By Kevin Zimmerman
Alt-J Doing It Naturally
It seems so simple: Form a band with your Leeds University mates; sign a label deal; release your first disc; watch it win the Mercury Prize and break into the U.K. Top 20; receive three BRIT Award nominations; receive Album of the Year at The Ivor Awards. All in the space of about three years.
So it is with indie English rock act Alt-J. Keyboardist Unger-Hamilton, speaking from Norway – where the band was in the midst of a summer-festival run before returning to headlining dates on a tour that wraps in October – admits that things have gone about as smoothly as imaginable … not that the Alt-J guys ever really imagined this.
“It’s gone a lot better than we thought it would,” he says. “It’s all seemed like a natural progression. People say, ‘Oh my God, you’ve just totally blown up,’ but it doesn’t feel that way to us. There was no great fanfare when [debut album] An Awesome Wave (Infectious Records) came out, but over time we started to get recognized, and that led us on to bigger things.”
He’s quick to add, however, that it wasn’t quite as easy as all that. Formed from friendships with lyricist/guitarist/singer Joe Newman, guitarist/bassist Gwil Sainsbury and drummer Thom Green in 2007, while they were pursuing Liberal Arts degrees at Leeds, upon graduation in 2010, “We just sort of hung around for a year. We had no money whatsoever; Joe and I were spending what little we had on spaghetti and sardines.”
Newman continued writing, and the band jammed on musical ideas, building a fan base through its shows and laying songs down in a variety of studios when they could. Those sessions were eventually compiled for An Awesome Wave; when Infectious picked it up, they found they had a bit more cash in hand, “which allowed us to draw enough money to pay the rent.”
Commonly described as having a folkish sound punctuated by electronic flourishes, a la Hot Chip and Coldplay, Alt-J has since kept a straightforward approach to its music and career. “I’d never really considered a career in music – I barely consider myself a musician,” Unger-Hamilton snickers.
The group has since composed the soundtrack for Leave to Remain, the first fiction film from well-regarded documentary filmmaker Bruce Goodison, due out next year. “He’d been listening to
us a lot while he was writing it, to the point where he really wanted us for the music,” Unger-Hamilton says. “It was a different way of writing music, of course, but we were allowed to develop ideas pretty freely. I’ve seen the final cut, and it looks like we composed to the picture, which we didn’t.”
Alt-J is now kicking around ideas for new songs, though recording will probably wait until the tour finishes. “We’ll approach it like we always have,” he affirms. “We want to make music that sounds refreshing to our ears. If something works, it’s in, and if not, it’s not.” He pauses, then adds with a laugh, “We’ll just keep on plowing that furrow of self-indulgence!”