain fol­lowed, play­ing shows be­fore sin­gledigit au­di­ences and mov­ing into a shared house in Cam­bridgeshire as they ad­hered to New­man’s vow of poverty in the name of art-rock.

“Thom would go around with a bin bag. He was mis­taken by home­less people as one of their own,” Unger-Hamil­ton says. “For some rea­son Thom had a lot of coats, and we would go through the pock­ets and find £1.20 in change, then go to the cor­ner shop and buy a packet of bis­cuits and a choco­late bar. That would be our food for the day.”

Alt-J made a five-year plan, agree­ing to call it quits if the band didn’t make it af­ter that. En­cour­age­ment came from an un­likely source: par­ents. Unger-Hamil­ton was about to ap­ply for gro­cery store Waitrose’s grad­u­ate scheme when his par­ents talked him out of it; New­man’s fa­ther, a gui­tarist who plays in pubs in Southamp­ton, told him to stick with the band.

“It wasn’t even be­cause they liked the mu­sic, but be­cause they felt this op­por­tu­nity would not come again,” New­man says. “My dad said to me, ‘You have zero re­spon­si­bil­ity, the Job Cen­tre can look af­ter you for the time be­ing and you don’t have to pay off your stu­dent loan un­til you have a job.’ It was re­ally good ad­vice. They re­alised we had tal­ent, drive and luck.” “Don’t for­get looks,” Unger-Hamil­ton adds. It wasn’t slog­ging around Britain in a Tran­sit van that proved the chal­lenge for Alt-J, but what hap­pened next. The twitchy, mul­ti­stranded, com­plex in­die rock of the band’s de­but was di­vi­sive — An Awe­some Wave was cas­ti­gated as much as hailed for be­ing a tri­umph of ideas over pas­sion — but it was unar­guably dif­fer­ent and gar­nered a lot of at­ten­tion, win­ning an Ivor Novello award as well as the Mer­cury prize. For Sains­bury it proved all too much. In 2014, at the height of Alt-J’s as­cen­dancy, he quit.

“Gwil felt he wasn’t in con­trol of his 20s, and suc­cess wasn’t enough of a trade-off for that,” Unger-Hamil­ton says on why his univer­sity friend left the band. “The first al­bum could not have gone better. We even had an amaz­ing ca­reer in Amer­ica, which never hap­pens for English bands. Our re­sponse to his want­ing to leave was, ‘Are you mad?’ But he hated that our man­ager runs our lives, and he hated tour­ing. He didn’t like the life­style.”

What do the re­main­ing mem­bers think of the life­style? Af­ter mulling over the ques­tion, New­man says: “We have put on a lot of weight.”

“People ex­pect you to be in­ca­pable of do­ing any­thing,” Unger-Hamil­ton elab­o­rates. “With everything we do now, they’ll say, ‘Do you want a car?’ And I’ll think, I’m not sure if I need a car to go from my house to the pub half a mile down the road, per­haps I’ll get the No 56 in­stead. Bands are filled with people who got fa­mous in their teens and sub­se­quently haven’t learnt how to live. Be­ing in a band can make you stupid.”

It’s is not an ad­jec­tive of­ten ap­plied to Alt-J. “Cere­bral” is a more com­mon one, al­though Hit Me Like That Snare, an ex­ple­tive-filled rocker in­spired by New­man’s car skid­ding in 2016, is a rare mo­ment of vis­ceral ag­gres­sion on the new al­bum. More typ­i­cal is Last Year, a so­phis­ti­cated bal­lad about a de­scent into de­pres­sion and sui­cide, con­tain­ing a song within a song by Marika Hack­man. It is this kind of thing that gets Alt-J ac­cused of be­ing too clever by half.

“I did pretty well at school,” Unger-Hamil­ton says when asked if the band re­ally is that clever. “I messed around a bit, but I got good grades. I was a bit of a dreamer, ex­tremely lazy and not in­ter­ested in learn­ing,” New­man says. “Per­haps I was un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated by my teach­ers and that knocked my con­fi­dence be­cause I never re­vised for ex­ams. If I had just ap­plied my­self I might have got As and Bs rather than Bs and Cs.” plays Bes­ti­val in Bali in Septem­ber.

Alt-J’s Thom Green, Gus Unger-Hamil­ton and Joe New­man

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