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Interview: Alt-J's Gus Unger-Hamilton on their new album 'The Dream' + upcoming NZ tour.

Interview: Alt-J's Gus Unger-Hamilton on their new album 'The Dream' + upcoming NZ tour.

Alt-J's Gus Unger-Hamilton is chuckling off-screen, proudly searching for a Christmas gift from his bandmate and lead singer Joe Newman - a framed illustration for Unger-Hamilton's new condiment, 'Gus-tard', an intriguing combination of ketchup and mustard that he created on a whim after visiting a burger establishment.

Unger-Hamilton is enthused to discuss his culinary creation - but equally excited to chat about the band's upcoming return to New Zealand later this year, as well as their new album 'The Dream' which has just been released, and reminiscing on 15 years of the band's existence.

'The Dream' has been two years in the making, a project which began in January 2020, and includes references to true crime ('Losing My Mind' explores the logic of a serial killer), cryptocurrency ('Hard Drive Gold'), but sounds like Alt-J at their most explorative - with opera infusion in 'Philadelphia', and Southern blues in 'Walk A Mile'.

We caught up with Gus Unger-Hamilton ahead of the album's release to discuss all of the above and more...

CDM: How does it feel to be announcing a show for somewhere that you haven’t been in so many years?
ALT-J - GUS UNGER-HAMILTON: Our singer Joe [Newman] went to Australia - which obviously is not New Zealand - for Christmas. I was like, "It's not going to happen. He's not going to be able to go," but he did go. So I feel a lot more confident that it's actually a real thing: travelling abroad. I've not left the country since 2019 at this point. It does feel strange, but also extremely exciting. I've never been keener to do a long-haul flight than I feel right now.
CDM: I'm assuming it's something that you normally dread?
GUS: Well, it certainly became something very mundane and routine, whereas now I'm even excited about killing time in the airport before the flight. That's how desperate I am to leave the UK. <laughs>

CDM: Do you have any distinctive memories from your previous visits to New Zealand over the years?
GUS: Absolutely. I mean, it's always been a really lovely place to visit. Last time we came, we did two nights at the Auckland Town Hall, and then we did Wellington at a little arena [TSB Arena]. We had some extremely fun nights out, I remember the venue in Wellington is right by the seafront, so just walking around there and just drinking in the lovely city. It was our first time there, we had some great food, went to some good bars, and got very drunk. Basically had a classic good tour time. And of course the escape room we did!
CDM: Have you done any further escape rooms?
GUS: No! There's one really near my house here in London. I've never done it. I think that's actually my only escape room experience. I don't want to sully the memory of the one we did.

CDM: When did you last play a live show?
GUS: In 2019, we did a handful of gigs in Canada just because we got offered them and we felt like we might as well say yes. But we've not been on tour since 2018. So it's been a good three or four years.

CDM: Are there any particular songs from the new album that you're particularly excited to play live?
GUS: I'm glad you asked me that. I'm playing bass for the first time on some songs. There's one called 'Losing My Mind', which is very easy to play, but it's a bass-line that you can really play quite hard. It's not the usual kind of song that we write.
CDM: I'm excited for 'Chicago' live!
GUS: Oh yeah, that's gonna be really good as well. So with 'Losing My Mind', I think there's something about putting on a guitar that I think I never felt like I was in a band properly until I actually started playing some kind of guitar - in this case, the bass. A keyboardist is not really a proper position in the band, is it? It's not like a bassist or something. <laughs> So I'm expecting a lot more adulation on stage once I'm playing the bass, more fan-mail, that kind of thing. And 'Chicago' is going to be good. I'm always joking about when that sort of build starts, the kind of string part is coming in, we're going to be throwing fistfuls of ecstasy pills into the crowd or something. Just like, "Come on!"

CDM: Will you be playing bass and synth? How will the multi-tasking happen?
GUS: You know what? I will be. In 'Philadelphia', there's obviously bass, but there's also quite a lot of keys as well. So I'm going to be doing both in that one. It's going to be interesting. That's why we need lots of rehearsal. We've got rehearsals starting in two days, which is good because four albums in, I get quite comfortable on stage, in particular playing some of the older songs like 'Matilda', I often zone out during that song and I find myself forgetting whether we've done one chorus or two, or where we are in the song... I've just completely let my mind wander. So I'm excited to have some songs to play that are going to genuinely keep me on my toes.

CDM: It’s going to be so much harder to put together a set-list for your tour this year, now with four albums of back-catalogue to choose from! Do you think you’ll stick with one setlist, or mix things up each night? I know there are so many fan favourites over the years it’ll be so hard to keep everyone happy. Have you started discussions on the setlist yet?
GUS: We have. I think we're going to try and mix it up more. We've basically decided on: green songs and orange songs. The green songs are nailed on; we play every night. Then there's about a list of eight orange songs where we're like, 'We'll play four of these songs every night,' and keep it fresh that way. I think because we have more songs now, there are too many songs that we would like to play to put in a setlist, but also, just to keep it interesting. It's always nice for us to have a different setlist to play and I always enjoy it more when we mix it up. In the past we've been guilty of keeping it quite same-y. I think we're encouraged to do that. Our lighting team, for example, love us to play the same setlist every night, because then they can just lock in. But I don't want to say anything bad about them, they're great! They can nail some transitions and really get it down. So for them, us changing up the setlist is a bit of a headache, but we've said we're going to do it this time. Especially when you're playing more than one night in a city, some people will come to both gigs and I'd be more excited as a fan to see a song that I hadn't seen the previous night.

CDM: I also feel like with Alt-J fans, you definitely have groups of fans that go to lots of different shows and travel around for them. So I guess it's also fulfilling that, especially if they have fan-favourite songs and stuff they want to hear.
GUS: Exactly. I think we're not quite at the point where we're going to do take requests. I mean, I'd love to. It's funny and strange, I realised when you have more than one album that there are songs that we would just never play live. There are the songs from our second album that were just album tracks and quieter songs, and we never played them, and we probably never will play them - unless we end up doing one of those 'Alt-J plays the whole album from start to finish' kind of gigs, which I wouldn't rule out. But it's a weird thought, in a way, because somehow playing live with our first album, we played every single song, and then some! We played everything we could think of to try and fill an hour-long set. Now we have songs that are almost written, recorded, and then put to sleep.

CDM: I love that your mum and wife both feature on the album! Are they proud to be part of their respective songs? How did those come about?
GUS: Because the line goes, "My teacher took me to one side and told me I was scum." My mum was a teacher. Joe really liked my mum, so he was like, "Why don't you ask Cordelia to say scum?," because originally I was saying 'scum'. And then he was like, "It'd be funny if your mum said it in a sort of teacher voice." So that happened. My wife is on the album twice, she's the one who says "get better" at the end of 'Get Better', which was nice. We did quite a lot of mixing this album at home, and we were doing it online, which works quite well. Joe said it'd be nice to get a woman saying 'get better', almost like she's making a video message for somebody. So he said, "Just go in the house, and ask April to do it." And so I did. It was one of the things where the first one she did she was really awkward about it and kind of giggled, 'What am I doing?' Then I was like, "You've done it wrong. Don't laugh," and I made her do it about 50 more times, and then Joe wanted to use the one when she laughed. It had that quality of it being real, where somebody would put a camera phone in your face and be like, 'Hey, say get better to Charlie,' and you're like, 'Oh, uh, get better.' And the BVs on 'The Actor', it was quite funny. We were talking about getting a female vocalist to come down to do BVs, but by this point, we'd spent quite a lot of money on extra musicians and extra stuff for the album. We said to Charlie [Andrew], 'Can we can we book a singer to come and do some backing vocals on 'The Actor'?' He was like, "I think the label might be getting to the point where they don't want to keep on paying for extra stuff." So I was like, "Well, what about April doing it? She can sing." And actually, she did a fantastic job. And it was really nice to work with her. I was extremely proud. It was really cool.

CDM: Having heard the whole album, I do keep coming back to the lyrics of ‘Get Better’ - they are so so beautiful. I can understand why you started crying when you first heard it! I did the same. I particularly love the line, “I could hold onto the memory of that day for the rest of my life,” especially as I’m really fascinated by the way the brain remembers certain things for years and years. For you, being in a band - so much of your life is marked by albums, and album cycles - is that how you chronicle your life? Almost like chapters? Do you ever think about certain insane things that have happened to you from Alt-J? Or do you record them at all?
GUS: It's mad how long ago some things are that actually feel really recent. I've got a tattoo every time I've gone to Vancouver on each album, so I've got three tattoos. I'm going to get a fourth one when I go there on this tour if I can. Stuff like that. It's amazing how much of my adult life - pretty much all my whole adult life - has been the band, in a way sometimes I still think about the band as something quite new, but I've never really had any other job, barring part-time jobs as a student. I've been in the band since I was 19. I've been professionally a musician pretty much since I left university, so it's quite crazy. Who knows how long the band... are we going to do a Rolling Stones and still be doing it when we're 80? Who knows. It's everything-- I'm not saying it's my whole life in terms of my life, but I've been in the band my whole adult life, so it's quite mad.

CDM: Another lyric in that song I love is: “Your look defined my 2009.” How much do you think that we, as people, are shaped by the significant figures in our lives?
GUS: I suppose a huge amount. I mean, you never quite know if people are going to come and stay, or come and go. Gosh, I'm not sure how to answer that question. It's a good question. I guess in that song, I think what's nice about that image and stuff is it's about the really early days of a relationship. He's looking back on-- I think you could probably say the song is probably set during the Coronavirus pandemic, so it's going back over 10 years. I suppose it's that idea about, people, it's kind of funny in a way, you might say that more about a look than about a person - that look defined 2009, almost maybe in a slightly disparaging way. But in the song it's kind of turned it into a positive.

CDM: In ‘Happier When You’re Gone’, Joe sings, “It’s not easy, hopelessness at home.” Do you think of the idea of home as a place, or a state of mind?  
GUS: I think for me, it's a place. Because of my job and stuff, because of traveling all the time, I would say that home is a place for me, because it's where I come back to when I'm off tour, and that kind of thing. I used to have little rituals, I had a watch I wore on tour, and a watch I'd wear at home. I would come home, put on my home watch - even if I was only home for one night, I would still do it. It was just an important thing to psychologically feel like I wasn't working anymore, and I was at home. But at the same time, we're also lucky that we've travelled so much, and we feel at home in so many places around the world. We've got friends and co-workers and stuff in cities everywhere, and I genuinely do feel very at home and in some of those places, so we're lucky in that regard.

CDM: Joe has spoken a bit about how his songwriting process changed for this album (“I would often use other people’s work as a foundation for my lyrics, but now I’ve started shaping stories from my own writing rather than from someone else’s. It’s really been a big step forward for me”). Do you think the way that Alt-J collectively creates songs has changed too?
GUS: I think it's evolved. But I think that fundamentally it still comes back to us spending time in a sort of home-like space, and essentially hanging out, doing band practice. Just chatting and spending time together, that's always been quite an important thing for us, I think, is that band practice was always a social time, as well as a work time. We've got our studio now in London, which is basically a house. We come in there and quite often we'll spend an hour and a half, just sitting around catching up before we actually do any music. That's always been really important for us, that social element and remembering that we're friends first, and co-workers second. I think in terms of what Joe said about his lyrics, I think that's really true. I think it's actually something that I said to him, and he kind of agreed with that. I feel like earlier on, he was filling his lyrics and stuff with all these references to films and books and stuff, I think partly out of a sense of being worried that he was too young to have the gravitas to write as it were 'real lyrics'. I'm not saying he wasn't writing the lyrics, he wrote fantastic lyrics, but I think now he feels like he has the confidence to sort of be his own, and make his own content, rather than referencing other people's, and he agreed, so I feel like I can say it.

CDM: Can you tell me more about ‘Gus-tard’?
GUS: It's funny, actually! Joe designed a label for me which I've got framed, but that's as far as it ever went, unfortunately. It's not really a great story, but we went to this place called Byron Burger in London. It was almost the first of those big, trendy sort of dirty burger restaurants in the UK. It sort of kicked off this huge craze of American-style dirty burgers and stuff. It was the kind of place where they would bring you your food on a metal tray. I was so inspired by this metal tray that I mixed together ketchup with French's American mustard and an incredible condiment was born. Everyone who tries it says it is really good. I was like, "Can I sell it on tour?" But I looked into it and it just seemed like it was going to be too much of a headache with the FDA and things like that.

Alt-J will play at Auckland's Spark Arena on Saturday September 17 - tickets are on sale now, click here to purchase.

Watch the 'The Actor' music video below...

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