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