Genre-blending art rockers Alt-J soared to stardom upon the release of acclaimed debut album An Awesome Wave, which won the Mercury Prize and made them household names (or household symbols, if you follow the ∆ approach) on both sides of the Atlantic.
With their follow-up LP and a UK tour set to land in September, drummer Thom Green spoke to Mark Butler about surprise success, drawing inspiration from classic horror films, and how their friendship with Miley Cyrus may lead to a full musical collaboration.
Hi Thom. How’s it going?
“Yeah. I’m good. Just got a bit of a cold and sore throat at the moment – but I’ll power through!”
It’s been just over two years since An Awesome Wave came out. How would you sum up the intervening period?
“It’s been surreal. It’s hard to describe. It’s gone so quickly and we’ve been so busy. Everything’s changed. Our lives and what we do now are so different. We feel like different people.”
That’s probably not surprising. Within the space of a few months in 2012, you went from being relatively unknown to winning the Mercury Prize, playing primetime TV and having a Platinum-selling album. Was it all a bit of a shock to the system?
“Yeah. It was. When we met at university we were doing this as a hobby, and we never even intended to play live.
“It was a shock. But we were enjoying it, we were excited, and we made sure we didn’t get too carried away. We did have some control over it, which helped.
“We’ve always been pretty good at keeping ourselves level-headed. We’re fortunate, because that’s kept us grounded and we had to stay that way. We knew the band was getting bigger, but we never expected to win the Mercury at all.”
When I interviewed you back in 2012 you said it “still felt weird” being on stage. Was the whole touring and festivals thing a steep learning curve – not to mention those TV appearances?
“Yeah. It was. I’ve personally always loved playing live, more so than the rest of the band I think. I’ve been in bands since I was 12, and I used to play in pubs.
“But I’d never toured before. Anyone in that situation would find it difficult. You’re living out of a suitcase, you have no real routine, and you’re in a different place every night. We were packed into shared hotel rooms and tiny dressing rooms with no personal space, and I found that hard because I need time on my own a lot.
“We were lucky that we started getting bigger shows, which brought more space along with it. A lot of people could go off the rails if they don’t find a way to deal with it. We’re a lot more comfortable about it now.”
Your music got more than four million listens on Spotify last week alone. Have you been surprised at just how many people have warmed to your unconventional sound?
“It was definitely a surprise. From the start, actually. To begin with, the first show we ever played was in our living room, to a hundred people or probably less than that, and people were genuinely saying how much they loved it. I didn’t quite understand the extent of it. But we ended up cutting through all of the crap.
“We did do touring to begin with, but not as much as most bands, and before we knew it people were writing about us on blogs and giving us radio play, and then all these managers were driving up from London to Leeds to meet us. That’s when we knew it was something special.
“Now I can see why. The music is different and therefore exciting, but it’s pop-y enough for people to relate to it. I don’t really know what that is, but we each have different musical tastes and they combined to make this sound of ours. A lot of people love the harmonies, and that kind of thing.”
Your new album This Is All Yours comes out in September. How would you say it compares to An Awesome Wave?
“This time, I think it sounds a lot more refined. Less rough around the edges. The tracks themselves seem a lot more mature and they reflect us as we are now. We’ve grown up a lot since the first album: as people, friends and musicians.
“‘Hunger Of The Pine’ is a really good example of where we are now. The mood of the track is very simple really, and rhythmic and relaxing. It’s simple but there’s complex things going on inside it.”
Your philosophy has always revolved around ‘doing something different’. Given your initial success, however, was there a certain temptation to be more commercially minded this time?
“Yeah. There was a temptation. We were definitely aware that now we had an audience – and a Radio One audience. We’d headlined Leeds and Reading, and been to America.
“But we knew that if we started to think like that we were probably going to fail, so we didn’t set out with that mentality.
“We write what we want to write, and it works. We don’t have to push it. ‘Hunger Of The Pine’ is on Radio One at the moment, and I reckon they could just say ‘we’re not going to play this’ if they thought it was too weird or un-commercial.
“I still don’t understand it, but it means we can do exactly what we want to do and still get on Radio One anyway! It’s surreal.
“You do still have to play the game sometimes. The album was over an hour long originally, and we were advised to cut it down and shorten it to make it more user-friendly. We were happy to do that. But generally speaking, we’re just going to keep on doing the things we do.”
An Awesome Wave had songs inspired by everything from movies to war photographers. What kind of things inspired the new material?
“Joe writes the lyrics, and he focuses on things that have an effect on him, like films and books. There’s a track called ‘John Hurt’ about the actor, and specifically that scene in Alien where his chest bursts open! There’s a whole song just about that.
“We’re also obsessed with Reddit, and there’s a fascinating type of deer in Japan we read about on there. That inspired a song too.”
Your bassist, Gwil Sainsbury, amicably left the band last year, of course. Has that affected the group dynamic?
“Yeah, it has. It’s actually helped us though. We were due to go into writing studio a few days after he left, and we were surprised he made that decision, even though we understood and kind of saw it coming.
“But we just decided to crack on and see whether it was going to work as a trio, and quite quickly we realised we were doing fine. It actually brought us closer together as a trio; it gave us perspective, and it made us realise just how much we all wanted to keep doing this.”
Let’s talk about Miley Cyrus. You’ve sampled her on ‘Hunger Of The Pine'; she used your music on her tour – is a formal collaboration on the cards at some point?
“I wouldn’t say no! We’re friends, and I speak to her quite a lot. We text each other now and again. We just get on.
“I would like to do something with her production-wise in the future for sure. She’s just a regular woman who happens to be hugely famous, but she’s very focused and an amazing artist who loves music.
“Once she meets someone who’s like-minded, it doesn’t matter who you are. So yeah, it’s definitely possible!”
This Is All Yours will be released on September 22. Alt-J tour the same month:
Thu 18: Glasgow, Academy
Fri 19 & Sat 20: Manchester Apollo
Mon 22: Wolverhampton Civic Hall
Tue 23: Brighton Centre
Wed 24: London, Alexandra Palace
Sat 27: Dublin Arena