FILTER Good Music Guide Preview: Alt-J

We’ve teamed up with FILTER Magazine to give you a sneak peek of their upcoming Lolla-themed Good Music Guide, available online – and in print! – starting this Thursday, August 1. Check out these exclusive features, then head back to their site on Thursday to download the entire guide!

Courtesy of FILTER | Noah Kalina

Alt-J: Tasty Waves

By Laura Studarus


After taking last year’s Mercury Prize with its debut album An Awesome Wave, Alt-J is quickly becoming the scrappy band that could. Comprised of college friends Joe Newman, Gwil Sainsbury, Thom Green and Gus Unger-Hamilton, the Leeds quartet seemingly knows neither genre (pop? art-rock? weird?) nor borders (their a cappella harmonies, soaring piano, guitar lines and jittery grooves have been well received on both sides of the Atlantic). Whatever the magic—be it Illuminist (pressing “alt” and “J” on a keyboard produces the delta symbol, which has long been associated with the secret society) or plain old musical chops—it seems to be working. Ahead of the band’s Lollapalooza performance and forthcoming concert DVD An American Wave, the Guide spoke with Unger-Hamilton, Alt-J’s keyboardist. He filled us in on personalizing pop culture, childhood fears and the band’s current Illuminati status.

FILTER: Should I be addressing you as “Mr. Mercury Prize Winner” now?

Gus Unger-Hamilton: I should get some initials after my name. But “Gus” is fine.

Since you’ve been interviewed so many times since An Awesome Wave’s release, and we’ve cleared the misconception that you’re part of the Illuminati, is there anyone else that you’d like to out as a member?

They’ve stopped letting us come to meetings [laughs]. So I’m not clear on who’s in and who’s out. They said we were capitalizing on their symbol.

Given that your songs contain so many references to films and books, are you pop-culture buffs?

Writing a song about a book or a film, we’re not trying to be highbrow. It’s just stuff that we find interesting. Anything that moves you or sticks in your mind can end up in a song. It has an effect on you. If we are writing about personal stuff, sometimes it’s in the guise of writing about a piece of pop culture. You can make references to pieces of culture that other people know, in order to make a point.

Is there anything on your debut that you can point to and say, “That’s personal, that’s about me”?

A song like “Breezeblocks” is like that. It doesn’t directly relate to something that happened to any one of us, but it’s an imaginary situation, one that I think everyone can relate to. Someone you love tries to leave you, and you’re not wanting them to go. It’s something we’ve all felt, even if we haven’t experienced it directly.


Given that “Breezeblocks” references Where the Wild Things Are—which deals a lot about the nature of fear—what were you scared of as a kid?

Sometimes when I was going to sleep, I could convince myself that my whole family was dead. I could really scare myself doing that. It was quite weird.

How deliberate is your writing process?

We don’t really know what we’re doing when we’re writing songs. We don’t know what the chorus is and what the verse is. We don’t understand bridges or middle eights or anything like that. Sometimes [songs] just have one verse, and a really long chorus or something like that. We do it in an unorthodox manner.

How did An American Wave, your concert DVD, come about?

We noticed this weird thing where, in the Midwest—like Kansas City and Salt Lake City—we were playing venues that were much bigger than anywhere else, and tickets were selling far faster. We imagined that we’d be most popular on the East Coast where they’re slightly more European in their outlook. We knew we had this big gig coming up in Kansas City, and we decided we wanted to film it, because it was a special night. It’s a bit like therapy in a way. Understanding who we are, and who we are for our fans. It turned into a film accidentally.

If that DVD were to contain footage of your first Alt-J show, what would it look like?

There is footage on YouTube of our very first show. It was in our living room in our house in Leeds. It’s so grainy. I think it’s shot on someone’s mobile phone. We played sitting down. It was a real struggle for us to stand up and play. But there’s a certain raw energy to it. It was quite nice, in a weird way.

Courtesy of FILTER | Noah Kalina