Fractal Rock: Gus Unger-Hamilton and Joe Newman on The Band's Breakout Year and Winning the Mercury Prize
Jan 11, 2013
Photography by Andy Willsher Web Exclusive
Recent Mercury Prize winners Alt-J don't skimp on the weird. Their offbeat debut An Awesome Wave skitters across genres—a jittery wash of soulful groves, a cappella harmonies, and soaring piano and guitar lines colliding with pop culture references 'a plenty. The assemblage of these elements seems to beg the question: What is this? Lit pop? (The album title is a reference to American Psycho.) Art rock? (Three-fourths of the band studied art at university.) Radiohead 2.0? (The band counts Thom Yorke as a major influence.) Who knows?
Under the Radar caught up with keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton who told us about living life as Mac people, why they don't feel bad about borrowing from other artists, and why it's important to name the baby. We also later caught up with band member Joe Newman shortly after their Mercury Prize win.
[An article based on the Unger-Hamilton interview appeared in Under the Radar's Protest Issue, which you can buy here. This is the full transcript of the interview, conducted before the band's Mercury Prize win, plus a newly conducted interview with Newman.]
Laura Studarus (Under the Radar): I love your band name since it instantly tells me that you're a Mac Person.
Gus Unger-Hamilton: Yeah! We are Mac people.
I have a friend who has a theory that there should be Mac/PC-specific dating sites, shopping sites, everything.
I know what you mean; they could probably even split countries in two. The nicest bit can go the Mac people, and the rest to the PCs.
And when that happens, you guys can write the anthem. You're already branded for it.
Yeah! We'd probably get a pretty high post in government in the new land. I'm sure we'll be recognized.
Is there anything else to your band name other than the fact that the delta symbol is kinda cool?
Not really. Some people have added quite profound meanings, but it just looks kinda cool. We do like the non-apparent nature of it. It's quite mysterious and a bit secretive. We quite like that. But it looks cool, it sounds cool. You can get really bogged down in trying to pick band names. We spent a long time thinking about it. But at the end of the day you have to choose a name and stick with it, really. That's what we've done. Since we changed our name from Films.
I had a glass of wine and did a bit of research in preparation for this chat, and I ended up falling down the illuminati rabbit hole on the Internet and ended up reading wacky conspiracy theories for the better part of an hour. If you ever want to play up the mystery you could always go that direction.
Yeah, absolutely! It's quite tempting to make stuff up and start rumors, start theories about us. People are very ready to believe that we might be some sort of secret society or all members of some strange cult. We have to sit on our hands a bit and not feed people crazy stories.
So I guess given all this, a discussion of genre and where you belong in a musical landscape is out, right?
We often get asked about that. Do we have a genre; do we play in a certain genre? Other people are better at coming up with things than we are. We don't really know where we belong. We don't worry too much about it. If people want to think about it, recently The Guardian did a feature on the modern state of pop and called us "intellectual indie." That's kind of an interesting label. Maybe one that we like, maybe one that we don't. I don't know! Genre has become slightly meaningless, I think.
Well, it's always a bit of a tug-a-war. As a writer, my editors are always saying things like, "What genre are they? Who do they sound like?" On the other side, musicians are always shaking their heads wildly and saying "No genre! No!"
It's true, I think that most people would like to fit things exactly into a genre. But no one would say that they're easily pigeonhole-able. So there you go. One genre I like in describing this is "Post-Internet." If that's a genre I'd say that we probably fit in that.
Which is kind of funny, given a band name derived from keyboard symbols.
Exactly! OK, I think we're starting to build something here.
How did the four of you meet?
We all met at the University of Leeds. We were friends. It was quite ordinary, really. They were doing art, and I was doing English literature. I met Joe, and we lived together in a hall. We just became a group of friends. We were part of a group, and then Joe wanted to start a band. We got together with some musical friends that he knew from university. So it was the three of us. It kinda worked from the first time. We've never had any member changes or anything. It's kind of all been quite constant. The kind of music we've been making evolved and matured over four years. We've never changed direction or anything, really. We just make music with friends.
That's actually really interesting. You look at a band like Radiohead, and they've almost become three different bands over the years.
It's true, it's like they have. I like that about Radiohead. Looking back on a 20-year career, maybe people will say that about us. I'm fine with that. But we don't like the idea of specifically changing direction. It should happen naturally if you find you're digging a different sound, or want to try a different type of music. I can't imagine saying, "OK, let's make a different kind of record." We make music that we like. And if what we like changes, the music changes.
How long ago did you guys graduate from college?
A year or two. We graduated in 2010, and Gwil just last summer.
Do you feel like there's a connection to being in a band and making performance art?
It's hard to say. I don't think so, really. It was always separate from our studies. I really don't think anyone, while they were at university, saw the band as an art piece. But it's certainly an artistic endeavor. I think going from art school to being in a band is a quite established path, starting with The Beatles and going right up to Franz Ferdinand. I think our background as predominantly art students is certainly relevant to where we are now, but having said that, being in a band is quite separate from getting an art degree. So I think it will continue to be something separate. Gwil makes art on the side, and Tom is a painter. He wants to go back to that when he has the time. So they're not thinking about it as performance art, really.
I spoke with Will Sergeant of Echo and the Bunnymen, who goes back and forth between the art world and the music world. One thing he said that struck me is that he didn't really see a difference between the two and that he didn't view art as an elitist endeavor.
I wouldn't say that there's a difference between being in the band and making art. Certainly that would be an indefensible position. I think you could make a case for what we're doing now being an art project. But for us it's the realization of something quite different from what we were aiming for in our studies. The band is doing well. I'd say certainly Jon and Tom neglected their art as students in favor of doing the band. So the musical process is much different from the art process. It's always interesting to hear about musicians who are artists and to see where they draw the line or if they draw a line at all.
Looking at your band's timeline, how long was it after you graduated before you started to seriously work on your debut album?
In a sense, the album was done before we graduated. We were making recordings with Charlie Andrew, our producer. We had a relationship with him from about a year of doing the band. Summer of 2009, we went to London and recorded "Matilda," about a year into the band's life. That was three years ago, and that's on the album that came out this year. Over the next two to three years, every few months when we had time and money, we'd go down to the studio in London, on the bus with some of our equipment. After Gwil graduated, we all went to Cambridge, where we are now. That was probably 10 months ago, almost a year ago. We went to Cambridge and started to work on the album. We graduated, and we didn't have jobs, and we were on the dole, and signing on, and unemployed. We just worked on the album. In January  after all that work we got signed.
I like the idea of you taking the bus down to London to record with your instruments.
It's a nice story to tell now. We look back on it, and not that we're well off now, but certainly we signed, and recording and traveling is a lot more comfortable now than it was then. We couldn't afford to get the train, it was too expensive. So we'd get the coach [bus]. We don't even have cases for our instruments. We were just kind of carrying it on public transport. At the time it was pretty shit, I would say. We were happy to be doing the music. But going to London for three days and sleeping on somebody's floor and not having enough money for food, it was quite strange sometimes. We could never let ourselves get too big-headed in that situation, I think. We could never get too demanding. A lot of people, because we were students and went to university and stuff, saw us as somewhat privileged. It's really not true. We did the band on no money for three years. We worked really really hard, basically.
Did you have to answer for yourselves on the bus when people saw that you were carrying instruments?
Yeah. Bus drivers would get really annoyed. In London, the Underground train is really small. Trying to put a bass drum down there is terrible. But we used to do it. Looking back on it, it's slightly romantic in a way. Looking back at it with misty eyes and saying, "Ah, those were the days!" But in reality it was pretty tough. We wouldn't change it. In some ways those were the best times because we weren't making any money off it, and it was just music. We were extremely happy because we were doing something we loved.
How deliberate is your writing process? I know that in the past you've called yourselves cowboys—which being an American conjures up a very specific image.
The cowboy thing is probably something that we said because we don't follow the rules; we don't do things by the book. I don't know what cowboy means exactly to an American. It's kind of a joke. Compare it to a plumber. A cowboy is a guy who isn't qualified for his job, he just goes in and does it anyway, and pretty much does a terrible job because he's not following any of the rules. In that respect, we kind of jokingly call ourselves cowboys, because we don't really know what the rules are with pop songs. Often we'll play songs for our producer, which is great, but he'll go, "Well this is good, but you need to repeat this verse, and repeat the chords or something." We don't really know the rules of songwriting. That kinda works for us. If we knew what we were doing, we might not be making interesting music.
You say you don't know the rules. Do any of you have training or a background in music?
I have classical training. I've studied the piano, classically since I was about 18. I've had a pretty rigorous theoretical education. But not in pop. There are people who know how pop songs are written. We just don't. We still don't know what a bridge is, or what a middle eight is. We don't usually have a verse and a chorus. Sometimes our songs either have one or the other. It's hard to say.
A lot of your references really resonated with me. Are you guys big film or pop culture buffs?
I think we're fans, but maybe not buffs. We really like films, and we think it's important to write songs about films, books, pop culture. It's not just about personal experiences. Anything that moves you or affects you or you think is powerful, you can respond to that.
Well that makes sense. If you're writing strictly from your own point of view, how often can you have an experience similar to a film like Leon [aka: The Professional, which inspired "Matilda"]?
Yeah, exactly. Not many people have life experiences like that. It's interesting. You could write songs imagining things. Other people can experience them for you, and then you can write the songs. That's easier! [Laughs] We unashamedly steal from other things. But we always try to credit them, so we don't get in trouble.
Given that it's 2012, do you feel like there's any room left for pure originality in music or art?
In the age of the Internet, where everyone has access to absolutely everything in the world that has happened, in a way that makes it easier to write songs about things and make it more varied in terms of what you can write about and the art that you can create. You can view art in the age of the Internet as being a response to living in this situation where we're relentlessly entertained and relentlessly informed, all the time.
There hasn't been a time in history without a major shift. Maybe something like the Internet is what World War II was to our grandparents—a way of introducing a new line of thought into the conversation.
Exactly. I think television 50 years ago, or cinema 100 years ago, or Gutenberg 500 years ago, they all had profound effects on the way we communicate as a race and as a species. So the Internet is a pretty big one, probably! But nonetheless, it's another way that changes the way that we view things.
With all the touchstones lyrically, is there anything on this album that you can point to and say "that's personal, that's about me?"
I think you can mix the two. "Breezeblocks" references Where the Wild Things Are. But it's also kind of a weird love song. "Blood Flood" has a lot of references to other weird things. But it's also a song about a personal experience in terms of Joe getting beaten up in South Hampton. I think in our lives, we experience things that we might have read about, or seen, or experienced. Our whole lives have been referencing things.
Well, who's to say that your love of Where the Wild Things Are isn't personal and about you?
Exactly. That's a personal thing, isn't it? It can form a part of your personality. In the same way, like the song about Leon, it's about how that film affected you and how you responded to it and which aspect of the film you've chosen to focus on.
Given that you're writing a lot about your response to film and art, do you feel like your next album could be influenced by the way your fans respond to this album?
Possibly. We certainly have our method validated by the response we've got. But I think the thing that we've always said, loud and clear, we write songs the way we want to and about what we like and want to hear. So I suppose the fact that people like the album and it has sold fairly well says "carry on." So I wouldn't say that it would change that much. I think we might be a little bit more experimental. The response from fans, they like it. I think because we have a unique way of going about things, we're just going to carry on making music that tickles our fancy. Hopefully they'll like it again.
Were you the kind of teenager who soaked in music like this and had an emotional response?
Not really. Joe as a teenager, I don't think he listened to that much music to be honest. He wasn't really into music in a big way. He didn't have his own taste in music; he listened to whatever his friends listened to. Tom really liked metal. All kinds of metal. He played in metal bands. That was his musical life-playing songs in metal bands. Gwil and I listened to more indie bands.
It's funny that this is the path you've chosen then.
Yeah. Sometimes I don't think we really chose it. It kinda happened really fast and we got along with it. I certainly don't think any of us really thought that this would happen. Maybe that's partly why it's doing quite well, because we weren't desperate to get signed. Or desperate to be in bands. We just came and made music.
I think we just made music for ourselves. Inevitably it went on the Internet and got around a bit. If we have a manifesto, it's "make music that we like."
Is there a meaning to the album title?
An Awesome Wave is a line from American Psycho. It's talking about an awesome wave of relief. He talks about relief breaking over him like an awesome wave. We changed that to deal with a wave of fear. Basically the song is about being scared. Joe sings about an awesome wave, which is a reference to the book.
When it came to naming the album, we didn't know what to call it. We thought, "Well maybe there's something in one of the songs which would sound good as an album title." It doesn't really have a meaning as an album title. It doesn't really mean anything to us as an album title. It means something in the song, but not as an album title. Album titles are tricky, really. Sometimes it's tempting to self-title your album and not think about it. We almost did that. In the end we thought we should give it a name. Good albums have names, I'd say. If you love something, you have to name it.
Alt-J's Joe Newman on Winning The Mercury Prize:
Laura Studarus (Under the Radar): Should I be addressing you as Mr. Mercury Prize Winner now?
Joe Newman: It's Dr. Mr. Mercury Prize Winner, thank you very much.
How did you learn that you nominated for the Mercury Prize?
We were listening to the announcements on Twitter in a coffee shop in New York. We congratulated each other with high fives and hugs.
The Independent had your chances of winning at 5/1. Was there any temptation to place a bet on yourselves?
My mate put £100 on us to win and he ended up netting a cool £500. I should have gone to the bookies in hindsight. Though last year I put a £20 on Metronomy to win and they lost and I was skint so I fucked myself.
What was realizing that you had won like? Where you able to take it in, or was it more a deer in the headlights moment?
Yeah deep, deep breaths, finding my feet and hugging everyone. Then I had to think about getting onstage and accepting the award in front of the nation.
Do you have any plans for the £20,000 prize?
I'm going to bank my share under my mattress.
Any belief in the "Mercury Curse," where bands like Gomez or Speech Debelle win and then fail to achieve widespread success with their following releases?
Nah, we plan to flop our next album.
Giving the crazy year that you've had in 2012, do you have any hopes for 2013?
Well we will be busier than ever in 2013.