When Alt-J’s Gus Unger-Hamilton looks out into the crowd at an American gig, it’s not the scores of glowing iPhones that he finds himself distracted by, though they’re ever-present. It’s how “coupley it is.”
That, says the eccentric, self-described “awkward” British band’s keyboardist, is the biggest difference between their fanbase here in America and back home. More specifically, it’s all of the couples making out. “Oh God it happens the whole time, and it always happens during the same songs,” he laughs. “It’s really funny. It happens in ‘Matilda’ and it happens in ‘Taro.’”
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He notes that their audiences in the U.S. also tend to be people whose tastes he’d imagine to be more mainstream than in the U.K., where the quartet are perceived as a more alternative band. But it’s the mating rituals of his American fans that he’s most amused by.
“It’s also hilarious watching; I was thinking this last night onstage, guys dancing with their girlfriends but making it super obvious that, you know, this is their girlfriend,” he says. “They always stand behind them and don’t let anybody, especially the band, probably, think for one moment that this girl is single. It’s very funny to watch because the guys are always looking so awkward, trying to come up with dance moves to sort of encircle their girlfriends.”
If it sounds like he’s being a jerk, he’s not. Soft-spoken and slightly meditative, he’s not a rock star out to poach anyone’s girlfriend, and it seems like he’s merely bemused by it all — not the least being alt-J’s suddenly massive success.
He and his bandmates met when they were undergrads at Leeds University (his collegiate roots frequently reveal themselves — he describes the glow of iPhones at a show as “chiaroscuro”) and had no real intentions of making music for a living, at first. And they certainly didn’t do it to get girls.
“Definitely not,” he says, laughing, when asked about the sex-related perks of being in a college band. “Not a lot of people even knew we were a band. Our set of friends knew that we were in a band and we’d play gigs and the same people would always come, which was basically our set of friends.”
That’s all changed now. The sudden, and perhaps unlikely, success of alt-J’s 2012 debut album An Awesome Wave, an enthralling mélange of complex and sometimes almost dissonant sounds and ideas, has sent the band off on a whirlwind year spent touring the summer’s festival circuit and ever-larger venues Stateside.
But, to them, he says, it hasn’t felt like the meteoric rise to stardom that it appears to be. “We don’t perceive it as having been that fast. Because we’ve been in the band for five years and for the first three of those years we were just writing songs, and we weren’t looking to go anywhere we were just kind of more interested in the songwriting aspect of it, having fun together, making music,” he says. "Because we kind of lived the band every day.”
Still, he does recognize that there was a turning point, a moment when, as he says “oh s—, people are paying attention to alt-J.” That was when they won the Mercury Prize, which honors a U.K. band for best album, earlier this year.
And pay attention they have. Alt-J — they were originally called Films but after signing to a label and realizing an American band had already claimed The Films, they changed it to the computer shortcut for the delta symbol (∆), as a screw you as much as to be “obtuse and mysterious” — have gone from playing living room shows in their off-campus house at Leeds to headlining 5,000-capacity arenas in significantly less time than it takes most quirky, hard-to-define bands of their ilk.
But, if they should be worried about following up such an impressive debut record or intimidated by the specter of the sophomore album flop, they’re not.
“We know that we’re not going to put out a substandard second album,” he says. “When we release a second album it’s only going to be when we’ve made a record that we’re really happy with, so in that sense, I’m not worried because I know we wouldn’t put out something that we didn’t think was good enough.”
But, if it all ended tomorrow, and they never got to that stage, he reckons he’s f—ed, ruined for "the world of normal jobs." "I’m just going to have to have the band last as long time,” he says. “And then, I don’t know, open my own organic cafe or something, which would be quite nice. (pauses) Yeah, maybe I’ll do that.”