Brit Rockers Alt-J Developed Their Singular Sound in Stages

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When we reached alt-J keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton by phone earlier this month, he was walking around his “little area of London.” In two days time, he would jet off to South America to play Lollapalooza Argentina and Lollapalooza Brazil. After that, it’s on to the States for a tour that starts on March 30 at New York’s Madison Square Garden before swinging through Cleveland on April 1 and then hitting a few major cities before landing in Indio, Calif., for the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival.
It’s a remarkable feat when you consider the British band’s rather humble beginnings. The band formed in 2007 when Unger-Hamilton, bassist Gwil Sainsbury (who’s since left the band), singer-guitarist Joe Newman and drummer Thom Green met at Leeds University.

“I think it was a commonly shared way of looking at the world,” says Unger-Hamilton, who studied classical music while growing up and wasn’t in any bands prior to forming alt-J. “It’s probably a sense of humor thing as well. We got on as friends. We were doing it three nights a week. It was half work and half just hanging out which was a lot of fun. If it weren’t for that, we wouldn’t have been a good band at all.”

Band members all studied fine arts, something that Unger-Hamilton says helped shaped their approach to making music.

“I think studying arts helps what you do critically and helped give us the critical faculty to approach to what you do creatively,” he says.

Because the band was rehearsing in the dorms, it had to play a minimalist version of its music and couldn’t use any bass. It also had to keep the drumming to a minimum.

“We kept everything stripped down,” Unger-Hamilton says. “There were very few drums. It was mostly just brushes. I think that influenced our kind of quiet sparse sound. I think Radiohead were a big influence on us, definitely. They’re a band we really admired, not just their music but their general approach and how they do things is really impressive to us.”

The band’s first single, “Bloodflood,” suggests the band’s unique approach. Gently pattering percussion doesn’t overwhelm the soft vocals as Newman sings, “breathe in, exhale, I’ve poked a nerve.”

The band recorded its first four-song debut EP in stages, working with producer Charlie Andrew when he could get them into the studio.

“[Charlie Andrew] worked out of a friends’ studio and didn’t charge any money,” says Unger-Hamilton when asked about the band’s initial recording sessions. “We would do two or three songs a year.”

For its full-length debut, 2012’s An Awesome Wave, the band compiled those singles. Equal parts indie pop and electronica, it’s a gorgeous release that crosses genres.

“We were just finding our feet,” Unger-Hamilton says of the album. “We had written a lot of songs over three or four years. We were putting them together. We used a lot of those recordings on the album.”

Unger-Hamilton was as shocked as anyone when it became an underground hit, winning the coveted Mercury Prize in the UK.

“Yeah, it was definitely a surprise,” he says. “We weren’t expecting to have any success but at the same time we had worked really hard for it and were happy it was finally paying off.”

He says the band’s latest album, last year’s This is All Yours, is “more competent.”

“We tried to recreate the atmosphere we had at university when we were out at night drinking beers and trying to make each other laugh,” he says. “That’s what we tried to do this time around. We didn’t want to spend lots of money and do it in style. We just got the gear we needed and settled in an apartment in London and set up in a room and came in every day at 11 and messed around musically and messed around generally. We found that was really productive. We weren’t forcing ourselves to create new songs. “

The band’s free wheeling approach pays dividends on a song like “Left Hand Free.”

“It was written in about four minutes,” Unger-Hamilton says of the track. “We just messed around and we bashed it out. That was an example of the kind of fun we were having.”

The layered vocals in “Every Other Freckle” are terrific too and show how the band’s sound has evolved into something that resembles the experimental British rock group the Soft Machine.

“I think we see the voice as another instrument,” Unger-Hamilton says. “It’s not just about singing. It’s about sounds and that’s an important way we approach making our records.”

After playing a sold out show at House of Blues in 2013, Unger-Hamilton says the band looks forward to playing again in Cleveland.

“The middle of America is very embracing, which is a lovely thing,” he says. “We’re always excited to come play shows here. It’s a great place to come to — always.”

Alt-J, Tycho, 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 1, State Theatre, 1519 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000. Tickets: $32.50-$45,
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About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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