“I’ve never really been able to put my finger on why that album caught so many people's attention, to be honest."
Sitting in his home in London, alt-j keyboardist and bass player Gus Unger-Hamilton looks relaxed and happy. Relieved that the band's fourth album, The Dream, is out in the world and anticipating the next few months on tour.
“I generally prefer being on the road because I love travelling and the studio can kind of send you around the bend.”
“But right now I’m just living my home lifestyle, which is very different from my touring lifestyle.”
The band have learned to prioritise rest after fifteen-plus years of recording back-to-back albums and squeezing in shows in the little time they had in between. This realisation came while making their third record, which overall didn’t go as smoothly as the ones before it.
“I would say that making the third album was difficult. It felt, a lot of the time, like banging our heads against a brick wall, and there were various other things going on that made it difficult.”
Unger-Hamilton didn’t harp on about the ‘other factors’ that made that album so difficult to make, quickly brushing his original comment aside. Rather he jumped on the fact that making The Dream “was not like that at all”.
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Heading into the studio in January 2020, the band felt rested and creatively ‘ready’ to start working on the new album, despite the obvious drawbacks of the pandemic that eventually arose.
“It was very stop-start but I still think it ended up being quite a good way for us to work. Having regular breaks and not being stuck in the studio for days on end was good,” Gus noted.
“We didn’t put pressure on ourselves to work remotely through lockdowns, and then we were all much happier to get back into the studio when we could.”
One day, in particular, set the band in motion and made them realise that making their fourth album would be different from the slog it took to get through their third.
“There was a time where we were listening back to all these live jams we did at soundchecks on tour, and we came across this one song that eventually became U&ME. We had pretty much jammed the whole song in a soundcheck - we hadn’t finessed the lyrics or the structure, but really everything was there from this jam, and we’d all forgotten about it,” Gus explained.
“That was such an awesome moment because it really did feel like this gift we’d given ourselves. It was like we’d buried a bone and forgotten where the bone was, and it was the most wonderful bone.
“That was a good moment that resembled what it was like to make that whole album.”
With their newfound inspiration, the band were able to start on a new path, flexing their creative muscles to create their latest release, working together as they always had.
Originally described as the ‘new Radiohead’, alt-j have managed to escape that neat and somewhat limiting summary, flourishing into their own sound that can be tracked through ten-plus years of work. Their newest album, The Dream, combines the creative energy from their first few albums plus the newfound skills they’ve picked up along the way. Interestingly, Unger-Hamilton doesn’t believe that the band have changed their process at all, admitting that they still work the same as they did when they met in the halls of Leeds University.
“Joe once described himself as the guardian of the band's creative wellbeing, which is quite a good description really. Although I think we took the piss out of him at the time.” Gus Laughs.
“But I think Joe would agree that a song isn’t an alt-j song until we’ve all sort of worked on it together.”
While they were working on their new album, the anniversary date of another was quietly creeping towards them. An Awesome Wave, their debut, which set the group on its wild journey to stardom and won them the 2012 British Mercury Prize, was gearing up for its 10th anniversary. Naturally, the band decided to add in some extra shows on The Dream Tour to celebrate.
“We did one [An Awesome Wave Show] last year in Brixton Academy in London, that was it. It was really interesting to do it in Brixton because it was just strange. I think there are certain songs that we got so used to doing certain points in the set - you know? We always play Breezeblocks as like the last song of the encore, and now we’re playing Breezeblocks like the third song into the set, which was just so strange.”
“I think it was quite unnerving to do it for one night only, and now we’ve got heaps of rehearsals for this US [& AUS] tour, and I think it will feel a bit more natural.”
“It just really threw us all more than we were expecting on the night, you think ‘oh, you just look at the setlist and just play the songs’, but actually, it was like eating your pudding before your main course. It was just very weird.”
It’s clear to see An Awesome Wave's impact on a generation of fans when you see how quickly these shows have sold out. Two extra shows in California were added (now sold out), and the Australian Awesome Wave shows sold out well before The Dream’s gigs. This is not to discredit the band’s newest album, which holds some cracking songs and just gave the band its first-ever American Number one, but rather to highlight the staying power of an album that is over ten years old.
“I’ve never really been able to put my finger on why that album caught so many people's attention, to be honest,” Gus wonders.
“I think we, perhaps, happened to embody a certain kind of musical movement that was happening at the time, I suppose. We were just always doing our thing, our way, and maybe people just cottoned on to the certain kind of confidence and difference about us that really seemed to exude.
“It wasn’t really a campaign that was put together in a scheming way to take over the indie world for a year, and it all really just seemed to happen. But genuinely, we are very lucky to have any album do as well as that one did.”
Along with their metropolitan shows for The Dream Tour and the 10th Anniversary of An Awesome Wave Tour, alt-j are playing the regional extravaganza Groovin The Moo alongside BBNO$, Denzel Curry, Eliza Rose, and Omar Apollo.
“I’m excited! It’s cool to see different parts of the country, and we’re going to be out in Australia for a long time. You know, if you do a show in Australia, you always end up doing the same cities, but this time we get to reach a whole new set of fans.”
Catch alt-j at Groovin The Moo and on their own national tours for The Dream and An Awesome Wave's 10th anniversary.
Wayville, SA | Friday 21 April | Adelaide Showground, Kaurna Country, Wayville
Maitland, NSW | Saturday 22 April | Maitland Showground, Wonnarua Country, Maitland
Canberra, ACT | Sunday 23 April | Exhibition Park in Canberra (EPIC), Ngambri and Ngunnawal Country, Mitchell
Bendigo, VIC | Saturday 29 April | Bendigo’s Prince of Wales Showgrounds, Dja Dja Wurrung Country, Bendigo
Sunshine Coast, QLD | Sunday 30 April | Kawana Sports Western Precinct, Kabi Kabi and Jinibara Country, Warana
Bunbury, WA | Saturday 6 May | Hay Park, Wardandi Noongar Country, Bunbury
Tuesday 18 April - Spark Arena | Auckland, NZ
Tuesday 25 April - Metro Theatre | Sydney, NSW (SOLD OUT)*
Wednesday 26 April - Hordern Pavilion | Sydney, NSW
Thursday 27 April - Riverstage | Brisbane, QLD
Tuesday 2 May
Northcote Theatre | Melbourne, VIC (SOLD OUT)*
Wednesday 3 May - Margaret Court Arena | Melbourne, VIC
Sunday 7 May - HBF Stadium | Perth, WA
*An Awesome Wave 10th Anniversary Album shows