English indie rock band Alt-J released their debut album An Awesome Wave in 2012, and since then, a wave they have certainly made. Their anomalous style, partially the result of being unable to play bass guitars or bass drums in the student halls of Leeds University where the four members met, reached millions of fervent fans and nodding critics, as well as won them the highly-coveted Barclaycard Mercury Prize. Of the debut album, The Guardian wrote, “It contains a plethora of shapes and genres, which aren’t flung together, but interlocked as precisely as a jigsaw. The term “folkstep” was invented to describe it, but fails to convey the breadth of what’s going on.” There was hardly any debate about the group’s disruptive talent.
Now, two years later, Alt-J is releasing their sophomore album, This Is All Yours. Those familiar with the band are curious about their ability to match the success, or perhaps more importantly, remarkable musical aptitude of their debut. I myself wondered if the innovativeness of their distinct sound, introduced to us now years ago, would no longer have the awe-inspiring effect it originally did, perhaps due to the law of diminishing return. Other events, such as guitar/bassist Gwil Sainsbury’s departure from the group, made fans more anxious than they already had been.
Thankfully, the new album is just as fantastic as the first, relying on the same quirky and unconventional sounds while continuing musical exploration through, for example, incorporated the vocal sample “I’m a female rebel” from Miley Cyrus’ “4×4.” The unlikely combination works perfectly, as does most of the other trialing in the album.
We were fortunate enough to talk to keyboardist and singer Gus Unger-Hamilton about the pressure that follows success, the changes in the music, and how the band is open to the fans being the judges.
This Is All Yours is following up on the massive success of the group’s first album. Do you feel that you’re under pressure to achieve that success again?
Um, no I think the album’s done now, we’ve already finished it, and we’re not really worried about perception. We’re just excited for people to hear it. It’s not really about worrying if the album is successful because it’s more just…we were enjoying being together again. We were not struggling to write songs. It was just enjoying the period of writing music, and that’s really it.
You guys have let fans listen to the album in a pretty innovative way. Can you tell me about it?
Yeah, there’s an app where we picked geographical locations where people can access the album, and listen to it or stream it straight off of their phones.
Where does the title of the album, This Is All Yours, come from?
We knew that we have an audience now that was waiting for a new album. We’re not just making music for ourselves anymore. So it’s like, giving to our fans I suppose. Also, you know, it’s like the idea of….us making this album and other people see it or listen to it, and you no longer have the final say on the music. Just because we created the album does not mean it’s not open to interpretation.
As a part of your upcoming tour, you guys will be headlining the biggest show that you’ve done yet in London’s O2 Arena. What’s it like to know you can now fill up such a large venue?
Yeah, it’s funny. I think it’s fantastic that we can play big venues like we’re playing. We never got into this whole thing of being a band to play big, big venues. It was more just about recording good tracks and making good albums. It’s exciting to be playing a big venue, of course, but it’s not what I would call a dream come true for us, exactly.
What’s the difference between playing music festivals and your typical venues?
The thing with festivals is that there are tons of fans in the audience who are not just there for you, and you have to entertain them all, I think. It’s interesting. Someone there at your set can wonder off and just watch something else, really. You have to be more of an entertainer, I guess. When you’re just playing your own show, everyone’s there to see you, not that that means you can be lazy or not entertain them. About the audience, you’re there for them and they’re there for you. When you’re at festivals it’s like, yeah you’re there for them, but they’re there for everyone.
Why do you think you’ve ended up becoming a major staple in these festivals?
I never really questioned it. If you make yourself available over the summer to do festivals, you might as well do as many as you can, really. You have to get a bus, for just one festival, go all the way there, get a whole crew, pay for all sorts of stuff. It makes more sense to kind of tour.
We like big festivals. We don’t say to our agents “We need more festivals.” They just sort of book them for us and we go, “okay!” (laughs)
Since the group has changed with Gwil Sainsbury’s departure, do you think that the music has been affected?
I don’t think it’s changed too much, no…We tried to recreate the atmosphere in which we made the first album, just hanging out in the same places, enjoying each other’s company, and making music together.
You came out with two music videos for “Every Other Freckle,” which were nearly identical except that one featured a male and the other, a female.
We’re not a band who likes to just do a video where we’re playing and it cuts off to something and cuts back to us playing. We’ve never really been in our music videos. We always like to just do something different. And this one, I think, the director came to us with a depiction of the video, which was pretty much just like the final video, but it was a girl just running naked and we were like “Woah, woah, woah. We can’t just have a girl running naked on a beach. You know, it’s fucking 2014.” It’s kind of annoying. It’s amazing how we’re still thinking it’s a fucking great idea to put these naked women into, I don’t know, a video or commercial. Anything.
We thought we had an opportunity to make this more interesting. So we decided on two videos: a man and a woman.
Are there any other themes or consistencies throughout the album?
No, I don’t think there’s any overarching theme to the album. I think each song is its own thing but especially with this album now, I think it’s a lot about traveling and going to different places, far away places.