To be frank, it’s not often Cherwell speaks to a Mercury Prize winner. But the very next day after scooping the coveted title and its £20,000 prize, Alt-J (Δ) exhibit no discernible signs of a prize-winning transformation. The band famously refuse to have their faces shown in press shots, but their famous elusiveness is not evident in our pre-gig interview. Rather, Joe Newman and Gus Unger-Hamilton are open, grounded and more than partial to deadpan humour. And very hungover from the previous evening’s awards ceremony. Sound checking on stage, I overhear Joe muttering dejectedly, “I’m feeling so delicate it’s unbelievable.”
Yet for Alt-J, winning the Mercury prize has “not really sunk in yet” although with the prize money “we’ve got a plan to take our parents out for a lavish meal. We were always talking about going to the Fat Duck. We can probably get a fucking table there now!” Gus adds, “But put that as ‘ironic’ if you’re going to quote that.”
In the past, the indie-electro foursome have been characterised as trip-folk, which seems quite a fitting label for a band whose sound straddles a melange of styles, genres and influences. Joe ponders, “That’s going back a bit now. When we first started out we thought we were quite trip-hoppy. But we were naturally quite folky because I grew up on folk music, as did Gus. We’re inspired by each other. We’re so comfortable around each other. It took all four of us to meet to make us be creative, I would say. Tom was being creative before but when we all got together, something happened; it became so much more than the sum of all its parts.’
He adds, “Lyrics and the songwriting side are extremely important. I still play around with the classic rules and regulations, textbook singer-songwriting.”
So are there any themes which underpin the band’s debut album An Awesome Wave? Gus replies with typical humour: “It took a long time to write. It’s a surprisingly coherent album considering we literally wrote our track listing on the back of an envelope in the tour van.” Joe elaborates, “It’s largely an album which discusses basic clichéd stuff like love. Falling in and out of love with different people and sexual experiences. That’s an overriding theme; it’s hard to escape that.” This is something which has clearly resonated with this summer’s festival-goers, with Joe declaring, “Reading was fucking scary! There was a mosh pit in ‘Matilda’ – I mean, it’s a subtle ballad!”
Much has been made of Alt-J’s lack of a stereotypically rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. They admit that when they shared a house while at Leeds University, “We didn’t really go out much. I wasn’t aware of the music scene”. They have thus far avoided publicised involvement in any insalubrious debauchery. But with a Mercury Prize under their belt, will this reticence continue?
Gus quips, “I’m going to try and get really into drugs” while Joe chimes in, “Yeah, I’d like to get into hard drugs. Crack is where I’m gonna start.
“Yeah that would be a good place to start. You can smoke that, so its a bit like having a fag. And it’s really cool. Heroin doesn’t necessarily look cool, it just looks really dangerous.”
Joking aside, I ask whether there is any sense of anti-climax for a band for whom recognition has arrived so fortuitously yet so suddenly.
Joe replies with gusto: “Oh yeah, Everything’s an anti-climax when you start living your dream as a day-to-day work lifestyle. Meeting people that you’re in love with, that’s an anti-climax. We were at Jools Holland, and I saw [Jools Holland] the human, and he was keen to leave the set after. Probably wanted to get back, watch TV have a cup of tea or whatever. Everything was done and then he snuck off from the back, so you see what happens in real life…But we don’t know where the Mercury will take us.”