alt-J: “More recognition wouldn’t prompt us to start doing cocaine in night club toilets”

The indie oddballs on hip-hop remixes, songs about grandmas and going unrecognised. 

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Winners of the 2012 Mercury Prize and nominated for three Brit Awards, alt-J are a band you’re likely to have heard without realising. For lead vocalist Joe Newman and keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton – drummer Thom Green doesn’t do interviews – the low profile suits them just fine. “Paparazzi would be shit, let’s be honest,” Unger-Hamilton says frankly.

Sporting sandpaper stubble, plaid shirts and light wash jeans, both blend well into the Dalston coffee shop where the interview takes place. The band have sold over a million albums worldwide, but to date, only Newman has appeared in any of their music videos. “Yeah, I was playing a corpse,” he laughs, “so that’s not likely to get us stopped in the street.”

And that level of anonymity hit new heights, Newman adds, at a friend’s wedding the weekend before our meeting. “So I was at this wedding and a guy, a friend of the bride, had come over to it all the way from Portland in Maine. He was talking to one of my friends from school and they got chatting about music. My mate asked him what he was into and the guy replied that he’d just discovered this cool British band called alt-J. And my mate said: ‘You do realise that their lead singer is in that hammock over there, don’t you?’” Hammock? “Oh yeah, it was in the south of France.”

Alt-J’s name, symbolised as the Greek letter “delta”, which is the mathematical symbol for change, is pronounced as such because this is the keyboard shortcut to produce the letter on a Mac. Engagingly alternative, operating in a space that navigates rock, pop, electronica and folk, the band’s deliberately obscure name is almost forgivable. Their weirdness is charming.

Considering the commercial success – alt-J have sold out London’s O2 Arena twice – it’s perhaps most accurate to divide their fanbase into two camps: the loyalists who pack out their live shows and the eclectic passers-by whose curiosity is piqued by a band so obsessed with variety. “Breezeblocks”, from their Mercury-winning debut album, An Awesome Wave, is a good gateway track for alt-J. Their song, “Left Hand Free”, which features in the 2016 Marvel film Captain America: Civil War, is another.

The band, originally a four-piece, met as students at the University of Leeds in 2007. Former guitarist Gwil Sainsbury found the pressures of life as a touring musician too much and left the group in 2014. Unger-Hamilton assures that the band remain “the best of friends with Gwil” and says that “when you think about the fact we toured the world pretty early in our 20s, it’s not surprising that, statistically, one in four of us didn’t want to carry that on, because it’s exhausting”.

Unger-Hamilton read English literature, while the other band members studied fine art. “We saw our band as like a big art project,” Newman says, “and for us it was a chance first and foremost to have fun. We just wrote songs about the stuff we found interesting or amusing, before we realised we were any good.” Unger-Hamilton explains: “I think at the time we were experimenting with our ideas, as you do at university. We were just four guys, a bit jazzed about reading Roland Barthes and maybe a lot of our early stuff was a bit avant-garde.”

What’s the weirdest thing alt-J sang about in the early days? Newman cringes. “We did a track called 'Gilf' which was a low, melancholic jam, where a friend of ours was reading out granny sex adverts over the music. I think we performed it live once.” Unger-Hamilton quips: “We went one step further than [the band behind 'Stacy’s Mom'] Fountains of Wayne.” Mercifully, alt-J’s material quickly became more mature in a different way. They ditched the teenage tropes and the band have since issued social commentary on historical events, such as the Spanish Civil War, and penned paeans to popular films. “The Gospel of John Hurt”, for example, is an ode to the famous chest-bursting scene in 1979’s Alien.

Such is alt-J’s commitment to experimenting with their music, their latest album REDUXER is a hip-hop reworking of 2017’s RELAXER. Featuring a host of European hip-hop collaborators, including Danny Brown, Little Simz, Pusha T and Kontra K, the tracks from RELAXER have been spliced with some new rap vocals or revamped with stronger bass lines. “It’s not alt-J canon,” Unger-Hamilton clarifies, “it’s very much a remix album. Labels usually want to do some kind of deluxe or special edition when you get to a certain point, and so we wanted to do something different with ours. We’re massive hip-hop fans ourselves, so this made sense.”

Newman, whose own impressive falsetto is so hard to imitate, chips in that he enjoyed working with artists who sang in a different language. “Linguistic rhythms in other languages are fascinating,” he says, “and I guess this was also an opportunity for us to appeal to our fans in other countries too. Working with [German rapper] Kontra K [on the remix of ‘In Cold Blood’] was really cool.” 

Music in general, according to Unger-Hamilton, is “becoming less constrained” by any “tribalism” attached to genre. “I remember when I was growing up and 50 Cent played Reading Festival. There was a ridiculous backlash to that, whereas now a reaction like that would be inconceivable. Festival line-ups are so diverse these days. You’ve got rappers performing on the same card as metal bands and metal bands going on after dance troupes. As far as I’m concerned, I think that can only be a good thing.”

For all the edginess of alt-J’s lyrics, the band admit that they have been scrutinised by some corners of the press “for being too vanilla”. Newman says: “I get that maybe the papers expect a rock star image and a party lifestyle, but we’d rather not pretend to be something we’re not. I respect [Arctic Monkeys front man] Alex Turner and I think it’s great to see the image change he’s gone through. It was t-shirt and jeans in the past and now he’s like this swaggering rock icon with a leather jacket and cool hair. But, and I know it sounds cliché, I’d rather just be judged on the sound of the music rather than how we dress or what we do off-stage.” Unger-Hamilton, meanwhile, points out that some of the criticism levied at the band for being “too geeky or too middle-class” has “led to some ridiculous idea that we’re all really good with computers.”

Nevertheless, alt-J’s dislike for the limelight should not be mistaken for a lack of ambition. “If our music is well-received and we get more awards and do bigger gigs, then great,” Unger-Hamilton says. “I get that with more recognition, there’d be a higher profile and that, but it certainly wouldn’t prompt us to start doing cocaine in night club toilets. We’re just not like that. If that makes us dull then fine.”

REDUXER, the new album by alt-J, is out now. They tour the UK 15-30 October. See www.altjband.com for details.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.