alt-J’s Gus Unger-Hamilton on fashion grifting, Ian Fleming, and the imminent specter of death
alt-J and Portugal the Man play Cable-Dahmer Arena April 7.
alt-J is a genre-bending alternative rock band that was founded in the UK by four friends at Leeds University. More complex than you’d realize at first blush, even the band’s name has layers.
Technically their name is the Greek symbol delta [∆], which is the mathematical symbol for change, and alt-J is the Mac shortcut for the delta symbol.
The band delivers a unique sound combining elements of electronica, folk, guitar, synth, and loops that has garnered commercial and critical success. Gus Unger-Hamilton plays keyboard and bass while providing harmonious vocals.
Unger-Hamilton traded tales with The Pitch such as how special our city is, his first “rock star” moment, new fatherhood, true crime podcasts, pre-show rituals, and the band’s new album, The Dream.
The Pitch: What should people expect from the alt-J live show on this tour?
Gus Unger-Hamilton: We’ve got a pretty incredible light show on this tour, which we’ve been trying to show by posting photos and such. We’re playing in this fantastic three-dimensional cube with projections going all-around 360 degrees. It looks seriously astonishing. Judging from the feedback, people have never seen anything like it before; it’s very cool.
We’ll be playing lots of songs from all our albums; many, many songs from the first album, and lots of new ones as well. So, hopefully, a nicely balanced set. We’ve got 10-year catalog to play from now. So it’s fun to choose what we think are the best songs to play live. It should be a really good night.
You know, Kansas City has always been a very special city for us. They really embraced us from the beginning, and we can’t wait to come back there and play for the fans. It’s going to be great.
What’s Portugal the Man like as tour mates?
They’ve been great. You know, they’re really fun guys. It’s been fun to kick it with them after the show every night and get to know them. I love watching them play live too.
We’re such different bands but in such a good way. I think it’s really cool, because we’re much more of a perfect performance kind of band. I’d say they’re much more of a like energy, jam, exciting band to watch.
You never quite know what’s gonna happen next in their set, and it’s a very inspiring thing for us, because it’s so different from how we do things.
You and one of your bandmates are new fathers; we heard you brought the family on tour. Is that true? How’s it going?
We have indeed.
I’ve got my wife and son; Joe’s got his daughter and partner here with us. It’s been really good so far. It’s certainly been a different dynamic from what it’s usually like on tour.
More early mornings than late nights, I would say. But I think it’s nice to be able to take advantage of this time when they’re both still, you know, really babies. We get just to spend time as a family and have some fun adventures together in a foreign land.
It’s been a large gap between tours for you guys. There were a couple of years between albums and then COVID. How does it feel performing in front of audiences again?
We were last on tour in 2018. So, it’s been a good four years. And, yeah, it’s funny, really; I got back into it very quickly. It was like there hadn’t been a gap at all. But I think that’s helped by the fact that the audiences are so excited to be back at concerts, and we’re excited to be back on stage as well.
I think the last two years have just made everybody super grateful for the opportunity to go to a big concert and feel like it’s something you can do again.
I once heard a musician say their road luxury was wearing a new pair of socks every day. Do you have any creature comforts you bring on tour?
We always have English tea with us on tour, which is kind of a big thing. Certainly, it’s a big thing for me to be able to have a nice cup of tea every day. My tea of choice is a Yorkshire tea. And yeah, it’s a black English tea, which you have with milk. It’s very comforting, very energizing. I mean, it’s just lovely.
Do you have any pre-concert rituals? What puts you in the right headspace for a live performance?
Joe and I do some vocal warm-ups, and we choose a different song from the set to sing, just the two of us acoustically. That kind of gets us in the mood for the concert.
Other than that, I’ve started to have an outfit that I wear on stage now. Everything from shoes upwards, and It feels good to sort of get into a different costume, you know, rather than basically going on stage in the clothes you’ve worn all day, so that helps set my mindset a lot too.
Alt-J formed when you guys were in college together. What was the connecting thread of the band members?
Even though we weren’t all studying the same things, it was just this “critical questioning” kind of thing that we were very much trained to do as students at university. I think it really pushed us to become a band that was trying to do something a bit different, but not willfully out there or crazy.
We just didn’t really accept mediocrity in anything we did, said, read, or heard. And so, mediocrity wasn’t accepted in anything we created either. We held ourselves to a high standard from the get-go as a band, which I think resulted from the university atmosphere that we were in.
You guys are clearly well-read, and it comes through in the music. There are several deep-cut literary references in the band’s lyrics. Have you thought of setting up an Alt-J Goodreads account to share what you are reading or lend keys to song meanings?
I don’t know too much about Goodreads. But I’ve certainly, in the past, had some nice relationships with fans on Twitter where we’ve exchanged or recommended books and things like that.
I think that, ultimately, it is good to keep your creative brain alive by reading. Nowadays, I strive less so to read really difficult or severe books. I find reading to be more of a comfort now, whereas it used to be more of a kind of academic exercise.
What are you reading right now?
I’m currently reading For Your Eyes Only by Ian Fleming. I’ve been reading all the James Bond books on this tour. Never read them before. I like the films a lot, especially the older ones. So, I’ve always been curious about the books, and they’re actually a lot better than I thought they were going to be.
I’m actually finding them very entertaining to read and quite well-written. So yeah, it’s been a fun way to pass the miles on the tour bus.
Is there an Alt-J line or lyric that you’re particularly proud of as someone who appreciates good writing?
Off the top of my head… there’s this part in one of our songs called “Three Won Words” or “3-W-W” that goes:
“Girls from the pool say hi. The road erodes at 10 feet a year along England’s east coastline. Was this your first time? Love is just a button we pressed last night by the campfire.”
I like those lines because of the history of them. There’s a sort of funny story where Joe and I were in a pool in LA—it was our first time in LA in 2012. And we were talking to these women in the swimming pool—just chatting and stuff like that.
And they left a note for us with the hotel receptionist which just said, “The girls from the pool say Hi.”
But the whole song is sort of based around a story that a friend told us about him losing his virginity by a campfire. And I think there’s a very haunting quality to those lines. Particularly, the way Ellie [Roswell] from Wolf Alice sings them on the record is just amazing.
And, I don’t know, when I sing those lines on stage every night I get like a bit of a goosebumpy kind of feeling.
What was your first surreal “rock star” moment? Like, you could go back in time and tell your 15-year-old self “X” happened, and it’d blow your mind.
There was a thing that used to happen quite a lot—we call it gifting in the UK—where you to go to, like, a shop, or a PR agency, or something, and they give you shitloads of free clothes. When we were young, it was just amazing to get to go and be given all this kind of free stuff—free shoes, free jackets, and everything.
It was a literal sort of fantasy, because we had no money. We’d grown up, but we still wanted nice things, you know. Getting to go and get them for nothing was like some kind of Willy Wonka dream come true for us. I remember that happening quite a lot in the early days of us being signed and kind of pinching myself like, “Is this really happening?”
How does that work? Like a designer thought it’s good for business if rock stars are seen in my clothes, so I’ll give it to them for free?
Yeah, that’s basically it. More often than not, there was some kind of like social media or photos taken, so we kind of had to pay for it in that way. The older you get, the more experienced you get, and the more you realize that, actually, you are paying for those clothes.
Do you really want to sort of make yourself look like a corporate shill in exchange for some free trainers? I’d rather not do a photo or a tweet saying, “Thank you, Adidas,” in exchange for some shoes that I could buy for, like 100 pounds. I’m alright. I’ll just buy my own shoes and not sacrifice my principles for the free trainers.
But you know, it was still great while it lasted. Nowadays, we just tend to say no, because you get to a point where you realize that perhaps the brand is getting more out of it than you are.
Tell us about the process and your thoughts on “Hit me like that snare” from your last album. It’s quite different from your other stuff and has a real Tarantino feel.
That’s a good comparison. Yeah, that was kind of funny. I sort of forget that we did that song, really. We jammed it in the studio very quickly, recorded it, and more or less used that on the album—just with vocals put over the top.
I don’t know. Lyrically, I’m not really sure what Joe was going for with that song. It was, like, kind of wanting to write something that was as aggressive and sort of as out-there as possible, really just as an exercise. I think we thought it would be fun, you know—a fun one to play live.
But we actually found it a bit difficult and embarrassing to play live. So, we took it out of the set. But, you know, anyway, it’s there. It’s done now. It’s not one we think about a great deal, but it’s a fun one to listen to now and then, for sure.
Are there any songs that you weren’t necessarily crazy about but grew on you over time?
Yeah, there’s a song on the first album called “Ms,” which I was not a fan of when we were writing it. I thought it was overly sentimental. And, I don’t know, I found it quite boring. But I think that’s now become one of my favorite tracks on the first album.
We’re going to be doing some 10-year anniversary concerts for the album in London, and we haven’t played that song since 2013. I’m really looking forward to learning and playing it again. I think it’s a really, really nice piece of music.
On the other end of the spectrum, the new album has a good number of references to death. Where’s that coming from?
We’ve always sung songs about loss and death and the like. But I don’t think we’ve ever gone too far with it. As far as this album, Joe listened to quite a lot of true crime podcasts and that kind of thing during the process. I think that was kind of fueling his imagination. Perhaps it skewed it a bit more on the darker side of things.
Alt-J perform with Portugal. the Man at Cable Dahmer Arena Thursday, April 7. Tickets are still available.