L Ø S T C U L T U R E caught up with Gus Unger-Hamilton, the keyboardist from Alt-J to chat about future plans, difficulties in the music industry and life on the road. The band have transitioned from playing tiny venues back in 2011, to sold out arenas on their current UK tour. Alt-J have experienced massive growth over the past few years due to the popularity of their two albums, especially their debut project, An Awesome Wave which won the 2012 British Barclaycard Mercury Prize. During their time on the scene, the band have been constantly working, and despite not releasing as much material as many other pop artists, Gus proves how much hard work and energy the 4-piece undertake in all their endeavors.
About the new album, what’s the plan? Will you release something this time next year to follow the before releasing something every other year?
You know, we’re not really talking about the new album yet to be honest. We’re planning to have some time off once we finish touring and start work on it next year once we feel ready to.
Have you got any plans for it at all like how it might sound or any specific songs?
It doesn’t really work like making plans I suppose, it’s not really like that. But we’re excited to start something.
Are you enjoying being on tour again and is it a good experience to be doing much bigger venues than your last tour?
Yeah absolutely it’s always exciting to play bigger venues because you can do more with production and lights and I think having a larger volume of people in the room is always going to make an exciting atmosphere for sure.
Do you prefer tour life or do like writing music in the band?
I think what we really set out to do as a band originally was to write and record good albums so that’s what we love the most. But at the same time going on tour is a lot of fun and being in the studio can be pretty difficult sometimes, pretty miserable. You’re sort of sitting in a windowless room all day for weeks and you know, in a studio that’s not very creative. It’s more when you’re writing together that the real magic happens. Touring is certainly a good laugh but our first love is probably writing and recording.
What’s life like on the road?
It’s an awful lot of sitting around, waiting around and not doing very much. Travelling is really exciting and sometimes you get to be in a really awesome country and have the day or two off and you’re like ‘this is amazing, I’m just essentially being paid to travel around the world and eat good food and see beautiful places’. But you know, sometimes you are on a really miserable long tour and you’re in some town in the middle of fucking nowhere and there’s nothing to do and it’s raining so you’ve just gotta sit in the dressing room all day waiting for soundcheck and then finish soundcheck and wait for the gig and that can be pretty depressing. But you kind of have to make your own fun in times like that.
You can still have a laugh even if you’re in the situation I just described. You know; inventing stupid games, we like messing around in the venue, exploring the venue, skateboarding round the venue… Whatever you can really do to pass the time, it makes it fun. So I think it’s not as glamorous as everybody thinks it probably is, it’s rarely glamorous. But it’s also fun because you’re just sorta messing about with your mates for the whole year around the world.
I know you’re from Leeds, and that’s a stop on the tour. Is that going to be a special experience?
It’s going to be very special. Going back to Leeds for us is really exciting and quite emotional I guess in some ways. Also I’m interested to go because I’ve never seen this arena it was built after we left Leeds so I don’t know where it is or what it looks like. Well I can sort of guess what it looks like… probably looks like every other arena haha. But it’s going to be cool because that will be a new thing. And I think that Leeds still has a love for us despite us all abandoning it for that there London.
Do you have any memories of performing in Nottingham?
Yeah we’ve played Nottingham a lot so I have several memories of it. I remember we played on my birthday in Nottingham – I’m going to say this way is 2011. we were unsigned and we had no money and we drove to Nottingham to do this gig. It was in some venue that was attached to Rock City or something. Basically we were booked to play – and I don’t know why they booked us because it was like a weekend Oceana type club night and then we were there playing our weird folk – and we had one person watching and during a song called ‘Handmade’ (he was just watching cos he was pissed I think) and during that song which me and Joe had to sing he was just shouting, just heckling us. It was a truly truly depressing gig and probably one of my worst birthdays ever.
However we’ve come back subsequently and always had a really good time. We’ve supported Ghostpoet in Nottingham on our first sort of tour that was a really great gig, really exciting, and then we played Rock City I think maybe 2 and a half years ago and it was like the earliest we’ve ever experienced people mosh during ‘Matilda’. We were like “this is sick” so we love Nottingham now.
It felt like a long wait between the first and second album, as well as touring did you have a break in the years in between or are you always working – what’s always going on behind the scenes?
So we toured the first album from like February 2012 til December 2013 so just about 2 years, and in that time we just had a few weeks off and we hadn’t been home for like 18 months. Then after we finished the tour in December we had Christmas and then in the beginning of January we went into the studio and started album 2. So I find it funny because it can feel like a long time – I remember what it was like to be a big fan of bands and I couldn’t believe how long it was taking with the albums – but really we basically didn’t have a break at all. So it’s hard to understand for fans and so on but it’s generally pretty hard work to get albums out when you’ve got such big touring commitments.
Say back in the 60s, The Beatles put out an album a year, maybe just more than an album a year, but they would have had nothing on their touring schedules. They might have done a few gigs but it was pretty much all about writing and recording for bands then. Touring wasn’t such a big thing. They made so much money from selling records that there was no need to like go round the world for a year and a half cos essentially that’s why bands now do it because that’s the main way the bands make money, from touring. So it’s changed so much but I think people still have the expectation that bands can put out albums really regularly, which obviously isn’t helped by talent show pop acts putting out an album a year or sometimes two albums a year because they’re not writing anything. It’s tricky, but I think in terms of the next album we do really want to make it, we just need to recover somewhat from all the touring.
It seems like a plan of yours to not release many songs off the albums, as singles or extras, why is that?
Well with the first album we released quite a lot of songs as singles, the second time around we didn’t really. The single is a very difficult thing to put your finger on now. So you’ll take a song to the radio and say we want to play this song at the moment, or they’ll come to us and say hey so its been 3 months we’d like another Alt J single and were like ok which one do you want and they might say well let’s do ‘Breezeblocks’ and we’ll be like ummm okay? Even if we’ve done it before. I don’t think we’ve released any physical singles on this album I’m not really sure why that is. So I don’t know how growing up for me a single was a physical CD that you would go to like Woolworths and buy. and that isn’t the case anymore really. You do obviously get vinyl singles but they’re kind of collectors things – they don’t go towards the charts. So I suppose what I mean is I think even more so now than when we released our first album that the single is a really weird thing.
One of the things that I really love about your music is how it’s really emotional, is that a feeling you aim to create or is that something that just comes unintentionally?
I think we’ve always been quite comfortable to describe our music as emotional, that’s actually one of the main words that comes up when we’re asked to talk about our music. So the feelings aren’t created by accident but there’s no way we can know what a song is going to make somebody else feel. It’s sort of like if a tree falls down in a forest and nobody hears it it doesn’t make a sound… I dunno. As for the sound, it has to be created to also bounce off somebodys ear to become a sound and I think that’s the same with emotions in music. It’s what we put into it and what you get out of it that really creates the emotions.
With your albums, which one do you feel like was better received?
Probably the first one because it won a lot of awards and sold more copies.
Have you seen the Youtube video ‘How to make an Alt J song’? Do you like it?
Yes. Yeah I do like it it’s funny.
The Alt-J Twitter account allegedly had a rice cake as their display picture for a period of time… Very good banter. Its unclear whether Alt-J do in fact eat rice cakes while recording a song about butts in just over 3 minutes but given what Gus has explained about the studio process, it takes much more than being high on rice cakes to produce such highly acclaimed, successful and as I mentioned previously, emotional material. Its still hard to deny the similarities though…