Internet jokes aside, Alt-J thrives with new high-brow, weird rock.
Alt-J rocketed to international fame on the strength of their debut album, 2012’s An Awesome Wave, but they’ve since experienced some pushback.
Maybe it was to be expected. As an art-rock group out of Leeds, England, they’re often cast—perhaps unfairly—as a group of stuffy and privileged British dudes. They’ve also been consistently criticized as a supposedly experimental band that doesn’t actually get all that weird outside of frontman Joe Newman’s mushy-mouthed, consonant-free and often unintelligible vocal style. Which, yeah: That’s a valid point.
But despite being the subject of Internet memes and critics’ relentless comparisons to another high-minded British group—Radiohead—Alt-J has survived. According to the band’s keyboardist and backup vocalist, Gus Unger-Hamilton, they have, in fact, thrived: Over the past five years of heavy touring, they’ve gotten much tighter as a gigging band, and their run of success has afforded them more time and resources to expand their sound in the studio.
“In terms of songwriting, a lot of what I do on the keyboard is transposed to other instruments,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of playing something and recording it. It’s more like playing it and then transposing it to strings, or getting a bassoon to play it. That’s more of what we’ve been doing with our current work, and it certainly is a nice sort of sandbox to play in.”
Unger-Hamilton spoke with the SN&R from his home in London ahead of Alt-J’s show at the ARC Pavilion at UC Davis on Monday, April 23, as part of a tour supporting their latest album, Relaxer.
They’ve been performing as a trio (rounded out by drummer Thom Sonny Green) since the departure of guitarist/bassist and founding member Gwil Sainsbury in 2014, but not much has changed with the band’s live setup; Unger-Hamilton has always held down the low end with heavy synthesizers. Far from a music gearhead, he takes a layman’s approach to playing keys and doesn’t stray far from preset noises.
“One of the keyboards we started the band with was a very cheap, basic Yamaha keyboard,” he said. “It had loads of wicked pre-programmed sounds on it like organs and strings and pianos. The Alt-J sound was really based on that keyboard and another one I bought on eBay for literally £1.”
Unger-Hamilton’s contributions are integral to Alt-J’s sonic signature. In the studio, he takes up space by layering several different keyboard elements on top of each other. For example, on the band’s hit song “Fitzpleasure,” he used a preset called “hot organ” and combined it with a dirty bass synthesizer for a aggressive tone that cuts through the mix like a buzzsaw.
Alt-J’s concerts, praised for their dazzling light displays, are set to become even more immersive. In June, the band is planning to roll out a cutting-edge, 360-degree sound system for a show in New York that will make the performance sound optimized for each audience listener, no matter where they’re sitting or standing in the venue.
“We want to do with the sounds what we’re already doing with the lights and the video,” Unger-Hamilton said. “We’ll gather at least two of the senses, but I guess not smell. Although, you never know; I’m sure there’s the potential for pumping in the smell of freshly cut grass.”
And why not? Alt-J always comes out of left field, Unger-Hamilton said: “Our fanbase is pretty open-minded, musically … They don’t expect us to be one kind of band.”