Alt-J are en­joy­ing suc­cess while re­tain­ing anonymity, but with pals like Mi­ley Cyrus, will that last, won­ders Tony Clayton-Lea

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - MUSIC -

Sud­den suc­cess doesn’t al­ways trans­late into sud­den rushes of blood to the head – not if you’re a mem­ber of Alt-J, any­way. It seems that the re­main­ing three orig­i­nal mem­bers of the Leeds band (Thom Green, Gus Unger-Hamil­ton and Joe New­man – co-found­ing mem­ber Gwil Sains­bury left the fold in Jan­uary) are as grounded as they were when they were stu­dents to­gether at Leeds Univer­sity sev­eral years ago.

“It was very much a hobby at the start,” says Unger-Hamil­ton, Alt-J’s key­board player.

“We didn’t think we had any chance of mak­ing it as a band. That said, we took it very, very se­ri­ously. I sup­pose, back then, just want­ing to write and record the best mu­sic we could was a high-minded en­deav­our.”

It isn’t of­ten you hear a phrase like “high-minded en­deav­our”. We re­call that John Peel once de­scribed such a mind­set as the “ar­ro­gance of the par­tially ed­u­cated”.

Unger-Hamil­ton laughs down the line all the way from New York, where Alt-J are en­sconced for a lengthy burst of pro­mo­tional ac­tiv­i­ties. “Peel was, er, par­tially right, but in our de­fence we were all new to univer­sity. In your first year, you restyle your­self as a cere­bral character, don’t you?”

After grad­u­at­ing from Leeds, the four friends moved to Cam­bridge, claimed job­seeker’s al­lowance, and re­hearsed for two years, hon­ing their sound from oddly oblique to beau­ti­fully ac­ces­si­ble. Early am­bi­tions com­prised writ­ing and record­ing songs, up­load­ing them on to MyS­pace, and get­ting famil friends to lis­ten to them.

“And for them to say they liked them that was the pin­na­cle back then,” says U ger-Hamil­ton. “Our sights were set pre low, but that out­look, that level of ap­pre­ci­a­tion, seemed quite rea­son­able to us.”

Through­out this pe­riod, the Alt-J mantra was to fo­cus on the mu­sic more than any­thing else, and to try to make the songs as good as pos­si­ble. “That’s what we’re about. It’s what we’ve al­ways been about.”

What­ever the mantra, what­ever the mo­dus operandi, there’s lit­tle doubt that a shift in the band dy­namic oc­curred two years ago when – to the band’s own shock as much as any­one else’s – they won the Bar­clay­card Mer­cury Prize for their de­but al­bum, An Awe­some Wave. De­spite the rise in pro­file and in­creased al­bum sales, the band, it seems, haven’t re­ally changed that much.

“We all re­mem­ber that we started on a zero bud­get, and we have a low thresh­old for dick-ish be­hav­iour in the band. If some­one is be­hav­ing like a pam­pered rock star that doesn’t fly too well with the other mem­bers.”

Low-fly­ing di­chotomy

Only right and proper, but be­ware of low-fly­ing di­chotomy! With suc­cess comes at­ten­tion, money, new friends (we’ll get to Mi­ley Cyrus later) and a farewell to those early character-build­ing days of room-shar­ing in B&Bs. That’s all changed, surely?

“Yes, it has,” says Unger-Hamil­ton, who is talk­ing from a room in New York’s Gramercy Park Ho­tel, grandiose home to art works by, among oth­ers, Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and Jean-Michel Basquiat. “But I pine slightly for the old days of tour­ing in a van, of shar­ing rooms. It was mis­er­able in many ways, as a lot of the time we just didn’t have the money to eat – we’d have to wait un­til we got to the venue for sand­wiches and bis­cuits. That isn’t the case any­more, ob­vi­ously.”

What about the threat of com­pro­mise, when bands achieve a cer­tain level of pop­u­lar­ity, and peo­ple out­side the in­ner cir­cle (and, in­deed, some peo­ple inside it) start sug­gest­ing do­ing cer­tain things to max­imise pop­u­lar­ity? Has that im­pinged much on Alt-J’s ac­tiv­i­ties?

“We’ve had to learn to play the game up to a point,” Unger-Hamil­ton an­swers prag­mat­i­cally. “You can’t do ev­ery­thing or look at ev­ery­thing you’re asked to do from a purely philo­soph­i­cal point of view. Are we sac­ri­fic­ing our pre­cious sense of in­tegrity in a slight way? Pos­si­bly, but we’re all aware of when to draw the line.”

Draw­ing the line is right. Alt-J’s lat­est sin­gle, Hunger of the Pine (the first from the new al­bum) fea­tures a propul­sive rhythm un­der­pinned by a re­pur­pos­ing of a line from Mi­ley Cyrus’s 4x4. She’s a new­found, ad­mir­ing mate of the band, ap­par­ently, but Unger-Hamil­ton isn’t too forth­com­ing. He claims, wearily, that he’s been asked the “Mi­ley Cyrus ques­tion” 50 times in the past week.

Frankly, we don’t wish to be num­ber 51, so we change tack – Alt-J have struck the mother lode, haven’t they? They’re an in­die band en­joy­ing suc­cess with­out the crush­ing fame, and they’re an act, noted one pop-cul­tural com­men­ta­tor, “so anony­mous that it’s pos­si­ble to for­get what they look like even while star­ing at a pho­to­graph of them”.

What could be bet­ter than be­ing in a fa­mous band with­out hav­ing to worry about be­ing recog­nised, Unger-Hamil­ton pon­ders rhetori

go home after tour­ing to live mal lives, and then go back on t be­ing rock stars. It’s in­credi’re hop­ing that’ll con­tinue for .” might, but – oh, feck it, 1 we’ll be, and damn the ences – what about Mi­ley urely by as­so­ci­a­tion there’ll be el of main­stream crossover? not good-look­ing enough for s fans to be in­ter­ested in us,” -Hamil­ton. “Are we?”

Alt- J-play Dublin’s 3Arena on Sept 27th. New al­bum This is All Yours is re­leased on Septem­ber 19th and will be re­viewed in next week’s Ticket

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