We never liked that people would have to pay for our music. Interview with Alt-J
In September 2014, the British indie rock band Alt-J introduced their new album, “This Is All Yours”, which soared to the top of UK TOP10 with lightning speed.
In two short years, the Leeds quartet has established itself as one of Britain’s most innovative bands, breaking down musical barriers just like Pink Floyd or Radiohead at the peak of their careers.
Their debut album “An Awesome Wave”, released two years ago, allowed the group to take a place among Britain’s newest inventive talents, collecting a bunch of awards, including “Best Album” at the Ivor Novello Awards and “Mercury Prize ‘2012”, with sales of 300,000 albums and 400,000 singles.
Now they are demonstrating that the release of the second album is not so scary at all: they stubbornly advanced to number 1 on the album chart, ahead of the new Aphex Twin album and the work of Leonard Cohen and Barbra Streisand.
To mark such a success, Martin Talbot talked with keyboardist and lead singer Gus Unger-Hamilton about the difficulties of releasing a second album, the departure of band founder Gwil Sainesbury, and about working with their new fan, Miley Cyrus.
Your new album “This Is All Yours” for the first time reached the first line in the album chart. The previous “An Awesome Wave” was only able to reach 13th position, and “Breezeblocks” – 75th in the singles chart. But you never judged yourself by the positions on the charts, right?
No, we were never particularly interested in charts. I remember when the first album came out, we were surprised by its position, we were very happy about 13th place. I was at the hotel with Gwil when we found out about this: we remembered our favorite albums and looked at what position they reached, it turned out we beat many of our favorite albums.
It was an album that lingered for a long time – for 63 weeks on the chart. What, in your opinion, is his success?
I think we are still a group that relies on a chain reaction: people find out about us, tell their friends. We did not bring down an advertising campaign on Britain, we let the music itself spread, so we always counted on a lasting effect. We did not reach the first place, but we lingered on the charts for a long time and are very grateful for that. Rather, we were slowly spreading in the collective noosphere, at our own speed.
“An Awesome Wave” was a hit on stream services, “This Is All Yours” has already started on Spotify. The audience loves you, right?
We respect our fans and believe that our music needs a few auditions before you really love it. Such services are ideal for this. There you can listen to the album several times without buying it, and maybe people will buy it after that. We never liked the idea that people would have to pay to hear our music, so this is another plus in favor of stream services. For example, Spotify, where you have to watch ads or subscribe, doesn’t make you pay directly for music, and we really like it.
What albums are on your playlist right now?
Now I’m trying to listen to the entire Mercury Prize shortlist, it has a lot of things that I have never heard. I really enjoyed listening to all 12 albums. I especially note the album Kate Tempest, just beautiful, and also FKA Twigs.
“An Awesome Wave” won the Mercury Prize, and now many are talking about “second album syndrome.” Do you now have more pressure or freedom after you have declared yourself as a group?
Much more freedom. It’s strange to make an album, realizing that now there will be much more listeners. When we recorded the first album, we had no idea if anyone would ever listen to it. He, moreover, was rather strange and experimental, but people liked it. We thought, “OK, we can be unusual.” We can not stagnate on one sound, it gives a lot of freedom.
That is, it was not scary?
Not. Gwil’s departure was a blow, but it made us completely immerse ourselves in working on the album, no matter what. This distracted us from any fear of releasing the album after a successful debut. We also tried to recreate the atmosphere in which we wrote the first album – not in the studio, but sitting with someone in the apartment, in the company, recording music in moments of inspiration.
Yes, you had to put up with Gwil’s departure last year. Why did he leave?
He did not like to be in the group: many tours, promos and so on, it was not his. Being in a group was not the goal of his life. We were all very happy when everything started spinning with the first album, but Gwil always remembered that this was not what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. I think the tours got him so tired that he left right now, did not stay with the group for another couple of years. Such an act, given how well things were going with us, made it clear to us that he was by no means happy.
Yes, he returned to university. We almost did not see him after he left: we are so busy, and he moved to another city, but we met a few weeks ago and had a very pleasant evening. It was cool to see him happy, very calm.