Alt-J’s Gus Unger-Hamilton Opens Up About ‘This Is All Yours,’ New Music + More
London's premier art rock trio, Alt-J, are celebrating the release of their sophomore studio effort, 'This Is All Yours.' Hitting store shelves on Sept. 23, the new album takes the creativity and comprehensive diversity of 'An Awesome Wave' and turns it into a deeper, more complex sound -- all the while maintaining the band's musical beauty.
Taking some time away from his increasingly busy schedule, drummer and programmer Gus Unger-Hamilton caught up with us to chat about 'This Is All Yours.' From working with producer Charlie Andrew to what it was like recording without original member Gwil Sainsbury, Unger-Hamilton opens up about all things Alt-J.
As the band geared up for the release of 'This Is All Yours,' did you do anything special?
We rehearsed. We’ve just been concentrating on that basically. It’s quite intense because we have so much to prepare. This album has a lot more layering, there’s some backing tracks which we’ve never done before. It’s been quite hard, but it’s been really enjoyable. It’s kind of crept up on me. I haven’t really thought much about it but I’m really excited.
How did you approach this album differently than 'An Awesome Wave'?
We tried to keep it similar to the first album, at least in terms of the writing. It was going to be impossible, you know, because we wrote the majority of the first album when we were at university in Leeds. We wanted to keep the fact that we were very comfortable the first time, but we were in familiar places, a dorm room, you know? There was no pressure then. This time around, we let our manager know that we didn’t want to do anything but write. We live in London now, we have a studio close to where we each live. It was nice, we’d get up in the morning, go to work, concentrate on the music all day and then we’d go home. That was really beneficial. We made to sure to keep that element.
In terms of the writing, it was slightly different because we had less time. It worked, though. We were together everyday. The ideas were coming up all the time, and we were together. The first time, the majority of ideas came from Joe [Newman, frontman]. We’d all work on it together then. That was still the case with this album, but it was a lot more of us doing it from scratch together. That was a big difference I suppose. I feel like we were a little bit more experimental this time, there’s more of an electronic element with this album. I did a lot of programming this time, too. Samples, looping, that kind of thing. Generally, though, we had no plan. We weren’t thinking to make this album more electronic or anything like that. It came out the way it came out on its own. To me, there aren’t massive differences. It’s still us making the album we wanted to make.
It definitely has a similar sound, but it seems deeper, like there are more layers. Did you ever consider working with a different producer, rather than staying with Charlie Andrew?
It came up when we knew the time was coming. We had to make sure that who we were going to work with was available. I personally quite like the idea of working with different producers. I’m quite active in my music. I follow a lot of new music, I’m very interested in production. For me, I was open to that idea, but Joe was the opposite. He was very comfortable with Charlie -- and I was comfortable as well -- but Joe was more into the idea. If it’s not broke, it doesn’t need to be fixed, and I agree with that.
It made sense to go with Charlie again. It would be weird going with someone else since we work so well with Charlie. We know what we’re doing, it never feels like work. We’re always very honest. If Charlie has an opinion, we’re always open to hearing it. And he takes all of our ideas seriously. It’s always kind of easy with him, that relationship. We’re very lucky that we have such a good set-up in that way.
I read that you wrote the majority of 'This Is All Yours' while touring. Is that true?
It’s hard to say. We had a lot of ideas, but we never actually rehearsed together on tour because we never had the time. We could never play together unless it was onstage, and with sound checks, you never get that much time. I like my own alone time, too, especially on tour. It was difficult, but yeah, we had ideas. Some sound checks we had ideas that we’d muck around with, and when it came to actually writing the album, we realized we had a lot more ideas than we thought.
Was it tough doing this album without Gwil [Sainsbury]?
It was completely fine actually. When he left, it was kind of expected even though we didn’t really think it would happen. When he told us, it was like, well that makes sense. His reason for it, he just wanted to do other things. The band was always, for him, more of a hobby, like an experiment almost. He never anticipated the success and I think he kind of felt like he’d run it as far as he wanted to go. He left at a good time, you know, in between albums. It was very clean, he wasn’t tied to the second album at all, so there were no issues. It kind of gave us, writing-wise, a bit more space.
It’s odd, because there was never not enough space in the music. We never thought the dynamic wasn’t working, it was always perfect, but then somehow, just the three of us was also perfect. Maybe it was the environment we were in when we were writing, I don’t know. We were a bit worried initially. We started working quite hard and being aware of what we were doing. Quite quickly we realized it was OK. Yeah, it was completely fine.
On 'Hunger of the Pine,' you sample Miley Cyrus. How did you get hooked up with her?
Well, first, we found out that she was using ‘Fitzpleasure’ as an interlude for her live show when she had a wardrobe change. The track would come on with a video of her doing some weird dancing. We found that out, then I found out she was following us on Twitter. I’ve been doing remixes for awhile so I thought, f--- it and I sent her a message to see if she was into the idea of a remix. She loved it, she was up for it. She offered ‘4x4,’ and sent me the tracks and we still keep in touch. She texts me now and again out of the blue, which is really weird. [Laughs] We saw her at the O2 Arena in London. We actually got to meet her after the show. There were celebrities there just to be seen, we felt really out of place. But she was really nice, she has everyone under the sun trying to say hi to her. She knew she didn’t have to entertain us. So yeah, that’s the Miley thing. [Laughs]
Do you think there will be any future collaborations with her?
I’m not sure. Maybe, maybe yeah. She is really into the band. When I was doing the remix, she recorded some extra vocals to put on the remix itself. She has an incredible voice; I wouldn’t rule it out.
You mentioned that you stay up on new music. What are you currently listening to?
Right now, I’m listening to a producer called the Bug. He’s from London I believe, Brixton. His second album came out recently and it’s really, really good. Frankly, it’s just really good. Some places it’s heavy dub-step, you know? It sounds like it’s older dub-step from London, a bit more minimal. Less huge synths, more about the rhythms. Some of the beats are just so heavy. To me, the heaviest and most powerful beats are the most simple. If you get the right tempo and the right rhythm, that’s all you need. His tracks are incredible. Being a drummer, I was always interested in drummers, but more and more I’m appreciate producers.
Clams Casino, he produces for A$AP Rocky. His beats are really dark, but really interesting, while being simple. Basically, he uses a lot of reverb and delay, samples from completely random singers. Another guy called Arca -- he produced for Kanye West on 'Yeezus' on a couple of tracks. He’s a young guy, like 21, and produces for FKA twigs who is pretty hyped up at the moment. He kind of makes hip-hop but off-kilter, sometimes you literally don’t know what the tempo is. The beats don’t land where you expect them to. I love that. I’m listening to a lot more of that -- I don’t even know what genre that is. You know, anything that’s challenging with people trying to push things, rather than settling on what immediately sounds good. I really like that, I’m really open to that.
Do you think Alt-J push it?
Yeah, I like to think we do. On the surface, it might sound very -- I don’t know, but yeah, we definitely push it. It’s hard to say, it’s very hard to describe. We never write a song haphazardly, we never do anything and just think it’s OK to put on the album. We’re really lucky that the majority of what we do we all like a lot. This second album, there were no tracks that we left off. Everything we did made the album and that’s all we had. That’s it. We were just in a really good place and it worked really well.
Alt-J's sound is definitely hard to describe. When I first heard 'Breezeblocks' on the radio, I knew I liked it, but I had a hard time explaining it.
Yeah. I was the last person to join the band when it started. The three of them played me a couple of tracks, and I was blown away. I had never heard anything like it. It sounded like music I wanted to hear but I wasn’t aware of it. Now that I’m obviously a bit more used to it -- I’m used to our sound and the way we do things -- it’s harder to have the outsider’s point of view. I get why people say that there’s nothing like it, it’s always been like that. We’ve had a lot of success because of that. It feels like it’s still five minutes ago that we just started. [Laughs]
'This Is All Yours' is currently available wherever fine records are sold. Fans can pick it up on CD and digital formats, as well as a multi-colored double-LP. Get details on the release here.