Gig preview: Alt-J at First Direct Arena, Leeds

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In three short years art rock group Alt-J have gone from playing at Leeds venues such as The Cockpit and The Library to headlining the city’s First Direct Arena.

“We do find that quite strange,” says keyboard player Gus Unger-Hamilton of the band’s rapid trajectory from being student friends at Leeds University to playing on the same stage recently graced by Simple Minds, Duran Duran and Paul Weller.

“We were back in Leeds a few months ago for Leeds Festival and we spent a day in the city, Joe [Newman, Alt-J’s singer and guitarist] and I, and yeah, it felt really amazing seeing those old places we used to play but also thinking, ‘Wow, we literally are playing to a hundred times more people than we used to and that is quite odd’.”

The rapid upturn in the band’s fortunes began when their first album An Awesome Wave won the 2012 Mercury Prize. Its follow-up, This Is All Yours, released two years later debuted at Number One in the UK; it was also a top five hit in the US, Australia, Canada, Belgium and France.

Unger-Hamilton says the band have had to adapt to the new surroundings that they find themselves in. There’s more of a sense of spectacle to their live show now than was previously the case.

“We used to play stripped down back in the day, we can’t go with that any more, and even more so, we have to put on a performance than we used to,” he says.

“But I think fundamentally we’ve never sold ourselves to people as a band who are all about an amazing, creative performance. It’s more about us playing the songs and trying to play them well than it is about stage diving and stuff so I think people don’t mind that we’re quite static on stage. We let the lights do a lot of the work now, which is nice.”

Coping with the greater sense of expectation from their audience was initially “daunting”, Unger-Hamilton admits. “We were like, ‘What can we do? We’re only the people we are. We’ve written the songs and what more do people want?’ They want a bit more than that, it’s not enough we now understand. I think we were quite reluctant to play live initially, it wasn’t something that we thought was for us but we feel much more comfortable now.”

The most striking feature of the band’s two albums is how their disparate influences coalesce. Fortunately, says Unger-Hamilton, it’s a sound that happened naturally. “It happened really fast, to be honest. Right from the first time we did a practice together it seemed like we weren’t going to have full and frank conversations with each other about how we should we playing, what sort of sound we should be making. I think we have an unspoken understanding of what we can achieve together all coming from different musical backgrounds and how the dynamic might figure itself out.”

Reaching Number One last year might have been a moment for celebration but waiting for the final chart rundown also prompted some nervousness in the camp that they might be pipped at the post. Unger-Hamilton confesses: “We even had a group hug, which we pretty much never do, but at the same time it’s more nerve racking than exciting, I think.”

After Alt-J’s current tour the keyboard player says: “We’re likely to take a break, but not an official break. It’s basically going to be just us having a holiday then once we feel we’ve adequately rested after not really stopping between two albums which we toured for a year-and-a-half to two years, we’re going to then work on a third album.”

Alt-J play at the First Direct Arena, Leeds on December 6. For details visit http://www.firstdirectarena.com/events/

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