Alt-J are back with a brand new track, ‘Every Other Freckle’. They’ve now given us three songs from their forthcoming second album. ‘This Is All Yours’, the follow-up to their debut ‘An Awesome Wave’, is out on September 22. These 50 geeky facts about the Mercury winners should tide you over till then. Ready? Let’s begin…
Alt-J were once invited to play a gig at the house of Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul. They couldn’t make it but later met him at Lollapalooza 2013, stopping for photos backstage with Jesse Pinkman himself. “YEAH BITCH!” as the diminutive drug baron himself might say.
They’re often likened to Radiohead, but keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton reckons that’s just because “we’re vaguely clever and posh.” Singer Joe Newton isn’t much into the comparison, either: “We’ve only got one [album], our shelf life compared to them is a blink of an eye.”
The band are, however, keen to stress they’re not posh. “People like to make jokes about how we all have long, ridiculous names, and we don’t really — Joe Newman, Gwil Sainsbury, Thom Green. There’s a perception that we’re these privileged guys, and we’re not,” said Gus in 2012. “In any case, I hope people judge us on our music and not on any of that.”
They’re not exactly the slosh-about-in-mud, Klinsmann-dive-into-puddles, get-into-the-spirit-of-things types at festivals: at T in the Park 2012, they spent five hours sitting in their van smoking cigarettes to escape the rain.
The band don’t believe in charging for meet and greets: “A great reason not to do it is that politicians do it,” Joe told NME last summer.
Alt-J formed at Leeds University. It took a little while to get going: drummer Thom Green “didn’t really understand what he was listening to” in practices at first, according to frontman Joe Newman. “He was struggling but he knew that he enjoyed playing the drums to the guitar riffs and the things that I was singing.”
Here’s some dirty laundry for you: Gus and Joe first met at their university laundrette. Ever since then, they’ve been on a fast spin to success…
Alt-J wasn’t their first name – Daljit Dhaliwal was their first moniker, before changing to Films, before settling on Alt-J after an American punk band called The Films began causing confusion.
Joe takes his inspiration for his songwriting from stories, saying he “responds emotionally to depressing things like death, love or tragedy, more than happy things… The thing that I relate to most is the ends of characters, their demise.”
Case in point: their song ‘Matilda’ is about the last scene in Luc Besson cult thriller Leon. “Jean Renault who plays Leon, he dies… That song is about his relationship with this girl but also intertwined with his ending in the film.”
On a similar tack, the song ‘Taro’ is about the death of Hungarian war photographer and photojournalist Robert Capa. Bit of a pattern emerging here, lads.
‘Fitzpleasure’ meanwhile is loosely based around a chapter in Hubert Selby Junior’s novel Last Exit To Brooklyn. “It’s about the spiral of someone’s kinda death, you don’t know whether she dies or not… it’s ambiguous,” says Joe.
‘Breezeblocks’ meanwhile takes a line from classic children’s book Where The Wild Things Are: “Please don’t go, we’ll eat you whole, we love you so.”
The group’s songs tend to go off on exciting tangents – an affect of the trio’s jigsaw approach to songwriting, according to Joe. “With writing I normally end up just collaging loads of ideas together and fit it into an overall narrative, sometimes from personal experience, sometimes from things I’ve overheard, or read or watched.”
The band featured on a 10-song playlist given by Prime Minister David Cameron last year to a selection of heads of state and world leaders, including Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin.
Gus was born in Paris. Ooh la la.
Joe meanwhile was born in Southampton, whose grass common inspired the track ‘Bloodflood’ – or rather namely “the fear that can happen when you’re approached by people [there] who look like they’re gonna hit you… sometimes you get some unsavoury characters… you think someone’s going to approach you and kick you in the balls.”
If you hear your gran humming ‘Something Good’, ‘Intro’ or ‘Fitzpleasure’, it might be because instrumentals of those tracks have all been used as incidental music on BBC 2. That or your gran’s way more music-savvy than you give her credit for.
Alt-J recently wrote the score for Bruce Goodison’s new film Leave To Remain. The director said the trio’s music “felt like the perfect accompaniment to the emotional journey of my characters.”
They’ve got famous fans in far-flung places: US rockers Paramore claim their latest self-titled album was primarily inspired by Alt-J. Guitarist Taylor York listened to ‘An Awesome Wave’ a lot during the writing process for that record.
X Factor winner Leona Lewis has said she wants to collaborate with Alt-J. Yeah, good luck with that, Leona.
Alt-J don’t have a problem with being filmed at gigs but say “it’s going to look and sound really rubbish and hampers the individual’s own experience because they’re not concentrating on being in the moment.” So there ya have it.
Their first recordings were all made in the bedroom of former bassist Gwil Sainsbury. ‘Matilda’ was the first song they recorded professionally, with producer Charlie Andrew. That exact mix and recording made it onto the album.
The band juggled working on their debut album in Brixton while still studying for their university degrees in Leeds.
Gwil, Joe and Tom all met on the same course, Fine Art. Gus is the odd one out, having studied English Literature.
Gus has some serious singing credentials – he used to be a chorister at school in Ely. “The harmonies are Gus’s baby… he can listen to Joe sing and visualize the notes in his head and just be like ‘this note will fit,’” says Gwil.
“We’re our harshest critics. We’re not one of those bands that bash things out really quickly,” says Joe. “We didn’t want to look like morons, so we spent ages on the little things.” Which explains the lengthy wait for a follow-up to ‘An Awesome Wave’.
So much for those accusing Alt-J of being boring… They were once reportedly chucked out of a hotel after Gwil was caught urinating over the edge of his hotel room balcony.
Joe once missed his flight on tour because he went back to someone’s house after a gig in Sicily and fell asleep. Rock stars, eh?
…or they’re not such crazy rock stars after all – the band claim to stockpile stacks of magazines to read when they’re on tour before going out on the road. Ah well.
They wrote their song ‘Buffalo’ for the film ‘Silver Linings Playbook’, starring Jennifer Lawrence.
Their favourite EDM artists include Romare, and Bassnectar. Bloody rave heads.
In a 2013 interview, Gus Unger-Hamilton explained he’d been recently outraged to find he wasn’t listed as a band member on the Wikipedia page, with someone called Tom Woolridge in his place instead. The error’s since been fixed. PHEW.
Joe’s first experience of guitar was watching his dad, who used to play classic Americana songs at local pubs to drunk people.
The band would turn up to their first gigs with guitars that didn’t have cases or leads, using a friend’s borrowed Yamaha amp. Probably not doing that anymore.
Miley Cyrus used ‘Fitzpleasure’ in a video interlude during her recent Bangerz tour. “Straightaway I thought ‘Wow, that’s weird, she’s a huge celebrity! Then I thought it’s not actually that weird. I knew she’d tweeted about us in the past and just because she’s hugely famous it doesn’t make it any different from anyone else liking it,” said Joe.
The first item of clothing Gus ever bought was a mid-thigh length suede Afghan coat with white lining from Topman when he was 14. In case you were wondering.
Their first ever gig was held in Joe’s living room. The band made mulled wine and someone fainted.
You know you’ve made it when Wu-Tang’s RZA remixes one of your songs (‘Breezeblocks’). My Morning Jacket’s Jim James has also remixed the group.
The group got a massive publicity push when Mumford and Sons covered ‘ Tessellate’. “We should return the favour,” said Joe at the time, but as yet, the band have yet to cover a Mumfords song.
Less excitingly, Ellie Goulding has also covered Alt-J (‘Tessellate’). Don’t all rush to download that version at once. “Ellie’s a fan of the band, and that’s really nice,” Joe responded.
The band retreated to Hampshire to write their new album. “I’m going down to Southampton in January to stay with Joe’s parents and Joe’s dad’s gonna put us in a room and make us write songs! Pretty much like a writers’ retreat, far from the madding crowd. It’s gonna be good,” said Gus.
Around the release of ‘An Awesome Wave’, the band had matching triangle-shaped shades created, a la their band logo. Flashy.
One song on their incoming new album is inspired by the sci-fi classic Alien. It’s called ‘The Gospel of John Hurt’. Excited? You bloody well should be.
Sales of ‘An Awesome Wave’ spiked by 400% after the band won the Mercury Prize in 2012.
“We had rather a late night, yeah,” laughed Gus the day after their Mercury prize win. “I think I got in at about 7.30am. We ended up in east London at one of our record label people’s flat where we had a boogie to some seriously smooth R&B.”
Gus is happy with the term “boffin-rock” being used to describe the band. “After the success of the first Kaiser Chiefs album in the mid-noughties there came a lot of dross – rubbish landfill indie,” he told the Guardian in 2012. “I would hate for that to happen again.”
The band won praise for the origami design of their ‘An Awesome Wave’ CD packaging.
The band spent their £20,000 Mercury prize winnings simply: “We’re planning to fly our parents to the same place in the world and buy them all an expensive dinner,” said Gus in 2012.