alt-J rocketed to international fame on the back of their debut album, 2012's An Awesome Wave. With its avante-garde mix of ethereal instrumentals, poppy hooks and monk chanting, the album garnered Britain's prestigious Mercury Prize and instantly turned them into an in-demand festival act.
Keyboardist and backup vocalist Gus Unger-Hamilton says he's come to consider the band's quick and uncanny rise like a lottery ticket.
"At the time, we knew it was special, but we didn't realize the degree to which it was a one-in-a-million type of thing," he says. "We didn't take it for granted, but thought we were on a fairly average trajectory for a band. Looking back on it now, that was a very, very crazy few years that very few people get to experience. We're so much more grateful for it now."
Now that the honeymoon phase is over, though, they've experienced some pushback. Maybe it was to be expected. As an art-rock group out of Leeds, England, they're often cast as a group of stuffy and privileged British dudes. They're also sometimes 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. Unger-Hamilton says they have, in fact, thrived: During 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 says. "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."
Speaking from his home in London ahead of alt-J's April 25 Knitting Factory show — as part of a tour supporting their latest album, Relaxer — Unger-Hamilton says the band has been performing as a trio (rounded out by drummer Thom Sonny Green) since the departure of guitarist/bassist and founding member Gwil Sainsbury early in 2014. But not much has changed in terms of 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 keyboards and doesn't venture far from preset noises.
"One of the keyboards we started the band with was a very cheap, basic Yamaha keyboard," he says. "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 an aggressive tone that cuts through the mix like a buzzsaw.
As indecipherable as Newman's vocal stylings can sometimes be, alt-J's concerts are praised for their dazzling sound and light displays. And they're 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 listener in the audience, no matter where they're sitting or standing in the venue.
"It's quite exciting," Unger-Hamilton says. "We want to do with the sounds what we're already doing with the lights and the video. 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 for 'How Green Was My Valley [Pleader].'"
And why not? alt-J always comes out of left field, Unger-Hamilton says: "Our fanbase is pretty open-minded, musically, and willing to try new things. They don't expect us to be one kind of band." ♦
alt-J with Twin Shadow • Wed, April 25 at 7 pm • $64 • All ages • Knitting Factory • 919 W. Sprague • sp.knittingfactory.com • 244-3279