Alt-J are a band with fans in high places. Their debut album, An Awesome Wave, won the 2012 Mercury Prize, and its songs were covered by Paramore, Ellie Goulding and Mumford & Sons. None of that, however, could compare to seeing Miley Cyrus use "Fitzpleasure" to soundtrack a bondage-themed video interlude during her Bangerz tour date at London's O2 Arena.
"It was surreal," laughs keyboard player Gus Unger-Hamilton, sipping tea outside Alt-J's management office in East London. "We were like, 'It's us!' but her younger fans didn't really know what was going on. It was a long show and that was just a moment in it, like the bit where she put on a check shirt and sang a Bob Dylan cover. The crowd were like, 'What the fuck's this? I'm a 14-year-old girl, I don't know who Bob Dylan is.'"
Nonetheless, the incident ended up influencing Alt-J's second album, This Is All Yours, due September 22nd. After meeting backstage, an unlikely friendship developed, with Alt-J drummer Thom Green remixing one of Cyrus' songs and Cyrus gifting Unger-Hamilton Flaming Lips albums on iTunes. Now, the English alt-rockers have returned the favor on This Is All Yours' hypnotic lead track, "Hunger of the Pine", which samples Cyrus' "4x4." Cyrus herself helped clear the sample with the other writers and publishers involved.
"There was a lot of bureaucratic, red-tape business," says singer-guitarist Joe Newman. "She stepped in and said, 'Everyone calm down, take a step back and let's get this approved.'"
Still, despite moving in these celebrity circles, This Is All Yours declines to take a wrecking ball to Alt-J's indie credibility. While there are star guests — "Warm Foothills" cuts and splices vocals from Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst, Lianne La Havas, Sivu and Marika Hackman over dense rhythms and a whistled refrain — the band returned to the same tiny south London location, Brixton's Iguana Studios, where they record their debut, even re-teaming with producer Charlie Andrew.
"It was completely no frills whatsoever," says Unger-Hamilton. "We went to the sandwich shop across the road every day. We don't allow ourselves to get too rock star about stuff."
Not everything was unchanged, however. Guitarist-bassist Gwil Sainsbury amicably left the band on the eve of the sessions, having become disenchanted with their new lifestyle. "He wasn't interested in being famous at all," says Unger-Hamilton. "Not that we're interested in being famous, but he really hated signing autographs and stuff. Fair enough, but it's part of the job. We couldn't afford to let it disrupt things."
The band's fluid approach to handling different instruments meant that Sainsbury's roles could be filled internally, but his absence did change the band dynamic. Consequently, Green took a more proactive programming role, bringing an electronic edge to "The Gospel of John Hurt" (about the chest-bursting scene in Alien) and the "Arrival in Nara"/"Nara"/"Leaving Nara" triptych that anchors the record.
Apart from "Left Hand Free," a full-on Southern-fried soul-rocker ("It didn't sound like us at all," says Newman, "but it was so catchy."), most of This Is All Yours builds on the distinctive dub-folk/alt-rock template established on Alt-J's debut, a sound Unger-Hamilton describes as "smart enough to be cool, but accessible enough that people like it."
"The first album was purely an act of self-expression," says Unger-Hamilton. "So we thought, 'Let's do that again, because that formula seems to work.'"
However, with An Awesome Wave selling over 1 million copies worldwide, the band is also grappling with increased expectation levels from both fans and music industry. The debut was a slowburn success, but when lead single "Hunger of the Pine" premiered on U.K.'s Radio 1 last week, the band found itself trending globally on Twitter for the first time. Confronted with this information Newman laughs, "I don't even know what that means!"
"Expectation swings both ways," adds Unger-Hamilton. "There's the expectation of people wanting a good record and of people wanting us to fuck up. In the end, your only choice is to make the record you want to make. We respect our fans enough to make a complex and complicated album, and our fans respect us enough to listen to anything we put out."
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