Talking mainstream success, a Mercury Prize and (of course) Miley with the breakouts from Britain
Inspiration comes from the unlikeliest of places. In the case of the song cycle that appears on This Is All Yours, the new album from Mercury and Igor Novello Prize-winning British band Alt-J, it was inspired by a fact they saw on Internet news site Reddit’s ‘Today I Learned’ feature. The three-song cycle centres around the Japanese city of Nara.
According to keyboardist and vocalist Gus Unger Hamilton, it’s a place “where deer are welcome to roam around freely, do what they want, go anywhere – they have priority over cars, pedestrians… everything.” The cycle’s centrepiece tune is called, well, ‘Nara’. The song is, Gus tells Time Out, “about a man who wants to marry another man, who wishes he were free to do what he wants without hurting anybody. It’s like being a deer in Nara.
You have to admire a band like Alt-J. Their sound is complex, unpredictable and almost impossible to classify. (Let’s just chuck it into the ‘art rock’ folder alongside St. Vincent and move on.) They make hits out of songs with titles like ‘Breezeblocks’ and ‘Tessellate’. On new song ‘Every Other Freckle’, lead singer Joe Newman sings about lust in his inimitably reedy voice, and it’s just… weird: “I’m gonna bend into you like a cat fits into a bean bag/Turn you inside out to lick you like a crisp packet”.
And then there’s the decision to sample Miley Cyrus – an Alt-J fan – on new track ‘Hunger of the Pine’. The decision confounded critics but seemed to please a certain subset of music listeners who enjoy both acts. (I’m raising my hand.) Alt-J will just miss their chance to invite Cyrus onstage to sing her part when they play a one-off gig at the Enmore this month – she’s in town ten days later – before they return to headline the Falls Festival. “I don’t think she’s been to any of our shows. But we went to her show at the O2 Arena in London earlier this year.” And? “Completely off its tits.” He laughs. “Once you accustom yourself to the fact it’s completely bananas, you can really enjoy it.”
Which is pretty much the approach one must take when listening to Alt-J, who went from Leeds University buddies just making music in their dorm rooms to internationally celebrated rock stars. Prior to recording Yours, did the boys have a chat about meeting the insanely high expectations of critics, their label or their fans? Gus snorts at the question. “No, not really. It’s unspoken: we know what we like to do. If we enjoy making the music, then we figure it’s good music for us to be making.”