Q&A: Alt-J On Making This Is All Yours, Sampling Miley Cyrus, And Soldiering On As A Three-Piece
The Mercury Music Prize, awarded annually to Britain’s best album, announced its 2014 nominees today. If anybody understands the gravity of that honor, it’s Alt-J, the Leeds art-rockers who won the Mercury Prize on their first try with 2012 debut album An Awesome Wave. The award was a coronation of sorts for one of the fastest rising rock bands in recent history; it cemented Alt-J as both genuine rock stars and Important Musicians. Thus, the proggy introverts have a lot riding on sophomore effort This Is All Yours; there’s potential to blow up into one of the world’s biggest bands but also to falter under impossible expectations. Rather than hedge their bets and coast to success with a more conservative sophomore effort, Alt-J have only intensified their idiosyncrasies on This Is All Yours. The album is a dense, weird, unpredictable odyssey — one that ranges from the moody, Miley Cyrus-sampling electronic dirge “Hunger Of The Pine” to the rambling blooz-rock pastiche “Left Hand Free.” It’s quite an accomplishment, especially considering they did it down a man; founding member Gwil Sainsbury quit the band early this year, saying the life of a world-famous rock band was not for him.
Keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton — the one with the glasses — called from his local pub last month to discuss adjusting to life as a trio, the vast scope of This Is All Yours, working with acclaimed music video director Nabil, and much more.
STEREOGUM: Was this whole album written as a trio or did you guys start before Gwil left?
GUS UNGER-HAMILTON: There were certainly ideas for this album that were around before Gwil left. I think it’s pretty fair to say this album was written as a trio. Yeah, you know, Gwil had some input on some of the songs — our older ones. But I think it’s comfortable for you to say this is the work of a trio, and I think we are comfortable saying that too.
STEREOGUM: How did the dynamic of the band change as a trio? I know that in the Guardian interview he was kind of described as a silent leader.
UNGER-HAMILTON: Yeah, none of us are quite sure where that came from. Because I don’t think anybody said that. It was quite noisy when we were doing the interview in the restaurant; I think it might have been somewhat misheard or taken out of context or something. But I think the dynamic changed, you know, not too much. I think by the three of us remaining in the band we sort of reaffirmed our commitment to being in the band, and in a way our commitment to each other as friends as well. It was like sort of drawing a line in the band and saying “OK, this is Day One, we are starting it fresh. The three of us really want to be here and really want to do this. So let’s do this.”
STEREOGUM: Was the process of writing this record much different from the last one? Obviously the circumstances were quite different.
UNGER-HAMILTON: I don’t think it was a particularly different process. I think in a way we tried to recreate the environment in which we wrote the first album, which was a group of us sitting around in a nice, comfortable space like an apartment, not at a studio, just hanging out, enjoying each other’s company coming up with ideas. Just making music together in a really — without sounding too corny — in a really sort of like fun, raw way, in a basic way of connecting. And we tried to do that again this time to get the best results.
STEREOGUM: The album seems to be kind of framed with “Arrival In Nara” and “Leaving Nara.” Is there a narrative aspect to that?
UNGER-HAMILTON: We weren’t trying to deliberately create narrative running throughout the album. I think you know it’s nice to structure albums in a way that makes sense, and I think that may be more of an example of that.
STEREOGUM: OK, so what is Nara?
UNGER-HAMILTON: Well, Nara is a place in Japan where it’s full of deer, and the deer can sort of run around wherever they want throughout the city. The deer kind of have right of way everywhere. And the idea of the song “Nara” is about wanting to live your life freely as you want because you’re not hurting anybody. That’s the relation to Nara. I think the reason “Nara” is a trio of songs is because we originally had a lot of ideas for the song. Rather than make it into one really long epic song, we sort of carved it up and made it make a bit more sense. I think it’s not meant to be a sound journey. It was originally meant to be called “Nara Intro,” “Nara,” and “Nara Reprise,” but I had the idea of, “Seeing how Nara is a place, why don’t we just make it ‘Arrival In Nara,’ ‘Nara,’ and “Leaving Nara’?”
STEREOGUM: It’s crazy how much changing the titles like that adjusts the way you experience the song.
UNGER-HAMILTON: Yeah, exactly.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting to me that you know you guys have talked about being perceived as these “normal guys” not living this rock star lifestyle because as far as the music is concerned it’s very adventurous. It’s all over the place. I don’t feel like when I listen to this it strikes me as cookie-cutter music. And certainly the first two songs that you released from the record covered a really wide range, with “Hunger Of The Pine” and “Left Hand Free.” Was that an intentional thing to try to show the scope of the album?
UNGER-HAMILTON: Yeah, I think certainly. We wanted to kind of choose our hand in a way by showing the breadth of the album. You know the album takes place somewhere between the two sounds. That leaves a really open field. When you’re choosing to pre-release songs, you can sort of have fun with it and not just release one song, you can release two or three songs and be like, “Does this give you an idea?” while being a bit coy and provocative, I think.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of provocative, “Hunger Of The Pine” is provocative on a number of levels. Aside from any of the kind of connotations or reputation of Miley Cyrus, the sample is just so unexpected when it comes in. It takes a second to wrap your head around it. In fact, one of our writers who posted it said that at first he thought that he had accidentally left music playing in a different tab but then eventually we kind of wrapped our heads around it and liked it. Was that the desired affect, to kind of create this jarring “Where did that come from?” feeling?
UNGER-HAMILTON: I don’t think so — in fact I think we thought it fit in really well — but I think, undeniably, we knew people were going to be talking about it. We like to play with people’s expectations to a certain extent. It wasn’t to be musically jarring, but I think we enjoyed perhaps the fact that we are a left-field indie band sampling a huge global pop star.
STEREOGUM: Was that controversial? I feel like the way music is going and the way that everything sort of blends together these days, that it doesn’t have to be controversial. But I feel like it would still ruffle some people’s feathers.
UNGER-HAMILTON: Yeah, I don’t think it was particularly controversial, really. I haven’t spent much time reading the YouTube comments on it or whatever, but most journalists and so on that we speak to have been pretty receptive to it and don’t seem to be too worried about it. Yeah, maybe it is exactly like you were saying.
STEREOGUM: Then you got Nabil to do the video, who our staff tends to think of as the best director working these days. How did that come about? Did you request him?
UNGER-HAMILTON: I’m not actually sure, to be honest, how that happened. Perhaps I’m not the bloke to ask. But you know he did an amazing job and we are really, really grateful he did.
STEREOGUM: We spoke about “Left Hand Free” is maybe as far as you can get from “Hunger Of The Pine.” I’m confused from reading a few different stories about you guys: Was that something that the label asked you to try, or was that something you came up independently?
UNGER-HAMILTON: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, it was something we came up with spontaneously. It was the product of having fun one afternoon in the writers’ studio and enjoying ourselves. We found out once we laid down the track that the American label, that was the song they responded best to. But it was definitely not written in any way for the label, to please the label or to piss the label off, or whatever people have been saying. No.
STEREOGUM: The song and the video definitely touch on very American kinds of sounds. Was that what you were going for?
UNGER-HAMILTON: Yeah, exactly. I think we were trying to imagine writing a song about having a bar brawl in sort of a speakeasy party in the ’30s in America. I think we tried to go for a sort of Americana kind of sound and just enjoyed ourselves with it. We weren’t being too serious and equally we weren’t taking a piss. We were just enjoying ourselves.
STEREOGUM: I keep coming back to how all over the place the record is, and yet how it sounds unified as the work of Alt-J. Do you guys ever throw anything out on the grounds that it doesn’t fit?
UNGER-HAMILTON: No, not really, no. I think we are pretty aware of the way everything is going to go, so we don’t tend to write a song and go “No, that’s not us,” and shut down and scrap it. Even with “Left Hand Free,” which is not very much a sort of usual Alt-J song, I think we were like, “We like the song, we wrote it, and therefore it is one of our songs. It fits in.”
STEREOGUM: Joe’s voice is obviously so unique. It must be nice working with an ingredient that differentiates the music from the jump.
UNGER-HAMILTON: I think that our music is really quite varied. You know, we make all different types of songs, so I think it is good to have a unifying factor which is Joe’s voice. The song might be “Left Hand Free” or it might be “Hunger Of The Pine,” but it is the same voice singing it, and I think that is almost the glue that binds our music is that continuity of Joe’s voice being so unique, so recognizable.
STEREOGUM: Taking this music that is conceived in this intimate environment and putting it out in these bigger venues — does that change the music or your experience of it when it’s out of the living room and into the concert hall?
UNGER-HAMILTON: No, I think we enjoy being on stage, but I think we are still quite involved in the moment when we are playing. We aren’t thinking too much about the size of venue, we are kind of just focused on playing the music, so that way we are not trying to stage-rockify ourselves just because we are in a bigger venue. You know, I think we are just so involved in playing.
STEREOGUM: How have you adapted the live show for life as a trio? Are you bringing in additional musicians?
UNGER-HAMILTON: Yeah. We’re bringing an extra musician on tour on guitar. Cameron is a professional guitarist who is going to be coming on tour with us. He is fitting in really well. He is quick to learn. It is nice to have a new person involved. We spent the last month in a rehearsal studio, the four of us just kind of figuring out how to play our songs. We are using more samples now; we are triggering stuff on stage. It’s a bit more electronic on stage now, but I think it will still be quite heartening.
STEREOGUM: How did you settle on This is All Yours as the album title?
UNGER-HAMILTON: It was really quite easy really. I think we saw it on a painting, which was really just a painting with “This is all yours” written on it. I think we were talking about using it as our album cover, then we were like, “Well then maybe we should call the album This Is All Yours. It’s a nice title, it has a nice ring to it.” Then we didn’t use that painting, but we kept the title.
STEREOGUM: Is the title reflective at all of the content of the album?
UNGER-HAMILTON: I think it is reflective to our approach to making music and to making an album, which is, you write songs and you record them and you release them and it’s no longer just your thing. It belongs to whoever listens to it. I think strictly with this being our second album and where there is an audience out there who are going to hear the album — with our first album we weren’t sure if anyone would ever hear it, but with this album we know people are going to hear it. So it is like saying, “Take it, and what do you think of it, and make it your own.” We are making it for people.