Interview Alt-J: “This is actually my job! That’s always quite surreal”
Five years ago, Alt-J were piecing together their debut. Now they’re headlining festivals worldwide. Gus Unger-Hamilton popped along to DIY’s party for a good old reminisce..
Back in 2011, Alt-J were making their very first baby steps towards worldwide domination. Hard at work on what would become their Mercury Prize-scooping debut ‘An Awesome Wave,’ DIY caught the band live for the first time supporting Toro Y Moi at The Garage in London that very same year, and concluded “they won’t have to play second fiddle for much longer.” And just look at them now!
From the game-changing moment of headlining Latitude last year, to being DIY cover stars and reaching new levels of barmy, stadium-bothering experimentation with their second album ‘This is All Yours’, Alt-J are now one of the biggest bands in the world. They still can’t believe it, either.
We invited the band’s Gus Unger-Hamilton to quaff prosecco with us at DIY’s 50th issue bash - along with having a good old reminisce about the last five years. We also grilled the triangle-loving chap about what might be next on the agenda in music-world.
So, Gus, what is the best thing about being in Alt-J?
I think it’s probably the feeling you get from it being a job that started out as a hobby.
Over the last few years, what has been your most surreal or stupid moment?
I think probably, I ‘spose we’ve played gigs in places like India and Iceland and countries we never thought we’d get to play in. When you’re sitting there having a day off, and a nice drink and some food, and thinking ‘this is actually my job’ that’s always quite surreal, when you think about it too much, In a good way. It’s very odd.
If you could do a sort of tamer, less intense Groundhog Day, and go back a relive a day in the life of Alt-J a couple of times, which one would you pick and why?
I think probably the first time we did Glastonbury in 2013. That was really, really amazing. It felt like the start of something big for us, and I really like the idea of being able to do that again, several times.
"Playing Glastonbury felt like the start of something big for us."
— Gus Unger-Hamilton
Which forgotten bands of the past would you bring back?
Forward Russia! And oo, let me think. Galaxie 500.
If you could give yourself a bit of advice when you started out, speaking to yourself as present, wiser Gus, what would you tell younger Gus?
Take more photos and write things down, because it’s really sad. The last four years of touring, I’ve forgotten things - we went into it, and we’ve all forgotten stuff. More photos, and keep a diary. I’d tell any musician starting out to do that. I think, ‘oo, I’ve got my Twitter,’ but that’s not the same as a nice photo album, is it?
So, imagine it’s the year 2021. Kanye West is president of the USA, and people are listening to music with chips in their ears. What are you doing?
If that’s the case, I think I’d be Secretary of State. Oo golly. No, if things came to that, I would have broken away to start some crazy commune in rural Wales. That would be a step too far for me. We shall see.
What quality do you think a new band needs to make it? Do you think it’s about having the time and space for musicians to use their talent to the maximum, or do you think luck plays a big part?
Obviously it’s got to be 70% good songs. I think the other 30% is being in the right place at the right time, and not making stupid decisions early on. I mean, we almost did that, we could have really made things difficult for ourselves. Not signing to a label quickly, and that sort of thing, has been really important to us.
"I think people need to be reminded about the importance of small venues and small bands."
— Gus Unger-Hamilton
How do you think the internet has changed the way that music works and bands get noticed in the first place?
I think it’s levelled the playing field quite a lot, but I also think it’s quite dangerous. I think bands can be tempted to give themselves this really jazzy online presence before they’ve focused on other things like writing songs or playing well live. I think it can create too much hype too quickly, which can then kill bands before they’ve even got off the starting blocks. I think the jury is out on the Internet generally for me, still.
As of late, we’ve lost loads of important gig venues to developers or rising rents. What do you think needs to be done to fight back against all the venues closing in the UK?
I think people need to be reminded about the importance of small venues and small bands. It’s so easy these days; there’s so much music out there for people to listen to, they might not think about where music comes from, they might wait for it to arrive on their phone ready packaged on Spotify for their enjoyment. I think without small venues and bands plugging away…. often the artists we love started out that way and have been nutured in those places. Maybe more education? I’m not really sure, it’s a huge question. But that would be the starting point, for me.
Talking of streaming, do you think that in five years time, say, it will still be a thing?
I think it’ll still be a thing for sure, a big thing. We’ll get to find out if it can be a viable business model for the music industry. I’m quite pro-streaming, generally. I do wonder what it holds for the music industry, but time will tell. I still haven’t stopped buying vinyl.
Photo: Mike Massaro / DIY.
Taken from DIY’s 50th issue special, out now. Subscribe to DIY below.
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