Interview with Gus Unger-Hamilton – Alt-J
ALT-J are JOE NEWMAN, GUS UNGER-HAMILTON and THOM GREEN, one of the most successful British bands of the millennium.
Their new album RELAXER follows THIS IS ALL YOURS and the Mercury Prize and Ivor Novello Award-winning debut album AN AWESOME WAVE.
Between them, the two records have sold in excess of two million copies and their songs have been streamed more than one billion times.
The band have headlined festivals across the globe and sold out London O2 Arena and New York’s legendary Madison Square Garden on their last tour.
After recently releasing their new album ‘Relaxer’ and a recent return to the London O2 Arena for a special show as part of the venue’s 10th birthday celebrations, their busy tour has now begun.
Rachel Ducker caught up with Gus Unger-Hamilton to find out more about it…
R: When did you first realize you had a passion for music?
I have always grown up with music, my dad was a musician and I played the piano from, well… I can’t remember a time I didn’t play the piano really!
I think it was starting in a band that made me, for the first time, see music as purely something to do for enjoyment. I’d had a pretty strict upbringing in terms of piano practices, I was also a chorister at Ely Cathedral, there was always musical stuff that was forced on me, and that’s fine I am not complaining, but, I think it was actually meeting Joe and the guys at university and starting the band that made me realize ‘oh actually this is something that I want to do rather than just something that I just do’ without questioning it.
R: That was my next question actually, how did Alt-J form as a band?
We all met during our first year at Leeds University. Joe had come to uni with the expressed desire of finding like-minded people to start a band with. Within the first year he found me, Thom and Gwil and thought we would be good band mates, so he said ‘listen I want to get a band together’ and that’s really how we did it.
R: How did you come up with the name Alt-J?
I haven’t had this question in a long time, its named after the keyboard shortcut on the mac to make the Greek letter ‘Delta’ which is a sort of tribal thing.
R: Does the symbol (∆) have any personal meaning or does it represent the meaning of change and transformation?
Its neither of those really, we just all thought it looked cool and sounded cool. We didn’t intend any meaning of the whole change thing, we never said that other people have kind of just picked up on it.
R: Well it certainly is memorable and looks cool! As a fan myself, I notice you mention triangles quite frequently in your lyrics? Does that have any correlation to the ‘Delta’ sign or is there another reason behind this?
I think its sort of related… its all a bit hazy for me as we came up with the Delta symbol thing before we were called Alt-J, so I think that must have been related to ‘Tessalate’, but we sort of let the triangle, Delta thing, slip away quietly really, we seemed to be attracting more attention that we could be really bothered to address.
R: Well, I am sorry (laughs) I was very inquisitive about it…
No it’s fine (laughs) it’s taking me back to the first album!
R: I understand that you heard news about your first gig from your living room in Leeds; do you have to pinch yourself sometimes when you look back at your journey?
Yeah, I mean I’ve never literally pinched myself, (laughs) but certainly you can have moments where you think ‘god this is kind of crazy.’ I grew up reading NME and then suddenly I am just doing it like the other bands, it’s amazing, so yeah, its pretty awesome.
R: What was it like to win a Mercury Prize?
It was great! It’s a prize that we all really love and respect, talk about, talked about when we were teenagers starting the band. The Mercury was the one prize we were like, ‘that’s the on we want to win, that’s a cool prize’ and so it was pretty amazing to win it like that, but that whole year, 2012, was such a crazy blur.
We were doing everything for the first time, releasing an album, going to America and then suddenly the Mercury prize came and kind of crowned the year for us, it was unbelievable, but I think its taken us a long time to actually get any perspective on that because it was such a whirlwind.
R: I can imagine! So you’ve just released your new album ‘Relaxer’ and in my opinion this album has a slightly more classical vibe, who’s influence was this?
I have had a classical upbringing growing up, and always pushed the barriers in that direction a little bit, but I think also Joe had been listening to more classical music during the making of this album. He was really into Philip Glass and Bach, so I think between us, the classical influence has been more present on this album, yeah.
R: It’s also the third album you have recorded with producer, Charlie Andrew, you must like him! Most bands use producers like revolving doors per album, so what is it about Charlie you like working with?
We do believe as a band, finding people and sticking with them. Charlie has been our guy since day one; he was doing demos with us as far back as 2009.
There was never a question of us not using him, as the demos he’d done with us, were what was getting us all of the attention and when we got signed we wanted Charlie.
The first album was obviously a big success and we were friends with Charlie by this point as well, so we worked with Charlie again on the second album. It’s a nice thing where we work well together. We never promise that we will work with Charlie for the rest of our careers, but I cant see any reason as to why we wouldn’t work with him in the future. He gets us, he knows how we work and vice versa. It’s a difficult relationship – the band and the producer – because so often it doesn’t work or you cant get on. So we are lucky to have found somebody so good for us, so early on.
R: What was it like to work with Ellie Roswell (Wolf Alice) on 3WW was it the original plan to invite her to assist with the vocals? with producer, Charlie Andrew, you must like him! Most bands use producers like revolving doors per album, so what is it about Charlie you like working with?
It wasn’t the original plan to get Ellie to do it, but I think Joe always had in mind that he would like a woman to perform it, as in the song it is supposed to be two girls leaving a note for a guy, so it is almost as if you are seeing the song as a film and casting a woman to play that role.
We toured with Wolf Alice, we really like Ellie and her voice and they were actually recording in Shoreditch working on their album. So we said ‘lets see if Ellie is free this afternoon’, as she was so she came down and then smashed it in a few takes and it was great.
R: Why did you call the album ‘Relaxer’?
The word used to be in a song called ‘Deadcrush’ on the album, but we actually took it out. By that point we liked the word and thought it had a cool memorable ring to it.
With us as Alt-J, people often think everything we do has some deep meaning and often it doesn’t you know? So ‘Relaxer’ looks good written down and made a good album name.
R: Is it right that the closing track of the album, ‘Pleader’ was recorded at Ely Cathedral?
Not all of it was recorded there, but we were there to record the choristers and the organ.
R: What an incredible atmosphere that must have been?
It was pretty cool, it was nice for me as my old director of music, when I was a chorister there, is still there, so it was good to see him and work with him again and to meet the boys and to chat to them a little bit.
R: This album doesn’t feature any interludes, was there a reason for this?
There’s not really a reason, other than the fact we didn’t have anything knocking around that would have been suitable for an interlude.
We also wanted to make it clear that we weren’t making albums in the same vain as the previous two for the rest of our career, if you do something twice, people go ‘ok’, but if you do it again it would be like, ‘ok what are you doing’ do you know what I mean?
R: For those who haven’t heard the new album yet how would you describe the sound and genre?
I don’t know about genres really, I always struggle to identify genres. Our album is a bit like you’re in some kind of strange world with lots of different doors, and when you open each door you enter into another world.
All of the songs have a sense of place and environment, whether it is ‘Pleader’ that is set in 19th Century Wales, or ‘3WW’ which is set in Northeast England in a wet field, or ‘House of the Rising Sun’ in New Orleans, 100 years ago.
They are hopefully quite immersive, realistic tangible worlds in each song that you can open the door, step in, go back out and open another door and see where you end up.
R: I like that analogy, that’s really nice.
You mentioned ‘House of the Rising Sun’ what made you include this?
It’s a version we have wanted to do for a long time and finally on this album we worked on it properly. Its been knocking around for a few years. Also we have always seen ourselves as a folk band so it was nice on our third album to address this head on and do a really classic folk song.
R: Alt-J have headlined at some pretty big venues, how do you adjust to that kind of audience, do you ever get nervous?
I don’t really get nervous, you get used to playing bigger and bigger places, just the same as you would build up anything. Whether its strength, by lifting increasingly heavy weights or eating chillies, gradually eating hotter and hotter foods. I mean it is crazy to walk into a venue and see a huge place, we get a few butterflies before playing, but I don’t think we struggle from nerves at all, which is very lucky.
R: Your currently on tour are their any places you are particularly looking forward to playing?
Yeah, we are playing Bali for the first time next month, which I am really looking forward to. Its always fun to go to America, we are touring there in the Autumn, I mean I just love touring, it doesn’t matter where it is. There are certain places I like more than others but at the same time I think you can have fun in the most unexpected places.
R: Madison Square Garden must have felt awesome to play at?
Yeah! It did. It’s a good example of how well Alt-J has done in America, we sold out Madison Square Garden and its kind of too crazy to be true really, but it is true, you know?
At the end of the day, it was a gig, and over and done with in an hour and a quarter, it all leads up to that time and then it’s done, it’s quite a strange job we do really!
R: Well I have to say Gus I love the new album I have been following you alt-j since your first album was released, I was actually nervous before speaking with you as you are one of my favourite bands! I wish you all the best with the tour and album.
Well, you didn’t seem nervous at all, you seemed very cool and professional so good job, and really nice to talk to you!
You can listen to Alt-Js album on Spotify or Itunes or visit www.altjband.com