How Alt-J Sold a Million Records and Made Miley a Fan

"There's no highbrow versus lowbrow for us. I love big, bold, fucking easy pop"

Gus Unger-Hamilton, Thom Green and Joe Newman of Alt-J Credit: Eric Ray Davison

Back when Joe Newman was an art student at the University of Leeds, he set about methodically photocopying a photocopier. "I got a photocopier and dismantled it, piece by piece," he recalls, grinning. "Then I took each component and photocopied it in a different photocopier. I wanted to put together all the photocopied components and build a new photocopier entirely out of copies. But I only finished the top part."

Newman's interest waned because he was less passionate about making art than about making extremely arty music. With several classmates, he formed a rock band whose songs featured jarring shifts in direction and tempo, sampled dead poets, and had oblique lyrics that referenced Maurice Sendak, prescription drugs and Alien. They called it Alt-J, which is the keystroke for rendering a delta symbol – r – on a Mac. Says Newman, "I basically went to art school to start a band."

On a sunny October afternoon, the members of Alt-J are walking down Ocean Beach in San Francisco, at the outset of a two-month North American tour. The band's first album, An Awesome Wave, came out in 2012, sold more than a million copies and won the U.K.'s venerable Mercury Prize. On the follow-up, This Is All Yours (which debuted atop the U.K. charts in September), Alt-J build seemingly incompatible elements into spry, surprisingly catchy rock: acoustic instruments meet electronic textures; double-time tempos crash into lurching, Timbaland--style beats; and weird folk harmonies give way to punishing distortion.

The album includes a sample of Miley Cyrus, who is an avowed Alt-J fan. "There's no highbrow versus lowbrow for us," says Newman, who grew up obsessed with the Spice Girls. "I love big, bold, fucking easy pop." Between Newman's reedy voice and the band's vibe of deft idiosyncrasy, Alt-J have been likened to Radiohead by the U.K. press, and although the comparison is a stretch – Alt-J's music is more whimsical, pretty and subdued – it has a degree of merit: One of the first albums Alt-J bonded over at school was In Rainbows.

Joining Newman on the beach are keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton, 25 – working a sort of chic Groucho Marx look with a mustache, thick-rimmed eyeglasses and a black suede bomber – and drummer Thom Green, 29, who has stringy red hair, a ring in his left nostril and skinny legs protruding from cutoff jean shorts. Unsurprisingly-, for a band that makes music so conspicuously erudite, Alt-J say they don't much partake in wild debauchery on the road, indulging in more sedate pastimes. "If it wasn't for this interview, I'd be in my room watching Walking Dead," Newman says.

The bandmates climb a winding path to a cliffside restaurant for lunch: fish and chips, Bloody Marys, a chamomile tea for Unger-Hamilton. They have an easy rapport – a result of countless nights hanging in student housing – but Alt-J come from markedly different backgrounds. Newman is the son of a probation officer who stocked the house with acoustic guitars. "He played in pubs, covering Joni Mitchell and Eric Clapton," Newman recalls.

Unger-Hamilton has an aristocratic lineage: His full name is Augustus Figaro- Niso, descended from a baronet. As a child, he played classical piano and sang in the choir at a primary school whose former students include an Anglo--Saxon king (Edward the Confessor, Class of 1013, give or take). When Alt-J were starting out, Unger-Hamilton was lucky to get advice from his older half-brother Ferdy, who is the president of Polydor Records. "He wasn't sending our demos around to people, pushing us," Gus notes. "It was more that when we were starting to get industry attention, he'd say, 'Yeah, meet this guy; no, that guy's a dick.' " Unger-Hamilton- says that, despite his fancy bloodline, his background is more bohemian than it is posh. His parents worked, variously, as musical scholars, musicians, translators and even restaurateurs. "It was old not-very-much money, as opposed to old money," he says.

Green has had the hardest life by far. He lost most of his hearing by the time he was six; today, he says, "I'm about 80 percent deaf." He suffers from Alport syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that, in addition to ravaging one's hearing, can also cause kidney failure. In 2008, Green underwent a successful kidney transplant, but he lives with profound uncertainty. "The new kidney could fail next week, or it could last another 20 years," he says.

Alt-J's success is in large part thanks to Green's inventive drumming. When Alt-J started touring, he sent an e-mail to Widex, a manufacturer of digital hearing aids; the company gave him an endorsement deal, fitting him with custom-built devices. "They would cost about 12,000 pounds if I had to pay for them," he says.

Work began on This Is All Yours in January, at a rehearsal space in London. For a band whose songs are so precision-engineered, there was an unlikely element at play in the studio. "We smoked a lot of weed," Newman says. Unger-Hamilton chimes in: "We weren't deliberately getting really high to make music. It was just a fun thing to do."

Alt-J push back from their plates and take a last look at the ocean. Green isn't sure what he'll do with the rest of his day. Unger-Hamilton, neither. Newman, though, has a plan in mind. "I'm going to go get high," he says, rubbing his palms together, "and watch Walking Dead."