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Interview: Alt-J


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Alt-J are among the UK’s freshest new bands, with their mesmerising blend of soulful, heartfelt vocals, skittish beats and future bass taking indie into new realms.

With high praise across the board from Radio 1 DJs, their second single set for release on the 27th February, and an upcoming tour and album, they are undoubtedly ones to watch for 2012.

TNS caught up with keyboard player Gus Unger-Hamilton in the lead-up to the tour to see what he makes of their growing success. 

Alt JThe band was formed during your time at Leeds University, but how exactly did it all come about?

Joe and I were in halls together, and then Joe met Gwil and Tom on his art course. We're all creative people – not to sound too wanky! Joe wrote some songs and we all got involved from there, really.

You’ve been through a few name changes before settling on Alt-J. You were originally [massively struggling to pronounce] Daljit Dhaliwal; is that right?

Yeah, that’s it. Basically, as a child, Joe used to watch Neighbours and at the end of the soundtrack he’d sing those words, which we found quite funny. We always knew we’d have to change the name – we found it hard to remember ourselves! We changed our name to Films, but that was a problem as it was already pretty much taken. Gwil came up with Alt-J when we were messing about on the Mac. It comes up as a delta triangle when you type it, and we just thought it would make a pretty cool image.

It’s a very memorable name, and you’ve accrued a lot of interest already. I'm sure there are new uni bands forming nationwide who would love to know how you got your material out there. Any tips?

To other people, I guess it seems like it's been really quick, but we’ve been together for over three years. We started out with MySpace, but it didn’t do much for us – we just thought that was what bands did. We’ve just worked very hard. We were never on a mission to get signed, just out there doing our thing. In the end, we were actually approached by a representative who showed interest, had contacts, and wanted to help us to get our stuff heard.

I guess that’s led to a lot of support from the likes of Radio 1 DJs, which is a great platform. How was it playing your tracks at the Maida Vale studios?

That was amazing – it’s so steeped in history and was one of the first things we did. It was like we didn't even feel like a proper band, but knew that that was how we’d be perceived from then on. We were practising super, super hard for weeks. Every bit of the day was cool, even down to eating in the canteen with the photos of everyone like the Beatles who had been there before us. We were like, ‘whoa, what are we doing here?’

Well you’ve got the music to thank for that! I love your track ‘Fitzpleasure’ [to be released on the 27th Feb along with ‘Matilda’], especially the layering of sounds you’ve got going on. Do you start out with a direction for each track, or do you experiment until it works for you?

It really depends, but with ‘Fitzpleasure’ it was a song that we had kind of written separate bits for. We were really happy with the bass hook and were playing that for a while, but we weren’t sure what to do with it. We put it on the back burner for ages, then decided we had to get it finished and it went from there. We took it to Charlie, the producer, who actually didn’t know what to make of it at first! He definitely played an important role in making it come together.

That’s understandable – you have brought this really new sound to the table that’s difficult to categorise. There have been a few references to folk and indie genres, but they don’t quite seem to define what you do. Would you say you’re subverting those styles?

I don’t think we were trying to subvert them exactly, but if we feel like it's been done before I guess we try to change direction and do something different. The songs just came out the way they did – there’s been no theme or genre in mind. If in the future people can categorise us, that’s fine, but at the moment we're just happy doing what we're doing.

So you've got the tour coming up in a few days. Do you still get nervous playing live?

We're really getting there, actually. I think we’re pretty comfortable. Our last gig was before Christmas, so we’re keen to get back into it because we love doing shows. We did a lot of touring in the autumn as well, so we’re ready for it. Pumped is the word.

And how do you feel about supporting Ghostpoet?

We’re big fans of his music, and we’ve played with him on two separate occasions previously. His live shows are amazing – they’re so different to the album, but really enhance it. He’s been a big support to us, as well, giving us loads of shout outs and everything.

It sounds like it’ll make for a great show. What are your next steps after touring?

Well we’ve got the album coming out in a couple of months’ time. It's all finished – we’re actually at the studio now doing some final touches. Apart from that, probably touring, touring and more touring! We’ve been told we won’t get to see our friends and family ’til 2013.

I guess they’ll be thanking you when you’re getting the drinks in!

Yeah exactly, and this is what we want to do so it's really exciting.

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