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For alt-J, recordings are a ticket to the afterlife (so don’t mess up)

“It’s bizarre for us. We’re completely floored by getting to play there.”

Keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton is marveling at how a three-piece indie British electronic act gets to headline Madison Square Garden in New York in March. “It’s amazing,” he admits. “Right now, all we can see out in front of us is touring, but we’re also looking forward to whatever’s next in our future.”

As it stands, the future looks to be pretty damn good for alt-J. The trio is nominated for two awards at the BRITs 2015 — one for British Group and the other for British Album for This Is All Yours, their second U.K.-chart-topping LP which also garnered a 2015 Grammy nom for Best Alternative Music Album. (All Yours also debuted at #4 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart last September.) Alt-J’s stunning debut, An Awesome Wave, saw fit to win the Mercury Music Prize in November 2012.

The accolades are well worth it. Go ahead and type out the alt-J command on your Mac keyboard, and you’ll get a nice, symmetrical ∆ — and while those corners may meet at all the right angles, the band’s music is anything but equilateral. alt-J music is a sound-quality lover’s dream soundtrack. Audiophile metaphysical graffiti for the headphone crowd, as I’m calling the trio’s heady mesh of psychedelic electronic samples, intuitive backline interplay, and Thom Yorke-like scat-sing vocals. Cue up Wave and float along with the off-kilter funk-rap of Breezeblocks (and dig that pulsating low-end during the choruses), marvel at the simmer-to-a-percussive-boil of Tessellate, and groove along with the swath-cut, channel-sweeping noodly guitar lines that reside just a touch back in the mix so that pinwheeling samples complete the full-on rush of Bloodflood.

alt-j this is all yoursThen dive into Yours to find how the aural ante is upped further with the build of percussion and push-pulling, burble-buzzing synths on Every Other Freckle (and be sure to listen for the programmed pennywhistle bursts and sharp triangle clanks). Hear how a Miley Cyrus vocal sample (“I’m a female rebel”) is expertly juxtaposed amidst insistent Peter Gabrielesque synths on Hunger of the Pine. Pay attention to how it all comes full circle with the raw nakedness of Pusher, where you’ll hear fingers sliding on an acoustic guitar fretboard alongside the distinct character of a dual-vocal blend on the chorus.

Digital Trends got on the line across the pond with Unger-Hamilton to discuss the band’s uncompromising commitment to recording quality, the current state of vinyl, and why the call of the two C’s — California and Coachella — holds a certain delicious appeal. To mutate a line from Hunger of the Pine, alt-J warms the cool side of the audio pillow.

Digital Trends: I think it’s fair to say that alt-J music is pretty complex. You guys don’t make any compromises when it comes to recording, do you?

Gus Unger-Hamilton: Yeah, exactly right. We’ve never allowed ourselves to compromise what we do when recording — certainly not out of the fear of how we’re going to reproduce it live. Putting everything we have into the recording is the most important thing that we do. The recording you make is the best possible showcase of the song you write. That’s the thing that will outlive you — well, hopefully it will. (chuckles) Even if our music isn’t listened to after we’re dead, it will still exist in its recorded form and will be archived somewhere for someone to find.

Oh, I think the people of the future will find it, all right. Would you agree high-resolution playback is the best possible way for us to hear what you do? Considering how well recorded and well thought out alt-J music is, I can’t stomach the idea of missing out on all the details by listening to MP3s.

We play it live until the song feels real.

Yes. Good, good, that’s good to hear! What I was leaning toward saying is that we write the songs and record them as good as they can be. That’s the thing that will last forever. We don’t go, “Mmmm, if we put that last part on the track, how are we going to do it live?” We worry about that later and figure it out somehow.

Do those decisions come because you, [guitarist/vocalist] Joe Newman, and [drummer] Thom Green all record in the same room together, in the same space?

To an extent, yeah. We do some of it live, and then we track it. It’s an organic process for us. Our producer [Charlie Andrew] is very keen that we set up live in the studio and play it live in its formative stage before we take it apart and track it. We play it live until the song feels real. I think that’s very important for us.

My favorite track on An Awesome Wave is Bloodflood, and Bloodflood Pt. II is my favorite on This Is All Yours. I play those two songs back-to-back a lot.

Great. I’m glad you like it. I think Bloodflood on both albums has always been the thinking person’s favorite alt-J song.

I’ll take that as a compliment. Now that it’s a song series, I think you should mix it up even further by putting out Pt. IV before Pt. III.

It may well happen. (both laugh)

Your original bass player and other guitarist, Gwil Sainsbury, left the band in 2012, and alt-J became a trio. How has that adjustment process gone?

Fine. It all feels OK. We do miss Gwil. But we’ve managed as a three-piece, so it’s worked out fine, really.

Did you have to change things up and modify the songs at all as you take them to the stage without Gwil?

We never change our songs once we start playing them live, no. Once they’re recorded, they’re locked in.

What should we expect from an alt-J live set these days, since you go from playing festival slots to club slots to bigger, headlining slots?

Once they’re recorded, they’re locked in.

We have a 20-minute setlist, we have a 30-minute setlist, a 45, a 55, a 60, and then a 75. We pretty much know what gets cut first and what gets cut last. If it’s an hour, we can play most of what we want to play.

That’s pretty flexible. I hear you’re a fan of vinyl. True?

I am, and I collect vinyl on a small scale. I don’t currently have a record player, but I need to sort that out, really. I don’t know what to buy; it’s a minefield.

Not to worry — I have a few suggestions for you, so we’ll talk later on that. I think the vinyl experience helps listeners pay more attention to what they’re listening to.

Oh yeah, absolutely. I read this big article about vinyl the other day, which was mostly about how the demand for vinyl is outstripping the production capabilities of the vinyl plants. Vinyl went away in the ’80s and ’90s, and suddenly it’s come back. Factories are finding it hard to meet the demands to press all this vinyl. It’s a good thing in many ways.

I also read that Urban Outfitters claimed it’s the biggest seller of vinyl in the world, or something. [Urban Outfitters chief administrative officer Calvin Hollinger made that claim to Wall Street analysts last fall.]

Actually, I think Amazon sells the most records internationally.

Oh yeah? Apparently, some of the reproductions on vinyl are not being mastered from the master tapes, and even some of them are being mastered from MP3.

Yeah, that’s not a good thing. There’s a definite difference between digital remasters and analog remasters when it comes to vinyl. 

So what you think you’re buying might not even give you the proper vinyl experience. It might only sound as good as an MP3. 

Sad to say, but it happens. You just have to do your research. To go from being on wax to playing live, I see you’re returning to Coachella this year.

We’d play Coachella every year if we could.

It’s one of the few festivals outside the U.K. that British people have heard of, and that’s a big deal. You hear about it growing up if you’re into music. We played there 2 years ago in 2013, and had an incredible, unforgettable time — two weekends of unadulterated fun, really, and we can’t wait to go back. To be on the main stage is going to be fantastic. Jack White is playing after us, so that’s cool. It’s a pretty great slot for us.

That’s a killer slot! Did you have a vision of California before you ever got there? Was it a place you guys looked forward to experiencing in person?

Oh yeah. You grow up with a sort of idea of it from movies and TV, but nothing can quite prepare you for how incredibly clean it is and how beautiful everybody is. We’ve been in California quite a lot. It’s always a place we’re happy to go to. In-N-Out Burger is like my favorite food in the world. It’s one of the first things I do when I get there — I head right to In-N-Out Burger.

California is exactly what it says on the tins — it’s sunny, has beautiful beaches and amazing scenery, and it makes you extremely happy to be there, really. What more do you want? It’s pretty good.

When alt-J played Coachella in 2013, what were you expecting? 

I think I was expecting just another festival, but what I wound up getting was a very unique festival. And there were a lot of celebrities there! It’s something else, really, altogether. We’d played so many festivals up to that point that I wasn’t even thinking about it being “Coachella” — it’s just totally unique, really. It’s hard to explain why it is. I wasn’t expecting it to be such an event.

The word kind of defines what it is — Coachella encapsulates a certain vibe unto itself.

Yes. At festivals in the U.K., it’s completely acceptable to go around wearing Wellington boots and an anarak and look like total shit, with a can of cider in your hands. Everybody does it, so it doesn’t matter. But at Coachella, it’s the opposite of that. You have to have a capsule wardrobe and different looks for every day. We’d play Coachella every year if we could.