CASH FOR QUESTIONS: ALT-J
The boffin rock trio open up about hanging with Miley Cyrus, being on David Cameron’s iPod and why they’re against dishwashers…
The trio on iffy fans (David Cameron), Henry VIII and how to pronounce Δ.
With over 200,000 of the oldest books in Ireland – including precious medieval manuscript The Book Of Kells – Trinity College Dublin’s The Long Room is one of the world’s most impressive libraries. It seems a fitting location for alt-J, here to play in the grounds as part of a summer series of gigs. Having met at Leeds University, the trio have over three albums – 2012’ s Mercury Prize-winning An Awesome Wave, 2014’ s chart-topping This Is All Yours and this year’s Relaxer – specialising in music of a more cerebral bent. A shape-shifting hybrid of indie, folk and electronica that takes in both Miley Cyrus samples and field recordings made at Ely Cathedral, their music has ranged in subject from French poet Alfred de Musset to the effects of watching John Hurt’s chest burst open in Alien. “I know being photographed in a library isn’t a good place to play down our bookish image,” jokes singer and keyboard player Gus Unger-Hamilton, flicking through books alongside drummer Thom Sonny Green and guitarist Joe Newman. “But I am wearing a leather jacket.” Perhaps a grilling from the Q readers might uncover some previously hidden rock’n’roll bad behaviour, then…
People have criticised alt-J for being nerdy. To dispel that, tell us the worst trouble you got in at school. Luke Goodachre, Stowmarket Joe Newman: I wasn’t a troublemaker at all. I didn’t like getting told off. Gus Unger-Hamilton: I copied my friend’s homework and denied it. It was a shitty thing to do. My friend and I were no good at Bach Chorales in music so we got into our friend Josh’s account and emailed ourselves his homework. We got busted. Pauses] Yes, I am aware that has done nothing to dispel our nerdy image.
When you were still called what would you say if people asked you what your band was called? Phil Saffer, Teignmouth GU-H: Technically we are still called I think. It was written as the “delta” sign and pronounced “alt-J” – in practice that was a bit stupid. We once played Kendal Calling and they mistakenly listed us as “The Triangle Band”, which we were annoyed about, but then they trebled our fee, so we got £ 150! JN: We were a bit naive with a lot of things early on, like not showing our faces in photos. Then we realised as we got a bit more popular we didn’t want to be the band who were always being difficult.
You said you’d spend your Mercury Prize money on taking your parents out for a slap-up meal after winning. Did you or are they all still waiting? Paul Wright, via Q Mail GU-H: Groans] They’re still waiting. We’re just trying to choose the right restaurant. It was all a bit of whirlwind after the Awards]; we didn’t get time to do anything except play gigs. I have taken them out since, though...
Have you ever been recognised in public? Janet Felstead, Selsey JN: Ninety-nine-per cent of the time we can walk through large crowds and it doesn’t happen. I once had a weird encounter with some dude in a café near where I live who said: “It’s Rhys, isn’t it?” I looked up the names of the guys in Royal Blood, because I look like both of them, but neither of them are Rhys. Maybe, it was The Horrors. I don’t think he really knew who I was.
I heard an interview where you said you wanted your music to be like “chewing gum that doesn’t lose its flavour.” That’s not very ambitious, is it? Amy Tilson, Broughton GU-H: Well, Willy Wonka made a lot of money from chewing gum that didn’t lose its flavour. I supposed it sounds quite prosaic when you put it like that. The idea was it was something you didn’t get bored of. You keep chewing and it keeps tantalising your taste buds.
Gus owns Dandy, a café in London. What’s the worst café you’ve been to? Eva Peters, via Q Mail JN: My worst café experience was at one I used to work in. Someone who started the same day as me got fired that lunchtime
because while she was cutting limes she cut herself but continued to serve people. She was holding plates and bleeding everywhere. She couldn’t believe they fired her. GU-H: Is that meant to imply mine was the worst they went to? I do look at the reviews sometimes and there are some funny ones. Are music or café reviewers the toughest? The café ones are harder to take – they often highlight things I know I have to address, whereas the band stuff is all subjective. You can argue about the music, but not the fact that I really should have got more toilet rolls.
You sampled Miley Cyrus on Hunger Of The Pine – have you ever hung out? Mark Kirby, via Q Mail JN: Yes! We went to her O2 show. She’s very polite. We don’t have much contact with Miley now but she’s still friends with Thom, though it’s more online than face-to-face. She’s on Hunger Of The Pine because Thom was remixing her song 4x4 and we heard it so much it influenced us without realising. So we thought: “Fuck it, let’s sample her.” GU-H: I don’t think our publisher was too pleased with that decision. It was a bit of nightmare to sort out. Thom Sonny Green: I’ve not had the chance to hang out with Miley much. She’s very nice. She sent me some dry vocals to edit and they sounded incredible. I wanted to use them but anything I put over them kind of ruined it.
Gus, your brother works for a record label, how come he didn’t sign your band? Helen Young, St Austell GU-H: I don’t think there was any question of Ferdy president of Columbia Records UK] signing us. He probably thought it wouldn’t be a great idea to work with family. He was always very helpful giving us advice. He listened to our demosde and told us to do less downwarddo stroke guitar, which was a really good tip. JN: Do you think he got any grief from his company for not signing us? GU-H: Maybe… but probably not.
What’s the worstsmelling dressing room you’ve had? Jake Watson, via Q Mail GU-H: Early on, you’d be so grateful if you got a dressing room it didn’t matter if it smelled, but I vividly remember sharing a really small dressing room with Brooklyn hip-hop act] Das Racist in Manchester. The room was fine but they were very badly behaved. Smoking and spitting food over the floor. JN: I remember watching the lead singer taking a big bite of a sausage roll, chewing it until it was smooth and spitting it out on the floor. I was just like… GU-H: “Do you want that?”
What are your favourite vourite shapes to tessellate? Kate Davidson, Hatfield GU-H: I like putting things in the fridge efficiently, so I’d say: shopping ing shapes. Am I good at loading dishwashers? I’ve never owned one, because I don’t believe they save any time. I’m very against dishwashers.
Guys, , you’re my second favourite vourite band and it’s the e same for my friends. Are re you happy being everyone’s veryone’s second favourite band?
Ross Mitchell, Peacehaven GU-H: I was thinking
this the other day. You don’t often see people wearing our T-shirts, so I thought: “I reckon we’re not a lot of people’s favourite band, but we’re in a lot of people’s top fives.” You don’t only go and watch your favourite band, so maybe that’s the secret to our success – a lot of people quite like us. What do you think of that theory? JN: I’ll buy that.
What’s your former bandmate Gwil Sainsbury done since he quit in 2014? Sarah Cooke, via Q Mail GU-H: He did a master’s degree and is enjoying life doing other projects. It was genuinely an amicable split. It was hard to take at first, but we’re good now. It was upsetting because we liked him so much. JN: There was a funny bit when Thom turned up late for the meeting when Gwil told us. We were all sat there looking grim when he walked in, so when Gwil told him he was leaving the band, he went: “Oh fuck! OK. I actually thought you were all going to fire me!”
When was the last time you wrote an angry letter? Laura Paulsen, via Q Mail GU-H: I do this quite a lot, I’m a complainer. I can’t remember the last one, but the first one was when I was nine. I decided the thing that told you which chocolate was which in a box of Black Magic was really unclear, so I wrote to Nestlé to complain. I ended the letter with: “I demand compensation!” I did get a letter back apologising, but I didn’t get any free chocolates.
David Cameron put alt-J on a playlist for former US president Barack Obama and other leaders. If Theresa May did one for Donald Trump, what song of yours should she pick? Ruth Kelly, via Twitter GU-H: I thought it was cool when Johnny Marr said Cameron wasn’t allowed to like The Smiths, but if I’d gone, “Hey, Cameron, you’re not allowed to like alt-J” people would have just gone, “Whatever, mate…” But Trump doesn’t deserve music. JN: I don’t think he listens to music, he’s a psychopath, isn’t he? We’d write a special song for him in nursery rhyme form so he can process it. Politics aside, it didn’t bother me that someone told David Cameron what songs are good and then he sent it to Barack Obama. I got a kick out of the fact that the leader of the free ee world had one of our songs Tessellate],
and it was a racy one! What’s your favourite historical era? Erin Anderson Kymes, via Twitter GU-H: I’d like to go back to see Henry VIII and stuff like that, or maybe a bit earlier to medieval times. I like things like cathedrals and buildings like that. TSG: I think maybe the ’ 80s in New York. I’d liked to have been around the graffiti era. It seemed like a good time to be a young artist. JN: I know it wasn’t that long ago, but I’d like to relive the ’ 90s as an adult in the music industry. It’s the period I grew up in and I’ve got this deep-rooted fascination with everything ’ 90s. I’d love to have gone to the gig where Alan McGee first saw Oasis.
What’s your favourite relaxant? Emma Styles, Horsham TSG: Music. GU-H: You can’t beat booze for me. Booze is great! I do like reefer now and then or a bit of ecstasy, very occasionally, but really it’s good old brother booze. JN: Yeah, brother booze definitely. I’m not interested in the prescription stuff. I took something once for a flight and it knocked me out, but not in a good way. So yeah, booze!
Can each of you describe alt-J’s sound in three words? Rosemary Johnstone, Liverpool GU-H: “Very. Very. Good.” Or how about “Progressive. Indie. Folk”? JN: We could probably nail that question, but it would take us a week to do it justice. GU-H: Can we write a letter in next month with our definitive answer?
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“I got a kick out of the fact that Obama, leader of the free world, had one of our songs and it was a racy one.” Joe Newman
agents “And the award for estate Alt-J (with of the year goes to...” far ex-member Gwil Sainsbury, Prize in 2012. right) win the Mercury
“It’s from Ed Sheeran… he wants to use the for his next album.”
Smiley Miley: Cyrus is “very polite” and “very nice”, say alt-J.
“Alt-J? I’ve heard of the alt-right, Dave.” Obama gives a cautious welcome to Cameron’s iPod playlist choice.
King of aeon: Gus fancies a trip back to the days of Henry VIII.
He should cocoa: an “unclear” chocolate box menu prompted a young Gus to complain.