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alt-J - The Under the Radar Cover Story

Punching Above Their Weight

Dec 22, 2014 Issue #51 - September/October 2014 - alt-J Photography by Pal Hansen Bookmark and Share

It’s November 4, 2012, and alt-J is on top of the world. Less than a day earlier, their full-length debut An Awesome Wave had won The Mercury Prizethe much-coveted annual award given to the year’s best album by an artist born in the U.K. or Ireland. Sitting down for their first post-win interview with online magazine St. Pauls Lifestyle, vocalist and guitarist Joe Newman, keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton, and drummer Thom Green seem more shocked than celebratory, though. Tired and hung-over, they look like college kids the day after graduation, excited about their future but shaken by the realization that things will never be quite the same. “This is really real for us now,” Newman says with a sense of disbelief, sinking into a couch, bags under his eyes. And the way he says those words implies thataccolades asidethings becoming “real” just might not be a good thing.

If the members of alt-J hadn’t quite yet realized the seriousness of their endeavor, it’s only because they’d spent the last year too busy to do anything but focus on their next step. Though they had already been a band for five years at that point, their roots stretching back to when Newman met bassist Gwil Sainsbury at Leeds University in 2007, the band’s momentum was of a much more recent vintage. Less than a year before winning The Mercury Prize, they were looking for a record deal. A few months before that, they were playing their first shows in London. A year before that, they were just graduating college, four students more interested in recording their first EP than ever using their degrees. But for a band that admits to previously having had a bit of “imposter syndrome” weighing them down, winning The Mercury Prize was a moment of confirmation. This was no longer just a band; this was a career.

“The Mercury Prize had been for us, for years and years growing up, a very important thing,” recalls Unger-Hamilton, and two years later he still sounds like he can’t quite comprehend their victory.

“Winning it was like, ‘Holy shit!’ Essentially, if I could have asked for one thing for us to achieve as a band, it was to win a Mercury Prize. If we had said that three years ago, it would have been the same as saying, ‘I’d love to win the lottery’ or ‘I’d love to win the Oscar for Best Actor.’ And yet we’d just done it,” he says, pausing to relive the memory. “Even now, talking to you about it, I’m starting to think, ‘Oh, my God. That was amazing.’”

Sitting in the London offices of East City Management, they’re still dealing with the fallout of that victory. Most obviously, the quartet has been reduced to a trio, with Sainsbury quitting because of the increased obligations that come with being a part of a successful rock band. He’s not the only one affected by the band’s increased profileNewman cut out nearly all interviews and will now only go on the record when flanked by Unger-Hamilton and Green. Following (and perhaps because of) their win, An Awesome Wave would go on to sell a million copies worldwide and alt-J faced their first backlash, with the British press decrying the band for being “bland” personalities and art-rock icon Bryan Ferry smacking them for their “celebration of normality.” It’s a strange criticism to be surebut one that seems to have stung them. It’s also not a charge completely without merit. The members of alt-J do seem like nice, normal guys.

On this day, they are in good spirits, not yet worn down by the process of being asked the same questions over and over about a sophomore album that hardly anyone has yet heard. Put them in the same room, and if you didn’t know anything else about them, you’d probably still realize Newman was the lead singer. Neatly groomed, he talks most often and with the most elaboration, maintaining eye contact and often flashing a mischievous smile, his head slightly cocked to one side like he’s letting you in on an inside joke. It’s easy to contrast him with Green, his long hair tumbling out from under a black baseball cap, a few days’ stubble on his face. Green has a quiet stillness about him, speaking slowly with a deep voice, narrowing his eyes when answering questions as if straining to see the answer. Unger-Hamilton is the professor of the group, looking every bit the former English major with his oversized glasses and goatee. Wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt, he’s articulate and agreeable, answering every question with a quick “yes,” even if he spends the rest of his answer explaining why the real answer is “no.” Simply put, you can’t imagine any of them ever trashing a hotel room or even pilfering a stray towel.

But that doesn’t mean This Is All Yours, their much-anticipated second release, sounds like a record that was made by three average 25-year-olds who spend their evenings down at the local pub (though they do that, too). As if rising to the challenge of their critics, the threesome has made a deeply eccentric sophomore album. If the distinctly inward-looking character of An Awesome Wave was at least partly a product of the limitations inherent in writing and rehearsing in a college dorm, This Is All Yours is drawn on a much grander scale. Though much of their signature sound remainsthe multi-layered harmonies, the precariously shifting song structures, the impeccable balance of richly layered textures contrasted against the sensation of open spaceit’s also a much less understated affair. Darker and crisper than their debut, it’s more direct but also more detailed, grand gestures balanced with subtle shifts. The melodies are more pronounced, the arrangements are allowed more room to unravel and tangle, and the rhythms are more of a focal point, splintering out into unpredictable directions as much as they hold a steady pulse. Where before they could sound like a band stumbling into novel ideas, with the audacity of youth strong enough to push them to follow them, they now sound like intentional craftsmen. “I haven’t learned composition; I just go to what feels right,” Newman admits. “I’m more gut than head.”

From the wordless swirl of oscillating vocals that open the album through the lusty vocals and dark ribbons of guitar feedback on “Every Other Freckle” and the haunted piano balladry and sparking electronic beats of “Bloodflood, Pt. 2,” this is a band dancing on the edges of their imaginations and at the height of their confidence. And that’s the word they mention most often when talking about how they’ve changed over the past two years“confidence.” Almost two months to the day before This Is All Yours is set to be releaseda fact Unger-Hamilton half-embarrassedly brings up when he admits he’s counting down the daysthe trio seems eager to prove their confidence was warranted.

Three Points Where Two Lines Meet

Newman is quite amused, or at least he seems to be. A few hours ago he discovered a fan cover of “Hunger of the Pine,” the characteristically beautiful mid-tempo ballad that serves as the album’s first single. Built around Newman’s wistfully fluttering vocal and a slowly awakening arrangement, there are a lot of moving parts that could be pulled out to create an inspired cover. This fan, however, has managed to fall short of any reasonable standard, butchering the lyrics so badly that Newman wonders if he was doing a parody. “He was this Jamie T. kind of rockabilly guy who was stamping his foot, playing his small little guitar,” Newman says. “And the ‘I’m a rebel’ bit, he must have sang it about 20 times, and between those times he was going like ‘Uh oooh! Uh oooh!’ But I don’t really care. I really like writing lyrics, but it’s not necessarily important to me for people to figure out what I’m communicating. They can do what they like with it, as long as they like the lyrics.”

Perhaps no other moment captures so well the transition from the quartet of recent college grads that made An Awesome Wave to the newly confident threesome who constructed This Is All Yours than “Hunger of the Pine.” Having spent much of the past two years in a tour van, his drums either set up on stage or locked in a truck, Green taught himself the art of laptop production during long rides between tour stops, his experiments coming to fruition months later with “Hunger of the Pine.” With roughly half of the album already written at the time, the song provided the bridge to where the band would go, the first track where Green finally realized how to integrate his electronic production techniques and samples into the band’s sound. And while Green is quick to point out that he wanted his programmed drums to be unobtrusive and his use of samples subtle, it’s a decidedly unsubtle vocal sample in “Hunger of the Pine” that has been generating the most attention. The nice, normal boys of alt-J have sampled the queen of American twerkers, Miley Cyrus.

“As soon as I put the sample on the instrumental that I had for ‘Hunger of the Pine,’ I knew straightaway that it worked,” Green explains. “Joe liked it a lot to start with. Gus was a bit unsure, purely because he wasn’t sure if it would be a good idea to have that connection with her, and I understand that. We went back and forth with it, purely because we didn’t want to give off the impression that we were trying to gain something from her massive celebrity status. In the end, we realized it just sounded good, and it’s actually kind of cool that we have a pop star like that associated with us, because why not? At the end of the day, whether it’s Miley Cyrus or not, it just fits with the track.”

Having worked on a remix for Cyrus, Green had access to her isolated vocal tracks and couldn’t resist the temptation to see how her vocal would fit in with Newman’s ethereal vocal and tumbling acoustic guitar lines. The answer is, it really doesn’t, and it provides what is easily the most jarring moment on an album filled with unexpected shifts. In a strange way, that’s also why it works, representing such a strange juxtaposition that it instantly becomes the first thing you remember about the song. And while Cyrus’ publishers reportedly requested 40 percent of the royalties of the song in exchange for clearing the sample, Cyrus herself intervened to sort out the issue. “She’s quite a decent person, and she’s in control of what she’s doing, ” Green says. “I’m actually quite proud of the connection. We’re kind of friends now. We speak now and again.”

Unsurprisingly, the same song that inspired an overeager cover also inspired an enterprising fan to post to YouTube a version of the song with the Cyrus sample conspicuously stripped out, the words “Why waste a good song because of Miley Cyrus?” in the description. These are the sorts of considerations the band didn’t have to consider the first time around and now had to labor to keep out of their process, trying their best to keep their minds rooted in their work and not the eventual reactions to it. To do so, they wanted to keep things informal and familiar, and they rented a floor in a former factory in East London, more informal hangout than rehearsal space. Here they worked at a leisurely but regular pace, turning up every day around 11:00 a.m. and heading to the pub for drinks at 5:00 p.m. The songs would come surprisingly easily.

By the time they headed back to Iguana Studios to work with producer Charles Andrew in April of 2014, they had a set of songs ready for finishing touches. “The Ballad of John Hurt,” a hypnotic leftover from their college days that references John Hurt’s chest-bursting scene from Alien, was finally finished with some electronic touches added by Green. Similarly, “Warm Foothills” expanded from a gently fingerpicked ballad with crystalline keyboards and percolating percussion to become an all-star collaboration with brief vocal contributions from Conor Oberst, Lianne La Havas, Marika Hackman, and Sivueach of them dropping individual phrases into the song to complete each other’s lines. Best of all is the darkly hymn-like “Nara,” a track named for the Japanese town where wild deer are free to come and go as they please, here serving as a metaphor for a gay man who only wants to be left alone to love who he wants. Though not radically different from most of the material on their debut, these are songs that require a softer touch, and This Is All Yours impresses mostly for how the band can balance contrasts, managing to be both grounded and expansive, gentle and aggressive, sprawling and focusedall at once.

Still, these are not songs that make for easy radio singles, a concern the band’s American label, Atlantic subsidiary Canvasback Music, pushed them to consider. To answer (and mock) that request for a more marketable single, the band took 20 minutes to write “Left Hand Free,” throwing together a wildly rocking arrangement around a snaking garage blues riff that Newman would play in rehearsal as a joke. Naturally, Atlantic loved it. And while it started out as an attempt to blow off steam, the band grew to love it, too.

“That day that we were writing it, I think we realized that it was a good track,” Green says. “We always said we do what we like to hear, and whatever it sounds like, if we like it, it stays. If we had said, ‘Oh, this is too silly’ or ‘We’re better than that,’ then we’d be cowards. Sonically and the production in it, I love how fresh it sounds. The vocals have some weird effect and sound really lo-fi, and I love that. Everybody is saying that it sounds like The Black Keys, but I’d never heard The Black Keys before. And now I kind of like The Black Keys,” he laughs, “so it has opened up some musical doors for me.”

Never Leave It Too Late

Given his easy-going manner and apparent comfort in conversation, you wouldn’t expect Newman to be the member of the band who is so uncomfortable with having to explain their songs that he mostly avoids doing interviews. In fact, while each of them has a certain everyman charm (not to mention a kind of fidgety awkwardness), Newman is the most naturally charismatic, with an easy sincerity that makes everything he says sound humble and heartfelt. Ask Green and Unger-Hamilton what drew them to Newman, and they both give the same answer: his sense of humor. Talk to him for five minutes, and you’ll see what they mean, as Newman has a good-naturedly self-effacing way of talking about himself that one assumes keeps him grounded and indicates the actual confidence that he has regarding his own abilities. To hear him tell it, such confidence was a long time coming.

Though he spent the previous six years honing his songwriting craft, Newman still wasn’t quite ready to share it with anyone by the time he got to Leeds University in the fall of 2007. He had gone to college with the intention of finding likeminded artists, but he still lacked the confidence to trust someone enough to hear his work. Then he met fellow art student Gwil Sainsbury in his art classes, discovering that his new friend was also a musician with an interest in playing guitar and recording. By November of his first year in college, he finally was ready to put his music out into the world, even if that world didn’t stretch beyond the walls of Sainsbury’s apartment.

“I just thought I was never going to be any good, so I was determined not to play for anyone until I had a song that I knew I was proud of and that I knew people would like,” Newman says. “I didn’t have any of those songs. Then I went to university, and I met Gwil, and I played him one song and it not only caught his attention, but it caught his flat-mate’s attention. He was just cooking in the kitchen, and he overheard it and came and sat down, and after I finished playing he said, ‘That was really nice.’ That made me realize that maybe I did have an idea of how to write and how to connect with people through that writing.”

One early convert was Gus Unger-Hamilton. The only member of the band that wasn’t an art major, Unger-Hamilton didn’t run in the same social circles but he would bump into Newman while doing laundry, and the two had bonded over their taste for obscure humor. By the end of that first academic year, in May of 2008, Newman was so confident in the songs he and Sainsbury were working on that he gave Unger-Hamilton a CD of his demos. Classically-trained as a pianist and choir student, Unger-Hamilton could offer the sort of music theory grounding that would provide a structure for Newman to push against with his untrained ear.

By September of 2008, the band that would become alt-J was nearly ready to have their first official practice. Having met Thom Green when they were the first two to arrive at one of their art classes, bonding over a shared appreciation of Scottish artist David Shrigley, Newman had found his drummer, even if he didn’t approach him about joining the band for another year. Having drummed in metal bands since he was a kid, Green wasn’t an obvious match for the kinds of songs Newman was writing but had more practical experience than any of them. He would become the final piece in the alt-J sound.

“The first thing I heard, I was blown away,” Green recalls. “I remember it being like nothing I had ever heard before. I just knew that I wanted to be involved with it. It was really interesting, and it was so simple. I felt quite flattered that I’d been invited into what they were doing, to be involved. It was completely separate from anything else that I likeit seemed like its own entity. I can’t hold it up to anything else,” he says, struggling, “and I can’t describe it in a few sentences.”

In truth, they’re still struggling to describe what those early sessions sounded like, but they all agree that whatever became the alt-J sound was there from the very beginning. Unger-Hamilton describes them in terms of “electricity,” a “crackle of chemistry” that none of them understood. Green is more specific, explaining that he immediately found his groove-centered drumming was perfectly suited for Newman’s fluid, percussive guitar playing. If their sound was unique, it was at least partly due to the restrictions of playing in a dorm.

At this point, they had modest goals. As Sainsbury had learned the art of GarageBand production, they aimed only to record their tracks well enough to put them up on MySpace. Still uncomfortable with his voice, Newman was expecting to eventually audition female singers to front the band. But just as he came to a slow realization that his songs were good enough to share with other people, he eventually came to the conclusion that his unusually nuanced singing style could be a strength, an instrument to make them stand out from the hundreds of other bands fighting for the same listeners. It wasn’t until almost two years later (or, “20 months later,” as Unger-Hamilton puts it, with typical precision) that they were ready to play their first show in the lounge of a house Newman and Sainsbury were renting. With 40 of their friends in attendance, their debut greatly exceeded their modest expectations. “We felt in some weird way like we made it. Even though it was our first gig, it was so exhilarating,” Unger-Hamilton says, pausing dramatically. “Then we stayed at that level of success for about three years.”

“I expected that after playing that gig I would be scored more highly by the opposite sex,” Newman admits, flashing a grin that cracks up his bandmates. “I thought that would be my chance to punch above my weight successfully without feeling like, ‘How am I doing this?’ It would be like, ‘This makes sense. I’m going out with this gorgeous girl because I’m in this band.’ That was one of my major expectations.”

Such underdog stories seem central to the alt-J mythology, and it appears that each member has had moments where he has seen himself as an undersized boxer trading punches with a larger foe. They were slightly awkward guys who had to leave home to find likeminded friends. They were (self-described) “average” students with dim job prospects. They were fledgling musicians who hardly had any musical equipment, too normal to ever get much attention. And while their cult wasn’t growing much beyond their friends, it was expanding, however incrementally, marked by every time the local radio station would play one of their songs or an unfamiliar face turned up at one of their shows. And with a down economy and poor job market, it wasn’t like there were lucrative or fulfilling careers waiting for them anyway. After graduation, they claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance and started working on making their first album. But even this was a fight.

“We weren’t deluded,” Newman says. “We weren’t one of those bands that had that X Factor confidence, where we knew we had something. But we knew we were doing something good. So, of course, we got the same reaction that most people probably get when you say ‘I’m in a band.’ People roll their eyes and think, ‘Of course you are. Everyone’s in a band, aren’t they? You’re so naïve.’ That sort of reinforced our resolve to really give it a go. Not only did we think we could do it, and we believed in our songs, but I think none of us liked being treated the way we were treated by some people, like, ‘Of course you’re in band. You haven’t got a clue. When are you going to get into the real world and get jobs and become a useful member of society?’ That pissed us off.”

Little by little, they channeled that frustration into determination. Having gone through the names “Daljit Dhaliwal” and “Films,” they eventually settled on “alt-J”the combination of buttons on Mac computers that will create a delta sign, the scientific symbol for change. Before graduating they had met producer Charlie Andrew after a friend passed him a CD of their demos, and they had begun a three-year process of collaboration, Andrew working them into his schedule and recording them for free. By 2011, they were ready to release their debut EP and taped their first BBC session in July. By November, they were playing their first London show, and to their great surprise 200 people showed up for the 150-person capacity room, the crowd spilling out onto the street. By the time they released An Awesome Wave in May of 2012, the moment was right.

“I think it was a record that accidentally had quite a broad appeal musically,” Unger-Hamilton says. “Without meaning to we made an album that people who are into all kinds of music and who are of all ages could get into. I think, also, it was a record that was serious enough that it seemed like an album you should take seriously, but it was poppy enough that it could be enjoyed by loads of people. If you were with friends and you wanted to put some music on, you could put our album on both to impress people by being like, ‘Yeah, I listen to intellectual indie,’ but also most of the people in the room would enjoy it, whether they were appreciating it on a deep, intellectual level or just tapping their foot to it.”

By the time they headed to the United States for a brief tour in September of 2012, Sainsbury was starting to waver. During a meeting with the band’s manager, he acknowledged that he didn’t enjoy touring and suggested that perhaps the band should cut back on their schedule. As the rest of the band was still enjoying the thrill of being an internationally touring band for the first time, it was incomprehensible that Sainsbury would even think about impeding the momentum they’d worked so hard to create. “That knocked me back a bit and made me a bit scared, like, ‘Is he going to ruin this for us?’” Green says. “The way he went about it, he regressed. He stopped socializing on tour. He stopped doing interviews. He spent all his time in his room whenever he wasn’t playing. I thought, ‘That’s just the way he’s dealing with it. Once we’ve come off tour, we’ll get to go home and we’ll start writing this new album, and he’ll be alright again.’ So I didn’t actually see it coming. I don’t think any of us did.”

Homesick and missing his girlfriend, it turns out Sainsbury just wasn’t cut out for the demands of being in a buzz band. When he finally left, they all reacted differently. Unger-Hamilton panicked, wondering if the band could continue. Newman kept a brave face, emphasizing that everyone in the band remain on good terms. Green, by his own admission, was angry, utterly astounded that Sainsbury would quit the band right at the moment all of their work was paying off. But with Sainsbury now back in school, working on his Master’s in Art, Green says all is forgiven.

“I think Gwil leaving was a good thing in the end,” Green says. “It wasn’t part of his plan to be in a band like this. Whilst it was hard and we were a bit upset, because we were best friends, we knew he wasn’t happy. To make that decision is such a massive decision to make, and we felt a bit sorry that he had been put through something that he wasn’t happy with. But it gave us quite an odd perspective, because we realized that we didn’t have to be in the band unless we wanted to. Gwil leaving made me realize that I don’t have to answer to anybody. At the end of the day, we’re the band. We hire our label and our manager, and, essentially, they work for us. You lose sight of that sometimes. It actually empowered us a bit; it gave us a bit more confidence.”

Put the Grenade Pin in Your Hand

Though the great majority of the press surrounding An Awesome Wave was positiveat least before the “alt-J is too normal to be interesting” crowd picked up momentumnot everyone was sold on them from the start. American indie trendsetters Pitchfork not only didn’t like their debut, writer Laura Snapes seemed eager to derail the alt-J train before it left the station. Attacking the album for its “tentativeness” and incomprehensible lyrics, even describing Newman’s singing as “halfway between Macy Gray and a goose gibbering,” it was the sort of review that seems designed to kill a career.

“I remember being outside a motel when the review came online,” Unger-Hamilton says, as if remembering a crime scene, “and we were reading it aloud with a mixture of amusement and shock. I had slight hurt feelings and, undeniably, I thought it was a bit unfair. As time has gone on, we’ve thought and less and less about it. I’ve stopped sending threatening letters to them.” Since a positive review from Pitchfork can launch a band into the world of larger venues and late-night shows, and a negative review can brand a band with a stamp of illegitimacy, much seemed to be riding on it. The underdogs had just bumped up against the biggest bully on the playground.

“It was a very strong review, and we enjoyed it as much as we were hurt by it,” Newman says, and it’s hard to know whether he’s being honest or taking the high road. “The worst reviews are the ones where the journalist can barely remember any of the tracks and gives it a very bland four out of 10, because you haven’t made an impact. I think I enjoyed how much she hated us. It wasn’t that she just disliked the music; she actually hated us. I thought that was really funny.”

Green, who was called out by name in the review and mocked for bragging about the band’s varied influences, is far less sanguine. Of all of the members of the band, he seems to be the one that is most fiercely defensive of his bandmates and the work that they’re doing. Two years after the review, it’s obvious that the sting hasn’t quite faded. “I was pissed off, because I like Pitchfork, and now I feel like I can’t like Pitchfork,” he says, his normally circumspect tone sharpening. “Now, I don’t want to be associated with Pitchfork. I don’t want them to be associated with us ever, because they fucked up.”

It’s a striking momentthe drummer for a million-selling band still smarting over a two-year-old reviewand one that temporarily offers a brief glimpse into the likely insecurities of three musicians who are probably still getting used to the fact that they don’t have to fight for anyone to take them seriously. They’ve gone from trying to punch above their weight to meet girls to boxing in the heavyweight class of rock bands, confident enough to reinvent themselves in the middle of recording an album but still bothered by old blemishes on their record. Despite all of their victories, one gets the sense that their losses are what continue to propel them forward.

“I think we are like a boxer in a computer game, because when you play the game you have stats for the boxers,” Newman says, returning to his earlier metaphor. “It will be like ‘Power: 10 out of 10. Speed: 4 out of 10. Intelligence: 8 out of 10.’ We’re like the ultimate boxer. We’re the boxer you are after completing the game, and all of your stats are high.”

“Or the boxer you make when you make your own character, and you cheat, and you have an infinite amount of skill points,” Unger-Hamilton replies.

“Yeah, so we have an infinite amount of skill points,” Newman says, grinning. “We’re the best band in the world!” Unger-Hamilton shouts, taking the boast to the next level while everyone laughs. But even though they’re probably now confident enough that they could create an argument for such a claim’s truth, the statement can’t be allowed to stand, even as a joke. “No,” Newman says, looking straight at me with a smile, slightly different this time. “Don’t make that the headline.”

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s September/October print issue (Issue 51).]


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