At 23-years-old, keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton is doing just fine. He and the other three members of English indie band Alt-J have been steadily rising since the May release of their debut album "An Awesome Wave," which received a swath of accolades from international critics and charted across Europe, including a peak at No. 19 on the U.K. charts.
More impressive than Alt-J’s fresh-out-of-college age, though, is how it compares to the sonic breadth and maturity musically on display on "An Awesome Wave." That Alt-J’s strange experimental blend of sweeping choral vocals, tinkering guitar arrangements and break-up percussion seems to fit together like a strange auditory jigsaw puzzle is as impressive as it is unique. But the fact it somehow comes off as catchy - even sing-along - seems the real feat.
One can assume that it’s the reason they were nominated last week for the prestigious Mercury Prize for best album from the United Kingdom and Ireland, and that’s not even mentioning the fact that their music videos have been some of the most interesting released this year.
Vita.mn had the chance to talk to Unger-Hamilton before Alt-J’s sold out Triple Rock this Saturday.
Q: How did Alt J come together?
A: Yeah, we all met at university and we were friends. We thought we’d try doing a band and kinda took it from there.
Q: In the earlier conceptions of Alt J, did you guys have the same genre-bending idea of what the band would be? Or did it start out as a more conventional band and then kind of evolve into the less traditional avante garde stuff on “An Awesome Wave"?
A: I think that the sound has definitely changed, but not in any kind of deliberate way. We’ve always been quite experimental and I think, if anything, when we were younger we were trying out some weirder stuff that we couldn’t really pursue. I think it’s always been about, you know, trying, not exactly striving to be original but just trying new stuff out, and as musicians trying to keep interested in what we’re doing.
Q: Was there music that you guys were interested in at the start? Did you discuss musical tastes that you shared that you would maybe want to integrate into the band? Or was it just an organic thing?
A: We really didn’t talk about it, like we never discussed or were like, “Oh you wanna do a band, well what sort of music do you like?” I think there was a sort of unspoken trust that we had because we’d already played as friends with each other and so we thought “That’s good enough,” that’s a good enough basis to start something else. It doesn’t matter if I don’t know, like for example, I didn’t know that Thom was very into grunge which I definitely am not. But it would seem silly to not be in a band with these guys who I think are cool and instead try to find people to be in a band that like music that I really like. That’s no guarantee of anything working musically, really.
Q: Songwriting-wise is it a collaborative effort where you all bring things to the table or is there one person who is writing a lot of the lyrics and then other people are writing their parts?
A: The second one, yeah. Joe writes the lyrics and puts the basis of the song together as a kind of acoustic song, and then we’ll write our own parts and work on the grid and the structure of the song and stuff.
Q: And then you just build from there?
A: Yeah, exactly. Then we all just work on it as a group and stuff. We don’t really mess around with it on the computer or anything like that, we all just kind of do it.
Q: You kind of hit it out of the park with your first album “An Awesome Wave.” That must feel pretty good, that it’s been almost universally well received.
A: Yeah it feels really good, great really. We liked the album a lot and we were really happy with it when we finished it and I think it didn’t matter too much what the response would be. I mean, obviously we wanted a good response but it’s definitely been much beyond our expectations.
Q: When you were recording did you have a feeling that this was something big that you guys were doing?
A: We really liked the music we’d made but I don’t think we thought that we had a hit. I think that that’s what is amazing is that we got to make the album that we wanted to make and it’s our first album and we made the album that we wanted to hear and then people liked it ... which is the best possible outcome.
Q: Has it been surprising the international response you’ve gotten? In what other countries outside of the U.K do you have a large fanbase?
A: We have a really good following in like Northern Europe: France, Germany, Holland, Belgium - they’re all really good countries for us. We’re hoping to kind of build in America for the rest of the year and early next year. We’ve played in the states and we’ve played in Europe before, and we played in Japan. But we haven’t done much world touring, really.
Q: I can sometimes hear things in Alt-J songs, like more international percussive parts or kind of dubstep drumming. I wonder if that’s something that was deliberate or has made you more appealing to an international audience?
A: I don’t really think it’s like that. I think really when you put it together, you have four musicians from quite different backgrounds who don’t really have any particular musical manifesto, and so you get a quite interesting result. And so the album’s turning out these kind of strange sounds, kind of Indian sounds and sort of African sounds as well, but it’s not deliberate. We really like it when people mention that. It’s pretty interesting for us to hear how people are hearing the record. It’s cool to hear the feedback from people, how they’ve responded to what we’ve created.
Q: There have been comparisons drawn between you guys and Hot Chip, in that there a band that had a kind of similar trajectory to the one you are currently enjoying. Do you guys agree with that? Are you fans of Hot Chip?
A: We are of course all fans of Hot Chip. They’re a band that I grew up with obviously and an awesome band. They have a really specific sound that’s not really similar to ours, but they’re definitely a band that we aspire to be like in that they carved out a really unique sound and have had successful career based on that.
Q: There’s been a lot of talk about you possibly being up for the Mercury Award this year, have you thought about that at all?
A: We’re trying not to think about it but I guess by the time this appears in print, we’ll know whether or not we’ve been nominated. I guess we’ll see. We try to keep it in the back of our minds but it’s very, very flattering.