Off-beat Brit rockers Alt-J has seen its profile grow in recent months. The band, made up of Joe Newman (vocals/guitar), Gus Unger-Hamilton (vocals/keyboards), Gwil Sainsbury (guitarist/bassist) and Thom Green (drums), won the coveted Mercury Prize for their debut album, An Awesome Wave. And for their return to North America for a second round of touring this side of the pond, Alt-J easily sold out much of the trek far in advance. At the start of their tour, Unger-Hamilton checked in with proQB to discuss the band’s origins, their literary influences and their first time scoring a movie.
Let’s start with the history of the band. How did Alt-J form? We met at Leeds University, we were all students there and in our first year we made friends. Joe had written some songs and he wanted to find some people to play with in a band, so one by one he approached us and his friends he’d made at university who were in some way musical. Gwil, Thom and I were all asked to join the band and it’s been the same lineup ever since.
Tell me about the origin of the band’s name. We may be running out of band names by 2013, but you guys came up with something different and unique. Gwil discovered the Alt-J shortcut on his computer, which creates the “delta” symbol, and he thought we should call our band just the delta symbol, which is a triangle in the Greek alphabet. That was kind of our band name but we chose to pronounce it Alt-J, because we knew being played on the radio, you need to really give your band a name that is spoken and not just written. So it was going to be said “Alt-J” and written like a triangle or a delta. But now the delta symbol remains as sort of a masthead for the band…
The lyrics to your first single “Fitzpleasure” are a lot more disturbing that I realized. Have you gotten some interesting misheard interpretations of the lyrics? We had some mishearings before the album came out, and before the lyrics were actually published anywhere. I think there was actually a blog, which is probably still up there somewhere called “Guess The Alt-J Lyrics” or “Misheard Alt-J Lyrics.” It’s pretty funny, the interpretations of “Fitzpleasure” on there. The song is actually about the book Last Exit To Brooklyn, and there’s a chapter where a character called Tralala essentially has a pretty nasty experience involving a group of sailors and a broom.
Is it true that “Breezeblocks” was inspired by Where The Wild Things Are? Yeah, in a sense it was. I think it’s a song about someone wanting to leave a relationship and that’s what the song’s really about, but there’s this lyrical nod to Where The Wild Things Are, in the “please don’t go/I’ll eat you whole/I love you so” [part of the lyrics]. That’s kind of paraphrasing Maurice Sendak.
Are there a lot of other literary references and inspirations in your songs? Yeah, they pop up here and there in the lyrics; I suppose there are references to everything from American Psycho to films like The Good The Bad & The Ugly in the songs.
How has the reaction to the band here in the States felt to you? You’ve gone from small venues to heading out on a bigger U.S. tour that is mostly sold out way in advance! It’s a really nice feeling. In the States people seem to really get us. When we first started the band, we weren’t trying to make music to have mainstream appeal. We were trying to make music that we thought was interesting. So seeing the way things have gone, it’s pretty crazy for us. We always thought we were a bit left field and cerebral for people, but apparently not.
It’s also famously a bit more difficult for British bands to break through in the U.S., but your whole 2013 is mapped out, well into the fall. Are you guys prepared? Yeah, I think if you want to have any degree of success here in America, you have to tour a lot, which is fine for us, we really enjoy touring America. It’s more fun that touring the UK because it’s so much bigger and there’s so much variation between the different cities. It’s like loads of countries all in one, it’s brilliant.
An Awesome Wave won the Mercury Prize! How did that feel? It was a dream, it was incredible. The Mercury Prize is something that we have all grown up really respecting. Every year when the shortlist comes out you make an effort to listen to all the albums. It’s the most critically acclaimed music prize in the UK, so just to be nominated was pretty incredible. We still can’t really believe we won it. We just haven’t had much time to actually reflect on it but it’s just incredible.
Alt-J is also scoring the film Leave To Remain, how did that come about? That’s also a unique project to have so early in your career. The director Bruce Goodison had been listening to our album while he was writing the screenplay for his new film and when he was casting around for what music to use for the film, he just approached us on the off chance we’d be interested in working with him. I don’t know if he thought we were gonna say ‘yes’ or not. We’ve always thought soundtrack work would be something we’d be really, really interested in, because ultimately I think we’re a band who really like to craft sounds in the studio, probably more than just play live. Even though in the last year that’s actually changed, we enjoy playing live a lot more than we used to. So Bruce came to us and said, “Here’s the script, read it, see what you think and let me know if it’s something you’d like to do.” We said yes pretty quickly, it’s a really great film; it’s an indie social-realist drama about asylum seekers in the UK and London. So we said “Yes, let’s definitely do it,” and we’ve had a really good time in the studio. We’ve been quite free; we haven’t had to work too much with Bruce. It wasn’t like he was giving us scenes and saying “OK at 3:46 you need to come in really loudly at a surprising moment in the film.” It’s more that he wants us to create some kind of soundscapes, with a few key words or ideas in mind, and it’s going to be fitted to the film once the movie has been edited. So it’s a nice way to work. There’s no pressure to sculpt your ideas into short, coherent segments, as there is when you’re making an album. If you want to just write a moody 15 minute soundscape, it’s ok.
It feels like Alt-J’s sound would definitely work well as a score, especially with the different ways that film scores are evolving. I just saw The Master, which was the second film Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead scored. All of us really, really love his score for There Will Be Blood. You look at someone like Jonny Greenwood and think I want to be there in 10 or 20 years, and this is a nice way to start.