“Just don't ask where our name came from,” Gus Unger-Hamilton, alt-J’s keyboardist, warns me as we sit down to chat in the sunny corner of a hip Dalston cafe. “We’ve been asked maybe thousands of times.”
I laugh hesitatingly. It’s true, I was going to ask. After all, their name is the Greek letter delta, the mathematical symbol for change, replaceable with the keys necessary to generate it (like so ∆) on an Apple Mac. Surely there is some deeply philosophical meaning or truly excellent anecdote behind this obscure choice of appellation? “
Every journalist thinks we just never told anyone, like, ‘oh, I'm going to get the real answer out of them,’” Gus continues. “But there is no real answer. Honestly, we’re not lying. It just doesn't mean anything.”
I thus move swiftly on to chat about the indie band’s newly released album, 'REDUXER'. It’s unique to their discography in that it’s a compilation of 11 hip-hop remixes taken from their award-winning third studio album 'RELAXER', out last summer.
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“We’ve always found there's been really amazing remixes attached to our releases,” explains frontman Joe Newman. “And we’ve always wanted to do something more specifically catered toward the hip-hop community. Hip-hop is something that works with our music: the beats, the general production kind of suits rapping. Then we wanted to see that put in a more global sense and basically make a comment saying, ‘hip-hop exists and is strong in many different languages.’”
Rather than dictate the output, the band, which also includes drummer Thom Sonny Green, sought out via their label an eclectic range of influential and emerging hip-hop artists and producers from across the world and handed over their tracks for them to do as they saw fit: “We didn't put them in a particular direction,” Gus tells me. “Some engaged with our original songs and their lyrics. Others just used it as an excuse to rap. We were really pleased with the result.”
A version of 'Deadcrush' has been reworked by The Alchemist and Latin American Trooko with vocals from Danny Brown. 'Last Year' sees a collaboration between GoldLink and producer and saxophonist Terrace Martin. Pusha T and Twin Shadow put their stamp on 'In Cold Blood', first premiered on on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.
Meanwhile Parisian Lomepal, Berlin’s Kontra K, Dublin-born Rejjie Snow, Australian Tuka, and Puerto Rican rapper PJ Sin Suela’s vocals all feature. While still recognisable alt-J, the album forms a fascinating experiment in re-imagining their material through the lens of a genre the group have always felt their music had a firm root in.
Were there any surprises? For Joe it was London’s Little Simz who has taken on 3WW. “I think she was my favourite,” he says. “There's just so much content there. And what they've taken and turned into a chorus was really interesting.”
For Gus, it’s an alternative In Cold Blood by Kontra K: “It’s such a cool one because he’s rapping in German. I get so much out of listening to that track just because of his flow and almost relishing not understanding what he's saying, just imagining it.”
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Although it’s a sideways move for the experimental-leaning indie outfit, whose complex and quirky arrangements have consistently set them apart from your average guitar band, the genre- straddling record they think reflects a contemporary approach to music: “I think people are much more open to listening to more than one genre of music now,” suggests Gus. “I don't think all of our fans are die-hard indie fans and won't listen to anything else.”
“And there's probably a shift in the way that people digest music,” adds Joe. “These kind of collaborations mirror a new way of looking at looking the world.”
Since first forming in student halls in Leeds in 2007, theirs has been a fairly spectacular rise to worldwide acclaim. 2012 debut 'An Awesome Wave', with tracks such as 'Breezeblocks' and 'Tessellate', clinched them a Mercury Prize. 2014’s follow up 'This Is All Yours' went straight in at number one. With retrospect, they can see such a pace was far from the norm.
“Once we got started things really went quickly: from playing to 200 people in the Africa Centre in Leeds, to doing Brixton and then a year later doing Ally Pally. Another six months later we were in the O2,” reflects Gus. “Obviously this was the first time it ever happened to us, so we just thought, ‘this all this must be normal progression.’ But now looking back now it’s like, ‘f***, that was pretty amazing.’”
“Everything was so incremental that we couldn't really get purchase on how the success was changing us,” adds Joe. After reminiscing about the notoriously raucous house parties that took place in the Hyde Park area of Leeds, where it turns out we were all resident at just the same time as Uni students, I ask if the rich music scene there played a role in the band coming together and hitting on that elusive-to-satisfactory-description sound.
“Actually not really. We were never really part of a circuit or scene,” responds Joe. “I think being a student at prestigious University must have helped. We were all feeling very inquisitive and quite clever at the time,” says Gus.
“But we kept ourselves to ourselves,” continues Joe. “I think initially we just didn't know how to write songs. So I think it was an inability to write traditionally in a way which led us to Frankenstein things together. Gus and Tom and I all come from different musical backgrounds. But we always agreed on the things we were doing, we were never in opposition to each other. I think that's what kind of solidified a chemistry. We weren’t worrying about what other people were were worrying about.”
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“Yeah I think when people start bands the problem is they all agree too much musically,” adds Gus. “If you took four people who really love Muse and started a band, their music is probably going to sound really derivative. We had a metal drummer and a kind of Americana folk singer and a classical pianist. We all brought strong elements from our backgrounds and it therefore created a very interesting sound.”
This seemingly happy accident of a band and addictive-to-many beats extends also to their lyrics. Rich in imagery, literary references and storytelling, their words are a source of awe and fascination. But whether an underplay on their part or not, the pair admit their songs are studied with a greater intensity than they themselves ever envisaged: “People say ‘you write songs about such crazy things’ but actually most are love songs. It’s the usual topics, we just cover them a different way.”
“Love, loss, sex and death,” summarises Joe. “They are the key themes that stimulate us. But we operate in this vague zone where actually a lot of the time the meaning is greater for people listening. For example, 'Left Hand Free' is a song that people still to this day think is about masturbating...but it’s not.”
This outward analysis of their material is something they have come to accept. “Music has to be listened to to exist,” Gus philosophises. “When you sing a song, it only becomes music when it hits someone's eardrums. So it's as much about the listener as it is about the person making it. It's a two-way thing. I think that's why we called our second album 'This Is All Yours' because we realised our first album was very much about us the band in that bedroom in Leeds, just writing songs for each other. With that second album we acknowledged that we had a fan group. And our music was as much theirs as it was ours really.”
He draws a parallel with Bob Dylan in the 60s and 70s, “kind of denying he wanted to be the leader of this countercultural, left-wing movement. But he was their hero regardless of what he thought about it. Not saying that's quite the same as 'Left Hand Free' or masturbating of course.”
After packed summer of festival gigs, including headlining Latitude for the second time, now their focus is on a tour set to hit cities from Dublin and Glasgow to Leeds and Manchester, closing out at the one and only Royal Albert Hall, which they say they have some particularly “cool things lined up for.”
As for beyond that horizon, they don’t have a fixed ideas. With the range and scope of all they’ve achieved, there is a sense of contentment, with no real need for greater world domination: “We don't desire to be any bigger than we are. Only to remain relevant and still be excited by the music we work on together when we release it,” says Joe. “So long as there’s that, that's about it for the time being.”
“We've never been a band with plans,” explains Gus. “When we're in those Leeds bedrooms sitting around we weren’t saying we wanted to play the Pyramid stage or to do this or that. The Mercury Prize was the only thing that we talked about in that way and that was a fantasy. And it was only ever a joke about going on Jools Holland. We just talked about that about how fun it would be and did impressions of him introducing us. Tom was especially good at it if I recall.”
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I suggest it is perhaps their ability to diversify and pursue new projects, from the current hip-hop remix album to video games to film soundtracks, that keeps them entertained.
“Our music offers a variety of opportunities,” responds Joe. “You know BBC Two idents used some of our song instrumentals from our first album? That's probably one of the biggest accolades we have achieved because that kind of that surpasses the normal divisions of where your music can reach. Computer games take advantage of our music, film takes advantage, the BBC takes advantage and I'm very proud of that, that's really cool.”
To prove the point, they’ve even just launched their own IPA - a hefty 6.5 percenter no less - with Signature Brewery: “They were like, ‘come up with a beer that defines you as a band.’ We drink a lot of gin and tonic on tour and so we said, ‘can we do a gin and tonic inspired beer? And call it Absolutely No Worries?”
That’s not to say they don’t also acknowledge, if only with dispassionate objectivity, that they are no longer the “hot new band” they once were and, of course by default, could never have sustainably remained. “We’re well aware that we're not a new band anymore. Some of the excitement rubs off like paint on a new car,” says Gus with a characteristically self-deprecating dryness.
“I listen to 6Music at home and they are super excited about IDLES, which is great, they are a great band. But I'm sort of at home doing the washing up thinking, ‘I remember when Steve Lamacq used to talk about us like that…’ And of course I wouldn’t expect them to any more and they still play our music and are very supportive of us. New bands are always going to come along. We still have our space and are totally comfortable with that.”
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Words: Sarah Bradbury
Photo Credit: Mads Perch
alt-J’s new album 'REDUXER' is out now. Catch the band at the following shows:
15 Dublin Olympia Theatre *sold out*
16 Dublin Olympia Theatre *sold out*
17 Dublin Olympia Theatre
21 Glasgow SEC Armadillo
23 Leeds Town Hall
24 Leicester De Montfort Hall
25 Gateshead The Sage
28 Manchester Bridgewater Hall
29 London Royal Albert Hall *sold out*
30 London Royal Albert Hall
For tickets to the latest alt-J shows click HERE.
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