This much is certain about British indie pop quartet Alt-J: When answering questions for a journalist from the road and one of the band members is asleep and unable to defend himself, the remaining three will tease him mercilessly.
The unlucky recipient currently is guitarist-bassist Gwil Sainsbury, whose hobbies are listed for him by keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton: “He’s really into smoking weed. Don’t you write that! And he’s not really (smart), but he chooses not to let that hold him back.” Quirky bunch, these Leeds University graduates.
The band, including singer-guitarist Joe Newman and drummer Thom Green, started making music in 2007 and went through several band names before settling on the current designation, which when typed on an Apple keyboard makes the Greek letter delta; the symbol for change in science lingo.
Alt-J released its debut album, An Awesome Wave, this spring in the U.K. and last week in the U.S.; not until all four had graduated (Unger-Hamilton with a degree in English literature and the others in fine arts). Their songs are a layered mash-up of numerous styles like rock, pop, folk, hip hop, trip hop and electronica. Their lyrics, meanwhile, are peppered with literary and film references.
The Mercury Prize-nominated band will make their second Bay Area appearance Monday, opening for Grouplove at The Fillmore (and they’re also performing at Amoeba SF on Tuesday). Unger-Hamilton was in good spirits as Alt-J rode in a van from Portland to Seattle Monday evening.
The Bay Bridged: Why do you go by Alt-J and not “Delta?”
Unger-Hamilton: Delta as a name sounds like some sort of fraternity or something, which is not really something we want to get into. And there’s probably already a band called Delta. We always thought Alt-J would be something different.
TBB: I heard you like to throw movie references into lyrics. What are a couple of the movies you’ve included, and why?
Unger-Hamilton: There was a movie you’ve probably heard of called Leon: The Professional; that’s what the song “Mathilda” is about. It’s a really good film with very interesting relationships between the two main characters. With Jean Reno and Natalie Portman.That relationship is what the song is about. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is another one. Sometimes, like in “Mathilda,” you’ll write an entire song around a movie or something. Occasionally, it will be just an idea or a line or an image from a film you just want to bring to a song.
TBB: What is the line and the idea?
Unger-Hamilton: That was for “Tessellate.” It was with the lines, “Three guns and one goes off, one’s empty, one’s not quick enough. One burn, one red, one grin.” To be perfectly honest, Joe wrote the lyrics to that song. I don’t really feel comfortable talking about it. (He laughs.) Sorry about that.”
TBB: Some in the English press are calling Alt-J the “new Radiohead.” How do you respond to that? Is that a comparison you want?
Unger-Hamilton: If you’re going to be compared to a band, why not to a band that you love? And we all love Radiohead, but equally, I don’t think it’s very fair for people to say that, because, you know, I think it’s slightly phony. What’s so great about Radiohead is they’ve made a lot of albums, and they’ve changed their sound several times and kept things very interesting. We’ve only made one album. I don’t really see how you could compare a new band to Radiohead because Radiohead is several different things.
TBB: You came together in 2007, and then took the time to complete your degrees. Is there still a career in literature or fine arts in store?
Unger-Hamilton: Yes, absolutely. I don’t think any of us are ruling anything out, you know? So, yeah, by all means. We’re not going to be a band forever and ever. We’re doing it right now, and we’re enjoying it, and other people are enjoying it; which is fantastic.”
TBB: Tell me a little something about each of you that is not about the band.
Unger-Hamilton: Joe really likes watching movies, and he also enjoys… (to Newman) Joe, what do you enjoy? What are your hobbies? Joe?…He’s currently watching the second season of The Walking Dead, and he’s loving it. Thom on the other hand, he really likes playing chess. He likes listening to music as well. He’s really into Spotify, and he’s currently eating a lot of beef jerky in America, while we’re here. So that leaves me. I like fast food. I like reading books, and I like looking at birds out the window. (Laughs.) I’m serious – I’m not even joking. Especially birds of prey.”
TBB: This is your second time in San Francisco. Any idea how you will spend your time?
Unger-Hamilton: The last time we were here, we barely saw any of (the City). We drove from L.A., so it was pretty intense. Next time, I’m thinking I want to go on a streetcar and stop for some local ales. That would be very nice.
Follow writer Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter and RomiTheWriter.Tumblr.com.