Alt-J: I voted Lib Dem last time, but now I'll vote Labour, because Diane Abbott is a complete legend

The Mercury Music Prizewinners talk to Rob Pollard.

Rarely has a debut album made such an impression on UK listeners. An Awesome Wave, Alt-J’s brilliant first full length release, scooped the prestigious Mercury Music Prize last year, and this week was awarded an Ivor Novello for Best Album. It will go down as one of the great debut albums of recent times: difficult to define but beautifully listenable.

The band’s early success came on the back of very little promotion. They met whilst studying at Leeds University and eschewed the conventional route into live performance. Where most new bands try their hand playing in dirty little venues in and around city centres, Alt-J opened the doors of their student house to as many of their friends as they could, playing live in their own front room to a captive audience of like-minded young people. It got people talking, and proved that they were serious about their craft. To this day, those early gigs are some of the band’s most treasured live memories.

Their first single, Tessellate, received radio play when the band were still pretty much unknown nationally, bringing some authenticity back the word "indie". They avoided the usual PR activities that new bands are desperate to explore, yet found themselves gaining momentum. Now, with their audience growing rapidly, they’ve become one of the best known bands in the country. Their cautious approach has worked very nicely indeed.

They recently played Manchester Academy to a packed and eclectic audience; further proof of their growing appeal. It was the latest in a long line of great live performances, demonstrating the depth of their debut album and the potential of their sound in a live format. Beforehand, I spoke to keyboard player Gus Unger-Hamilton to get his thoughts on life as a member of one the finest bands around.

The Mercury Music Prize is an award that still carries weight. How has winning it changed things for the band?

It’s hard to say because stuff was going well before that, and it’s carried on like that after the award. It’s not like we were sitting around not having any touring to do, and then we won the Mercury and everything went amazingly. Stuff was good before that. It’s not turned us into a huge band, it’s just been a nice asset that’s probably given us a bit more momentum to carry on touring, which we are doing now. It’s been good but it hasn’t been crazy.

You’re playing for Now Wave this evening, who are generally considered the finest music promoters in Manchester. They rescued an ailing scene, changing live music in this city for the better. Do you enjoy playing for them?

We love Now Wave, they’re our favourite promoters in the whole country, and Manchester was the city in the UK that first really adopted us as a band even before Leeds. We used to come to Manchester and get great receptions, so it’s awesome to be back now, and reminds me how much I really like it here.

Now Wave are awesome. The first night they booked us, we were supporting a band called Fiction at a little pub called The Castle, and ever since then they’ve showed huge faith in us. We played some really bad gigs for them and they’ve never said: ‘go on, fuck off’. Like, one gig we did, one of the keyboards wasn’t working and it was generally not a good gig, but Wes was like: ‘you know what, don’t worry about it, let’s just carry on with this relationship,’ and they’ve always been fantastic to us, really great.

Is there any word on a follow-up Alt-J album?

We are going into the studio for sort of odd clumps of days here and there over the summer in between festivals to try and hammer out some demos and get the second album going, but we’re not saying too much about it right now. Touring is taking up most of our time but it’s difficult because, on the one hand, our fans want a new album but they also want to see us live, but you can’t really have both [laughs]. You can have one or the other. It’s not that easy to write a new album when you’re touring all the time.

Because the first album was so unique, it’s going to be really interesting to see where you take the sound. Is there a plan?

There’s not a plan for the sound. It’s basically going to be the same formula, which is don’t limit ourselves to one type of sound and see what happens. We’re never gonna put an album out unless we’re happy with it, obviously, and I think it will be recognisable as Alt-J. We’re just gonna see what happens.

Which festivals are you doing this summer?

Reading and Leeds, Glastonbury, Latitude, Tea in the Park, so the big UK ones, and then we’re going to America to play Sasquatch and Lollapalooza. We’re also doing Summer Sonic in Japan, we’re doing European festivals, Russian festivals, Canadian festivals. Yeah, we’re doing a lot of festivals.

How does being booked for festivals work? Do you have input in which ones you want to do, or do you get what you’re given?

You have your booking agent who essentially decides. The offers will come in and we’ll say: ‘we want to do this one; we don’t want to do this one.’ Occasionally, you might get a small festival which is just starting and you might say: ‘you know what, if they make an offer, and it’s not enough money, don’t say no because we’ll make it work because we really want to do it’. For us, we’re happy for our agent to sort it out, quite frankly.

Latitude is a special festival, you must be looking forward to that.

Yeah, it’s gonna be great. We played a small stage last year and we’re headlining a big stage this year, so that’s fantastic, we can’t wait.

Things are going so well for Alt-J right now. It’s just been an upward trajectory for some time. How does it feel to be in a band like that?

It’s just busy. You don’t get time to sit back and think about how successful you are, you just get on with the job. You see a lot of dressing rooms, and you spend a lot of time on the tour bus, and it’s good. I think it’ll be nice when we finish touring and we can have pats on the back all round and then get some time off to go on holiday and feel a bit more like you’ve earned something. But for now we’re just concentrating on staying sane and honouring our touring commitments.

Do you make plans?

No, we don’t make plans. We could be completely out of fashion by next year, so you just have to take advantage of the opportunities while they’re being offered to you and just take it like that, really.

Margaret Thatcher’s death caused a media frenzy. It seemed to many of us that the press tried to rewrite history with the way they airbrushed out certain aspects of her premiership. What did you make of all that?

I think it’s unprofessional that she was elevated above other Prime Ministers in terms of her funeral and stuff that like. Equally, holding "celebrate Maggie’s death" parties was tasteless, and almost a bit stupid. Let’s face it, she was not really doing very much during the last years of her life. It wasn’t as though right up until she died she was snatching milk, or closing down hospitals. I wouldn’t want to celebrate anybody’s death in that kind of way. I didn’t watch the funeral, so I don’t really know what went down, but I think almost all our newspapers are right-wing these days, so it’s to be expected. When the BBC is full of former Young Conservatives, what do you expect?

It’s interesting you think there’s a right-wing bias in the media because many people believe the opposite.

I think it’s fine because we have a free press, so whatever. I’m glad I live in a country where newspapers are allowed a political bent, but it’s kind of sad that almost every paper could be called right-wing.

What’s the future relationship between Britain and the EU?

I don’t know what’s gonna happen, I really don’t. I think people will often say one thing in a poll and do another thing when it comes to the day of a vote. I think the UKIP thing is a flash in the pan; it’s a protest vote and a way of people airing their disgruntlement at the government, and so on. It does worry me that the Conservatives are going to lurch to the right in order to win back these voters that they think they’re losing, which they’re probably not actually losing. I think in the age of Twitter and instant media, stuff’s getting far too reactionary. There’s a lot of two-week flavour of the month stories that the government shouldn’t be changing policies drastically because of.

So, for you, the UKIP surge will come to nothing, and at a General Election the country will just ignore them?

Yeah, I don’t think people are gonna vote for them in a General Election. It doesn’t worry me too much because they’re not going to win, and hopefully it just means the Conservatives get fewer votes and Labour get more. Or if not more, then not fewer.

How would you sum up the coalition thus far?

Nothing in England ever gets that bad, does it? I certainly don’t agree with their policies on employment and Disability Living Allowance, I think it’s awful. I voted Lib Dem at the election and wouldn’t vote for them again. It’s hard to say, and I don’t know if Labour would be doing a much better job, to be honest.

There were quite a few people who got swept up by Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats in 2010.

Yeah, I did. I think Greg Mulholland, the Lib Dem MP for Leeds North-West, voted against the tuition fee rise, he was one of the very few who rebelled, so in a sense I’m glad I voted for Mulholland, I think he’s a good guy. I now live in Hackney, so I’ll probably vote Labour at the next election because Diane Abbott is a complete legend.

Do you like Ed Miliband?

I don’t dislike him, but I don’t think he’s gonna be Prime Minister if I’m completely honest, but we shall see. I’m not one of those who likes to bash him, but equally I can’t get that excited about him.

How does it feel when people cover your songs?

It’s lovely. Mumford & Sons did a nice cover of Tessellate, Paramore covered Matilda, both for Radio 1, so that was cool. It’s also great fun to watch covers on YouTube because they can often be very interesting.

It was interesting that when you were just starting out, you didn’t plunge into the usual gigging scene, you kind of did it more on your own terms. Is that the advice you’d give to new bands starting out?

We just didn’t really like playing gigs; if you like playing gigs, then play gigs. Also, it probably makes you a better band if you play lots of gigs. We had to really catch up big time to bring the live show up to scratch with the recordings when we started because, really, we hadn’t had a lot of practice playing live. So I would say play as many gigs as you can, but equally do things on your own terms, don’t publicise yourself too much, don’t start a band and then make a Twitter account immediately because you can, that’s just stupid in my opinion.

Any films or art exhibitions you recommend seeing?

I just managed to catch the Light Show at the Hayward, which was really good, I loved that. I saw The Place Beyond the Pines, Ryan Gosling’s new film, which was pretty good. But no, I think the Hayward is the only really culture type thing I’ve done in the last couple of weeks. I could get out of the venues we’re playing at in the afternoon and go to galleries if I could be bothered, and sometimes I do, but more often than not I just watch Breaking Bad!

Do you think your next album will push Alt-J on and sell more records, or are you happy with the size of the band at the moment?

I’m very happy with the size of the band. I don’t want to become hugely enormous, playing big stadiums. I’d love to stay where we are right now for ten years, that’d be really, really nice. I think, inevitably, we’ll be able to keep on doing this for a few more years now because we have a decent fan base to at least justify carrying on touring for the next few years.

I’m still really surprised at how Radio 1 adopted Alt-J. When I first heard your songs, I just imagined you to be a 6 Music sort of band, but Radio 1 have really plugged you hard. Did that surprise you?

It’s very surprising, yeah. The late night Radio 1 new music DJ, Huw Stephens, was an early supporter, and it just never stopped growing. It was like, Huw Stephens will play you, and then we’ll put you on the New Music We Trust playlist, and then we’ll put you on the C List, and people liked it so we were on the B List, and before you know it we were on the A List, and it was, like, "shit, how did that happen?" There’s was nothing that magical about it, it just kind of happened in a nice, progressive way.

What’s the best part of being in a band for you? Is it live performance, writing songs, or the recording process?

I think it’s recording, because that’s the most magically, alchemical bit of being in a band. You go in the studio and come out thinking "wow, we just did that," so that’s really nice.

When we’ve spoken in the past, you’ve praised the songwriting skills of Joe [Newman, Alt-J singer and guitarist]. Do you think he can consistently deliver at the level he has done so far?

We’re just trying to make sure he doesn’t get a girlfriend so he’s miserable, then he’ll write an amazing second album. I’m not worried about it. The new songs we’re working on right now are sounding really good, so it’s exciting.

Alt-J, with Gus Unger-Hamilton centre. Photograph: Getty Images

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

OLI SCARFF/GETTY IMAGES
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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era