ALT-J are a four-piece indie pop group who are one of the hot tips for this year’s Barclaycard Mercury Prize.
Scene spoke to keyboard player Gus Unger-Hamilton about their Leeds origins, their debut album and their growing fanbase.
You formed – as a band called FILMS – when you were students at the University of Leeds. Was the original name an allusion to singer Joe Newman’s love of cinema?
Well in fact our original name was Daljit Dhaliwal. I think the fact we took so long to settle on a name shows how we took the music a lot more seriously than anything else. We weren’t interested in building ourselves as a ‘brand’. The songs came first. The name FILMS wasn’t really to do with cinema, in fact. It was just a word we liked the sound of, and how it looked written down.
How quickly did you develop a sound of your own?
It’s hard for us to say. Certainly, it was always about writing our own music. We didn’t start off doing covers or anything. From quite early on, our friends and people who heard our songs told us we had something quite new and hard to classify, but that was (and remains) a surprise to us.
To the uninitiated, could you explain ‘folk-step’?
‘Folk-step’ isn’t something we came up with – I’d love to know who coined that! I think the idea is that we have our roots in folk music, or the folk tradition, but we add beats that feel more hip hop- or dubstep-like. It isn’t a term we find very useful...
The Leeds music scene is famously vibrant. Did you feel a kindred spirit with other bands here, such as Wild Beasts?
I think we ‘arrived’ just after the Leeds scene’s heyday, in terms of bands like Wild Beasts and Sky Larkin. And now there is a really healthy hardcore scene here, which is fantastic. But we were always fairly keen just to keep ourselves to ourselves and concentrate on songwriting and playing together.
Why did you decide to relocate to Cambridge last year? Were there better opportunities there?
It made more sense for us to be nearer London by that stage. And once you’ve graduated from university in Leeds, it can feel like you need a change! I’d love to move back one day though. There’s so much about the city I have yet to explore. In terms of what was in Cambridge for us, it was really just a quiet place where we could write the album without the distractions of a big city.
What, for you, is the highpoint of the album?
For me, it’s quite a well-shaped album with lots of emotional undulation to keep the listener interested. As such, I don’t think it has a high point exactly – but Taro is probably my favourite track.
Did your appearance at Leeds Festival feel like a homecoming? Can we look forward to something special when you play at the Cockpit?
It was fantastic to play Leeds Festival, yes. The crowd were really excited, meaning we were too. The Cockpit gig should be really special – a lot of our friends will be there, and some early fans too, I’m sure. What more do you need for a memorable gig?
October 29, The Cockpit, Swinegate, Leeds, 7pm, sold-out – returns only. www.thecockpit.co.uk