There’s been a lot of news surrounding ALT-J in recent weeks and months. Largely, of course, to do with the fact that they’re finally releasing the follow-up album to their excellent 2012 debut An Awesome Wave. Other news around the Leeds trio include the wholly questionable albeit strangely alluring sampling of Miley Cyrus on their single Hunger Of The Pine, the departure of band member Gwil Sainsbury and the ruckus surrounding bluesy, did-they-or-didn’t-they-write-it-to-please-their-label Left Hand Free. A handful of beautiful and aesthetically vibrant videos have been produced for the three singles they’ve released – Hunger Of The Pine is directed by none other than the hugely talented Nabil and Every Other Freckle sees two versions, ‘boy’ and ‘girl’, in order to be as P.C as possible. NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION caught up with Joe Newman, Gus Unger-Hamilton and Thom Green at one of Berlin’s stranger modern ventures – Bikini Berlin.
Although officially out on 22nd September via Infectious Music, This Is Yours can already been streamed online – but there’s a slight catch, you’ve got to download an App and making your way to one of the specific locations. Visit the map right here.
Let’s begin with the new album. My favourite track on it is probably Bloodflood Part II. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Joe: Bloodflood began as just a riff and a melody that eventually became a verse idea. It didn’t really dawn on any of any of us to turn it into Bloodflood Part II until we started writing towards a second album. I think as the ideas started to evolve, we started thinking about having a Bloodflood Part II and it being related to the other side of the story. The first part of the story is about a guy that’s been slapped, while the second is about the guy that’s slapped him.
Are there any other songs on the album that were reformed from older material?
Joe: Yes. Every Other Freckle – that’s something that was written before the first album.
Gus: The Gospel of John Hurt too – That was about an old friend who grew a beard and got tattoos.
Joe: Those three are old songs, but they’ve kind of been re-packaged.
Were they all tracks that were therefore written for the first album, but didn’t quite make it?
Joe: They weren’t even considered. In the early days before we’d even established what was even going to go on the first album, they were part of all that, kind of, unknown. Therefore when we put all the songs together for the second album, we realised that The Gospel of John Hurt, Every Other Freckle and Bloodflood Part II hadn’t entirely been finished. When we looked at what had already been completed for album number two, we realised how happy we were with these songs that didn’t get to go on the first album.
You wrote such a concise and successful first album and these songs were avoided, however not necessarily for a sake of bad or good. Did you question why these songs were appropriate for a second album?
Joe: I think we felt they had potential, but they weren’t ready to be released. They hadn’t matured. We hadn’t given the enough time.
Gus: Yeah, we were recording songs quite regularly before the first album, and we had to figure out quite quickly what to do. I mean, we got signed in November and pretty quickly after that we had Christmas, and suddenly we’re starting the album in January. We had to figure out what was ready and what wasn’t. The Gospel of John Hurt we’d had for ages, but Gwil didn’t really have a part for it and I think we knew that there were other bits that we wanted to add – we figured that, since it wasn’t quite ready, we had got enough material not have to force it on there. We’ve talked about it a lot – it’s a great name for a song, and we’re glad it made it onto the second album. We had been telling journalists who asked for song names from album two, that The Gospel of John Hurt would be one – we’re pretty glad it’s there to be honest.
How much input did Gwil have on that song, or on songs from the second album? Since leaving the band, you’ve commented on how you were somewhat struggling with the fact that the ‘silent leader’ was gone.
Gus: Who said ‘silent leader’? (laughs)
Joe: I may have said that, but I also said when he left the band we had, almost like, crisis talks, and I asked if he would ever consider being a silent partner? You wouldn’t have to deal with all of these interviews, touring or the label – You would just be a creator. I think I told someone that in an interview and I think they went with ‘silent leader’ instead.
Gus: It was a very noisy restaurant – I’m surprised more quotes didn’t get garbled. I mean, if you had said: ‘he was our silent leader’ I would have been like ‘hey, what does that mean?’
Joe: There’s not very much Gwil on the second album – except a lovely bit of guitar on Every Other Freckle.
What about ‘Left Hand Free‘… you make fun of this song in other interviews and there was all that controversy about it being to please your record label?
Gus: It’s really annoying because that’s just not true.
Joe: We’ve been misrepresented in an article and from now on people who do their research before interviewing us will read that article.
What’s the true story about the song then?
Gus: The truth about the song is that we wrote it very quickly, probably quite high and that was the song our label liked the most. We didn’t do it to piss them off. It was a song we wrote as a purely spontaneous outburst before the American label had any of our stuff.
Joe: It was more something we’d never really tried to do before, which was play characters. Normally we write quite instinctively – I don’t say to Tom and Gus ‘you need to sound more like Bob Geldof, or I dunno, more like this or that when you try to play your instruments’ – we all just do what we do and we respond to whatever anyone is playing at the time. That’s what’s good about us. We don’t try and wear our influences on our sleeve, except with this track in which were trying to play a game. It was a lot of fun and had nothing to do with the label demanding an easier track to market.
Good, that we have this exclusive story. Let’s talk about the live set up. It’s changed quite a lot even with Gwil in the band, but now, with his absence I wonder how your show has developed to compensate for a person being gone from ALT-J?
Gus: We don’t actually know yet [at the time of interviewing] – we’re actually auditioning a few people to come on the road with us. However, having not been into rehearsals yet, it’s hard to say. Tom might be doing some stuff with triggers.
Tom: The album is hundreds of layers of samples and instruments that we didn’t play – things that we cannot play with only two hands. So, unless we use backing tracks for everything we’ve got to trigger it somehow. I’m going to put a lot of MIDI on my kit, but make sure it can be played. I did think about using Launchpads and stuff [a midi controller for setting off loops] but it would be too hard to incorporate that with a whole kit. It would take me a while to learn. We’re going to try and keep everything as live as possible.
Are you running to click/metronome live?
Tom: Yes we will. We did for the first album too.
Gus: We love click.
Tom: Once you start using it, you can’t stop. You don’t notice it after a while – it makes you so much more reassured and comfortable.
Is this a shift in the new album in regards to a live sound? If you don’t mind me saying, the first album was much more of a producer’s album while the live sound was much more of an indie band sound than maybe the album demonstrated. Do you feel that the new live arrangement is going to acknowledge those production influences more openly?
Tom: On stage? Compared, yes more.
Gus: I haven’t really thought about it from that angle to be honest. I’m just excited about playing live. There were some people that liked us more as a live band, and there were some people that felt we sounded exactly like we did on the album, so it’s hard to say. It probably does come down to opinion. You’re probably right in some ways, but lots of people would say ‘this sounds just like it did on the record’.
Joe: People have said that to me, and I’ve been like really? Does it? Some people have been like, ‘this sounds completely different’. Even though you can never hear what you’re playing from the audience’s perspective, I feel it’s naturally going to sound quite stripped down because we’re only playing what we can physically create live. We don’t have eight hands to recreate everything that was layered on the first album. With this next album however, we’re not going to be able to play it if we have that old attitude – we are going to have use samples and triggers, and maybe even have a backing track, only because we want to play what the audience wants to hear. That’s the only way we can do it I think. We’re all just desperate to play live again.
Gus: Our first official live show is on September 18th, in Glasgow on the day of the referendum… which is just going to be fucking mental.
How do you respond to fans saying ‘I enjoyed them when they were small, and playing small venues’?
Gus: They’ve never said that to me.
Joe: I’m not sure we have time for people that think like that.
Gus: You can either play a 200 capacity venue, just to have the most intimate gig ever, but have 90% of your fans miss out. Or you can play a 2000 capacity venue and please everyone, except a few people who would be moaning about something else anyway.
Joe: If you like music and you like a band, I don’t think you should be worried about them trying to capitalise on their demand. Essentially you want to be in this industry for as long as possible, and the best way to do that is to make money. If we had to worry about jobs, I don’t know if we’d be able to write the second album in time – everyone wants to hear it now.
You said you didn’t want to spend your money on the recording process. What is thing, as a band, you do want to spend your money on?
Gus: Keep it in a gold chest? We don’t have big ideas for our money. A house?
Joe: I’d spend it on meals. Sandwiches. Really expensive sandwiches.
Gus: There’s an £80 sandwich you can get in Harrods, or Selfridges, I think. The most expensive sandwich in the world.
They also have the world’s most expensive coffee in there too.
Gus: Is that the one that get’s shat out by some mammal? A bat or something?
Tom: In terms of the band, we pay for everything. Boss, crew, rider – we pay for it all. That costs a lot of money – more than you probably think. Doing gigs in Northern America can cost you nearly £5,000 a day. When you earn a lot of money, you have to remember that if you want the band to do as well as possible then it all needs to be put into the band. A lot of bands that sign for massive deals don’t have the right management and they just blow it up the wall. They don’t progress. It’s quite scary I suppose.
The year after you won the Mercury Prize, JAMES BLAKE famously said ‘I’m not going to piss it up the wall’ when asked what he would do with the prize money. I’m quite cynical about the awards since the acts that could use the money, never win, and the acts that arguably don’t need it – perhaps yourselves included – always do.
Joe: Like ROLLER TRIO who are also from Leeds, UK. They were never going to win it, but when they played they had the best show.
Gus: It’s a shame because them, out of everyone, were the ones that could have really used that money. It could have been the difference between them making another album or not. £20,000 may have helped them make three albums, whereas when people asked us what we spent the award money on – we didn’t really spend it on anything. It just went into the business; it became part of the flow.
Just four days on tour in America, right?
Gus: (laughs) Yes, exactly.
Joe: We weren’t pleased to win because of the money. That money isn’t ours; it’s our managers as well. We couldn’t really donate it.
Tom: The thing is, because the Mercury is still about an album – you could be the biggest band in the world and still win. Unless they take the prize money away completely, it’s never going to seem fair.
Gus: Maybe they should? Except the Booker Prize and the Turner Prize both have money as a reward.
Joe: I don’t think they should to be honest. Why? Because sometimes bands with no money win the Mercury, and then it’s the thing helps them through.
On the subject of not winning the Mercury, what do you think of the new JON HOPKINS record?
Gus: I love it.
Tom: It sounds like it could be BURIAL.
Joe: Is he the guy that recently did some stuff with BAT FOR LASHES? That project went somewhat under the radar.
Yeah, for the soundtrack of ‘How I Live Now.’ Okay, one last question about triangles. There’s none on the new artwork right?
Gus: It wasn’t on the first album artwork, either?
Joe: There’s the same amount of ‘triangle’ on this album as there is on the first one – just one.
But there was the triangle vinyl for ‘Mathilda’ right?
Gus: We never actually wanted that. Our label did that. They asked us if we wanted a triangle vinyl, we said no, and they said ‘oh no, we’ve already done it.’ They got a bit triangle happy – The Mathilda single had 8 triangles in it.
Joe: We’re not drifting away from the triangle as a symbol, and we’re not actively trying to separate ourselves away from it – it’s just not a huge part of what we do. That said the triangle hand gesture is a lovely way for fans to interact with you on stage. It’s great to do it back to them, however it’s not part of our manifesto – not that we have one anyway.