They’re following a mega-selling, prize-winning debut, and have slimmed from a four-piece to a trio, but as Alt-J’s keyboard player and singer Gus Unger-Hamilton tells Chris Broom, they’re relishing their return.
Often when you hear of a split in a band’s ranks and a key member departs, it’s described as ‘amicable’, but it eventually emerges that it was anything but.
However in the case of Alt-J, it appears to be the truth.
At the start of the year, guitarist Gwil Sainsbury decided to leave the 2012 Mercury Prize-winning group, and the usual noises were made by all concerned.
But the day before keyboard player and singer Gus Unger-Hamilton spoke to The Guide, the group posted a picture on social media of all four original members enjoying themselves at the pub.
‘He’s actually still at my flat right now,’ says Gus down the phone. ‘We haven’t seen much of him in the last six months because we’ve been busy doing the album. He’s moved to Bristol and doing his own thing, but yes, it’s been really amicable.
‘It was definitely sudden when he said he wanted to leave. It was out of the blue, but we understood why. I almost didn’t need to ask why, as he wasn’t happy in the band.’
The skittering indie rock of their debut, An Awesome Wave, which took in electro and Afro-pop influences, has so far sold more than a million copies. Second album This Is All Yours (pictured far right) will be released on September 22.
But when tickets recently went on sale for their forthcoming tour, which sees them hitting the Brighton Centre on September 23, there were still nerves.
As it turned out, the nerves were misplaced – London’s Alexandra Palace sold out in 10 minutes.
‘I remember getting an e-mail from our manager and I punched the air,’ recalls Gus. ‘That was the first time we’d put UK tickets on sale since 2012. So it had been almost two years since we’d put any tickets on sale – we’d been like, what if we do this and in a few day our manager comes to us and says it’s been a bit slow, let’s scale it down? It was extremely like, thank God we’ve still got fans.
‘At some point we’d gone from being a hot new band to part of the establishment, which was strange, because I still think of us as a new band, but I guess we’re not now. There are people who were really into us when we started, but don’t think we’re cool any more.’
Despite the understandable concerns about returning after a short lay-off, Gus insists the band, completed by Joe Newman on guitars and lead vocals and Thom Green on drums, were not feeling the pressure.
‘We were confident that whatever we put out we’d be happy with. It’s become like a little mantra – when our second album comes, for it to have been released we must be happy with it, therefore we know it must be good or it won’t happen at all,’ he laughs. ‘And it’s definitely happening – we’re very happy with it.
‘The bulk of the album was written since January after Gwil left the band.
‘We’d already booked studio time to start album number two. We took the blow of Gwil leaving but kept moving and didn’t let it hold us back too much.’
And it seems they never considered replacing Gwil. ‘We thought, let’s see how we get on as a three-piece, and it seems to be okay.’
‘The label were really great and totally left us to it.
‘We didn’t put pressure on ourselves. We were methodical – we put on a sort of harness and got to work, and that was a good approach for us.
‘We enjoyed hanging out as a band again and remembering why we did this in the first place, which was because we enjoyed each other’s company and making music.’
The album’s first single, Hunger of the Pine came out in June with a video that showed a lone man trying – and failing – to outrun a swarm of arrows. And Gus agrees that there is a dark side to the band that is often overlooked by people.
‘I think they definitely do, particularly with a song like Fitzpleasure [from an Awesome Wave]. We’ve played that song on David Letterman, in the US and we’re like: you do know that song’s about a brutal gang rape don’t you? It’s weird, but partly because it’s a song about a book, we’re not just making it up as we go along.’
The aformentioned Fitzpleasure is based on a grisly episode from the controversial ’60s novel Last Exit to Brooklyn – but an instrumental version was one of three Alt-J songs picked up by the Beeb and used for regular idents on BBC2.
When asked if the song’s content was ever queried by the BBC, Gus pauses in thought before replying: ‘I think we almost forget what our songs are about, sometimes it just became “Fitzpleasure” – even when we sing it onstage, I don’t necessarily think about the lyrics. Now you mention it, it could have made a huge storm for the BBC, it could have been a huge, huge hoopla: “the BBC’s using a song which glamourises violence against women”, which I don’t think it does, by the way. But it could have been construed that way. Thinking about that now, we really kind of seem to have avoided that.’
But for now the band are focussed on getting out on the road, and looking forward to introducing the new material to their fans. They’re also aware that the knives will be out: ‘We’ve got a big challenge about getting these songs ready to play live, and that’s our main focus at the moment.
‘We want to come back and not give people any room to criticise if they want to take potshots at us – we don’t want to make it too easy for them.
‘It’s nice to keep people on their toes, isn’t it?’
Using a Miley Cyrus sample on new single, Hunger of the Pine
I think she’s on a slight mission to have people take her seriously, and why not? I didn’t know if people would like that sample, but they seem to.
Joe had this idea of someone getting hit by loads of arrows. He tried putting it into some lyrics a few years back and it didn’t quite work, but it’s an image that’s almost fixated him, I think. It’s quite effective.
Left Hand Free
It’s the track our American label really liked when we played them the album. We wrote it in a very slapdash kind of way, which was unusual for us, normally we’re very tortured about crafting our songs.
- Alt-J will be at the Brighton Centre in Brighton on Tuesday, September 23, doors open at 6.30pm.
Tickets cost £22.
Go to brightoncentre.co.uk or call 0844 847 1515.