It’s been over ten years since UK Indie-rockers alt-J released their debut An Awesome Wave. An atmospheric, avant garde, pysch-folk record that was deeply rooted in pop-sensible songwriting. At the time you couldn’t escape songs like “Tessellate,” “Fitzpleasure,” or their hit single “Breezeblocks.” Songs that would become staples of the 2010’s indie sound.
Their unique approach to songwriting paired with the soulful and menacing singing styles of lead-vocalist and guitar player Joe Newman and keyboardist and vocalist Gus Unger-Hamilton, made for this incredibly intriguing and entertaining record. For many it was a “smart” take on alternative rock, even guarnering the band comparisons to artists like Radiohead. An Awesome Wave, would reach number 15 on the US Billboard Indie Chart and reach Gold Record status in the U.S. selling over 500,000 copies, which in 2012 was quite a feet as it was the beginning of the streaming age.
Following the success of their first record, alt-J would have arguably bigger hits with songs like, “Every Other Freckle,” “In Cold Blood,” and “Left Hand Free.” Song’s that you could hear on any local alt-rock station and in multiple commercials.
However, the last time we heard from the band was in 2017 with the release of their third record, Relaxer. After that, the band like many of us took a break from the world. But the pandemic proved to be a motivating and cleansing experience for alt-J in the studio. Now in 2022, they’ve returned with maybe their most smooth and easy listening sound yet. The Dream, finds alt-J tens years into their career at their most comfortable. Having fun writing songs with “U&ME,” and the undeniably catchy 60’s pop influenced “Hard Drive Gold.”
Now embarking on their biggest tour in several years, alt-J will be stopping through Cincinnati at the PromoWest Pavilion at Ovation in Newport, Kentucky. CincyMusic sat down with Gus Unger-Hamilton before Friday nights show to discuss the past ten years and where they are now as a band.
It’s been ten years since the release of An Awesome Wave. What did that record mean to you, and how did it influence the trajectory of alt-J?
“You know, obviously it was a huge record for us,” said Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards/ bass/ vocals). “It was the thing that started our career and did so many amazing things for us. We won the Murcury Award, we were able to tour hear in America, while creating a big fan base here which was really incredible and unexpected. What it’s done for us since, I think An Awesome Wave was a fairly uncompromising album. It didn’t really fit into a musical genre and it was hard for us to get a record deal at the time. We ended up going with a small label who had faith in us at the time. As a result, we didn’t feel as though we needed to make an album that was an immediate success. I think that gave us sort of carte blanche to be sort of a weird band. To try new things, we feel as though our fans like when we try different sounds or new genres. That’s a really amazing thing about being in this band is that we’re free to do what we want and that’s thanks to that first album.”I think something so unique about that album is that it is hard to pin down to one genre. Clearly there are some 60’s Pysch-Folk influences but there are spiritual aspects as well. Do you mind expanding on that and where those influences came from?
“Well Joe (Newman, guitar/lead-vocals) grew up learning guitar from his dad,” said Unger-Hamilton. “His dad was this sort of really proficient guitar player and would play covers all the time. His dad would play gigs at pubs throughout the city where Joe lived, playing these 60’s and 70’s classics. Sort of Laurel Canyon kind of stuff. So I think Joe took that all in and sort of learned how to unconsciously write really great catchy riffs and vocal melodies. Then when you put it through the filter of the this art school environment we were in at Leeds (University) it sort of turned it inside out into a kind of left field, more avant garde thing, with still a pop sensibility underneath.”
“For me personally, I grew up in the Cathedrial,” said Unger-Hamilton. “I was singing everyday in a Cathedrial from age thirteen. So I got really an amazing music education from that. I particularly enjoyed singing like early music. Sort of these medevil songs that have these harmonies that I’ve taken and used in alt-J. Also, interms of folk music my mum really loved folk music. So my mum’s family is very into folk music, folk singing, and I learned a lot of folk songs growing up from my mum’s family.”On The Dream, it's clear that you’ve smoothed out some of the abrasive parts of your sound. Was that intentional? Did you intend to make this album more “easy listening?”
“I don’t think it was intentional so much,” said Unger-Hamilton. “It’s hard to say with the evolution of sound. I think Relaxer, the third album was quite an abrassive album in some ways. I think it was reflective of the time and where we were as a band. We were slightly in turmoil, it wasn’t an easy recording process. There were certain things going on behind the scenes that made it difficult. We were rushing, under pressure from the label, and kind of stressed out during the making of that album. In this case in the making of The Dream we had our own studio, we didn’t have a deadline because the pandemic basically meant that the rules of anything didn’t apply. Nobody knew what was going to happen so we spent a year and a half in the studio just writing and recording. We were actually a lot more relaxed and felt more comfortable making making this album. I think perhaps that’s why this record is a bit softer and more gentle, we were able to be in a better frame of mind.”
I think some people know what your live experience is like but some may only know you as an accomplished studio act. What has your live performance meant to you as a band? And how has it evolved in the past decade?
“I think our first aim, ten years ago when we were really starting to tour professionally we really wanted our sound to sound as much like the record as possible,” said Unger-Hamilton. “We’ve never been so much a band for improvisation on stage we’re not really those kinds of musicians. So we tried our best to take the album and reproduce it as accurately as we could on stage. I think that is still sort of still our goal but we have more confidence in ourselves as musicians now. That being said, we’ve never really particularly enjoyed the aspect of working a crowd. We’re not really huge on that and I think thats why we use a light show that’s in your face. The light show is sort of the front man of the band. While Joe and I do enjoy interacting with the crowd, you know we’re not Kraftwerk, it’s nice to feel like the light show is sort of carrying the burden of visually entertaining the crowd while we can consentrate on the music. Because actually the songs we are playing do require quite a lot of concentration to play. They’re quite complex songs in some cases, it doesn’t leave a lot of room to be jumping around and what have you, stage diving and stuff.”“Hard-Drive Gold,” where did the concept for that single come from? It seems to have a bit of that 60’s pop aspect that you seem very comfortable working within.
‘“Hard-Drive Gold,” was one of those ones written very quickly, it was a fun song to write just a bit of tongue and cheek one really,” said Unger-Hamilton. “It was a bit like “Left Hand Free,” sometimes you feel a song coming very quickly and I think it’s best not to ask too many questions. You just get it down while you can with quick lyrics. That’s how this one was for sure, it really came out of no where. I think we knew it was going to be a popular song. It was so kind of catchy. You know we are know for some of our more emotional, complex, darker songs but I also think we do enjoy writing a bit of a banger sometimes.”What motivated you to embark on this massive tour? Visiting some of these cities you haven’t been to in some time. What does it mean for you to get back on the road?
“I think it’s so important for us,” said Unger-Hamilton. “You this is where we kind of see our fans in the flesh. It’s a reminder to us that we are doing something that is really meaningful to a lot of people. Particularly during the pandemic we hadn’t done a live show for years and it felt like, are we ever going to be able to be in a room with thousands of people ever again? It’s been quite an emotional experience being back on stage. It really does remind you, ten years is a long time to be in show business and we know there are newer bands who are more flavor of the month than we are now. The same way we were ten years ago, it feels like an incredible achievement to me that we can still have thousands of fans coming to our shows in America of all places. To know all of the words to our new songs, as well as the old ones. It’s been fantastic. It’s going to be great to be back in Cincinnati. I feel like the middle of America has actually always embraced us. That has really been a mark of our succuss. We do more than just New York and L.A.. It’s places like Cincinnati are a hallmark of what we’ve achieved over here and we’re super proud of that.”
alt-J will be performing at the PromoWest Pavilion at Ovation Friday night and you can listen to The Dream, anywhere you get your music.
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