Alt-J could be the least likely band to forge a musical association with pop provocateur Miley Cyrus. The English group plays moody trip-folk under a moniker derived from a Mac keyboard shortcut for the Delta symbol, an identity as oblique as Alt-J’s music.
Nonetheless, Alt-J won the 2012 Mercury Prize for best UK album with its debut, An Awesome Wave, and Cyrus caught the buzz, tapping the song “Fitzpleasure” for a video interlude in her live show. In turn, Alt-J drummer Thom Green got the green light to tackle a remix of Cyrus’ “4×4.” And the group ended up using a sample of her refrain “I’m a female rebel” in “Hunger of the Pine” for its September release, This Is All Yours.
“She’s got a great voice,” keyboardist/singer Gus Unger-Hamilton says. “We were writing ‘Hunger of the Pine,’ and it was sounding quite similar to Thom’s Miley remix, so we tried putting in these nods to that, and it worked.… We took the voice and it gave [the song] a new feeling.”
Not that anyone’s likely to twerk to Alt-J’s new album. It’s similar to the group’s million-selling debut: modest and mysterious, with odd floating harmonies and minimalist, electronics-steeped textures, punctuated by Green’s cymbal-free drums, bongos and percussion. If it echoes the hushed tones of a dorm-room experiment, there’s good reason.
“It was partly due to our circumstances,” Unger-Hamilton, 25, says of that sound, developed while band members were University of Leeds students with a mutual appreciation for Radiohead and Portishead. “We didn’t have the money for any equipment. We were playing on basic stuff. We didn’t have anywhere to practice other than our bedrooms at university, so we were kind of quiet, living in a shared house.”
To conjure the same informal vibe this time around, the group settled into a Brixton studio space with An Awesome Wave producer Charlie Andrew. But there was one big difference. Alt-J was down to a trio—Green, Unger-Hamilton and singer/guitarist Joe Newman—after co-founding guitarist/bassist Gwil Sainsbury left the group in the wake of its tour-heavy ascent.
“We didn’t have time to get too lost by it,” Unger-Hamilton says. “Our therapy for losing Gwil was to concentrate on the album, and actually, we found pretty quickly we were writing really good new songs.”
Among the standouts is “Left Hand Free,” a catchy tune with a bluesy twang that opens with Newman intoning “Hey shady baby, I’m hot like the prodigal son.” Hot like a sly English cousin to ’90s alt-rockers Soul Coughing.
“We never know where each song’s going to go,” says Unger-Hamilton, disputing reports of record company pressure to write a hit. “You start with a guitar skeleton for a song and see where the band wants to take it as a whole. It’s kind of like using a Ouija board. You put your hands on the glass, and you’re all moving it, but nobody knows who’s moving it.”
For much of This Is All Yours, that means sparse, mutating soundscapes that blend the pretty and the abstract. Alt-J bridges ambient rock, folk and hip-hop with vocals that slip from wordless choirboy accents to impressionistic lyrics inspired by literature and film. Three tracks reference Nara, a Japanese city filled with roaming deer, while “The Gospel of John Hurt” refers to the actor’s famous chest-bursting scene in Alien.
“Lyrics are really important to us,” Unger-Hamilton says, “but sometimes it just makes more sense to have lyrics that don’t mean a great deal because you’re using the voice as a kind of instrument.”
Alt-J plays the Orpheum on Nov. 18 as part of a largely sold-out U.S. tour (with utility musician Cameron Knight covering gaps once filled by Sainsbury). If Alt-J hadn’t clicked, however, Unger-Hamilton says that he and his school friends would probably be “quite useless” today.
“We graduated in 2010, when all these companies were on hiring freezes because of the economic shit that was going on,” says the keyboardist, who majored in English at Leeds while his bandmates studied other art subjects. “We would have found it really hard and wouldn’t have known what to do. It’s nice that this worked out.”