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Q&A: Alt-J

The British indietronica band’s keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton on coming to India, lessons from touring and performing in arenas

Anurag Tagat Mar 01, 2015
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(from left) Gu Unger-Hamilton, Thom Green, Joe Newman. Photo: Marcus Haney

(from left) Gus Unger-Hamilton, Thom Green, Joe Newman. Photo: Marcus Haney

At the first festival edition of music and art gig series Emerge in Bengaluru, unseasonal rain welcomed everyone who showed up in their summer festival finery, but by the time indietronica band and festival headliners Alt-J got on stage to nearly 2,000 people and opened with “Hunger of the Pine,” off their second album This Is All Yours, there was no rain to jinx this international debut. Between minimal stage banter about being in India and introducing their songs, while frontman Joe Newman asked the crowd to sing along to favorites like “Tesselate” and “Fitzpleasure” and “Left Hand Free,” Alt-J won over the crowd from word go. Perfect to every note, drummer Thom Green was strapped up to a massive kit that included drumpads and several toms, all for him to beat away with the precision of a prog rock drummer.

A few hours before their debut India show at Emerge, Unger-Hamilton spoke to ROLLING STONE India about the tour life, starting out in Leeds University in 2007 and the time they arranged for a choir in the audience.

You were doing a pre-party meet and greet with fans yesterday in Bengaluru. How did that go?

It was amazing, really. We’ve never really experienced that level of fan-ness. We felt like celebrities, which is pretty radical. It was really cool.

What is your setlist for the two India shows like?

It’s a mix of both albums [An Awesome Wave and This Is All Yours], about 50-50 really. Because now that we have two albums we can choose what we play, rather than before we just played everything we could. We can choose the songs now, the ones that work best in a live setting.

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After India, there’s a huge show coming up at Madison Square Garden with [electro rock group] Phantogram – is that one of the biggest venues you’re going to play?

Yeah, it will be, definitely. It’s one of the biggest shows we’ve ever done. I mean, it’s such an iconic venue, kind of a dream come true, really. We never thought we’d get to that kind of level and it’s one of those things ”“ playing the Garden ”“ everyone’s heard of it.

Joe [Newman] mentioned in an interview about having a “plain-clothed choir” at one of your shows.  When did that happen?

It happened at a gig in London. We did two nights at a small venue called the Africa Centre in Covent Garden. On the first night, we got together a group of friends and they could sing and we mixed them up and placed them around in the audience. It kind of worked. Then on the second night, we did it differently, we just put the choir up on the balcony. So the audience didn’t know they were going to be there.  It was a bit more effective. I actually forgot about that. Now I’m thinking, ”˜Wow, we used to really push the boundaries’ [laughs].

But now you can’t do that sort of thing?

Now we’re playing bigger venues. In order to do things really crazy, it involves a huge amount of organization and preparation and expenditure. If you want to do something like that now, for a big venue”¦ we could still do stuff like that, but it would mean you can’t do it off the cuff. When you’re a small band playing small venues, you pretty much do whatever you want. If we actually prepared for it and it was a failure, it would look really bad.

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You’re a literature graduate. What are you reading right now?

Yeah, I am. I just finished reading a novel by American novelist called Ben Lerner called 10:04 yesterday. Which I think has a title as a reference to Back to the Future. I think that’s the time on the clock in Back to the Future. It’s a really good book. He’s one of my favorite writers.

You guys are all from Leeds University. What was the campus scene like, now that you look back on it?

I’m not really sure, because we never got called as a band from Leeds University. There was a band society at the university, but I guess they would put on gigs together and have equipment to rent to bands, but we weren’t involved with that. We were quite private as a band. We weren’t interested in telling everyone we were a band. A lot of my friends from University probably didn’t know I was in a band. It was more about writing songs than being involved in the scene.

What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned after one of these long tours across the world and finally got back home?

I think it’s just the knowledge that you’re seeing both sides of different lifestyles. Sure, working 9 to 5 can be really boring, but actually you have lot to like about it ”“ having normal weekends and getting to see your family and friends a lot. On the other hand, we can be comfy on the road and getting to travel around, see people, play concerts uniquely. That perspective of both sides ”“ whether it’s the “rock ”˜n roll” lifestyle or the 9 to 5 grind are some of the things I think about.

Alt-J performs at Vivo presents Emerge Music and Arts Festival at HUDA Grounds, Gurgaon on March 1st, 2015. Entry: Rs 1,500 (general), Rs. 2,500 (VIP). Buy tickets here.

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