Days before they won this year’s Mercury Music Prize, I sat down and spoke to Gus Unger-Hamilton and Gwil Sainsbury from Alt-J ahead of their gig at Oran Mor, about fighting, stabbing and Steve Jobs in a band.
Your third time in Glasgow, how are you enjoying it?
Gus: It’s cool, I saw a fight earlier. We were on our way to the radio station and saw a couple of guys rolling around on the pavement.
Gwil: Was there not a stabbing recently too?
Gus: No, that was Cave Painting. They were stuck here for hours after someone got stabbed.
Well good luck for tonight anyway. There is a lot of hype surrounding you and the Mercury Prize, has it had its toll on you yet?
Gwil: It’s amazing, but we are in a weird situation because the bookmakers, Paddy Power, had us as the favourites to win even before the nominations were announced. So when the nominations did come out it was an odd sense of relief, just because of the pressure.
Gus: There was definitely elation there as well. There was a lot of hugging and high-fiving, right in the middle of Starbucks in Manhattan, with everyone looking at us.
During a previous interview with your band mate, Joe Newman, he stated that one of his favourite albums growing up was the Spice Girls. What were yours?
Gus: I was really into The Beatles. I remember being on holiday with my family and listening to lots of their music. So they were my first favourite band.
Gwil: I didn’t really do music as a kid. My first album was either Dr. Dre’s 2001 or The Marshall Mathers LP. That got me really into it. It was just so angry and I was at the right age to be angry.
Before Alt-J, you were known as FILMS. The process of finding a new name took you some time. Does this meticulous approach apply to everything you do?
Gwil: Yeah, we’re an absolute nightmare to work with.
Gus: We insist on approving everything, but then we never get back to anyone. So the label is not allowed to do any artwork or any videos without us approving it. We actually had a crisis moment a few months ago when our manager called and said ‘the label are feeling very demoralised. You need to give them some feedback.’
If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.
Gus: Yeah, I think partly we’re excited at the prospect of getting to do artwork and music videos which is all really cool. We wouldn’t ever want to relinquish that power to anyone else. At least if we approve it and it turns out to be rubbish, we can just blame ourselves.
Gwil: Yeah, rather than get annoyed at some designer.
Finally, we have a question from fellow nominees from this year’s Best Breakthrough at the Live Music Awards, Brother & Bones. They ask: who would your super group consist of?
Gus: Drums, Dave Grohl. He is a great drummer.
Gwil: Great bassists? Probably Paul Simonon.
Gus: I’ll go for Ol’ Dirty Bastard as lead singer.
Gwil: Can we have a hype man? John Snow.
Gus: What about guitar?
Gwil: Fuck guitar.
Gus: Yeah, fuck guitar. We’ll just have a MacBook Pro.
Gwil: Steve Jobs on the MacBook Pro making music algorithms.
What would you call this band?
Gus: Oh don’t get us started. That will be another long process!
Alt-J’s Mercury Music Prize winning album is out now.
Dirty techno has engulfed the entire room. There are people jumping, shouting, waving their arms in a heaving mass. Lights are shooting all around the ABC’s corners, smoke is bellowing from the stage where a DJ is playing on top of what looks like a giant black rock.
All of sudden the black turns to metallic silver as the cloth covering the booth reveals a six-foot-tall metal skull with crimson eyes firing neon-red lasers straight into the crowd; a scene that could have been taken straight from a Terminator movie.
Of course, Boys Noize is in town. Thirty-year-old Berlin-based DJ, Alex Ridha, better known as Boys Noize, began DJing at a very early age. When he was just 13 he began playing around with two old record players.
“I started making mix-tapes for my friends and I was totally addicted to the whole vinyl scene because it gave me a door to so much new music.” Ridha’s love of vinyl gave him a cutting edge and he was able to develop a very deep musical taste and knowledge, something that is evident in his unique style of house music today.
“I was listening to music that no one else had access to, which made me very comfortable with house music which is one of the reasons I started DJing.”
Ridha’s “noize” has earned him top spot on Beatport.com for three years in a row; no mean feat in a world saturated in superstar DJs. “It’s not always as easy when you just do what you feel like and people like it, that’s what I want. For me, it’s still art, it’s not a business thing. I wouldn’t just make a big hit that I know people will like. It’s really hard to stay true to yourself and be successful at the same time. There are so many amazing acts in the underground, then a big gap until you get superstar DJ’s who churn out shit for a lot of money. Being successful but not commercial is very difficult.”
Not long after Ridha started making his homemade mix-tapes, he moved into production. In 2005, he set up the eponymous Boys Noize Records (BNR). Ridha signs many of the acts himself, ensuring they all have one key ingredient. “For me it’s really to find someone that has their own sound and at least tries to be different. Nowadays there are so many producers that everyone has a chance to get involved, which is amazing, but that leads to people copying each other.
"You know how it is when you go to a record shop and you listen to 100 records but in the end you just buy three, and you buy them because they have something different, something weird or something special. That’s the ones that I am looking for. I’m looking for those three tracks.”
Ridha’s gig at Glasgow’s ABC was an exhibition of his new album, Out Of The Black, which features a few collaborations, including one with the infamous Snoop Dogg. The track in question, ‘Got It’, was met with an eruption of nympholepsy as people tried to combine their rap-music-head-bopping with ecstatic club jumping. Collaborations and remixes have been Ridha’s bread and butter for years now, with a back catalogue of remixed tracks longer than the lasers shooting around at his gigs.
“I look at myself as a musician. Sometimes I like working in my own, but other days I prefer working on something else, so I very happy to be able to work with others and express my other musical aspects. For my own music I have a very clear vision, I don’t like to work with many people when I am making my own music, so it’s very cool to work with other people.”
Sharing tastes for electric orchestral house and dirty techno with Ridha is American DJ Skrillex, and it seemed only a matter of time before they joined forces to create new project Dog Blood. Revealing they “tried to get into each other’s worlds”, Ridha and Skrillex worked together during alternating visits to Berlin and Los Angeles.
Ridha’s splits his time on the stage with nurturing his acts on his label in his Berlin studio. Choosing what he loves more is something he finds difficult. “I am a DJ first, but I wouldn’t say I love it more than producing. Both are a part of being a musician, even though they are different. When you are performing you’re out meeting people and getting feedback feeling the energy and creativity but when you’re in the studio you are alone and you just do what you feel. I couldn’t say I like one better than the other.”
At the end of his gig, the crowd are shouting for more; Ridha gladly obliges, continuing his aural assault on the senses as his metal skull comes back to life. Afterwards, he revealed why he went above and beyond for the hungry Scottish crowd. “I have a big love for Glasgow. I’ve been playing there for many years now and it’s always been amazing. The people are always really up for new stuff but you guys are pretty crazy. Glaswegians are rock n roll.”
Boys Noize’s latest album, Out of The Black, is out now.