Alt-J Comes to the Bowl
The British Band Brings Its Distinctive Sound to Santa Barbara
“It’s a mad schedule, but it’s good fun,” said Gus Unger-Hamilton, keyboardist and vocalist for the British band Alt-J, of the group’s nonstop touring since the 2012 release of their debut record, An Awesome Wave. “We toured the first album for nearly two years and then went straight back to the studio and made the second album and then went back on tour, so there hasn’t been a lot of downtime.”
Alt-J formed in the halls of the University of Leeds in West Yorkshire, England, in 2007 and for the next four years crafted and honed its unique sound — a pastiche of enchanting keyboard-driven melodies; sometimes scratchy, sometimes delicate vocals; dynamic tempo shifts; and rock sensibilities, among other elements. The band quickly acquired a large following of devoted fans with its first album; its latest, This Is All Yours, went straight to number one in the U.K. following its fall 2014 release.
In anticipation of Alt-J’s Santa Barbara Bowl appearance on April 14, I recently spoke by phone with Unger-Hamilton, who was in Nashville, Tennessee, with the band resting up before their first-ever performance at the Grand Ole Opry.
Are you enjoying the travel still? Yeah, definitely. It’s pretty fun. You know, we’re still getting to go to new places, which is cool. We just went to South America. Before that, we went to India. There’s still new discoveries happening all the time, and that’s really exciting.
There is a track called “Bloodflood” on An Awesome Wave and there’s “Bloodflood, pt. II” on your new record. How did that come about? I think we were writing a song [for This Is All Yours] that had lyrical elements that were also in “Bloodflood,” so it kind of made sense to acknowledge that. … Other than the lyrical content, nothing really relates to “Bloodflood,” to be honest. But it’s nice to link the two albums, to reference the first one in the second one.
I love “The Gospel of John Hurt.” How did the actor end up in a song? The song kind of takes it’s inspiration from [the film] Alien when the alien bites off John Hurt’s chest. I don’t know. [Laughs.] It’s just kind of memorable, isn’t it?
I’ve heard you guys defined as folktronica, indie rock, and electro-pop, but to me, your sound doesn’t fit neatly into a category. Do you agree? We’ve never really bothered to consider what genre we would belong to. … Some people like to think a lot about genres and genre names of different types of music, and that’s fine. I don’t think that’s really for us.
Did you think that the band would do so well immediately? We obviously didn’t think we’d have success right off, but we always believed in the music. Although we weren’t exactly ambitious when we were at university, we were always very serious about the songwriting and the practice … [We] just didn’t really know where it was going.
Your debut album was very well realized and didn’t seem like your first recording go-round. Did it feel like that to you or were you unsure of the process? We had such a long time before we made the album — like four or five years writing and getting good before we made the album. … We had plenty of material we wanted to put on the album, so it felt like kind of a natural, easy process to focus on songs to record and put them together. It wasn’t like we were signed on the strength of three songs. We didn’t have to go in the studio and write a whole album; we were ready to go.
Were any of the songs on the new album left over from the first one? Not exactly leftovers, but there were definitely songs we hadn’t finished from the first time. “Every Other Freckle” and “John Hurt” were two songs we’d been playing for a while; we just hadn’t gotten round to getting them into shape for our first album, and we had enough songs for [the first], so we thought, let’s just save those two. We knew they were going to be good, but we didn’t want to rush them.
There are three songs devoted to Nara. What’s the fascination with the Japanese city? We’ve been to Japan a few times but never been to Nara. It was actually just a place that Joey [Newman] read about on reddit.com and found it interesting.
What influences your songwriting? Anything that kind of sticks in your brain, I suppose. As far as music goes, we all have quite different taste in music, quite different backgrounds in music. And we don’t sit around listening to music together very much, but we all know when it’s good.
Alt-J plays the S.B. Bowl Tuesday, April 14, at 7 p.m., with opener Jungle. For tickets, call 962-7411 or see sbbowl.com.