Back in 2011, when Alt-J were recording their debut album, singer-guitarist Joe Newman’s father popped down to the recording studio. He was so inspired by what he heard that he went straight to the nearest bookies, where he tried to put money on them to win the Mercury Prize the following year. “This would be a much better story if he’d got Leicester City-type odds and won loads of money, but sadly they just said, ‘No, never heard of them, see ya’,” keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton laughs.
This was more than just a blast of blind parental pride from Newman Sr, however. His early glimpse into Alt-J’s disorientating mix of intelligent indie rock, electronic textures and creepy, otherworldly vocals allowed him to be the first, but far from the last, person to believe that they deserved a grand prize for their music. They beat The Maccabees, Michael Kiwanuka and Plan B to win the 2012 Mercury, which named An Awesome Wave the best album of the year. It was also named Album of the Year at the 2013 Ivor Novello Awards, and the band received Brit and Grammy nominations too.
Five years on, the quartet that at the time wasn’t long out of Fine Art and English degrees at Leeds University, is now a Hackney-based trio on an intense touring schedule of major venues. Bassist Gwil Sainsbury quit in early 2014, a quiet man who didn’t enjoy life on the road. I catch up with the remainder backstage in Brighton as they begin a brief seaside tour that is also visiting Margate, Bournemouth and Weston-super-Mare. Unger-Hamilton, 28, in his Groucho disguise of moustache and thick glasses, is jolly and relaxed. Newman, 29, is less effusive but speaks thoughtfully when he can get a word in. Drummer Thom Green is around 80 per cent deaf and generally sits out of interviews.
Now the process of releasing a brilliant album and seeing it Mercury nominated is happening again. Next week Alt-J’s third release, Relaxer, is among 12 that could receive a GBP20,000 cheque at the televised ceremony in Hammersmith. A judging panel of musicians and critics will decide a winner based on musical accomplishment rather than commercial success, which is why Ed Sheeran is the 20-1 outsider and street poet Kate Tempest the 9-4 favourite.
The first time around (once their debut album had been released, so too late for Newman’s dad) they were the 4-6 favourites to win even before a shortlist had been announced. This year they’re in the middle of the pack, alongside fellow past winners The xx, at 12-1. “Everyone’s in with a chance, but I wouldn’t put money on us,” says Newman, admitting that he can’t see his band joining PJ Harvey as the only ones to win the award twice.
“If anything it means more to us now though,” says Unger-Hamilton. “Back then, 2012 was such an amazing year for us in every way, that the Mercury was almost the cherry on the cake. We’re not the hype band any more, we’re not the band that everyone’s talking about, so it’s nice to be told we’re making good music away from all that.”
I was one of the judging panel on that night in 2012. Giving Alt-J the cheque, which stayed in Unger-Hamilton’s pocket all the way to a Camden Stables Market afterparty and beyond, was a quick, easy decision. Like other bands who manage to stand on that unstable bridge between art and arenas – Radiohead, Arcade Fire and The National, for example – they’ll do the unexpected all day without ever completely closing the door to accessibility. Only Alt-J would feature a member of Ely Cathedral Choir in their ranks (Early Music fan Unger-Hamilton) and still give the singer job to the one who sounds like a serial killer. In their time they’ve sampled Miley Cyrus (Hunger of the Pine) written lyrics in binary code (In Cold Blood) and covered the American folk song The House of the Rising Sun with 20 classical guitarists.
“We appeal to a surprising amount of people because we do write pop songs and we do write about love,” says Newman, when I express my slight struggle to believe that his band have now headlined at the O2 Arena twice – in January 2015 and this past June. “They’re just written in a different fashion, in a quirky way. But when you unwrap it all, we’re singing about the same things Dolly Parton sings about.”
So far, Relaxer doesn’t seem to have had quite the mass appeal of past work. Released in June, it left the UK top 40 after a fortnight. I ask why it only has eight songs on it and they’re defensive about the idea that it might be short, or lacking in some way. “There were a couple more tracks that could have gone on it. Eight is clearly on the short side for a lot of albums these days, but we felt that we were at a respectable length in terms of minutes,” says Unger-Hamilton. I can’t be the first to raise this, as he’s done his research. Relaxer is 39 minutes long, while the new Royal Blood album has 10 songs but is only 34 minutes, he points out. Then he admits that having googled “Good albums with eight tracks”, he is pleased that Relaxer can sit alongside Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Patti Smith’s Horses.
“A lot of artists with longer albums work with a lot of extra people – different producers, different songwriters – the whole album isn’t coming from them,” adds Newman. “With us, it’s just us. We’re not prolific. We do spend a lot of time on songs.”
In any case, new songs such as 3WW, which features Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice, and Last Year, with its separate segment sung by Marika Hackman, are so varied in style that it feels like you’re getting several songs in one.
Alt-J will tour the new album until well into next year, with a startling stage set-up that sees the three members separated by walls of flickering light rods. When that’s over, there’s no plan for them to move away from music, despite Unger-Hamilton’s involvement as an investor and sometime cook at a Stoke Newington restaurant, Dandy. This paper’s restaurant critic Fay Maschler wrote in May that: “With its communal tables and open kitchen it has the feel of a commune, which is warming, neighbourly, fine and dandy, but maybe not ‘vaut le detour’.”
Better concentrate on the music. “The more we do it, the more we realise we don’t want to do anything else,” says Newman. “We want to keep doing this. I don’t want to lose the excitement.” With the glitzy Mercury ceremony on Thursday and gigs in the diary everywhere from Berlin to Bali, there’s little chance of that.
The 2017 Hyundai Mercury Prize ceremony is on Sept 14, Eventim Apollo, W6 (0844 249 1000, eventimapollo.com) and broadcast live on BBC Four and BBC Radio 6 Music.