Despite being one of the most surprising success stories for indie-rock bands in the past half decade, alt-J are the definition of down-to-earth. Having released their debut album, An Awesome Wave in 2012, the band received multiple nominations at both the BRIT (2012) and Grammy Awards (2015), and won the coveted Barclaycard Mercury Prize (2012) ,which celebrates the best in British music each year. Despite their worldwide critical and commercial success, the London-based band have remained humble throughout their journey from underground indie group to festival headliner.
Sitting under a tree, casually perched on a picnic table just hours before they are scheduled to take the stage at Osheaga, band members Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboard/background vocals) and Thom Green (drums) are both at ease. Wearing simple black t-shirts and sweaters, the duo comes off as extremely laid back and unassuming for ‘rock stars.’ There are no special seats, no crazy equipment: Just the two of them and a packet of chips—or “crisps”— as they call it.
McGill Tribune (MT): I saw you back in September 2012 when you played a concert at Cafe Campus, obviously today the crowd is quite a bit bigger than it was then. How has it been as a band and as individuals from then to now?
Gus Unger-Hamilton (GUH): Well it’s been a gradual process, you know? People always ask us “What is it like to have this meteoric rise?” and I mean it doesn’t necessarily feel like that to us because we’ve been doing it everyday, so it’s just been going up stage by stage.
Thom Green (TG): It’s made a lot of sense, you know? Because we’ve worked for it and certain things have helped us along the way. You can never explain why music is really successful or why people like it, but at the same time when we go home at the end of this tour and take time off it’ll be surreal. It definitely feels like a big chapter, a big difference. I feel like a different person than before we started becoming successful, but we’re kind of used to it as well so it’s weird.
MT: Did the reception of the second album differ from that of the first having already released An Awesome Wave in 2012?
GUH: For the first album there was no expectation for us at all really: No one really knew who we were. I mean we were quite a sort of "hype-y" band, but not in a massive way, and then the album came out, and it actually sold quite well really. You know like it got in the top 20 and stuff, but nonetheless, everything was like a bonus back then for us. Whereas for the second album there was so much more expectation I think. It was like an event that people were really anticipating I suppose, so it’s definitely a different vibe.
MT: There were publications, such as the Rolling Stone, who didn’t review the first album but did the second. Was there any pressure felt in the lead up to the release of This Is All Yours?
TG: We didn’t really feel any pressure at all, no. I think leading up to it, and we were going to start [recording] it again, there was a bit of a build-up: We were a bit unsure of how it was going to go. But pretty quickly we realized it was pointless worrying about it: We knew we were going to do it, we’re doing it anyway, you know, so we might as well just forget about it. Luckily we were writing good stuff and we liked it, I mean it could have been a different story if we were struggling but it was pretty good.
MT: So you’re obviously not only recognized here in Montreal, but you’ve had international success and recognition by the Grammys and the BRITs. How does the recognition feel and has it changed you as a band?
TG: It’s nice, it’s really nice. It’s, you know, I still think of us as a very close band. We have a lot of control, we know what we are, and we know what we want, so it’s really nice to know that we still have that and know that we can still be in that kind of arena at the Grammys and that kind of thing. It’s good; it’s good for bands like us I think and music like ours, I mean from one small—or tiny—but good label in the U.K. I often wonder if we get those kind of recognitions because it’s good for the industry maybe, because you know they have to keep that kind of balance, I’m not sure. All that kind of stuff is a bonus really; we never aimed for that kind of thing, so it really helps.
MT: So the Grammys recognized you as ‘alternative,’ but historically your music has been relatively hard to define. How would you personally describe it?
GUH:[Laughs] We always try and avoid this question in a way—but no it’s fine! It doesn’t really matter to us really how it is described that much, and I think it’s becoming less and less relevant to put labels on music, you know? I mean I think it’s becoming less and less relevant to put labels on music. Now, rather than having to persuade somebody to buy an album based on the type of genre you can just stream it or listen to a track on YouTube and stuff. I suppose to the classic taxi driver question of “So what do you do for a living, mate?” [we would answer] we’re in a band. What sort of music? Indie, we sort of tend to say Indie or something, I don’t know, experimental?
TG: I suppose it is sort of experimental in the way that we write, but it’s also quite methodical as well. We always have just written what we like, so whatever that it, it just is what it is.
MT: How did you envision the interludes in your albums contributing to the overall experience?
GUH: It was always important to us to make albums that were really definitely albums, that were single pieces of work. And I suppose the interludes help to make it that, to make it more of a piece that you can listen to in a certain order. Then it isn’t just all our best songs to date crammed together into a less-than-one-hour-long compilation.
TG: It’s nice for us to be able to make an album as a piece of work, but the songs as well, we really try to make them interesting. Interesting is important. We were quite aware that people were going to hear it and we wanted people to like it, obviously, but we want to try and challenge things a little bit. But that usually is between ourselves when we’re writing in the studio. It’s only us and our producer and that’s it. We don’t really let people come in and sit there and, you know, we’re very private with it. So we’re very lucky that we can do that.
MT: Band image and aesthetic is clearly important—based off of your videos and album covers. I mean, An Awesome Wave’s cover is three overlaid images of the River Ganges. How do geographical places, names, and imagery influence you as a band?
GUH: We have a lot of imagination as a band, you know? Travelling doesn’t necessarily have a huge influence on the songs we write, but I suppose equally we are inspired by imagery.
TG: I think we are quite good at finding things that have shaped us and molded us and interpreting them in different ways, especially with the lyrics and things. It isn’t really massively important to us, the names of the songs and all that. There is no kind of overall concept with that, I think it always comes back to the fact that we are just quite a simple band really.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity.
Photos by Jack Neal