If you weren’t around at the time, it’s difficult to comprehend the level of derision alt-J attracted from some quarters when they released their debut album, An Awesome Wave, in 2012.
“The Cambridge-based pop band’s been described as “the new Radiohead,” but that tag ultimately says more about lowered standards,” Pitchfork wrote in a stinging review at the time; many others chastised the trio for their perceived self-seriousness and pretension (in Scotland, alt-J’s pursuit would have earned the accusation of being a “riddy.” See also “Tall poppy syndrome.” How dare anyone try to better themselves).
But critics were swiftly silenced when alt-J won the prestigious Mercury Prize, and the last decade-and-a-bit feels like further vindication of the band’s worth.
The trio – Joe Newman, Thom Sonny Green and Gus Unger-Hamilton – recently arrived in these parts for a huge tour of Australia and New Zealand, including a run of appearances at Groovin the Moo.
Their most recent album, The Dream, proved their enduring appeal Down Under, making the top 10 of the ARIA Albums Chart last year. As well as celebrating that album and its success, their current tour saw the band play An Awesome Wave in full at two shows, and tickets sold extremely quickly with fans clamouring to hear one of the 2010s defining albums – and most remarkably assured debuts – played front to back.
Ahead of the Australian leg, which comes to a close this weekend in Perth, Rolling Stone AU/NZ caught up with Unger-Hamilton, and you can read our full conversation below.
alt-J 2023 Australian Tour
With special guests Royel Otis
Tickets available via frontiertouring.com
Sunday, May 7th
HBF Stadium, Perth, WA
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Rolling Stone AU/NZ: When was the last time you were in Australia and New Zealand? It must have been a while?
Unger-Hamilton: I think it was either 2017 or 2018. It’s going to be great.
Do you have much experience of a travelling festival like Groovin the Moo?
Not for some years! One of the first big things we did out in Australia was Laneway. That was like two or three weeks of travelling around, which was amazing fun. I’m hoping it’s going to be a similar vibe. We made good friends with all the other artists on the bill and it was really this big kind of party that just moved from city to city.
That was one of my questions – on a touring festival like this, do you become friends with everyone backstage?
Obviously not everyone, but on that tour (Laneway) we had Jessie Ware and Yeasayer, and they’re both artists who we’re still very friendly with. Kings of Convenience as well. It was a really nice little gang.
Are there any Australian artists that have inspired alt-J over the years?
We came up kind of at the same time as Tame Impala. They’ve always been an artist we’ve kept an eye on. Seeing the evolution of Tame Impala is very inspiring for us, we’re also about trying to evolve and not just keep doing the same thing album after album.
So while I wouldn’t say they’re exactly a direct musical influence on us, I think in terms of their trajectory, that’s something that we would love to try to keep up with as best we can.
An Awesome Wave and Lonerism came out around the same time in 2012.
Exactly! I remember seeing that they were doing Brixton Academy around the same we did, and then I kind of got wise to them for the first time.
Congratulations on the 10th anniversary of An Awesome Wave by the way. How has it been reflecting on the album over a decade later?
We made a whole podcast about the album, and I think in the process of doing that, I realised how lucky we’ve been and how important that album was for people. People often say to us, “An Awesome Wave changed my life.” And I’m like, “yeah, it bloody changed my life!” We’re very grateful.
Did you feel a lot of pressure to succeed following An Awesome Wave?
Not massively. Actually, in a way, the fact that this kind of weird band who made a weird album done so well made us feel like, “ok, people obviously like us because we’re a bit different.” It was sort of vindication of our approach to making music, which has always been like, “there are no rules, there is no genre, there are no limits to what an alt-j song can be.” So that first album was an encouragement and a kind of carte blanche to just do whatever we wanted from then onwards, which is essentially what we’ve done.
That’s interesting because genre is becoming less and less of a thing in the past few years, and An Awesome Wave really preceded that.
Completely. I don’t think it really matters at all. People can essentially just listen to anything they want, millions of songs on their phone anytime, you don’t need to take anyone’s word for it anymore with music. What does it matter if you’re put into the indie rock genre?
Your latest album, The Dream, performed really well in Australia last year. That must have felt nice, to realise you still have such a strong following on the other side of the world.
Very happy. It’s really nice for us to realise that people are still interested, because I’m well aware that a lot of the artists we came up with back in 2012 aren’t still together. I feel very lucky to still be doing this.
It’s not an easy thing at all.
It’s really not. I’m well aware that we’re not flavour of the month anymore. A lot of people have just stuck around and if they’re interested in what we’re doing, that’s really nice.
How has it felt playing An Awesome Wave fully at recent shows?
The order of the album feels so unnatural! Like “Breezeblocks” is the third track on the album, but we always finished the encore with “Breezeblocks”. So it’s very strange to be playing it almost at the start of the show. We’ve been doing rehearsals and the way we’ve been running through it is awesome. It’s slowly starting to feel a bit more slick and a bit more normal.
Did you have a personal favourite song from that album?
“Dissolves Me” is one that I really love. I love playing it live for the response it always gets. It sort of showcases the best of alt-J for me.