LONDON – An un-Googleable delta symbol name (∆), genre-hopping, challenging sounds and esoteric lyrics inspired by Japanese deer are not the usual recipe for surefire pop success. Yet when alt-j arrives in Japan for its debut headline show — catapulted by 1 million album sales, a Mercury prize and a nomination at the forthcoming Grammys — it does so as one of Britain’s biggest bands. Even twerker-in-chief Miley Cyrus, pop’s great provocateur, is not only a fan but a collaborator. It is, frankly, an unusual concoction to find a mass audience.
Keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton agrees. “I’m surprised we’ve been embraced by the mainstream,” he says from Los Angeles, where the band’s winter American tour is drawing to a close. “I always thought we were doing good, interesting stuff that I wanted to listen to, but at the same time it is surprising because I think we just thought we were a bunch of oddballs. Even though we liked it, we didn’t know if people would go for it.”
With an intimate, schizophrenic sound honed from 2007 in no small part due to the cramped conditions of their student accommodation at Leeds University (where noise restrictions didn’t allow a full drum kit or guitar amps and “forced us to be more creative”), Unger-Hamilton, Joe Newman (vocals and guitars), Thom Green (drums) and guitarist/bassist Gwil Sainsbury nonetheless created debut “An Awesome Wave” with melodies to compliment the intricacy. The 2012 Mercury Prize judges were among those convinced: alt-j was suddenly thrust into the limelight.
“We felt more like a real band afterward. Before that we felt like imposters that had wandered into the party. And we’ve not been kicked out yet.”
Sainsbury wasn’t kicked out, though he did leave alt-j of his own accord last January, disenchanted with the rigors of on-the-road life.
“He didn’t like to tour and wasn’t too interested in the long-term success of the band. I was genuinely sad, but we had a second album to make.”
“This is All Yours” playfully expands on their idiosyncrasies, and that’s before you even get to Cyrus, whose vocals are sampled on standout “Hunger of the Pine” for a piece of crossover pop culture brilliance.
“People have preconceived ideas about her, and while she is a manufactured pop star, she is also a person. She has really good taste in music and is really interested in pushing boundaries as to what she can be. She’s an interesting person to be involved with.”
The (relatively) straightforward, southern-rock boogie of “Left Hand Free” aside, “This Is All Yours” is notable for “Arrival in Nara,” “Nara” and “Leaving Nara,” a trilogy of tracks in tribute to the city’s often-photographed shika (deer) inhabitants.
“We haven’t been, but it was something Joe stumbled upon. He read about the deer and the status the deer have in Nara. It’s a nice metaphor for people being left alone to live their lives the way they want to live them, not being told what to do or how to exist, having that freedom.”
A whistle-stop stay in Japan isn’t enough time to take in the beauty of Nara but it is, Unger-Hamilton hopes, sufficient to “cement ourselves into the bosom of the Japanese rock scene. Playing gigs in Japan, it’s what you dream about when you start a band. It’s the ultimate expression of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. We can’t wait”.